Elections in West Bengal begin in less than a fortnight. In the eastern part of the state, the ‘gangs’ have come alive, getting ready Bengal’s most popular political weapons — bombs and bullets. ESHA ROY reports. Photographs: Subham Dutta
CRADLING a gun, the 50-year-old contractor for government projects says he has “at least 60 cases” against him, some of them of murder. “Most of them have been dismissed though,” he adds. But he is not here to talk about the “over Rs 10 crore worth of government projects” he claims to have carried out so far.
“There’s tremendous pressure from the party right now,” says the wiry, unassuming man with the receding hairline and a thin moustache. “It is our job to make sure we get as many votes as possible and that voters of other parties don’t get out (on polling day). Just day before yesterday, I threatened the Congress chairperson of a local body here. I told him you need to leave Malda. That if I got word he had been campaigning, I would finish him. Main urha doonga.”
The 50-year-old is part of one of the worst-kept secrets of West Bengal. Where the country-made bombs are made and kept. Where the machines for the arms factories are stored and sold. And where to head once elections have set in. In the 50-year-old’s village in south Malda, the homes of the arms-makers and users are tucked away strategically — “away from the main road”, difficult to access by four-wheel vehicles, especially police Gypsys, and enabling a quick escape, particularly into the darkness of the thick mango groves nearby.
On March 17, 30 live bombs were recovered from a field in Sekendra in Murshidabad district by security forces on patrol — their fifth such haul, including from Malda, in the run-up to the Assembly polls beginning on April 4.
The same day in Malda, Trinamool Congress leader Subodh Pramanik was arrested for possessing Rs 3 crore worth of opium and bombs. Just after midnight on March 7, bodies of two people, allegedly workers of the TMC, were found in Bharatpur in Murshidabad. Police said they were killed making crude bombs. Another person was critically injured in the blast. Police also recovered a stock pile of at least a hundred bombs nearby.
On February 5, a factional fight in the TMC was fought with guns and bombs in Nahina village in Birbhum. That very morning, 27 bombs were recovered by security forces from Rasulpur village, also in the same district. While the violence so far largely involves factions of the TMC fighting among themselves, this may be just the start. At least 50 political murders were officially recorded in the run-up to the last Assembly elections. A cloak of silence though surrounds the arms units and killings. Policemen down the ranks refuse to talk about them, while those involved in it are too scared to do so.
On the other side of the south Malda village, a portly young man sits in a gazebo painted in TMC colours. When he isn’t engaged in party work, the 35-year-old deals in smuggled and stolen phones. “I can get you anything, any phone you want. Even iPhone,” he says. These days, like other political workers in the village, he has started assembling weapons. The sprawling village has a hundred families. The 50-year-old with a long rapsheet says each home is armed and even the women are trained, “against attacks from rival groups and also the police”. “We have to stay prepared, always.”
The main priority is to help the party win, he adds. “Any which way. Bomb marte hobe, guli marte hobe (we have to attack with bombs, we have to shoot).” In the state with one of the highest rates of violent crimes as per the National Crime Records Bureau, the arms-making and smuggling hubs are Malda, Murshidabad and Nadia districts. Weapons are collected and stored in the Maoist areas of Bankura, Purulia, Jhargram. Birbhum is emerging as one of the most troubled districts, though the violence is no more restricted to any place — only higher in South Bengal than North.
Most roads seeking weapons lead to south Malda. The whole of North Bengal is supplied from here. That’s not all, laughs a 34-year-old, who has been in the business for years. “Very often, employees of ordnance factories come here to make weapons. Recently, several of these employees were arrested along with their I-cards. The police also retrieved machines to make fake currency. Some people believe fake currency comes into India from Bangladesh. But we also make fake Indian currency right here. As far as arms are concerned, we are the ones who supply to Bangladesh, and not the other way round as people imagine.”
