On July 21, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had addressed thousands of party workers and put forward a simple proposition — chose the party or the syndicate. But with days left for Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation elections, the Opposition is quick to point out that Trinamool has fielded candidates, who are allegedly involved with the illegal syndicate business in the region.
Mamata had made this statement at a time when the Opposition had been alleging that there were links between senior Trinamool leaders in Rajarhat and the syndicate. Now, the CPM has alleged that it is only “natural” that Trinamool fields candidates, who have been linked with the syndicate.
The syndicate is an euphemism for an extortion racket in areas witnessing a realty boom, wherein cartels — comprising unemployed youths and backed by the ruling party — use clout and the threat of violence to force contractors into buying inferior building materials from them at a premium.
“Trinamool is based on muscle and money power. The party needs goons to ensure that its politics is carried out. These goons fund the elections and are automatic choices as candidates,” said CPM’s North-24 Parganas district secretary and former minister Gautam Deb.
The CPM and BJP have alleged that a number of candidates propped up by Trinamool, including Jaydeb Naskar, Shibu Bhandari, Shahnawaz Mondal alias Dumpi and Prasenjit Sardar, have links to the syndicate.
While Naskar, Bhandari, Mondal and Prasenjit’s father Bhojai Sardar are reportedly close to Trinamool MLA from Rajarhat, Sabyasachi Dutta, other syndicate members allegedly include local leaders like Mohammad Aftabuddin. Believed to be close to Barasat MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, Aftabuddin is not in fray for the October 3 polls. Police said the two groups had repeatedly clashed in the last two years for control over the syndicate business.
Samir Sardar alias Bhojai Sardar was arrested in June last year under the Arms Act. In the past, he has been linked with a number of armed assaults and murders in the area. The police believes that Bhajai is a syndicate kingpin and was previously close the New Town-based land mafia Gour Mondal and Louis Mondal, who enjoyed the CPM’s shelter during the latter’s reign earlier.
Together, they allegedly controlled the entire real estate trade across New Town and Rajarhat. However, Bhajai left the Mondal nexus and became close to Trinamool prior to the last Assembly polls, said a police officer.
Last week, Dutta had shared the stage with Bhajai and his son Prasenjit, who is contesting the October 3 polls. Asked about Bhajai’s alleged criminal links, Dutta said: “They are all baseless. Bhajai is a leader who is loved and respected and his son is doing his MTech. We are all proud of him. When Bhajai held a rally for his son, thousands of people poured in. Tell me, is such love possible if he was a criminal?”
“We are against crime. But at the same time, it is the Left that had started the culture of arm twisting and creating fear in people’s minds. If someone wants to work honestly and help with the development work, then I support them,” he added. Sources in the party said that Dutta was a possible candidate for the Mayor’s post this time.
The syndicate in the region has its origins in the acquisition of land for the Rajarhat township by the erstwhile CPM government. In 1995, the state land and land revenues ministry had issued a notice to acquire all land and water bodies in the area. This process of acquiring land in the area continued until the late 1990s and an estimated 2,50,000 families — mostly poor, landless farmers and fishermen — were affected.
But long before the actual acquisition started, land mafia and developers had begun buying plots in the area. “Most of those working in the area didn’t own the land they worked on. The landowners were only willing to buy the land, since they weren’t getting much financially from it anyway. But after the land was acquired, thousands of people — who had no skills or experience of entrepreneurship — were suddenly without jobs. In the meantime, there was a construction boom waiting to happen in the region and the CPM government encouraged them to supply construction material,” said Upendranath Biswas, state Minister for Backward Classes and the former CBI additional director. He had openly opposed the acquisition of land and degradation of wetlands in the region.
Gautam Deb, who at the time was the urban development minister, had begun a cooperative of about 2,000 people. But with time, and the Trinamool alleges with Deb’s involvement, this cooperative became a large criminal cartel, giving birth to the syndicate.
With days before the corporation polls, politicians openly admitted the possibility of syndicate members interfering with a “free and fair” election.
BJP’s candidate from Ward 27, Soumen Tarafdar, alleged that he was “threatened at gunpoint” to withdraw his nomination. CPM candidate Prahlad Chakraborty from Ward 4 said his 80-year-old father and 7-year-old daughter were threatened by goons.
CPM’s mayoral candidate and former minister Asim Dasgupta has been holding door-to-door campaigns in the ward that he is contesting from. “I have been asking people to simply come out and vote early in the morning. I am not asking them to vote for me or anyone else. People are terrified of the ruling party and their goons. If there is a free and fair election, we will do well,” Dasgupta said.
The party claimed that on the day of the polling, their workers would be out on the streets to make sure that any wrongdoing is immediately reported.
But while Trinamool leaders display an almost brazen confidence, most voters admitted that they felt betrayed. “The syndicate has been in this area for as long as we have been here. We had hoped that it will be crushed once Didi came into power. But that did not happen. Instead, her leaders went on to make the same mistakes that the CPM had done. Now, we have to chose between those we loathed for three decades and those we are just learning to loathe,” said Rama Sarkar, a resident of Rajarhat.