Memories of Sitalkuchi firing haunt kin as Cooch Behar goes to polls on April 19 | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Memories of Sitalkuchi firing haunt kin as Cooch Behar goes to polls on April 19

Apr 09, 2024 04:52 PM IST

Four people were killed at a school during polling for the state assembly elections on April 10, 2021, at Sitalkuchi in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar

The mere sight of central armed police forces (CAPF) personnel patrolling the dusty village roads of Jorepatki in Sitalkuchi ahead of the Lok Sabha election in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar sends a chill down 25-year-old Pinku Rahaman’s spine. Rahman lost his four relatives, including his elder brother Maniruzzaman, in CAPF firing at a school during polling for the state assembly elections on April 10, 2021.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee with the  families of those killed in Sitalkuchi in 2021. (PTI/File)
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee with the  families of those killed in Sitalkuchi in 2021. (PTI/File)

“He [Maniruzzaman] was the only earning family member. He worked in Sikkim as a mason. We were left devastated. My father developed psychological problems and is bedridden now. My mother is still in shock. I had to take up work and now drive a tractor. Unlike other youth in the village, I cannot even leave the state to take up a job,” he said.

The state government gave 5 lakh compensation to Maniruzzaman’s widow and a home guard job. She has since cut off relations with her in-laws.

Rahman said the polling for Lok Sabha elections will be held in the same school compound, where his brother and three other relatives—Noor Alam, 21, Hamidul Miya, 28, Samiul Haque, 22, and Maniruzzaman, 31—were shot dead and it would be tough for him to vote. “I do not think my father and mother will go either.”

Hamidul’s uncle, Alijer Rahaman, said the deaths of four youths triggered a political storm but it all faded once the elections were over. “But it left deep scars. I do not know how the families will participate in the polling again and whether they will vote.”

Around 15 km from Jorepatki, Ananda Barman, a first-time voter, was shot dead on the same day during the political clash at Pathantuli after the polling started in 2021. Jibanananda, 23, Barman’s cousin, said his relative went out to vote but never returned. “His elder brother Gobinda was a known Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter. Ananda was shot dead by Trinamool Congress (TMC)-backed goons outside the polling booth,” said Jibananda as he arranged dry tobacco leaves in bundles sitting under the shade of their thatched hut.

Barman’s mother, Basanti, and his brother Gobinda have since left the village. They now stay in a rented house close to the Sitalkuchi police station. The state government gave the family a job on compensatory grounds.

Basanti said the memories of her son still haunt her. “He was my youngest son and just 18. He had returned to the village just a day before the polling to vote for the first time. How can I forget? I want his killers to be hanged. I do not know whether I will vote as I need to go to the same booth again where my son was killed,” said Basati over the phone.

Cooch Behar, once known for its royal heritage, palace, and as the late Jaipur royal Rajmata Gayatri Devi’s native place, has also come to be associated with political violence and clashes in places such as Dinhata, Sitalkuchi, and Sitai.

Mahendra Pramanik, a schoolteacher in Dinhata, said in the late 90s and early 2000s the tensions were primarily because of the militant group Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO). “After the KLO’s influence faded, the statehood agitation of the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association ( GCPA) gained momentum. In 2005, three policemen and two GCPA supporters were killed in a clash.”

Experts blamed caste and religion-based electoral politics for the violence. According to the 2011 census, the Scheduled Castes comprised over 50% of the district’s population. The Rajbongshis form a major chunk of this population. Hindus comprised 74% of the population and Muslims around one-fourth.

Panchanan Barma University (Cooch Behar) political science department head Kartick Das said more than the development issues, the politics in Cooch Behar revolves around caste and religion. “Political violence is nothing new here. It happened during the Left Front rule. It happened when TMC wrested the constituency for the first time in 2014 and it has become more conspicuous after the BJP made inroads in 2014. Political conflicts for supremacy are common here.”

Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, the sleepy town is again abuzz. Political flags and banners flutter on the roads and lanes. Graffiti can be seen on almost every wall. Every now and then, workers of political parties canvass using loudspeakers while in e-rickshaws. Meetings are normally held in the cooler evenings.

On March 19, a clash broke out between TMC and BJP workers in the presence of Udayan Guha, Bengal minister, and Union minister Nisith Pramanik at Dinhata. Days later, on March 31, a second clash broke out when Guha’s convoy was allegedly attacked in Dinhata.

“The situation is tense here. It has become a prestige fight between the BJP and the TMC. The TMC has fielded a candidate from the Rajbongshi community,” said Dhiren Barman, who runs a tea stall near the Cooch Behar palace.

Cooch Behar is set for a four-pronged contest. TMC has fielded Jagadish Chandra Basunia, a member of the assembly from Sitai, who is a retired schoolteacher. Pramanik is the BJP candidate. The Forward Bloc has nominated Nitish Chandra Roy while Piya Roy Chowdhury is the Congress candidate.

Debabrata Chaki, a local resident, said it is hard to win this seat without the backing of Rajbongshis. “Both the TMC and the BJP have tried to woo this community. While the BJP has sent Anant Rai ‘Maharaj’, chief of the GCPA to Rajya Sabha, Mamata Banerjee has set up a Rajbongshi Cultural and Development Board and opened Rajbongshi primary schools. It would be a tough fight this time.”

The BJP wrested the Cooch Behar seat for the first time in 2019 when Pramanik defeated TMC’s Paresh Adhikary by around 54,000 votes. The BJP won five of the seven Cooch Behar assembly segments despite TMC’s thumping victory in the 2021 state polls.

In the 2021 assembly polls, Pramanik was fielded from Dinhata against TMC’s Guha. The BJP leader won by just 57 votes. Guha won the Dinhata seat in a by-election later that year with a margin of 164000 votes, a record in Bengal’s history, dealing a blow to the BJP and Pramanik.

Guha said he does not see it as a personal fight. “It is a political battle. The party has given me a position, opportunities, and some responsibilities. I am doing my job. The people and the party have pinned their hopes and I am not going to leave an inch. I will do anything so as not to let them down.”

Pramanik, who could not be contacted despite repeated attempts, told a news channel that if he needed to protect the people and his party workers, he would do so on the ground. “For many, it is a battle. But I believe that it is the blessing of the people. It is the result of hard work and standing beside the people. If people shower their blessing we will achieve the target. This time we see that people are blessing us with both hands.”

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