This is the first time that Sabira Bibi (20) is visiting her husband’s house in Bhangar, in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, after they got married six months ago. She didn’t really know her husband, Hafizul Mollah (28), too well. And now, she will never get the chance to know him. Mollah was killed on Friday, during a rally in support of nine candidates fielded by the villagers for the panchayat polls.
The villagers were allegedly attacked by TMC strongman and panchayat sabhapati Aribul Islam and his men with “bombs and bullets’’. Mollah was hit by a bullet on his upper lip. The bullet smashed through his teeth and exited from the back of his head. He was rushed to a private hospital in Rajarhat, where he was declared dead — the latest victim of poll-related violence in the state.
“I hadn’t visited my husband’s house because we were newly married and there was a lot of trouble in the area,’’ says Sabira. She was with her parents on Friday, when she received a call from her brother-in-law. “He first said that my husband had been shot, and then added that he had died,’’ she says.
On Friday night, her youngest brother-in-law, Shahidul Rehman (20), escorted her to Machibanga, her husband’s village, to a house plunged in grief. Machibhanga, a large village with a population of about 8,000, is the battleground of a bitter fight between villagers and the state government over a power plant. Three persons have been killed since the protests began in 2016. In January 2017, two youths, Alamgir Mollah and Mofizul Khan, died, allegedly in police firing, after protests took a violent turn. A few months later, in July 2017, a TMC panchayat samiti member, Ashikur Rehman, died during clashes between villagers and TMC workers.
While Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has said the plant will not be constructed without the villagers’ green signal, the trouble has continued. The solution, the villagers thought, was to contest the panchayat polls, win the panchayat, and wield power in their own hands.
After a tumultuous back-and-forth between the ruling TMC, opposition parties which alleged they had not been allowed to field candidates, and the Calcutta High Court, Friday was the first, and only, day when candidates could campaign before the elections are held on Monday.
“In the morning, the TMC took out a campaign rally. We were taking out our rally at 4 pm. We had informed the police and the administration. As we started gathering at 3.45 pm at Machibhanga, we could hear the sound of firing and bombs going off in the distance. By the time we got to Nutanhati Bazaar Chowk, we encountered Arabul Islam and dozens of his men. They started shooting at us and throwing bombs. There was complete chaos. Hafizul was right behind me. We were running, but Hafizul was hit by a bullet in the face. It took us half-an-hour to find a vehicle and rush him to Rizwani hospital in Rajarhat. By the time we got there, he had died,’’ says Hassan Mirza (37), spokesperson of Jomi, Jibika, Poribesh O Bastutantra Raksha Committee (JJPOBRC), an umbrella organisation of 16 villages that is protesting against the construction of the power plant.
While the JJPOBRC is made up of Bhangar villagers, the movement is spearheaded by members of CPI(ML) Red Star. Politburo member Alik Chakraborty, who is in hiding after cases under UAPA were slapped against him, is reported to be the movement’s leader.
Baruipur SP Arijit Sinha says Aribul Islam was arrested late on Friday night and sent to police custody for 10 days.
“With the arrest of Arabul Islam, our chief minister has shown that she is above party politics, and the administration follows the letter of the law. As far as the future is concerned, people should understand that electricity is required by the state and its residents. This is not a jomi andolan (land movement). People have taken money from the government for their land… Besides, there are a number of Maoists who live among them now and influence their decisions,” says TMC spokesperson and Education Minister Partha Chatterjee.
Hafizul Mollah’s eldest brother, Azizul Mollah (40), looks after a paddy field that the family owns, and also has a small pandal business. “I had just come back from decorating for an event in a nearby village and had sat down for a late lunch. It was 3 pm. Hafizul came to see me, ate a couple of cucumber slices from my plate and left for the rally. Within an hour, our younger brother, Shahidul, came and told me that Hafizul had been shot. We both ran to Natunhati but couldn’t reach the spot because of the bomb blasts. We later went to the hospital but he had already been declared dead,’’ he says.
While all the five brothers were involved in the protest, Hafizul was the most active. Shahidul Rehman, like Hafizul, is a tailor and an embroiderer. “Our demand is that apart from Arabul Islam, all the 35 people who were with him must be arrested, including his son and his brother. Our demand is that Arabul and his family should be hanged,’’ he says.
“We were all TMC supporters. But as soon as our needs are in opposition to the government, the chief minister can’t see her people anymore. She can only see her gaddi (chair) and the comfort of her gaddi. We will all be going to vote on Monday. It has become personal now,’’ he adds.