Political alliances have changed, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction.
On June 20, 2019, Rambabu Shaw, 17, was standing in Kankinara market selling puchkas when a bullet hit him in the head. Locals and family members claimed that the police opened fire in the market in Bhatpara, killing Shaw.
What followed was months of violence in Bhatpara, a hotly contested assembly constituency in Barrackpore. Eight people were killed and 50 injured over the next few weeks.
This seemingly random spurt of violence happened a month after the Lok Sabha election in 2019. Mamata Banerjee’s TMC seat tally in the election dropped from 34 to 22, while the BJP raised its own tally from two to 18, causing massive turmoil and the rejigging of political equations in the state.
The BJP’s growing influence in Bengal is evidenced in Barrackpore, which votes on April 22. And at the centre of it all is the current Member of Parliament, Arjun Singh.
Arjun Singh switched from the TMC to BJP in March 2019, right before the Lok Sabha election. The seven assembly seats in Barrackpore Lok Sabha constituency – Amdanga, Bijpur, Naihati, Bhatpara, Jagatdal, Noapara and Barrackpur AC – saw sudden defections following his departure from the TMC.
Sample this: In 2016, the TMC held six of the seven seats with the other going to the Congress.
But a lot has changed since then.
In Bhatpara, Arjun Singh vacated his seat to contest in the 2019 election on a BJP ticket. He handed the seat to his son Pawan Singh who won it for the BJP in a by-poll. In Barrackpur AC, Shilbhadra Datta resigned from the TMC last December and was later given a BJP ticket from the neighbouring constituency of Khardaha.
In Noapara, Madhusudan Ghose died in 2017. The TMC’s Sunil Singh won the by-election the following year but defected to the BJP in June 2019. In Bijpur, Mukul Roy’s son Shubhranshu Roy resigned from the TMC and joined the BJP in May 2019.
So, the BJP managed to increase its influence in four out of seven constituencies. The TMC still holds the other three but that might change in the upcoming election since five of the BJP’s candidates in these seven seats are leaders who defected from the TMC.
But this transfer of power from one party to the other was not a peaceful one. From 2018 to 2021, the political turmoil left a trail of death and destruction in its wake.
2018: panchayat poll violence
In 2018, West Bengal saw intense political violence during the panchayat election. One of the hotspots was Amdanga, a primarily rural constituency which lies to the east of Barrackpore town.
According to the residents of Amdanga, after a hung result for the Taraberia gram panchayat election, violence erupted, the power was cut, and bombs were hurled late at night.
Mujaffar Ahmed, 31, was killed. His father, Mohammad Alibuddin, holds TMC workers responsible for his death.
“Voting was supposed to happen on the 29th,” he said. “On August 28 evening, they [TMC workers] turned off the transformer and started throwing bombs...They had people from outside. They came in and opened fire left, right and centre. I think it was around 8-8.30 pm. My son was just returning home when they just shot him. When I got the news, I took a car, went to the spot and took him to the hospital. He passed away 40 minutes later.”
He added: “It is only because Arjun Singh won from here that we are still alive. The TMC workers residing here are so violent, what to say? The MLA from here, Rafiqur Rahman, I wouldn’t even call him a human being.”
The TMC alleged that the CPIM instigated the violence in cahoots with the BJP. The police arrested six CPIM workers, including their district committee member Ahmed Khan.
On the other hand, the CPIM claimed the TMC and Arjun Singh, then a TMC MLA from Bhatpara, were responsible.
“The TMC workers came in the darkness and hurled bombs in the village,” said Shauhar Mullick, a CPIM worker. “We found out that these were Arjun Singh’s men. After he joined the BJP, Arjun Singh started saying that Didi ordered him to do all the violence in Amdanga during the panchayat poll.”
Newslaundry tried to ask other residents of Taraberia what had happened but no one could confirm Arjun’s involvement.
“It was a fight between TMC and CPIM for the gram panchayat,” said Bikas Chaudhary, a shopkeeper from Taraberia. “Workers from both parties were killed that day and it’s hard to say who started it all.”
However, Mohammad Alibuddin emphasised that Arjun Singh had nothing to do with the violence that killed his son. “I am only going to tell you what I saw with my own eyes. I’m not going to accuse Arjun Singh when I know the names of four TMC workers who killed my son. I’ve named them in the FIR.”
2019: Bhatpara violence
In Bhatpara’s Kankinara market, people were reluctant to discuss the violence that followed the 2019 election.
“If we speak to you, you’ll do the story and go away,” said the owner of a utensils shop who wanted to remain anonymous. “If you put out our names, they’ll come and burn our shops again.”
But who is “they”? “It’s very confusing which party they belong to,” he replied. “Could be TMC or BJP or CPIM. It’s hard to keep track of who belongs to which party now.”
