‘It’s for political benefit’: Meet the faceless victims of Bengal’s post-poll violence

At least 16 people have been killed in clashes between BJP and Trinamool supporters since the election result was declared on May 2.

ByAmit Bhardwaj
‘It’s for political benefit’: Meet the faceless victims of Bengal’s post-poll violence
Haran Adhikari's widow Swarnalata with her son.
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At around 3 pm on May 5, I was talking to the family of a slain Sangh Parivar worker at Protapnagar village in Bengal’s Sonarpur. Haran Adhikari, who was in his 40s, had been hacked to death, allegedly by Trinamool Congress supporters, on the evening the party won the assembly election. Suddenly, there was a commotion in the backyard. The family dashed inside – Haran’s wife, brothers, their wives and children – hurriedly locking the two iron grill doors of the house. The children began to cry. Standing there in the courtyard I was trying to make sense of what was happening when the women opened one of the grill doors and pulled me in. Trinamool workers, they suspected, had returned to strike again and they feared I would be attacked alongside them.

As the commotion grew louder, some of the family members grabbed sticks, iron rods, and whatever else they could find, preparing to defend themselves from what they feared was coming their way.

Barely 400 metres away, police stood on the main road, deployed to provide security to Haran’s family and their neighbours. I called my driver, who was waiting in the car on the main road, and asked him to tell the policemen to reach the Hindu para, or neighbourhood. They came after a few minutes, nabbed four “outsiders”, and bundled them into a police vehicle. I left Haran’s house and started for the main road. By now, men and women had come out on the streets, carrying rods, sickles and bhujalis, a curved knife-like weapon made of iron. “We made a blunder not stepping out when Trinamool workers came to kill Haran,” a woman said, by way of an explanation. “Mistakes happen once. We won’t let them unleash violence again. If they attack us we’ll retaliate. Come what may.”

On the main road, the police were trying to calm down an armed group of villagers from the Hindu para. I asked the policemen for details of the “outsiders” they had taken away, but they wouldn’t talk, suggesting I approach the local police station.

At the Sonarpur police station, I was told to call sub inspector Priya Sen, who was out. “The four men nabbed were looters who were being chased by Anandpur police. They were on a bike and when they saw police picketing at Protapnagar, they panicked and entered the village,” Priya said. “Coincidently, they ended up entering the backyard of the victim’s house where you were speaking to the family.”

Since the villagers have been on alert since Haran’s killing, she added, the commotion caused panic. But the miscreants were caught and taken away by the Anandpur police.

“Who were these miscreants?” I asked sub inspector RK Ghosh, who had arrested them. “Did they have political connections?”

“We had arrested one of them for loot in Anandpur police station’s jurisdiction,” he replied. “I was speaking over the phone when his aides came on a bike and whisked him away. We managed to catch them again in Protapnagar. They have no political connections.”

This incident illustrates how pervasive fear of political violence has grown in Bengal: any “suspicious outsider” arriving in a village sparks panic. In many places, villagers seem to have accepted the violence as an abiding reality.

Bengal has a bloody history of party political violence going back decades, and the latest bout erupted on May 2, after it became clear that the Trinamool was coming back to power. The violence has singed Purba Bardhaman, West Medinipur, Birbhum, North 24 Parganas, and South 24 Parganas districts, leaving at least 16 people dead.

The Trinamool and the BJP have been blaming each other for instigating the violence which has claimed both their workers, with the Hindutva party also seeking to communalise the clashes as Trinamool-backed Muslims targeting the Sangh Parivar’s footsoldiers.

After taking oath as the chief minister on May 5, Mamata said she would not tolerate violence in Bengal. The next day she announced compensation of Rs 2 lakh each to the families of those killed in the post-poll clashes. She confirmed that 16 people had been killed, seven from her own party, seven from the BJP, one from the Indian Secular Front, and one without a political affiliation.

Mamata’s words offer no succor to those who have lost loved ones to the mindless violence. Like Haran’s widow Swarnalata.

