The month long, rather draggy, assembly election in Bengal commenced on Saturday.
Starting at 7 in the morning, we started receiving alerts, from both the Trinamool Congress and the BJP, about incidents of disruption and violence taking place across the 30 constituencies voting in the first phase. These alerts were coming on WhatsApp groups created by the rival parties for journalists.
#ElectionsWithNL | As the first phase of polling begins in #WestBengal, both TMC and BJP are alleging misdeeds happening at several polling booths.@MnshaP and @snigspeak read some of the allegations and counter-allegations from both parties. #WestBengalPolls pic.twitter.com/DfK14axxmj— newslaundry (@newslaundry) March 27, 2021
We were on our way from Jhargram to Nandigram, where chief minister Mamata Banerjee is the Trinamool’s nominee, when we got an alert about one such incident in Dantan constituency. It sounded serious given that the paramilitary CRPF was involved.
The alerts were all basically allegations made by one party against the other. It was not possible for us to check all the flurry of claims and counterclaims, so we decided to focus on the seemingly most serious one.
Thus began our 150-km detour to Datan, West Medinipur.
We went straight to Booth 27, in a small village called Khandrui.
Four CRPF men were letting voters in one by one after checking their identity cards. We asked them if there had been an incident there and they confirmed a minor scuffle had broken out earlier in the day. “One person came and created a ruckus,” said one of the CRPF men who spoke anonymously because they weren’t authorised to speak with the media. “We controlled the situation and it didn’t escalate.”
When we pressed him for more details, he said it was just a minor incident and that there was some sloganeering. The officer didn’t tell us which party the person was from.
We went into the village and asked around. At a tea stall, we were told there had been a scuffle between BJP and Trinamool workers in the morning. “CRPF lathicharged and beat up a few people,” the tea seller said.
Another villager added, “There were more people from Trinamool than BJP. But the situation was brought under control and voting resumed. It has been peaceful since, and everyone is voting now.”
At this point, a man walked up and told us to visit a nearby locality. “Go there,” he said, pointing. “There are Muslims there. They’ll tell you what really happened.”
It was then we found out the village was clearly divided into Hindu and Muslim areas.
And in the Muslim neighbourhood, we heard another version of the incident. Actually two incidents. The first involved a villager who had tried to help a blind relative. Allegedly, the CRPF men at the polling booth insisted that they would vote for the blind man rather than his relative. This caused a scuffle as the villagers said they didn’t trust the CRPF men to vote on their behalf. We could not, however, locate the person involved in this incident.
The second incident involved a man named Samiruddin Malik. The Muslim villagers claimed when Malik, his wife and mother went to vote, a BJP voter who was inside the booth tried to persuade them to vote for his party. Samiruddin got angry and complained to the CRPF. But instead of pulling up the BJP voter, the villagers alleged, the CRPF men hit Samiruddin with a lathi.
Samiruddin showed us a slight swelling where he had been hit on his hand. “A BJP voter prompted my wife and mother to vote for the BJP. I complained to the police and they hit me. They said do as we say or go away,” he alleged.
How did he know the person prompting his family was from the BJP? Samiruddin said he saw them voting for the BJP inside the booth. “I came out and complained at the local police station,” he claimed. “The inspector in charge came and CRPF roughed me up in front of him too.”
After speaking with Samiruddin, we made our way back to Booth 27 and questioned the CRPF men about his allegations. They did not want to speak further, only insisting that their version of the incident was the truth. “Every area has some troublemakers, but nothing big happened,” one of them said.
It was striking how distrustful Khandrui’s people were of the CRPF, especially in the Muslim neighbourhood where the central forces were seen as being the BJP’s agents. The Trinamool also has accused the BJP of mobilising the central forces to its advantage.
Some of the Muslim villagers alleged the CRPF men had taunted them for voting for Mamata and even told a few to press the button next to the BJP’s lotus symbol. We obviously couldn’t find evidence of this, but the voters were certainly worried by the presence of the paramilitary forces. Nor, of course, could we ascertain if our interlocutors had any party affiliations. In small villages such as the one we visited, it is usually difficult to tell a party’s supporter from a party’s workers.
If what we found in Dantan is anything to go by, allegations of polling violence made by political operatives need to be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.
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