There are no political affiliations when it comes to weapons, the quiet, authoritative man adds. “Anyone can buy. The CPM, TMC, Congress anyone — and they all do. While the supplier may be a supporter of one party, he will sell to all. At the end of the day, this is his business.” One night seven years ago, a bomb had gone off inside a building in Kaliachak, Malda, killing 23 CPM workers. A well-known party leader who also heads a local Muslim organisation was believed to have been getting the bombs made that night. The unstable bombs were piled high in a large hall in the building, probably setting off the explosion.
In a tiny room with shuttered windows, located outside the south Malda village, just next to the mango grove, a man is huddled over a yellow drum from which he dexterously and cautiously extracts what look like perfect circular birds’ nests. “These are the ones I recently made,” says the 40-year-old, of his latest work.
Beads of sweat line his brow as he carefully sets the bombs on the ground in a line. “There are many more. If kept dry, they can last years. But they need to be kept absolutely dry and stored in a cool dark place.”
He has been making country-bombs —one of the most popular tools in the political battles in the state — most of his life.
Unlike other members of the political gangs here, he is reticent. After much nudging, he says, “It (bomb-making) is quite simple. We use two kinds of masala (gunpowder) — red and white. They come in packed solid form. I grind the masala on a grindstone into powder. I spread the masala on a cotton cloth and mix the two kinds together. Then I add stones, sticks, nails, broken glass, fishing hooks — whatever is available.”
The trick, he explains, lies in the latter. “Without these (the stones, sticks etc), there can be an explosion but it won’t really injure anyone. You need these to injure someone. The tying of the bomb is an art. I tightly tie all these elements together in such a way that the masala mix doesn’t leak. If it leaks, the bomb will burst.”
Bombs are covered in wood shavings and then placed into a drum full of wood shavings for storing. “The wood keeps the bombs dry and protected,” he says, placing the bombs back in one such drum. The gangs use and sell AK-47s, AK-56s and INSAS rifles apart from the ubiquitous 9mms. While police are not forthcoming on the seizures made from Malda, 2,100 licensed guns have been deposited with the district administration so far ahead of the April 11 polling date — the highest of any district in Bengal.
Over the past two years, with elections drawing near, prices of arms and ammunition have been going up. A bullet for a 9mm which cost Rs 170 two years ago now comes for Rs 850. “And even then they are extremely difficult to get as 9mms are the most popular guns here. Now, before the elections, you won’t get any,” says the 34-year-old weapons dealer.
A bullet for use in a .303 rifle, which cost Rs 160 on the market two years ago, is now priced Rs 550. Even the price of the gunpowder used in country-made bombs has been rising, from Rs 350 per kg four years ago to Rs 4,000 a kg now. The masala is brought from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, mostly in trucks. There was one year when an entire truck packed with masala made it all the way to Malda and then was caught by the police. “What a waste,” says the 34-year-old.
While the bullets are mostly procured from Munger in Bihar, there is another, easier source. “All police lines in all the districts of Bengal are sources of bullets for us. You just need to know the right officer. For example, when they practise shooting, they will show 5,000 rounds in their records when they actually fire 1,000, and sell the rest of the bullets. Of course you need to show shells of bullets. So shells also have a price. We collect and sell shells. So many police officers approach us for these shells,” he adds.
Besides, bullets discarded by the BSF for being past their shelf life, which end up in scrap factories across Malda, are also sold to political groups. There are nearly hundred such scrap factories in the district. When the political gangs have excess arms, they sell to well-known criminal dons as well as police officers, they claim. “Very often police officers want sophisticated weapons that they don’t get from the force. They come here,” says the 34-year-old.
The rivalriesSome distance from the room where the bombs are being assembled in the south Malda village, a 35-year-old watches cautiously. “I don’t want to go near,” he says. The pupil of his right eye is white from an old injury, his left arm ends in a stub instead of a hand, while his right hand has two fingers missing.
He wanted to be a bomb-maker as well, till the accident that maimed him 21 years ago. “I was barely 14 when I tagged along with Congress workers as an assistant to make bombs. It was in the middle of the night and my parents didn’t know I was gone. There were four of us. Two makers, and another boy and me helping store the bombs. The other boy dropped one of the bombs and there was an explosion. Only two of us survived.”