Recalling the night of her husband’s killing, Swarnalata said she was finishing her chores after dinner at around 8.30 pm when she heard a commotion. It had been a stressful day for their family, she said, because the BJP lost the election, including in their Sonarpur Dakshin constituency. Swarnalata stepped out to find a mob of 40-50 people taking down the BJP flags near the gate. “When I objected they punched me in the face. I fell unconscious,” she recounted, removing her face mask to show where the blow had left a mark.

Haran’s younger brother, Shankar, and their cousins, who live next door, had come out as well. “To protect ourselves we got into a scuffle with the Trinamool workers,” said Shankar. “This para has 90 to 100 voters and all of them support the BJP. Many are silent supporters, but our entire family has been openly working for the RSS and the BJP for many years. That is why we have been attacked several times. Nearby localities are majority Muslim and they work for the Trinamool. ”

His cousin Sudip, 25, said while they were fighting off the mob, five-six men barged into Haran’s room and dragged him out. “He was hacked to death right outside, barely 200 metres away. But we only found out once the Trinamool goons had left. We were informed by some villagers that Haran was lying in a pool of blood. The left side of his face was smashed in. He had been attacked with sticks, rods, and bricks.” He died on the way to hospital.

The Sonarpur police have arrested three men for the murder, but haven’t identified them yet.

Haran had previously been attacked during the 2019 general election, Shankar claimed, when they mobilised the villagers for prime minister Narendra Modi’s rally at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground.

“This time, when it became clear that the Trinamool was coming back to power, our relatives began calling us and suggesting that we flee from the village,” Shankar said. But their family had joined the Sangh Parivar a decade ago “to counter atrocities by Muslims in the area” so they weren’t going to leave.

“Honestly, we thought if the BJP lost and Trinamool workers attacked we would apologise with folded hands and promise to leave the BJP. But we never thought our brother would be hacked to death,” Shankar said. “Now there is no question of leaving the party. Let our blood spill.”

Swarnalata echoed the sentiment. She was going to be a more determined supporter of the BJP now, she said.

After Haran was cremated on May 3, BJP’s national president, JP Nadda, visited his family and promised to get them justice. “I appealed to Nadda ji for financial support, a government job and justice,” said Swarnalata. “Our two daughters are married but my son is only 13. We need support to run the family.”

About 10 km away from Protapnagar, several BJP workers in Gopalnagar, Kheyadah, have fled their homes after alleged attacks by Trinamool members. Tarun Adhikary, a local BJP leader in his 40s, is one of them. “Fearing for their lives, I sent my wife and son to Durgapur. I left my house as well, but not Sonarpur constituency,” he said. “Many of our workers and their homes are being attacked. I can’t abandon them.” He shared a list of local BJP workers who have allegedly been targeted by Trinamool supporters.

In Beleghata’s Sitala Tala Lane, an elderly resident who asked not to be named recalled how political violence was the norm in the 1970s. “Going to school we would see party workers throw crude bombs. It was the time of the CPIM’s rise,” he said. “It’s after nearly 50 years that this sort of violence has happened again in our area.”

He was referring to the murder of Avijit Sarkar, 35, vice president of a BJP-backed trade union. Sarkar, an idolmaker in Sitala Tala Lane, ran the local BJP office and a pet clinic out of his home. He was hacked to death on May 2. Shortly before, he had done a Facebook live claiming that a mob of Trinamool workers had thrown crude bombs at and ransacked his office.

On May 5, his brother Biswajit Sarkar, 42, showed me around the ransacked office, pet clinic and idol workshop. The CCTV cameras and computers lay broken, windshield and windows of their car smashed, office records burnt.

“Avijit and I were watching the result on TV. At around 1.30 in the afternoon, I saw on the CCTV feed that a group of five-six Trinamool workers were approaching our office. They hurled bombs, broke the CCTV cameras,” Biswajit recounted, adding that they promptly called the local police station.

At 2 pm, he added, a victory march of Trinamool workers approached their office. Their faces were coloured green, they were wearing Trinamool t-shirts, and carrying sticks. “They hurled bombs and ransacked our office. We realised that we weren’t safe and we ran inside our home. But they chased us down. My brother did a Facebook live before being killed. My mother was also attacked when she tried to rescue us. They dragged my brother out with a wire tied around his neck and thrashed him with rods, sticks, bricks. I managed to flee and hide and kept calling the police. Outside, they were smashing in my brother’s face.”

