Sixteen charred and ransacked vehicles, including auto-rickshaws, pick-up vans, small trucks and private cars, are lying abandoned near the BDO’s office in Bhangar II – signs of violence and arson that rocked the rural belt in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district a fortnight ago. Vandalised and gutted shops add to the scene at the ground adjacent to this office, which is popularly known as Bijoyganj Bazarer Math (Bijoyganj market ground).
Bhangar I and Bhangar II blocks, which have a total of 19 Panchayats, witnessed violent clashes between members of the ruling Trinamool Congress and Indian Secular Front (ISF) during the filing of nominations. Three persons were killed while half a dozen were shot at and scores were left injured. The nomination process is now over and central security forces are camping in the area, where protests have died down for the time being but there remains a simmering tension.
The panchayat elections in Bengal have been violent for decades. Even as reports of clashes from other districts continue to pour in, the violence in Bhangar was unique.
Gutted shops near the Bijoyganj market ground where violence broke out a fortnight ago. (News18)
Here, it is a turf war between two sections of Muslims – one belongs to the ruling TMC while the other is a disgruntled lot that jumped ship and joined the two-year-old ISF floated by a member of the Peerzada Siddiqui family of the state’s influential shrine – Furfura Sharif. Naushad Siddiqui won the Bhangar assembly seat, which is dominated by Muslims, in 2021.
TMC up against new player ISF
The South 24 Parganas district has 29 blocks. Of these, two are under the Bhangar assembly constituency. According to the final synoptic report of the state election commission (SEC), the district has 6,383 panchayat seats. The TMC has fielded candidates in all, while the BJP has fielded 2,951 candidates and CPI(M) are contesting 2,772 seats.
The ISF, which has an alliance with the CPI(M) at a local level, has fielded around 1,000 candidates, said Siddiqui. In Bhangar, there are close to 300 seats across 19 panchayats, where the ISF has fielded at least 90 candidates. The TMC had won all the 19 panchayats in 2018.
Naushad Siddiqui, Bhangar MLA and ISF leader, meets candidates at Furfura Shariff. (News18)
“We could field candidates in the panchayats in Bhangar I. Out of 82 seats, we fielded in two. In Bhangar II, we have fielded 170 candidates in 180 seats. Of the total, 82 were rejected on frivolous grounds. We have petitioned before the HC (high court) and the hearing is pending. (Chief minister) Mamata Banerjee is shaken because she can see her Muslim vote bank is slipping through cracks,” Siddiqui told News18.
“They have slapped at least five cases, including murder, attempted murder and cases under the Arms Act against me. My candidates were intimidated, arrested in false cases. Our worker was killed and five were shot. We are still struggling to register an FIR,” said the MLA of the newly formed party.
Allegations of corruption
At Shanpukur gram panchayat, where the TMC won all 13 seats, a massive section of voters joined the ISF. Muslim votes in south Bengal have always consolidated in favour of Mamata but in 2021, for the first time, the ISF – a new party – won in that area. Hence, a section of Muslim workers and TMC supporters defected to the ISF alleging “corruption” at a panchayat level, sanction of grants and scheme benefits.
Israil Mondal, a candidate of the ISF said, “We all were Trinamool workers and we used to worship Didi. But, we were deceived and deprived by the local party leaders and panchayat members. They used to put our details on the grant certificates, but the account number was of the panchayat member’s. We never received the government grant, the relief money after the Amphan cyclone. Any protest would earn us a criminal case. This is how we joined the ISF,” he said.
Senior TMC leaders are divided over the charges of corruption. Former MLA Sabyasachi Dutta and a senior leader in the area said: “I was given the charge of the area on June 17. I have spoken with the local residents and there are grievances. There are certain faults of some of our local leaders and we have identified them; corrective measures have been taken. Minority votes have always been with Didi (Mamata Banerjee) and they will again vote for Didi. They were aggrieved and they almost unwillingly voted for the ISF. They will come back to us.”
Addressing a press conference after the violence in the area, TMC state general secretary Kunal Ghosh had said the ISF was a front for the BJP, Congress and CPI(M). “The ISF is actively in touch with central leaders of BJP and they are acting as a plant to create confusion,” he had said.