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How Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury Grew from Berhampore's ‘Rock’er Chele’ to a 5-Time MP

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is battling for a sixth term from Berhampore. But how do the locals there see him?

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Video Editor: Nitin Bisht

(Trigger warning: contains description of suicide)

Berhampore resident Renuka Maddi can never forget the day. It was 20 April 2019. She had gone to cast her vote for the Lok Sabha election but decided to head back home due to the long queue at the polling booth. She thought the evening, as the heat gets a little less oppressive, would be a better time.

She came home to find her 24-year-old son, Rajat Maddi, hanging from the ceiling fan. She doesn’t delve much into the reason for the suicide. Just says that it was a case of “love gone wrong”. But what Renuka did next made local headlines. She sent her son’s body to the morgue and headed to the polling booth again. She could not miss out on voting for Congress candidate, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury.

“Whenever I’ve needed help, Adhir da has helped me. I thought, my son is gone. I won’t get him back. But if (Adhir) Dada loses, then there will be darkness all around. That’s why I kept my son’s body in the morgue and went to vote him”, she tells The Quint.

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“Later, when he found out, he immediately rushed to my house. He won that year and came to say thank you even after he won”, he added.

Since then, Renuka says, her relationship with Adhir has been that of siblings. Every year he comes to her house on bhai phota or Bhai Dooj. Last year, Renuka lost her second son- Ranjan Maddi, Rajat’s twin- to suicide as well. As a result, no festivals were celebrated in the family. She laments that she hence couldn’t invite Adhir for the holy phota ceremony.

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is battling for a sixth term from Berhampore. But how do the locals there see him?

(Renuka Maddi with photos of her two deceased sons, Rajat and Ranjan Maddi)

(Ishadrita Lahiri/The Quint)

“He will come again this year. And he will come as a MP. It is a tough fight for him this time. I don’t know what will happen. But every Tuesday and Saturday, I go to the temple to pray for him”, she says.

It is such relationships that has kept Adhir, often considered a maverick in Delhi circles, as one of the tallest leaders in Berhampore and the district of Murshidabad in recent years.

As he campaigns around the constituency, in a pressed linen shirt and a fedora, Adhir throws candies from his jeep to those lining the streets. It's a party for the children and has been his trademark campaigning style.

"We used to go to his campaigns as a kid because we would get chocolates. I'm 29 now and he's been doing this forever", says Berhampore resident Md. Rafi.

Adhir is fighting for a sixth term as Member of Parliament from the Berhampore seat, which he’s held since 1999.

He’s squaring off against cricketer Yusuf Pathan, who has been fielded as a celebrity candidate by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) and renowned doctor, Nirmal Saha, from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

As The Quint went across Berhampore, most people, much like Renuka, agreed that this would be a tough fight for Adhir. There’s a natural anti-incumbency after five terms, the BJP- with a strong candidate- might play spoiler, and the TMC has fielded a Muslim candidate in a constituency with over 60 percent Muslim vote. Moreover, his winning margin in 2019 was just over 6 percent. But the sense that Adhir will be remembered in Berhampore, even if he loses, shows across the constituency, whether one speaks to his supporters or detractors.

Through these conversations, The Quint tried to trace Chowdhury’s political journey which began much before he was associated with any political party. From a Naxal sympathiser who had to go underground to now sitting next to none other than Sonia Gandhi as the leader of the Congress party in Lok Sabha, the journey has many parts. What comes through, however, is that Adhir was a man who believed in ‘sangharsh’ or struggle, often siding with the working class in multiple movements. Soon enough, the Robin Hood of Berhampore, with his broken Hindi but unique sartorial tastes, emerged as a national leader.

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‘Rock’er Chele’ Who Campaigned Through Cassettes

In the 1980, Adhir was known as that one local lad who would always be protesting something or the other. He was the neighbourhood ‘Dada’, who had dropped out of school in class 9, and would be seen wandering around tea shops with others like him.

Step into the Congress office in Berhampore, now known as ‘Adhir Da’s office’, and one finds many workers who have known Adhir since the beginning of his career.

“I have known him since 1980. I was in class 10 and Adhir Chowdhury had dropped out of school by then and he was known as a rock’er chele (local, roadside gangster), but we knew that whenever there was any protest, Adhir Chowdhury would turn up. He could play sports, he could sing. If there was a programme happening, he would come on stage to spontaneously sing with the orchestra”, says Golam Mostafa Sarkar, a Congress worker in Berhampore.