His mother has been in shock since the attack, Biswajit said, and they haven’t yet told her of her son’s killing. The family have refused to take Avijit’s body unless a postmortem is done under a magistrate’s supervision and videographed.

Avijit had joined the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in 2010. His is the only family in Sitala Tala Lane that openly supports the Sangh Parivar. He’d had a running feud with local Trinamool workers since 2012 when they quarreled over the land being blocked by Ram Navami celebrations organised by the Sangh Parivar. The Trinamool supporters had also targeted their home and office after the 2016 state election and the 2019 Lok Sabha election results were declared, Biswajeet alleged.

“For my brother’s murder, I blame Trinamool’s Beleghata MLA Paresh Paul and TMC councillors. About 10 days before polling day, Paul threatened during his party’s election meeting in the neighbourhood that after the results we would be sent to Yamraj,” Biswajit said, referring to the Hindu god of death. “And even before the results were officially out, my brother was hacked to death.”

His family is now demanding an enquiry into his brother’s killing by the Central Bureau of Investigation claiming the Trinamool government won’t give them justice. They have, meanwhile, received security from the Kolkata police.

I contacted the Beleghata police station to ask if they had identified Avijit’s killers yet, but the chief refused to speak and the duty officer said she wasn’t authorised to discuss the case.

Badal Baidya, 34, is the BJP’s mandal president in Birbhum’s Bolpur Block B, which lies in the Bolpur constituency, home turf of infamous Trinamool strongman Anubrata Mondal. Badal, along with his deputy Swanatan Biswas, is on the run. He fled his home at Nurpur village on May 3, fearing an attack by Trinamool workers. He had called BJP’s Bolpur president Dhruba Saha and its candidate Dr Anirban Ganguly for help, but didn’t get a response.

“Trinamool goons are marking the houses of BJP workers in Bolpur. At many places they have given BJP workers time to rejoin the Trinamool or face consequences. Many of our workers are being fined by local TMC offices for working for the BJP. As far as I am concerned, I can’t return to my home for months. They will not let me live in peace. If I return today, I will be killed,” Baidya told me over the phone. He’s worried about providing for his family while being on the run.

It isn’t only the BJP which has lost its workers to the violence, 14 of them, it claims. The Trinamool claims to have lost at least seven workers and the Indian Secular Front one. The CPIM has seen its office buildings burned and vandalised.

“Those defeated in the election hold grudges and indulge in violence. We swept the district. We don’t have any reason to indulge in violence,” Prosenjit Das, a Trinamool spokesperson in Purba Burdhaman, said, pointing out that his party won all 16 of the district’s assembly segments. “Our four workers were killed in attacks by BJP men. In Jamalpur, a BJP mob killed two of our workers and injured two. The BJP is now claiming one of their workers was killed in Jamalpur. That person was with the attackers who targeted our workers and died in the clash.”

The violence in Bengal is clearly driven by political rivalry, but BJP’s leaders and the party’s camp followers, including in the media, have been busy communalising the clashes. Kailash Vijyavargiya, who oversees the BJP’s functioning in Bengal, has alleged that his party’s members are being targeted by Trinamool’s “Muslim workers”. To propagate this narrative, the party’s IT Cell and leaders are even peddling fake news and unrelated videos. And Facebook pages such as Nation With NaMo, with 1.3 million followers, are amplifying such visuals.

On the ground, the communal messaging is propagated by local leaders such as Badal Baidya. “Those attacking us are Trinamool’s Muslim workers,” he said, and went on to threaten that if “these attacks don’t stop, I am telling you, Hindus will respond aggressively. This violence will soon take the shape of Hindu-Muslim clashes if it isn’t stopped right now”.

The BJP used the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” as a rallying cry against the Trinamool. This is a reason why the party’s workers were attacked after the election, Haran Adhikari’s family claimed. So, was Haran’s killing communal? “No, it was purely because of political reasons, to garner political benefit,” said Sudip. “They wouldn’t have targeted us if we weren’t BJP workers.”

Pictures by Amit Bhardwaj.

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