He says the CPM workers were among the first to arrive at the spot. “They refused to let the police take me to hospital. My father was in the Congress and we were a Congress family. A senior police office had to persuade them,” he says. While he can’t participate actively in many of the TMC activities because of his disability, he still performs his “duties”, he says.
Most of the TMC leaders in his group, dubbed the ‘Syndicate’ by rivals, are new entrants to the party. The phone smuggler used to be a CPM worker — “carrying out threats and doing the party’s bidding”, he says. When the tide began to change, he was the earliest to spot it and go with Mamata Banerjee. Sentenced for attempted murder, he had just emerged from prison at the time.
“I was one of the original members of the TMC, when it was nothing. People were so scared of the CPM that no one wanted to join the TMC. But over time I convinced one person and then another and our strength grew,” he says.
However, lately, he is not too happy with the party. He has been displaced by a powerful former CPM leader who now heads a rival TMC “gang”. He shows a scrap of paper naming him as a TMC life member — signed by state party president Subrata Bakshi — and the bullet scars on his wrist and arm. “The virodhi (rival) gang has already made several attempts to kill us. Unlike me, that leader has just recently been taken into the TMC. And they are giving him so much importance! That is unfair.” One bullet is still lodged in his back, he adds.
The 35-year-old has taken to carrying a 9mm pistol with him at all times. The 50-year-old is also a “life member” of the TMC, and too bears bullet scars allegedly left by a rival party gang. He was shot in the base of his neck.
Showing a similar 9mm, tucked under his shirt, the 50-year-old says, “My uncle and nephew were murdered. They (the rival gang) tried killing me as well. There have been 22 murders in one month alone here. Barely a week ago, the anchal president (a local leader) in a neighbouring area was killed.”
The attacks have left him disillusioned too. “I used to really love the TMC and Mamata Banerjee. She stood for the poor. Whenever we needed her, she was there. But of late, it seems, the TMC favours only the rich.”
Point out that there are no official figures to back up his claim of murders in intra-party battles, and he says, “There wouldn’t be. Every individual leader has their own understanding with the police.”
Naxals to Harmads to SyndicatesWhile some argue the level of political violence has gone up in West Bengal, it has been a feature of the state since the Naxalite movement gained momentum in the early 1970s. Former IG, Intelligence, West Bengal, Sanghi Mukherjee had just joined the police then. “Indira Gandhi had taken over and Siddhartha Shankar Ray was taking over in Bengal. The Naxals mounted attacks. They would break statues, damage public property, and attack Congress and CPM workers. They would also attack the police,” he recalls. So the police started “retaliating”. “Many Naxals were killed at the time.”
Soon, it wasn’t just the police hitting back. Political parties organised themselves into cadres, which acted in “self-defence”. The Sainbari (the house of Sains) carnage occurred in 1970 in Bardhaman district, in which several members of the Sain family who were Congress supporters were hacked to death in their home, purportedly by CPM workers. Their blood was smeared on their mother’s face.
The student bodies next became powerful mobilisation tools. The Youth Congress became strong while Ray was still chief minister and would behave like hired goons, often clashing with the police. But it was the CPM that soon became the most organised at this. The violence was never for individual gains but always for the party, defend party leaders. “Unlike other states, Bengal does not have caste-based or religion-based violence. It has always been either ideological or political,” says a party leader.
Working for refugees who came in from Bangladesh, including for their rehabilitation, provided the CPM a massive base. Well-known political leaders now stared getting targeted. “Area domination became the biggest thing,” says a CPM worker. With the fading away of the old CPM guard, a more brazen and violent political culture took hold. The flashpoints of violence too spread — such incidents became commonplace in Purba Medinipur, Pashim Medinipur, Hooghly, Burdwan, North and South 24 Paraganas.
