Grassroot TMC leaders face cut-money blowback in West Bengal: ‘Can’t return home’https://indianexpress.com/article/india/west-bengal-trinamool-congress-workers-cut-money-blowback-mamata-banerjee-5809873/

Grassroot TMC leaders face cut-money blowback in West Bengal: ‘Can’t return home’

On June 18, with the BJP rapidly making inroads in West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked her party leaders to end the practice of “cut money” and return them to the people.

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TMC leader Pradip Chakraborty, wife Reena at a shelter arranged by the party in Mangalkot. (Express Photo: Ravik Bhattacharya)

On the night of June 23, Pradip Chakraborty, a block secretary of the Trinamool Congress, his wife Reena, their son, daughter-in-law and grandson fled their home at Mangalkot tehsil in Purba Bardhaman district to take shelter in a room inside a building provided by the party. “This is my home now. We are waiting for higher-ups in the party to tell us what to do. In my entire political career, I have never seen anything like this, it is spreading like wildfire,” says Chakraborty.

The 57-year-old is among the scores of Trinamool leaders at the grassroots on the run, hounded by residents in their villages to return the “cut money”, or illegal commissions, they had allegedly taken to “facilitate” the grant of central and state government schemes.

“That evening, the villagers surrounded our house, started pelting stones,” says Chakraborty, from Chanok village. His neighbour in the “party building” is Samiran Majhi, Trinamool booth head from the village, who is here with his wife and two daughters after fleeing their home on June 24.

On June 18, with the BJP rapidly making inroads in West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked her party leaders to end the practice of “cut money” and return them to the people.

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For leaders at the lowest rung of the TMC, especially in the districts of Bardhaman, Birbhum, Hooghly, Malda, Murshidabad, Coochbehar and Uttar Dinajpur, that was the beginning of the end. Many of them have since been forced to either return the “cut money” they had collected or submit in writing that they would do soon — or simply flee.

The Indian Express visited 12 villages in Bardhaman, Birbhum and Hooghly, where the backlash has been most visible. It found how “cut money”, which is a well-entrenched practice dating back to the Left rule, had become “institutionalised” over the years, with specific rates for various schemes. And how a spurt in collections has widened the faultlines, socially and politically, forcing the TMC government to open special cells to address grievances — it has received over 1,500 complaints since June 10 — and prevent the BJP from cashing in on the resentment.

Part II | TMC men’s cut money rate list: Rs 200 for last rites, Rs 25,000 for house

In the process, however, local TMC leaders and their families are finding themselves virtually on the streets. “Do you think my husband keeps the money? Everyone knows how it works, there are higher-ups in the party to be paid. This system has been going on for years. But no one is knocking on the doors of the big leaders who are part of the system,” says Champa Kha, wife of Gadadhar Kha, a Trinamool leader who fled his home at Jangal village in Mangalkot with his two sons last week.

It’s a claim that is vehemently denied by senior TMC leader from Bardhaman and MoS Micro Small and Medium Enterprises, Swapan Debnath. “I will not say anything on this. You can write whatever you want based on someone’s allegations. You are not showing the true picture of our leaders being harassed by people who are backed by the BJP,” he says.

The TMC has maintained that only “0.1 per cent of total public representatives” have “indulged in such activities, and action has been taken against them”. On the ground, however, posters in Murshidabad and Malda naming panchayat members, scrawls of ‘chor’ (thief) outside the houses of councillors in Uttar Dinajpur and the ransacked home of Chakraborty, tell a different story.

At Chanok village, residents allege that Chakraborty took money from them for the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Banglar Bari) housing scheme and Swachh Bharat (Nirmal Bangla) toilet initiative.

Part III: TMC cornered, BJP takes lead in tracking cut money agents

“They took Rs 5,000-Rs 10,000 each from 180 people in the area, promising them houses under Banglar Bari. Some people got the money to build houses but many didn’t get anything. For toilets under Nirmal Bangla, people paid Rs 500 but did not get any money for the toilet. When the Chief Minister asked them to return the money, we went to his (Chakraborty’s) house. Some pelted stones but nothing was stolen,” says Chandana Majhi of Chanok.

Chakraborty’s wife, Reena, who is a deputy pradhan, says her husband lodged an FIR naming 11 persons, and that no arrests have been made. But for police, the backlash over the last two weeks has been a nightmare in law and order.

“At least 81 people have been arrested in connection with 17 cases. They are all agitators and people who have been creating a law-and-order problem in the district,” says Shyam Singh, SP Birbhum. West Bengal IG (law and order) Gyanwant Singh did not respond to requests for comment from The Indian Express. “We are taking all steps but the situation is tense in these areas. We don’t want to escalate tensions,” says a senior police officer from Bardhaman.

According to former police officers and political observers, the practice of “cut money” for government services and schemes is not new. However, they say, the “system” got a boost after the TMC came to power in 2011 and launched a number of welfare schemes.

Amal Mukhopadhyay, former principal of Presidency College and a political science expert, describes the situation as a reaction to the “institutionalisation of cut money”. “Even during the Left Front rule, this menace was rampant. Today, you have to pay cut money to local thugs, who are members of the ruling party, for everything. This has percolated to the bottom,” he says.

“I don’t think the Chief Minister realised that the problem has become so deep. In a majority of areas, people are getting back their money. This is likely to enhance her image but at the cost of her party workers,” says Pankaj Dutta, a former IPS officer who retired as IGP (Railways) in Bengal.

At Jangal village, 5 km from Chakraborty’s home, Gadadhar Kha’s wife Champa says the family is “living in fear”, with no word from the party’s “higher-ups”.

“The villagers came four days ago and demanded money. They ransacked the house and threw stones at us. After my husband and two sons left, there’s just me and my 85-year-old mother-in-law. I don’t know what will happen. We cannot even go to the market. When we step out, people shout at us and ask for their money,” says Champa, 45.

‘Why did CM speak out publicly?’

Listen to Express Audio: TMC’s ‘cut money’ blowback

About 12 km away, in Jalpar village, Trinamool leader Bhagirath Kaibarta is not at home, either. His relatives claim that he promised to return the “cut money” in a “hearing” conducted by residents on June 23.

“He left home with his wife and children. If the Chief Minister had to speak on cut money, why did she do it publicly? She could have warned everyone in a closed-door meeting. Who doesn’t take cut money in the party? Now our lives have become hell,” says Bhagirath’s mother, Bhakti. Their three-storeyed house, with the top floor under construction, stands out in the village.

At Bardhaman town, 55 km from Mangalkot, Ananta Paul, whose wife Pompa is a former TMC councillor, claims that “residents backed by the BJP have started questioning councillors and local leaders about every project now”.

“I was beaten up by some supporters of BJP on the night of June 23 and the afternoon of June 24. They started asking about the money spent in beautification projects and the hearse I had bought, which is used in the locality. I used money from my own pocket to buy an old car and turn it into a hearse,” says Paul.

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At Suri in Birbhum, Trinamool booth committee chief Trilochan Mukherjee “returned cut money totalling Rs 2.46 lakh on June 26”, claim residents. “It was because of our pressure that he was forced to return the money,” says Somnath Mal, a resident. Mukherjee was unavailable for comment. He had fled his home soon after returning the money.