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is said to have been involved in the Naxalite movement in the 1970s.

His political journey played out in front of the residents of Berhampore. He joined the Naxal movement in the ‘70s and in some interviews has admitted to stealing guns and other ammunition during those days, even while he was in school. He joined the Congress, under Rajiv Gandhi’s tutelage, in 1991. That is when he fought his first election.

On the day of voting, Adhir was chased away from his polling booth and then held captive by workers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M). Thereafter, he had to go underground for days. It is ironic, therefore, that he’s now in alliance with the CPI(M)-led Left Front and is known to be one of the chief advocates for this alliance. Adhir lost the 1991 election, but it set him up for the next state election in 1996. He was in jail, accused of murdering a CPI(M) leader’s relative, but still won the election by about 20,000 votes.

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is battling for a sixth term from Berhampore. But how do the locals there see him?

Golam Mustafa Sarkar remembers lending Adhir Chowdhury Rs 1 for a Bidi and matchbox.

(Ishadrita Lahiri/The Quint)

Sarkar reminisces those days when Adhir was underground and struggling for survival.

“He had a tough life. There were days when he didn’t have money to eat. In fact, even if he wanted to smoke a beedi, he didn’t have money to pay for it. I remember him borrowing 1 rupee from me to buy a roll of beedis and a matchbox”, he says.

Another party worker The Quint met at the Berhampore office, Asim Kumar Ray, remembers campaigning for Adhir in 1996.

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In 1991, he stood for the assembly election from Nabagram and there was allegedly a conspiracy to kill him. That is when the people of Murshidabad saw what a political fight means. The next time, in 1996, he was the candidate but couldn’t campaign for himself. There were cassettes played of his speeches. We would go around playing those cassettes in the constituency”, says Ray.

He was appointed the Congress president for the district of Murshidabad in 1999. It was during this time that his proximity to the Gandhis increased. He ensured a phenomenal performance of the Congress in the next panchayat elections, while he continued to be a part of various Parliamentary committees in Delhi. In 2012, he was inducted as Minister of State for Railways under the Manmohan Singh government and thereafter made president of the West Bengal Congress in 2014 for four years. He was appointed to the position again in 2019 and continued to hold it since.

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‘Robin Hood’ Who Has the Gandhis’ Ears

The year 1996 was also not the last time that Adhir saw the inside of a jail.

In 2003, he was charged with the murder of a CPI(M) worker in Berhampore. In 2005, he spent a month in prison for a double murder case. He was also suspected of being involved in the alleged murder of Hanif Sheikh and his son Laltoo, who owned a hotel in Berhampore. He was later acquitted in all three cases.

In a murder case of a TMC leader in 2011, the victim’s wife has testified that three to four miscreants shot her husband while he was on a bike on the instructions of Adhir. While arrests were made in the case, the police were unable to prove Adhir’s involvement.

He’s also been charged with causing ruckus in polling booths and restricting election officials from doing their duty.

Even then, he is known as the ‘Robin Hood’ in Berhampore and Sonia Gandhi’s ‘Royal Bengal Tiger’.

Golam Mostafa Sarkar explains the genesis of the Robin Hood monicker.

“In the 90s, when he had just started his formal political career, he took a tough stance against the select few families in the district who ran most of its businesses. Adhir organised a protest against them and ensured that they hire local youth and also make local youngsters a part of their business. Some people did not like it but it gave hope to thousands of youngsters”, says Sarkar.

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is battling for a sixth term from Berhampore. But how do the locals there see him?

The Congress office in Berhmapore which has now come to be known as 'Adhir Da's office'.

(Ishadrita Lahiri/The Quint)

Renuka Maddi’s association with and devotion for Adhir also comes from an act of help in 1996.

“I have known Adhir Da since 1996 when I came to Berhampur and took a rented flat. In 1998 I had bought a piece of land and politicians – from the Congress itself- had started a case against me to take away that land. At that time, I took Adhir Da’s help. I just had to tell him once. I got the money for that piece of land and built this house in 2004”, she says, sitting in her living room, next to the photos of her two deceased sons.

