DIBAKAR Mondal jumps over a 3-ft boundary wall at the back and disappears, within seconds of a car stopping outside a 10X12 ft mud hut in Mainan village in Magrahat 1, South 24 Parganas district, on 9 am, May 17. He returns 15 minutes and several phone calls later. A slender man of 30, dressed in a blue shirt and black trousers, nursing a gun wound in his leg, Dibakar smiles nervously, saying he had mistaken the occupants of the car for people who had been “threatening” him. “I thought they had come,” he says, entering the mud hut with cracked patches and a kuchcha roof, and turning on a television set.
The old TV, kept on a stool, was arranged by Dibakar recently to track developments since the violence-ridden panchayat poll process began in West Bengal. Dibakar is a candidate of the BJP, which is contesting all the three panchayat samitis in Lakshmikantpur, located 60 km from Kolkata. He was shot in the right leg when he refused to withdraw his nomination, and has been hiding out here since then along with nine others, all BJP supporters. With fields of grains and pulses spread all across and the lush-green growth around them, Mainan appears a picture of serenity. But tension is running high, and like Dibakar, other BJP candidates of this village have taken shelter in mud houses like the one he is occupying. In all, Magrahat 1 block had 11 BJP contestants in the panchayat polls.
South 24 Parganas district has 4,884 gram panchayat seats, of which elections were held on 3,058 seats, the remaining having been won ‘uncontested’ by the TMC. Between April 3, when the nomination process began, and May 14, there were several instances of violence, leaving more than 10 injured. Dibakar was shot on April 5, when he was leading a group of BJP workers to file nominations. Says BJP district president Abhijeet Das, “Dibakar was being threatened to withdraw his nomination. When he refused to do so, a group of TMC goons attacked him and he was shot from point blank range.”
Denying this, TMC local leader Subhasish Chakraborty says, “Losers always have some excuse or the other. The BJP as a party has no base in South 24 Parganas. As far as Dibakar’s bullet injury is concerned, it was a fallout of a group fight. They are unnecessarily blaming the TMC. People of Bengal are happy with us and hence they voted (for us).” Counting is on today at the Usthi Block Development Office, about 7 km from the hut he is in. But Dibakar says he doesn’t dare venture out to check.
Bijoy Bayen, 36, who is staying along with Dibakar, says he has picked up cooking since the job of feeding the party mates fell upon him. “I had no idea about cooking, but now that we are living like refugees, I have learnt,” says Bayen, who adds that he too has been threatened as he is a close aide of Dibakar’s. Dibakar, meanwhile, keeps switching between news channels, and making phone calls.
Around 8 am, TV channels start reporting that some panchayat poll results have come. Quickly, Dibakar turns the set off, and starts reading a Bengali newspaper from among the several lying around.
Dibakar explains that he is not too keen to know the results. “No one was allowed to vote here after 9 am (on polling day). It was all rigged, counting is just a formality.”
Shankar Mondal, 29, who has been listening to the conversation, says “it’s too scary” to contest on a ticket other than the TMC’s in West Bengal. “I have been hiding for several days for my survival. I keep moving from one house to another,” he says, just before stepping out to relieve himself after tying a handkerchief around his face.
Before he has his breakfast around 10 am — usually roti-sabzi — Dibakar offers prayers at the idols of lords Laxmi and Narayan he has placed in a corner. He picks up a party pamphlet lying on the floor, puts some prasad of “nakul dana (sweet makhana)” on it, and says some mantras. However, this daily puja routine, lasting him around 5 minutes, is disrupted when Dibakar gets a call on his mobile.
He answers the phone but keeps silent until he is sure it’s his family on the other side. They told him once again to “stay safe”, he says later. Hanging up the phone, Dibakar serves himself breakfast in an aluminum plate. Eating the food, he talks about how great a cook his wife is. “Not a day goes by without me eating fish and rice at home, but here we will have chingri maach (prawn) and rice after so many days for lunch today,” he says.
However, it’s not safe yet to return home, Dibakar adds. “My days start with a call to my family to find out if they are fine and end with sleepless nights.”
Breakfast done, he again decides to sit in front of the TV to get an update on the panchayat polls. The results of the Lakshmikantpur panchayat samitis come in around 2 pm. All the three seats go to the TMC. Dibakar shows no reaction, saying, “None of the opposition parties could station their polling agents in booths on election date. No one was allowed in the vicinity. People didn’t come to vote because there was continuous bombing in the area. The TMC took all the seats through rigging.”
Around noon, Dibakar’s friend Kali comes with his two-year-old son. As the friends play with him, for a while, tension seems to leave the hut. Meanwhile, the TV is on, updating the count. Of the 3,058 gram panchayat seats on which polls were held, the TMC eventually gets 2,034, the BJP 384. Of the 913 zilla parishad seats, elections were held on 579; 354 go to the TMC and only 15 to the BJP.
As the day draws to a close, a stoic Dibakar says, “I was threatened, received a bullet injury, but none of the top party leaders visited me. Now that everything is done… counting too has been completed… we are still running from one place to another to save our lives. Local goons of the ruling party are watching us. We are scared because they can easily outnumber us and attack.” However, Dibakar asserts, he won’t cow down. “I have been in active politics since 2016 and will not leave until the Lok Sabha elections of 2019.”