By 2010, the CPM was accused of running 52 camps of a private armed wing, in Junglemahal, with 1,620 men, many brought from outside the state. The Congress and the TMC called this the CPM’s “Harmad Vahini”, or group of mercenary killers. In 2011, the Netai massacre in which nine persons were gunned down allegedly by the Harmad for refusing to join it, coupled with the 2007 Nandigram police firing killing 14, finally sealed the Left’s fate and turned the tide toward the TMC.
But the violence didn’t let up, only changed corners. Before the panchayat elections in 2013, a district president of the TMC announced at a public meeting that party workers should not allow the Opposition to field candidates, and to hurl bombs at the police if they protected TMC dissenters. Former actor and TMC MP Tapas Paul said his supporters should teach CPM men a lesson: “Jutiye lamba kore din. Keliye soja kore din (Beat sense into them with your shoes. straighten them out with a thrashing).” TMC leader Monirul Islam threatened to behead a Congress leader.
The CPM worker quoted above attempts to differentiate between violence under his party and what is happening now. “Under the TMC, there is aggression of a very different kind. In the absence of ideology, it is all about the individual. The gunbattles and bombings are about turf wars between different factions of the TMC. Worse, the police have been made completely ineffective. They have been intimidated by party goons, slapped around, attacked. There have been cases when the police have filed a chargesheet against a criminal, and the public prosecutor has pleaded for the accused to be released.”
Says senior CPM leader Rabin Deb, a nominee from Singur, “If there was violence during our tenure, it was always in defence, as a reaction. It was never initiated by us…. Since 1997, it has always been Mamata Banerjee. She brought terrorists from Jharkhand, based them in Bankura and Purulia and Paschim Medinipur… They have been lodging trumped-up cases against CPM workers. The victims are being hunted down while the accused are roaming free.”
TMC minister Krishnendu Narayan Choudhury, who is contesting from English Bazaar constituency in Malda, argues that just the opposite is true. “The atrocities committed by the CPM were monstrous. When I was with the Congress, nine of us MLAs were beaten up in public by CPM goons. After New Delhi and the AICC didn’t come to help us, I left the Congress… I have been shot at so many times, bombs have been hurled at me.”
Isha Khan Choudhury is a Congress MLA from Vaishavnagar and is standing this time from Surajpur. Both Malda constituencies see a high degree of political violence and are hubs of fake currency and illegal arms smuggling and manufacturing.
“Politics in the state is now about intimidating voters,” he says. “Practically every two weeks there are shootings and bombings in both my former and present constituency. In December last year, 600 bombs were retrieved by the police in my constituency. The police tried pursuing the case but since the people responsible have political protection, they were handicapped.” Choudhury has approached the Election Commission about “the situation in Malda” now. He says Maujapur and Jodupur are especially sensitive areas, that here people will not be allowed to vote.
Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia: Arms-making, smuggling hubs
Bankura, Purulia, Jhargram: Maoist areas where weapons are collected and stored
Birbhum: One of the most troubled districts
A violent record
* 2,100 licensed guns deposited with Malda administration so far ahead of April 11 poll day — highest of any Bengal district.
* On March 17, 30 live bombs were recovered from a field in Sekendra in Murshidabad district. In Malda, TMC leader Subodh Pramanik was arrested the same day for possessing Rs 3 crore worth of opium and bombs
* On Feb 15, two bike-borne assailants shot a TMC worker right outside Loreto School in Kolkata in broad daylight
* On Feb 5, a TMC factional fight saw leaders shooting each other with guns and hurling bombs in Birbhum. Same morning, 27 bombs were recovered from Rasulpur village in the district
* On Feb 1, at least 80 live bombs as well as bomb-making material were found at the house of TMC leader Saroj Ghosh in Birbhum
* On Jan 22, two people were killed in a blast at the home of TMC leader Jabir Hussain in Birbhum.
* On Dec 28, two were killed when a bomb exploded at an illegal warehouse in Malda. A relative of Nafozul Alam, a zonal president of the TMC, was among the injured. Hundred bombs recovered.