In violence-hit Bhangar, TMC wins majority of panchayat seats without contest

In violence-hit Bhangar, TMC wins majority of panchayat seats without contest

In violence-hit Bhangar, TMC wins majority of panchayat seats without contest

A wary TMC allegedly used threat and force to stop opposition candidates from filing nomination papers, in a bid to pave way for uncontested poll wins at Bhangar in South 24 Parganas 

Kolkata, West Bengal: When I reached out to my local contacts in Kolkata about heading to Bhangar in South 24 Parganas district to cover the July 8 panchayat elections, they cautioned me against venturing alone. “One of our people will come with you,” they said.

It made sense since the area is remote and not particularly well-connected, despite being close to the New Town of state capital Kolkata. Also, the place happens to be most affected by violence in the run-up to the polls, recording at least three deaths.

There have been reports of violence in Bhangar ever since the poll process began. However, the most widespread violence took place on June 15, the last day of filing nomination papers. Explosives were hurled, vehicles set afire in Vijayganj market and people were shot at in the incident. According to media reports, a supporter each of the Indian Secular Front (ISF), a relatively new political party, and the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) died in the clash.

On what culminated in the violence, ISF district president MD Abdul Malik Mollah alleged that the TMC supporters blocked the road in front of the Block Development Office in Bhangar Block-2 in a bid to prevent the ISF candidates from filing nomination papers. “TMC MLA Saokat Molla gathered outsiders to stop us. When our candidates still managed to enter the office, explosives and stones were hurled at them. Our party worker Moinuddin Mollah (30) was killed in the incident.”

Saokat Molla, the MLA from Canning Purba constituency and TMC in-charge for Bhangar, claimed that his party lost two workers, Rashid Mollah and Raju Naskar, in the incident. “Another 21 supporters suffered bullet injuries and are under treatment,” he said.

Responding to the allegations of outsiders thronging the place, Saokat said, "It was not us. They brought supporters and goons from outside, and we complained to both the police and State Election Commission."

South 24 Parganas, Murshidabad, Uttar Dinajpur and Cooch Behar recorded more clashes during the days of filing of nomination papers. At least 10 people died in alleged political violence within 15 days of the announcement of poll dates on June 8.

However, after the completion of the nomination process on June 15, the State Election Commission said in a statement that no one has died in political violence in the state since the poll announcement. The statement was based on a report from the state police.

For representation purposes only (Photo - Flickr/Ben Sutherland)

Asked about the prevailing situation in the run-up to the polls, BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari had said, "The situation is horrible. The central forces were not properly used, and the State Election Commission and the ruling TMC tried to mislead the people.”

Changing political dynamics

The Indian Secular Front, formed in 2021, is the main opposition party in Bhangar area. Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) is also an important player in Bhangar, but the Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are less influential. As part of a pre-poll arrangement, the CPM and Congress have allied with ISF. 

“The ISF’s hooliganism prevails in Bhangar as it gets support from other parties. It works with the Left and Congress, and the BJP offers tacit support as 30% of the voters are Hindus,” claimed Saokat.

Kolkata's senior journalist Ajay Vidyarthi told 101Reporters that Muslims constituted 67% of Bhangar’s population. Naushad Siddiqui (30), the ISF’s lone MLA in the state representing Bhangar, is the great-grandson of Mohammad Abu Bakr Siddique, whose mazar (holy shrine) in Furfura Sharif village in Hooghly district attracts thousands of devotees.

“Siddiqui and family exercise influence over a large section of Bengali Muslims who are seen as a safe vote bank. His growing influence on the community is a matter of concern for the TMC, which is one of the reasons for the heightened conflicts," Vidyarthi assessed.

The Aam Aadmi Party is also emerging in the region and has influence over Muslims in many areas of West Bengal, which is also seen as a political challenge to the TMC.

Ahirul Haque, a member of the CPM Bhangar-2 area committee and resident of Chalta Bediya village panchayat (Photo - Rahul Singh, 101Reporters)

The changing political dynamics have put the TMC in a spot, so much so that it counts on intimidation as an effective tool to garner votes. “The TMC has a monopoly here. I am sure if there is a fair election, it will lose. The party workers do not allow other candidates to file papers to ensure that more TMC candidates are chosen as panchayat members and heads. The Opposition parties have also alleged that their candidatures were rejected citing ‘errors’,” Ahirul Haque (44), a member of the CPM Bhangar-2 area committee and resident of Chalta Bediya village panchayat, told 101Reporters.

Recalling how the TMC men haunted him during the 2021 Assembly polls, he said, “They pelted stones on my house as I refused to join their party.” 

The game of no-contest

The coercion is evident in the way many seats have gone to the TMC uncontested here in this election, despite the rest of the state bucking this trend. Bhangar-2 has 218 village panchayat, 30 block panchayat and three district council seats. Out of these, TMC recorded unopposed wins in 130 gram panchayat seats and 14 block panchayat seats (guaranteeing it the block panchayat chairman post). In fact, Abdul Malik Mollah said that nominations of 82 ISF and 19 CPM panchayat member candidates were cancelled in this block alone, citing mistakes in their poll papers. 

Indian Secular Front district president MD Abdul Malik Mollah (Photo - Rahul Singh, 101Reporters) 

The numbers in Bhangar-1 are even more stark. The Opposition has fielded no candidates in any of the block panchayat and district council seats. Thus, the TMC grabbed all 27 block panchayat and two district council seats. Bhangar-1 has nine village panchayats with 223 panchayat member seats. Only two went to polls, the rest of the 221 seats went to the TMC uncontested. No other party has won unopposed from any of the seats here.

While uncontested wins may show the acceptability and influence of the TMC, it also may indicate that the candidates of other parties were either afraid of entering the fray or were prevented from doing so. The fact that candidates have to move the court to get permission for security arrangements before filing poll papers, tells a lot about the state of affairs in West Bengal. 

Curiously, this 'clean sweep' in the block is an anomaly, and way above the state average where only 9.5% of the seats were won uncontested. In the previous panchayat elections in 2018, however, 34% of the seats were won uncontested, most by the TMC. Observers have noted that TMC has consciously toned down its heavy-handed suppression of the democratic process this time, as it is believed to have cost it the Lok Sabha elections the following year. 

Violent redux in Bhangar on polling day

Over two lakh candidates competed in 73,887 seats in the single-phase panchayat elections on July 8, with 5.67 crore voters deciding their fate. At the time of publishing this story, as many as 15 deaths in election-related violence on polling day have been reported in the state. The voter turnout this time was 66.28%. The counting of votes will take place on July 11.

As the polling progressed on July 8, one suspected death due to head injuries in a bomb attack was reported from Phul Malancha polling station in South 24 Parganas. In another incident, two children suffered injuries when they picked up a crude bomb, mistaking it for a ball, at Kashipur in Bhangar. The injured siblings were admitted to a hospital in Kolkata. The area had seen ISF-TMC clashes late on July 7.   

In Murshidabad, voting was halted after a clash erupted between the BJP and TMC workers. In Cooch Behar’s Dinhata, ballot boxes were vandalised and ballot papers set afire. Locals destroyed a ballot box in Baranachina alleging bogus voting. The TMC, meanwhile, alleged that the pradhan (panchayat chief) of Bidyanandpur was brutally attacked by the Congress workers.

Cover photo - Explosives were hurled, vehicles set afire and two people died in Bhangar in the widespread violence that took place on June 15, the last day of filing nomination papers (Photo - Rahul Singh, 101Reporters)

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