How Poll Violence Has ‘Silenced’ A Hamlet In Bengal

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jun 2, 2018 10:39 AM +05:30 IST
How Poll Violence Has ‘Silenced’  A Hamlet In BengalLeft Front-organised protest march against poll violence by Trinamool Congress in Kolkata. (Indranil Bhoumik/Mint via GettyImages) 
  • A couple in the Kachchrabari hamlet in Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district paid with their lives for defying political goons, and now the harried residents live in fear.

Till about two weeks ago, Kachchrabari hamlet in Namkhana block of Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district was a nondescript, poverty-stricken outpost set amidst lush paddy fields, quite akin to countless other hamlets in rural Bengal - till a ghastly fire in the intervening night of 13 May and 14 May pitchforked it to the limelight. And with that started the woes of its simple, hard-working residents who struggle very hard to earn just enough for two square meals a day.

At 1.30 am on 14 May, the day of polling for the bloodied panchayat elections in the state, flames leapt out of a small brick dwelling with tin roof in the hamlet. Dipankar Das, 21, was returning home from work at that time and was aghast on realising that it was his house that was on fire. He rushed towards his flaming home, and remembers three men, their faces covered, rushing past him away from the hamlet. He was in too much of a hurry to remember their faces; after all, he knew his parents were in the house and he had to rescue them.

“I wish I had looked closely at the three men who were rushing away. They were the ones who killed my parents,” sobs Dipankar, who works with a food catering firm and was returning home after a marriage reception, where he had served food to guests. Dipu, as the young man was lovingly called by his parents, could not enter the house since a portion of it was engulfed in flames. By the time he reached his house, his neighbours had rushed out with buckets of water to douse the flames.

Dipu could make out two bodies inside the house. “I was horrified and I fainted. By the time I regained consciousness, the fire had been doused but everyone was shouting and shrieking. There was the stench of burnt flesh. My neighbours tried to hold me back, but I went to where the burnt corpses of my parents lay. Their hands and feet looked as if they had been tied. There was also the strong smell of kerosene. They were murdered and died a painful death. The only thing I want now is justice and revenge. The men who did this to them should also die very painful deaths,” said Dipu, who has just about started talking after being silent for 10 days since the horrific incident.

Dipu’s parents, Debaprasad (47) and Usha, were members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) and were ardent activists of the party. Budhakhali gram panchayat - Kachchrabari falls within the area of this panchayat - has been held by the CPI(M) since the past 40 years. But this time, the Trinamool Congress was determined to wrest it, and neighbours of the Das family told Swarajya that local Trinamool leaders had openly proclaimed they would not allow the CPI(M) to gain control of Budhakhali GP again.

Since Debaprasad and Usha were prominent CPI(M) activists and had always played a key role in mobilising support for their party at the local level, they were targeted during electioneering. “Debaprasad was repeatedly warned by Trinamool candidate Amit Mondal and his (Mondal’s) men that he should stop campaigning for the CPI(M) and lie low or work for the Trinamool. Both Debaprasad and his wife refused to do so many times and even challenged an aide of Mondal. “We will never support you people, do what you can,” they had said. “Their defiance clearly cost them their lives,” said a neighbour of the tragedy-stricken family.

This man, in his early 50s, did not want to be named since another neighbour - Shikha Adhikary - who spoke to reporters after the incident and blamed the Trinamool for their murders was allegedly warned of dire consequences by Trinamool goons. “We live in fear now. The Trinamool has discovered that almost everyone in Kachchrabari had voted for the CPI(M) and they have been warning us that we will meet the same fate as the Das couple. They come and threaten us nearly every other day and have asked us not to speak to outsiders,” confessed a villager.

Initially, the state administration and the Trinamool leadership tried to pass it off as an accident caused by a short circuit. State education Minister Partha Chatterjee, the local Trinamool MLA, and junior minister Manturam Pakhira and senior police officers said that the fire which claimed the lives of the couple was caused by an electrical short circuit. But, as Shikha Adhikary had pointed out to visiting reporters on the morning after the incident, power supply to the entire area was cut off on 13 May evening as a precautionary measure since a storm was brewing. Also, there was no sign or trace of carbonation on the electrical wires and switchboard, as well as the tin roof of the house. Also, a gas cylinder and plastic items in the house were intact. All this pointed to the strong possibility of the couple being set on fire.

