There was little remarkable about the lanky Sourav Chowdhury except his nearly 6-ft height. A second-year BA student of Mrinalini Dutta College at Birati in North 24 Parganas, the 19-year-old was a soft-spoken and obedient son. Perhaps it was his helpful nature, they say, that drove him to join a group fighting against illicit liquor syndicates and the menace they posed in his village Bamangachhi of North 24 Parganas, about 40 km from Kolkata. Perhaps it was the fact that the syndicates had expanded their activities to an alley just next to his house. On the night of July 4, Chowdhury was found killed, his body chopped into pieces and thrown onto railway tracks nearby.
Chowdhury had been kidnapped and taken away from his home. An autopsy report confirmed he was tortured before his death and strangulated.
Suspicion fell on the local liquor syndicates. About eight months ago, some youths of Bamangachhi had formed a group to take on the syndicates, and their high-handedness. Chowdhury and elder brother Sanjeeb had been among its first members. “What started as a group of 10 persons has grown to over 80 youth members. They not only speak up against any injustice, but also engage in social work such as blood donation,” says Indrajit Kundu, a member and Chowdhury’s friend.
Shyamal Karmakar, the main accused in Chowdhury’s murder, has allegedly set up many illicit liquor dens, operating in an alley adjoining the Chowdhury home.
“They would break the bulbs of lamp-posts so that the place was dark and they could work undisturbed. They would often tease women and girls of the locality,” says Kundu. Trouble-makers of the village took to hanging around the liquor outlets.
An elderly villager who didn’t want to be identified said Chowdhary and his group had come to the rescue of many. “Be it an ailing person who had to be rushed to hospital in the middle of the night, or any family being bullied by goons, they would help out all.”
Last month, things came to a head. “On June 14, Karmakar and his men were confronted by more than 50 residents of the locality about the streetlights being damaged. He denied any hand in it. Later at night, he returned in an inebriated state, started hurling abuses and beat up elderly persons. We protested, and Karmakar and his friends were beaten up by locals. Sourav was among those who beat him and his men. Karmakar was looking for revenge,” says Kundu.
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Sanjeeb says he and Sourav joined the group fighting against the liquor dens because these had become hotbeds of crime. “The increase in hooch sales and forceful land acquisitions were the main reasons we joined. There seemed to be no stopping the criminals, who clearly had the support of police and political leaders,” says Sanjeeb.
A state excise officer admits the rapid rise in the sale of illegal hooch, popularly known as ‘chullu’, alongside country liquor available at the 1,800-plus licensed shops in the state.
“Chullu is produced in places such as Kiderpore, Metiaburz and Beleghata. There are bigger units in South 24 Parganas, Ghola in North 24 Parganas and several places along the Kalyani Expressway. Places like Barasat, Barrackpore and Bamangachhi are important distribution centres,” said the excise officer.
In Bamangachhi, the railway station area is known as the place to buy hooch, specifically from behind platform No. 1 or at the ‘rater bazaar (night market)’ organised near the rail cabin. Sold in polythene pouches of 200 ml each, the hooch costs Rs 20-30 a pouch in urban areas, and half that in villages. There is no control on the quality or what goes into the mix.
Police officials deny allegations of a nexus with hooch dealers. “Regular raids are conducted and we are always on the lookout for any dealers,” says Tanmoy Roychowdhury, SP, North 24 Parganas.
Hailing from a lower middle class family, Chowdhury worked at a motorcycle showroom to supplement the income of his father, employed as a driver with the Geological Survey of India. “We never forced him to take up the job, but he wanted to contribute to the running of the family,” Sanjeeb says.
Sanjeeb himself is doing a course in hardware networking after his graduation. The brother adds that rather than scaring him and his friends, the murder had strengthened their resolve. “Even if everyone leaves the group, I will carry on till there is not a single anti-social element left in Bamangachhi. My parents have not asked me to leave the group either. We have decided not to cow to bullies.”
A 20-plus member of the group and a close friend of Chowdhury says, “If the offenders wanted our group to be disintegrated, they should get the message that their attempt has failed. We are not going to give up without a fight.”
Construction and hooch are the two thriving trades of Bamangachhi. In both, Karmakar allegedly has a hand. The 30-year-old is alleged to have risen under the patronage of several political leaders, starting with the CPM, and grown from working as a small-time crook for a contract killer to extortion.
But it was after he came in touch with Tushar Majumder, a Trinamool Congress member, that Karmakar entered the big league. With the CPM on the decline in the area and the TMC on the rise (Majumder won a panchayat election here in 2008), Karmakar became a terror, allegedly beating people up in broad daylight even as none dared complain. Having earned enough money, Karmakar also gained some legitimacy as a “businessman” in Mondalgachhi, the area he is currently based in.
“Of late, he had started operating gambling dens, and under the patronage of brother duo Hanif Mondal and Fakir Mondal, Karmakar’s dadagiri in the area had increased manifold. The Mondal brothers had been supporters of the CPM and later shifted their allegiance to the TMC,” said a senior police official of the area.
Sources say that the day Sourav was murdered, Karmakar and his men had met at Majumder’s place. While Majumder refused to comment, saying party leaders would talk, Food Minister and TMC president of North 24 Parganas district Jyotipriya Mullick said Karmakar was a BJP supporter and the TMC had nothing to do with him.