The horrors that this little settlement in West Bengal have lived through are explanation enough for the CPM’s rout
PAPURY IS free again. And Jamal Sheikh, one of 3,000 odd residents of this village in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, can now cultivate his farmland without seeking permission from and ‘contributing’ to the coffers of the political party that had, for so long, been lording over the destinies of these hapless people. Jamal and his fellow villagers are happy, basking in the cheery afterglow of their victory—the overthrow of the tyrannical CPM—and savouring their ‘freedom’ after years of misery.
Papury, about 240 km northwest of Kolkata, is a microcosm of Bengal: decades of Marxist rule left it scarred and gasping before its desperate residents turned out in force to punish the CPM at the hustings. “We were at the end of our tether and couldn’t take the oppression anymore,” as 40-year-old Jamal says, “So we voted against the CPM and for change. After all, we had nothing to lose but our chains.”
Like most of Bengal, the village has a mixed population of Muslims and Hindus, many of them from socially disadvantaged groups, living in complete harmony. As with the rest of the state, the CPM rode to power here in the mid-1970s on the crest of an anti-Congress wave. For the first few years, Papury witnessed land reforms and empowerment of the poor and marginalised. But soon enough, the party started interfering in every aspect of people’s lives to establish a vice-like grip on social, cultural, religious, economic and all other activity. Dissent started being snuffed out, often brutally; people were beaten into submission by the infamous ‘Harmad Bahini’, a militia of sorts.
With such absolute power corrupting absolutely, many of the party’s local activists turned into extortionists. “The party started imposing illegal taxes. We had to pay a tax (about Rs 500 per bigha) before sowing and before harvesting. During my daughter’s wedding three years ago, I paid Rs 750 to the CPM for permission to throw a feast,” alleges Sheikh Sukur, 38, who owns four bighas of farmland. “No marriage could take place without the party local committee’s permission—they would even dictate who should be the bride or groom,” corroborates Samir Nayak. “I am a labourer and barely make ends meet,” adds Jamal, “But they would demand money arbitrarily. Two years ago, when I wanted to repair the leaking thatched roof of my small mud hut, the party demanded Rs 500, saying that if I had money to repair the roof, I had money to pay them as well. When I refused, their cadres beat me up. I had to ultimately pay Rs 300.”
Local CPM goons—villagers identify them as Jhantu Sheikh, Ananda, Ripon, Hafizul and Kalo—formed the dreaded ‘party machinery’ that would hold villagers in the thrall of terror. “As oppression increased, rebellion by some bold men started increasing and the party got harsher in suppressing dissent,” says Kajal Sheikh, who lost two of his brothers to the Harmad Bahini. His eldest brother, Sheikh Shanawaz, heads the Trinamool’s minority cell in Birbhum.
Or take the case of Mariam Bibi, widow of the tormented Bulu Sheikh who had started inching towards the Trinamool Congress. “He was warned for associating with the Trinamool,” she says, “He was attacked, forced to leave the village and allowed to return only after paying a fine of Rs 7,000. But he continued his association with Trinamool. About two years ago, CPM goons led by Jhantu Sheikh came and shot him at point blank range in front of us. He was dead by the time we took him to hospital.” Today, as a labourer, she can barely feed her family. But her suffering didn’t end there. The party extracted Rs 2,000 from her before she was allowed to cultivate a plot of farmland where Bulu was a sharecropper.
Rahim Khan, another sharecropper, also had to pay a very heavy price five months ago for attending a meeting convened by the Trinamool. “One morning in early January, CPM goons hurled country-made bombs on the thatched roof of my house. It caught fire and my mud house was gutted.
I couldn’t save anything,” says the old man. The party demanded Rs 3,000 for permission to repair the house and build a new roof!
These are the very people, the poor, whose ‘interests’ the CPM claims to protect. The story is no different when it comes to the treatment meted out to the socially disadvantaged among the majority. Ask Maruni Sardar, 58. “I was made to sign on a document for a housing loan of Rs 35,000 under
the Indira Awas Yojana. The loan was sanctioned and the money disbursed, but I didn’t get a single penny,” says the widow who lives in a six-by-eight foot mud hut whose walls look set to crumble this monsoon. Bhaduni Sardar, a blind woman of 69, was to have received Rs 10,000 when her husband died last year—‘below poverty line’ (BPL) families receive this sum when an earning member dies—but she was made to sign on the documents and then told her application had been rejected. Panchayat member Mohammad Alauddin, a CPM member who openly admits corruption among his cadres, claims that the compensation had been sanctioned, but never reached the poor woman.
The BPL list here, like in the rest of West Bengal, is yet another story of venal nepotism. “Only supporters and activists of the party, and they’re all well to do, have got BPL cards,” says Alauddin, “while the extremely poor who live in shacks are in the ‘above poverty line’ list.”
What’s worse, Papury has seen no development under CPM rule. “My comrades were only interested in making money. Lots of funds were siphoned off. I protested many times, but no one listened. I’ve dissociated myself from the party,” says a morose Shafiq Hossain, a senior member of the CPM’s local committee. He admits that the party patronised many criminals who plundered, raped, assaulted and killed villagers. Shaukat Ali, secretary of the Papury High Madrassa, was a CPM activist and member of the party’s ‘action squad’. “But I gradually realised what I was doing was wrong and severed all links with the party,” he confesses.
The tide started turning late last year. “A groundswell of support started building up in our favour,” says Trinamool’s Birbhum district chief Anubrata Mondal, “We started our organisational activity boldly in the face of assaults and murders by the CPM. The people, thus, gained courage and when the time came to cast their votes, they booted the CPM out.” According to him, the Marxist party could no longer rig the polls, thanks to his party’s ground support.
In many ways, Papury’s story is West Bengal’s story—that of a party that did the poor some good at first, but became tyrannical as its leaders and cadres grew venal and arrogant. It’s a story that thousands of voting machines have transmitted all the way to Delhi.