Once the ‘short circuit’ story stood discredited, a hugely embarrassed district police initiated a murder probe. A forensic team that visited the house found an empty kerosene bottle which Dipu says never belonged to the house. The forensic team also noted that the electrical wires and switches of the house were not burnt, which they would had the fire been sparked by an electrical short circuit.

But the locals have little faith in the police probe. The police, they allege, did not want to hand over the bodies of the couple to their son. The CPI(M)’s legal team approached Justice Tapabrata Chakrabarty of the Calcutta High Court, who passed an order on 18 May asking the police to hand over the bodies to Dipankar immediately. The police, who had till then been claiming that they could not trace Dipankar, were forced to hand over the bodies of Debaprasad and his wife to Dipankar on 19 May and their bodies were duly cremated that day.

But, says CPI(M) leader and prominent lawyer Bikash Bhattacharya, the police are dragging their feet on the case. The police claim they haven’t received the post mortem report and that Dipankar has again become “untraceable” and, hence, they have not been able to proceed in the case. “The police claim is ridiculous. Dipankar was handed over the bodies of his parents in the presence of the police and he conducted the last rites where police were also present. They don’t want to investigate the case properly since they will then have to arrest Trinamool leaders. There are many witnesses who will testify that the victims had received death threats from local Trinamool leaders and goons,” said Bhattacharya.

CPI(M) district secretary Shamik Lahiri said that this is an “open and shut case”. The fire was not accidental and was deliberate. A proper forensic probe will prove this. The couple were tortured and set afire after they were gagged and their hands and feet were tied. The post-mortem examination, had it been conducted properly, would have revealed that and the ante-mortem injuries on the couple. So it was a murder case. And the prime suspects are local Trinamool leaders and activists since everyone in that locality had heard and seen them threatening the couple. It is surprising that statements of the locals have not been recorded and local Trinamool leaders and activists have not been questioned. The police are trying to hush up the case,” he alleged.

Lahiri also said it was surprising that the couple - both were very able-bodied - did not try to flee from the fire or did not shout. “The neighbours did not hear any cries. That means they were either gagged and immobilised, or they were killed before their bodies were set on fire. And it was only their bodies that were set on fire, which charred only a few items in the house. That only proves it was murder. What more do the police want,” he asks.

If the police are alleged to be dragging their feet, Trinamool activists are busy ensuring that no one speaks about the incident to the police and ‘outsiders’. A strict watch is kept on all who venture into the area. A neighbour of the ‘murdered’ couple requested this reporter with folded hands to go away. “Please do not put us into any more trouble. If the Trinamool people see me talking to you, they will beat me up. You will go away and no one will be able to save us,” he cried. The local people who witnessed the fire and helped douse it, and who could have provided valuable testimony, have been warned against speaking out to the police. Those who had told visiting reporters about the threats faced by the ‘murdered’ couple have also been warned that they would meet the same fate as the Das duo. They have been effectively silenced.

Dipankar, too, has been receiving threats, which is why he prefers staying in a neighbouring village with some relatives most of the time. Though he is unwilling to speak openly about the threats he has received, a close relative of his said they he has been warned against implicating anyone in the Trinamool. He has also been promised a job and hefty compensation in return for his ‘cooperation’. “He has no option but to remain silent. He is vulnerable and with the police also taking the side of the Trinamool, he fears for his life,” said the relative.

But Dipankar, who was benumbed into silence after the horrifying deaths of his parents, speaks out angrily when he remembers that night. In those rare moments when he is overtaken by anger, he lashes out at the murderers of his parents and vows revenge. But his relatives who hover nearby and keep a protective watch on him, shush him into silence. “There is no point courting danger. They will kill him also if he speaks out,” they say.

And then they request this reporter to leave.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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