Representational image. | Image Courtesy: TripAdvisor
Raidighi (W.Bengal): At an election meeting in the Sundarban heartland, south of Kolkata, the crowd is emotional. There are teary eyes even as clenched fists are raised. The speaker, Shamik Lahiri, is a CPI(M) leader from the area and what has brought tears in the eyes of the gathered fisherfolk is his call “Paanch Pir Badar Badar”. This mantra is what the local people chant when they are out on the sea and the weather becomes stormy. In Sundarbans, where different religions unite in a fighting spirit, and everyday struggles are intertwined with imbibed harmony, this chant symbolises – and unites – everybody. It invokes Panch Pir (the Five Holy Men) whose presence is visible everywhere.
The meeting acquires new a dimension as people interact with the speakers, and the atmosphere is poignant. There are references to stories and folklore, starting from Manasha to Dakhshin Rai, the traditional deity of Sundarban people and Boro Gaji, and of course, Ghazi Pir. The communal amity of the region where Hindu and Muslim fisherfolk have lived next to each other for centuries is mentioned repeatedly. When CPI(M) State secretary Suryakant Mishra warns against the brewing communalism in Bengal, and that fighting the Sangh Parivar is impossible without fighting the TMC (Trinamool Congress), the heads of all those gathered nod in unison.
“The wheel is turning, though slowly, but steadily”, says Kanti Ganguly, former Left Front minister and an architect of the communication revolution in the Sundarbans, which draws cheers from the gathering.
The archipelago situated in the southernmost part of the Gangetic basin extends between two rivers— Hooghly in the west, in West Bengal, India, and Meghna in the east, in Bangladesh. The Sundarbans in India spans two districts in West Bengal—North and South 24 Parganas —covering 19 blocks and an area of 9,630 sq km, of which almost half is forested. There are 102 islands in the Indian Sundarbans, of which 54 are inhabited and the rest are notified as reserve forests.
What is less known is that about 4.44 million people live in the Sundarbans also called Deepanchal (archipelago) in Bengali. Segments from four Lok Sabha constituencies are situated in the Sundarbans area -- Bashirhaat, Mathurapur, Joynagar and part of Diamond Harbour. In the Mathurapur Lok Sabha seat, the CPI(M) had lost last time but it got 4,91,000 votes, the highest in any seat in the state, in 2014 elections.
Mathurapur is one of the economically poorest Lok Sabha segment in the State, with monthly per capita expenditure as low as Rs 1342.7 and an institutional birth rate of just 52%, which means nearly 48% deliveries are done at home. Even this 52% rate has been achieved after the construction of nearly 35 bridges in the Sundarbans by the Sundarban Development Department when the Left Front was in power and Kanti Ganguly was the minister concerned.
“The fire of riots is advancing,” a visibly distraught Abdul Khalek or “Khalek Mian” as he is known in this area, told us. Deeply religious but fiercely with the Left, to him Marxism prophesies love and enlightenment, like his religion Islam.
Khalek, who regularly travels to Raidighi with his fish catch, told us that at least 19 ashrams of the Rashtriya Swayamasevak Sangh have sprung up in the area in the last five years, under TMC rule. He said in Bashirhat, the communal divide has already taken place. He alleged an unholy alliance between the Choto Phool and Boro Phool (small flower and big flower) – referring to the election symbols of TMC and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), respectively. He says that in exchange of Diamond Harbour where chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew is fighting, the TMC is on a “go slow” in Mathurapur. Indeed, other people at the meeting in Raidighi could not recall last when a meeting of the TMC was held in the area.
“Do you know that there is gossip all over that the Mathurapur TMC candidate, 81-year Choudhary Mohan Jatua, (two-time MP and former IPS officer), is working according to this gameplan,”says Khalek.
Sarat Halder, the young CPI(M) candidate, and a popular ‘peoples’ doctor’ in the Sundarbans, is pitted against hardcore RSS functionary Shyamaprasd Halder. People say that over 50 RSS centres in Mathurapur seat have earmarked their zone of influence and a list of pracharaks designated for running the campaign.
Raidighi has seen extreme violenc e against CPI(M) cadre. In Lalpur, CPI(M) local committee secretary Salauddin Halder was killed on March 23, 2017. The former panchayat pradhan of Lalpur Gram Panchayat was killed by TMC hooligans and the killer is still roaming free, CPI(M) leaders alleged. However of late, TMC violence has caused a dip in its popularity and the BJP is trying to fill the void by communalising the resentment against TMC by portraying the violence as ‘communal incidents’, CPI(M) leader Samya Ganguly alleged. “In spite of CPI(M)’s repeated requests, not a single police camp has been set up in the violence prone area till now”, he added.
Here, time and again, the name of one Palash Rana, cropped up in every conversation. The businessman, who owns more than 100 tippers and about 80 trawlers, allegedly runs a smuggling network of clothing from Gujarat and western India, which goes to Bangladesh via the riverine route in Sunderbans, and then smuggles betelnut back into India. He is allegedly the real remote control of terror in the area, all most all the residents we interviewed, unequivocally told us. In this election, his network is presumably favouring the BJP, many argued.
But there is hope now in Deepanchal. The spirit visible in Raidighi’s meeting is rippling through the forests and islands. People await for polling day on May 19.