In Bengal’s Bahubali Land, Narada’s Main Man Clamps Down
Political intimidation and violence plague the town of Khanakul, though the people are reluctant to admit it.
The town of Khanakul has the air of a dysfunctional family with a secret to keep. Their MLA, Iqbal Ahmed, is one of the key figures in the Narada News scam. Even during the days of CPI(M) rule in Bengal, the town had seen some serious political violence. In the last five years, houses have been burnt and people killed. Yet no one wants to admit that their little town is not peaceful, at least publicly.
Shumit Dhuloi is one of the few zari workers in Khanakul still able to eke out a living. In recent years, demand from Kolkata has fallen and no other options for employment have presented themselves. The ‘Mahajan’ or contractor has cut his wages, but he refuses to say a word against him. Coincidentally perhaps, the Mahajan has TMC support. A gold worker, a farmer and another zari worker also refuse to talk politics, usually India’s favourite subject.
Aunad Manna, who own and runs a tea shop in the centre of the small town, takes it a step further. He insists he is apolitical. He even maintains he doesn’t know of his MLA, Iqbal Ahmed.
We don’t know or care about politics. No one has heard of the Narada News.Aunad Manna, Khanakul local
The thing is though, that we never brought up the sting operation. He denied knowledge of it anyway. Off the record, people told us that there has been serious political intimidation and violence. When asked by whom, they refused to answer. A sheepish look was all we got.
At the TMC office, we are told rather firmly that photography will not be permitted without the MLA’s express consent.
We sit in the heat, our perspiration bordering on the porcine, for about half an hour. Finally, one of the many young men present there takes our request for a meeting to the MLA. He has been peeping at us on and off through a partially ajar door. He has been resting after an exhausting morning campaigning.
Another 30 minutes later, we are ushered in.
“I will not speak till the results are out. Now, please leave.”
Our request for just two minutes of his time is of no use. One of his more friendly lieutenants tells us Ahmed is in a bad mood. Mamata Didi has a rally in neighbouring Arambagh, and he is not sure if he should go. She is trying to distance herself from the Narada News sting.
The CPI(M) had won the Khanakul seat six times in a row before the last elections. This time though, there are hardly any posters for the party in the town and adjoining villages. The party office is a decrepit old building at the edge of town. The fan doesn’t work. The walls are decorated with photos of departed Communists, including Jyoti Basu and Harkishan Singh Surjeet. For much of the last five years, the CPI(M) had been exiled from the constituency.
I had just come out of my Friday prayers the day TMC won in 2011. They came to my house, forced all of us out, including my parents, brothers and our wives. They would kill us if we went back. We live in the party office. Even now, wherever we campaign, the TMC comes and threatens people. They tell our supporters ‘if you vote we will kill you and burn your houses.Zakir Hussain, CPM supporter
Despite the relative lack of a CPI(M) presence in town, Aslam Ali Khan, their candidate, believes his party will win.
We are in the hearts and minds of the people. We don’t need posters. All we want is that the election commission does its job on voting day in all 304 booths. If there is free and fair voting, we will win.Aslam Ali Khan, CPI(M) candidate for Khanakul
But is five years of anti-incumbency against Mamata enough to beat the disappointment the Left built up over 34 years?
When we ask Aslam Ali Khan about why his party should be voted back to power, he recites a litany against the violence of the TMC, its corruption, its lack of democratic ethos. And that, more than violence, may be why the TMC could win. For good or bad, Mamata and her party seem to be the only ones setting the agenda.
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