The evocatively named Lal Jhamela Basti has a total of 812 adivasi voters, a history steeped in violence and a tradition of always voting for the Left. That last bit might change this year.
Like the rest of the Assembly segment, the alliance with the Congress is forcing the village to look for “options” other than the Left.
One of the many tribal villages in the Nagrakata Assembly segment, which goes to polls on April 17, Lal Jhamela is residence to tea plantation workers, forming the core constituent of the Left’s dominion in the tea belt. After holding the seat for nine years beginning 1962, the Congress gave away the constituency to the Left in 1971 elections. By the time it will reclaim the seat with support from the Trinamool Congress, 40 years had passed. Joseph Munda brought Congress back in power in 2011 elections, winning by a margin of less than one per cent, or 30 per cent of the total votes polled.
The story of how the village got its name is told and retold endlessly by the people: The settlement ended up here in the early 1970s after the state government, ruled by the Congress, took away lands of the adivasis and gave them to a private tea company. A bloody movement, supported by the CPM and spearheaded by two Left activists — Lal Somra Oraon and Jhamela Somra Oraon — followed. The families got back their lands and the village took upon the leaders’ name.
“I am still a member of the CPM. I was the local committee secretary and I headed the CITU-affiliated union for tea plantation workers. I have bled for the party, but I can’t bring myself to vote for this alliance. It is unholy and evil. It goes against everything we ever stood for,” says Lal, now in his eighties. Jhamela, on the other hand, is paralysed and cannot talk. His family members speak for him, and say that he will “still vote for the CPM”.
This, apparently, is the question that everyone in the village now seems to be struggling with — to vote for the Left, which would mean voting also for the Congress, or to vote for the Trinamool Congress, which many argue has “failed” tea plantation workers in the Dooars belt.
Sadho Oraon is the local schoolmaster and is one of the many who grew up listening to the tales of the Left and of the two leaders who gave their entire life to the village. Sadho explains that the village, primarily of tribals, still boats of diversity – the Nepali population lives alongside members of the Orao, Munda, Santhal and Turi tribes.
“Earlier, these two (Lal and Jhamela) used to tell us to vote for the CPM. They said, ‘we will have a school and we will have roads’. Today, we have those things. I studied and now teach in the school that the CPM built. So it is very difficult for us to not vote for the Left.”
A buoyant Trinamool Congress, meanwhile, is preparing for a “victory rally”. “We are confident we will win. There is simply no question about it,” said Sukra Munda, TMC candidate. But beneath this veneer of confidence lies his supporters “doubt”. “It’s unthinkable that places like Lal Jhamela will vote for us. But it’s happening. The Left has actually helped us greatly by allying with the Congress. The history of the Congress here has been bloody and unrepentant. We will capitalise on this,” said Amarnath Jha, Nagrakata TMC president.
Caught between the two, however, are also 12 first-time voters. “I am tired of Lal Jhamela’s history. That is all we have been reduced to — our past struggles. No one thinks about our future. If young people want work, we don’t go to Calcutta, we go to Bhutan,” said Shyam Oraon, who turned 18 a week ago.
Come May 19, the region’s dilemma will be clearer, at least in terms of whom the villagers will support moving forward.