The market comprises tiny lanes with shops on both sides, made from tin and wood. In 2019, after the TMC started losing ground in Barrackpore, there were scuffles here between factions of the BJP and the TMC which snowballed into a full-blown riot that left eight people dead.
Shopkeepers in Kankinara market offered their own theories on how and why the violence began: Some suggested that the police started it all by shooting Rambabu Shaw. Others said it was a clash between TMC workers and those who had defected from the party.
“It started as a party clash and turned into a Hindu-Muslim riot,” said the owner of a small grocery store. “When the violence started after the puchka seller was shot, we all closed shop and ran away. At night, they torched around 46 shops in this market.”
Was it a targeted attack on a particular religion? “Nobody can tell,” he said. “If a single shop is set on fire in this lane, it will spread to other shops in a line. There are shops by Hindus and Muslims both, all of us suffered.”
Shop owners told Newslaundry that they received very little help from the state government after the violence. The utensils shop owner pointed to a shop across the street and said, “That shop belongs to a Hindu. It was torched too and caused a loss of Rs 40-45 lakh. The government put him and all of us on a list for compensation. He and six other shopkeepers received Rs 20,000 each. But it’s simply not enough. I didn’t get any compensation even when my name was on the list.”
Did their MP Arjun Singh or his son, the MLA Pawan Singh, offer any aid?
“Why would they help us?” said the grocery store owner. “It’s the state government that announced relief, not them. Some people from the Waqf board came and helped rebuild some shops, but nobody else did. Neither BJP nor TMC, nobody is helping us.”
Showing photos of burned shops from the time, a shop owner said, “We fear it’s going to happen again after the 2021 election. We are now moving our goods into godowns far away, preparing for the violence that will happen around the election. It’s better to be safe than sorry this time around.”
A common thread in these conversations was the tension between party workers of the TMC and BJP, with the police thrown in. But Pawan Singh, the MLA from the BJP, placed the blame squarely on the TMC.
“During the election...even when the voting process was not even over, the opposition realised they were not going to win,” he said, referring to the 2019 Lok Sabha poll. “They tried everything. And when they realised that nothing can be done...they started hurling bombs and guns were fired. And that just continued for months.”
As an MLA, he added, he would “complain to the police all the time”. While the police “never said they will not do anything”, he said, they did not investigate.
2020: The assassination of Manish Shukla
On October 4, 2020, Manish Shukla, a councillor and close aide of Arjun Singh, got off near a chai shop from an SUV in Barrackpore town. He was talking on the phone when two men on a motorcycle shot him dead, right across the road from the Titagarh police station. His postmortem report noted 22 bullet wounds.
Manish’s office is two minutes away from the spot where he died. His father Chandramani Shukla now sits there; he is the BJP’s candidate for Barrackpur AC.
“Arjun Singh used to consider Manish as his younger brother,” Chandramani said. “Their relationship was really strong. And this was a relationship that had been there for years. They used to always be together. And they completed each other. With this murder, Arjun Singh lost a lot too. He told me that it almost feels like a part of his body has been chopped off.”
Chandramani pointed to multiple inconsistencies in the police’s investigation into his son’s murder.
“The CCTV cameras in front of the police station were turned off,” he claimed. “How is it possible that the police arrived 40 minutes after the incident occurred? Why did three hospitals refuse to send ambulances? We had to carry Manish in our own car to the hospital where he was declared dead.”
Manish’s colleagues in the BJP told Newslaundry they had obtained footage of his death from a CCTV at a nearby medical shop. Eleven people have been arrested in the case, including two TMC workers.
Changing alliances amid violence
Violence underlines the nature of politics in Barrackpore. Between July and October last year, three high-profile incidents of violence were reported: In July, a TMC councillor from North Barrackpore municipality was shot in the leg. In the same month, a TMC leader was shot by two men on a motorcycle, but survived. The TMC blamed the BJP and Arjun Singh for both these incidents. Then, in October, Manish Shukla was shot dead.
As it stands now, the BJP is fielding five former TMC members in constituencies in and around Barrackpore. To recap: Mukul Roy’s son Shubhrangshu in Bijpur; Pawan Singh in Bhatpara; Arjun Singh’s brother-in-law Sunil Singh in Noapara; and former Congress and TMC members Shilbhadra Dutta and and Arindam Bhattacharya in Khardaha and Jagatdal, respectively.
Plus, the party is fielding Chandramani Shukla from Barrackpur AC, hoping to capitalise on public sympathy towards him over his son’s death and the botched-up police investigation into it.
Meanwhile, the blame game between the TMC and BJP is playing out on the ground. Voters are unsure which party started the violence, but at the end of the day, they’re the ones caught in the crossfire.
Sagnik Biswas and Soham Bhattacharyya contributed reporting.
This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.
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