Simmering tension in a West Bengal village split in two political halves erupted on Thursday night when a CPI(M) worker and a polling agent of the party were allegedly hacked to death by TMC supporters, hours after voting ended in the third phase of Assembly elections in the state.
According to police and residents of Lodhna village in the Khandaghosh Assembly constituency of Bardhaman, polling agent Sheikh Fazal Haque (56) and Dukhi Ram Dal (56) were attacked with lathis and iron rods as they were returning home at about 8 pm on Thursday.
The two were rushed to Burdwan Medical College and Hospital but died soon after, police said.
While both parties blamed each other for the clash that led to the killings, police officers traced the violence to a political upheaval in 2011 when the TMC made deep inroads into what had been a Left stronghold since 1942.
So much so, that Lodhna, on the banks of the Damodar river, has since split into two halves — Gainpara, comprising TMC sympathisers, and Metepara, which has stuck with the Left. Haque and Dal were from Metepara. Thursday’s attack took place on a narrow bridge connecting Gainpara and Metepara, said police.
“After an explosion, it seems Haque tried to flee but got entangled in some netting on the edge of a field and was killed there. Dal was chased for a while and then hacked,” said Sub-Inspector Mohammad Saifuddin, who was on duty in the area at the time of the incident.
One “live” bomb and residue from several exploded bombs were later recovered from the site, said police.
According to a senior police officer, tension escalated after CPI(M)’s sitting MLA Nabin Chandra Bag moved to the TMC last November and announced that he would be contesting the Assembly elections.
In 2011, the TMC had won 15 of the 25 Assembly seats from the district, with the Congress winning one and the Left Front taking eight. This time, with the Left-Congress alignment threatening to eat into the ruling party’s tally, the TMC has been desperate to retain control. While 40-year-old Bag bagged the TMC ticket this time, 30-year-old Asima Roy was the CPI(M) candidate from Khandaghosh, a reserved constituency.
“Here, politics isn’t something that ends with elections. The party high command has promised us that we will win in this election. So we are fighting for our party, doing what we can. This is a fight for survival. If TMC wins the elections, we will be killed,” said Bijoy Dal, the 35-year-old son of Dukhi Ram Dal.
“Violence is a way of life here,” said an officer at the Khandaghosh police station. “This village is notorious for its production of hand-made guns, bombs and fake gold coins. Earlier, when the Left was in power, such villages in Khandaghosh were impossible to enter,” he said, adding that three TMC workers were killed during clashes in the Khandaghosh area last June.
Most of the villagers at Lodhna — part of West Bengal’s rice belt — are descendants of sharecroppers who were given land in the 1970s as part of land reforms pioneered by the Left. “Being a CPI(M) worker in a village like this used to be a job in itself. It was something we could fall back on in case of emergencies. That changed with the TMC coming into power. So many people are now joining the TMC and voting for them,” said Mohammad Rafique, a 65-year-old farmer.
Family members of the two killed on Thursday and CPI(M) workers in the village alleged that Haque and Dal were returning home after polling when they were ambushed by over 100 TMC workers armed with knives, sticks, iron rods and bombs.
But police said the deaths were caused by clashes between both parties. “The CPI(M) workers tried to attack TMC workers but were ambushed instead. No arrests have been made. But we have detained four men and are questioning those who were present there. We will investigate the matter,” said Deputy Superintendent of Police D Bhattacharya.
But family members of the deceased alleged that police failed to heed repeated warnings of an impending attack by TMC supporters. “I had warned police that there would be violence. They are cooking up this story of us attacking them. The simple fact is we don’t have the kind of numbers anymore to pull off an attack. About a month ago, I was attacked and had my ribs fractured. The police did nothing,” alleged Dal.
TMC candidate Bag and the party’s block president Alok Majhi denied allegations of their workers’ involvement in the violence.
Describing the attack, SI Saifuddin said, “It was very dark… about a 100-odd men appeared with knives and bombs. Apart from me, there were five other personnel from the Central armed forces. We were hopelessly outnumbered. We tried to disperse them with a lathi-charge but couldn’t.”
What has added to the resentment among CPI(M) supporters in the village is the discovery of a “live” bomb from the site almost 20 hours after the attack. The bomb, weighing about 250 gm, was spotted by a TV journalist, said police.
“Even after we informed police about the bomb, it took them about another half an hour to remove it,” alleged Ayesha Begum, a local resident.
Said SI Saifuddin, “I checked the site myself and found nothing. It is possible the bomb may have been placed later by some mischievous elements.”