Across Berhampore, there are stories of Adhir organizing someone’s wedding, helping students go abroad, getting paperwork done and other such things.

Sources in the Congress, said that Adhir’s image as a street fighter and the results that he’d initially delivered for the Congress in Murshidabad, endeared him to the Gandhis.

“He had suggested that Pranab Mukherjee fight from the Muslim-dominated Jangipur Lok Sabha seat. Mukherjee won that seat in 2004 and 2009 and his son, Abhijit Mukherjee held the seat for one term after that. That was one of the decisions that cemented his place in the hearts of the Gandhis”, he said.

The fondness has continued. In 2019, when Congress leaders could not convince Rahul Gandhi to take on the position of the leader of Congress party in the Lok Sabha, Adhir was served up as the next choice, ostensibly due to his aggressive, bring-it-on image.

Since then, many of Adhir’s remarks – some of which stemmed from his lack of knowledge of Hindi- has put Congress on the backfoot many times.

Most recently, he backed racist remarks made by Congress leader Sam Pitroda, giving more fodder to the BJP in the midst of a long-drawn election.

“We have Proto Australoids, Mongoloids and Negrito class of people. It is what it is. In the demography of our country, regional features are different. What someone said (referring to Pitroda) is his opinion. But it is true some people are white and some are dark”, said Chowdhury.

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is battling for a sixth term from Berhampore. But how do the locals there see him?

Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, holding the Constitution of India.

(Photo: PTI/Manvender Vashist Lav)

Earlier, in 2022, he caused a major embarrassment to the Congress, when he referred to president Droupadi Murmu as ‘rashtrapatni’. He later apologised and said that it was a ‘slip of tongue’ caused due to his limited Hindi-speaking skills.

Similarly, in the 2019 winter session of the Lok Sabha, he called Union Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, ‘Nirbala’.

However, in spite of the gaffes, the Gandhis’ faith in Adhir continues. Congress insiders say that is one of the reasons why they were unable to reign in Adhir when he was going hammer-and-tongs after Mamata Banerjee even as the central leadership tried to form an alliance with the TMC. Later, while pulling out of the INDIA alliance in West Bengal, the TMC said that Adhir was the only reason for the failure of the alliance.

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Will Adhir Chowdhury Win a Sixth Term?

For a 5-time MP, there is bound to be natural anti-incumbency. But this time, the numbers seemed to be stacked in a way that is sure to give Adhir a tough time. Locally, many believe that his involvement in the constituency has decreased over the years. The fact that he was not staying in Berhampore during COVID, choosing to stay in Delhi instead, has also not been taken kindly by many.

Berhampore constituency has over 60 percent Muslim votes and the TMC is hoping that Yusuf Pathan will be able to corner that for them. Additionally, his opponent, Nirmal Saha, is known as a good Samaritan across religious and caste lines for his work as a physician. That too could queer the pitch for Adhir.

At Berhampore’s Square Field, the epicentre of all social activities in the city, morning walkers drink their cup of tea while discussing Adhir’s future.

“We saw development in the first few years, but after that not much happened. He was also not around during corona. Nirmal Saha is a tough competitor for him, though most are framing this as a battle between the TMC and the Congress”, says Sanjiv Poddar, a sales manager at a clothing brand.

Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury is battling for a sixth term from Berhampore. But how do the locals there see him?

Morning scenes at Berhampore's Square Field.

(Ishadrita Lahiri/The Quint)

Lawyer, Biswajit Dey, however, disagrees.

“A MP cannot be compared to a panchayat Pradhan. Local people are saying he’s not seen. He’s a MP, he’s working for India. He’s working for Berhampore also”, says Dey.

According to him, it's because of Adhir that Berhampore is known across the country.

“All of the country knows Berhampore because of Adhir Chowdhury. Who knew Berhampore before that? I have worked across India and when I say Berhampore, people recognize and ask me if we are from Adhir Da’s place”, he says.

The best comment comes from Dr. Mrinal Mukherjee.

“The celebrity candidate (Yusuf) is a celebrity hence we see little of him. Adhir has done a lot of work for Berhampore but people are naturally fatigued. And being from the medical community myself, I know the popularity of Dr. Nirmal Saha enjoys”, says Mukherjee.

“It will be a tough fight. May be the toughest Adhir Da has faced yet.”

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