Ground Report: West Bengal: Fearful Raiganj Voters Don’t Know if They’ll Be Able to Vote
"Everyone is scared. I won't risk my life to go and vote.”
“It is not a question of who is winning or losing. Everyone is scared. I won’t risk my life to go and vote. But, voting is our basic right, it is really sad that the atmosphere has become so volatile. Last time, no one from my family could even vote in the municipality elections,” Jahar Lal Nath, a general store owner at Mohanbati Market in Raiganj constituency, says.
Raiganj is set to vote on April 18, in the second phase of the Lok Sabha polls. Villages, houses, busy market places in the town area — the flags of CPI (M), Trinamool, BJP and Congress are visible everywhere in the politically-charged district. The widespread violence during 2017 civic polls and last year’s panchayat elections is etched in the minds of voters of this constituency. They are frightened to talk about their political inclinations too.
On April 12, the residents of the town reportedly formed a kilometre-long human chain in support of the people’s right to vote without fear. An eighty-nine-year-old freedom fighter Rani Kar, who couldn’t vote in the civic polls because a miscreant hurled a bomb, was behind the initiative.
The local Trinamool leaders claim that violence during panchayat and civic polls isn’t a new feature in the state as it took place even during the Left party’s rule. Senior leader Tilak Chowdhury blamed the media and other parties for spreading “misinformation” and suggested that only Trinamool has enough members to deploy agents in 1623 booths of Raiganj. The Election Commission has decided to post forces at 80 per cent of over 5,000 booths in Raiganj, Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri where voting will be held during the second phase, after there were reports of voter intimidation in parts of Cooch Behar and Alipurduar on April 11.
Incumbent CPI(M) MP Mohammed Salim is pitted against Trinamool candidate Kanhaiyalal Agarwal, Congress’ Deepa Dasmunsi and BJP’s Deboshree Chaudhary. He beat Dasmunsi by a margin of 1,634 votes during the 2014 contest. The battle this time is between all the four parties as Salim is banking on his good image factor and infrastructural work done during his tenure. He has ensured 115.14 per cent utilisation of the MPLADS funds and has 85 per cent attendance in the 16th Lok Sabha.
Trinamool is highlighting the development that has taken place under Banerjee, BJP is trying to cash in on the Hindutva and nationalism angle and Munshi is promising to set up an AIIMS-like hospital which was her husband and former MP Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi’s dream.
The electorate eagerly want better connectivity with Kolkata, Siliguri and other places across the state. They are also demanding an AIIMS which they believe will make Raiganj a medical tourism hub besides providing good healthcare facility.
Railways and roads
Raiganj, around 400 kilometres away from Kolkata, is connected to the capital city by only one direct train. The local residents have a long-standing demand of another train.
In June 2018, Salim met Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and urged him to introduce another train for Kolkata and even requested him for stoppages of more express and mail trains at Dalkhola and Aluabari rail stations in order to ensure that people from Raiganj can access south-bound and north-bound trains. However, none of the demands were met. Local CPI(M) leaders suggest that floods in 2017 damaged the infrastructure otherwise new trains would have been introduced in the constituency.
The voters claim that Raiganj isn’t developed because connectivity with other areas is poor, unlike Siliguri. “We need more trains for both Kolkata and Siliguri. The roads remain blocked due to traffic jam in Dalkhola on the way to Siliguri. So, we cover a distance of 150 kilometres in three-four hours,” school teacher Sukumar Das says. CPI(M)’s North Dinajpur District Secretary Apurba Pal underlines that the Centre was reluctant yet Salim initiated construction of the Dalkhola bypass.
The locals also underline that political representatives should focus on creating better infrastructure and decongest several areas like Mohanbti Bus Stand, Line Bazar and Bidrohi Mor which remain witness to traffic jams on a daily basis.
The long-standing demand for an AIIMS
Former Congress MP Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi had promised to set up an AIIMS in his constituency before he went in a coma for nine years. “Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi has developed our area a lot. He has set a standard which any other leader in this constituency will struggle to meet. He built this railway station and even promised an AIIMS,” Bogram resident Ravikant Roy says.
On February 5, 2009 the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre had reportedly approved Rs 823 crore to set up the AIIMS-like hospital which would have had 960 beds and 39 speciality and super-speciality clinics at Raiganj. After assuming charge as the chief minister in 2012, Mamata Banerjee demanded the venue of the medical facility be shifted to Kalyani instead of Raiganj.
The Congress party had emphasized that Raiganj was an ideal destination for residents of North Bengal who don’t have access to good health facility, while Kalyani is closer to Kolkata. It was widely believed that Banerjee opposed the move as Raiganj was considered a Congress bastion. The then health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad had even said that the UPA government was ready to pay an estimated price of Rs 15 crore for the hospital as Trinamool government was not willing to co-operate and hand over land for free.
“For opening an AIIMS-like institute, first infrastructure, then education facility and connectivity is required. Unfortunately, there aren’t sufficient facilities in Raiganj. The decision taken by madam (Mamata Banerjee) is correct. She has opened the super speciality hospital and medical college in the district instead,” Trinamool’s Tilak Chowdhury says. Local residents say that this hospital cannot be a replacement for AIIMS as experienced specialists are not available at the former. “For heart ailments, for instance, we have to go to Siliguri, Kolkata or even to Chennai and Vellore. The super-speciality isn’t a replacement for the AIIMS,” retired government official Dipesh Singh, says.
The local CPI(M) leaders, however, point out that Banerjee can’t take credit for the super-specialty hospital and medical college. “The Union government has granted Rs 499 crore for setting up these colleges in districts where no such institutions existed before. While the Centre’s share is 60 per cent, the state has to bear 40 per cent recurring cost for salaries of teachers and staff. It is because of Salim that the medical college has opened in Raiganj. On what basis is Trinamool taking credit?” says CPI(M)’s Apurba Pal..
Senior Congress leader Pabitra Chanda blames the previous Left government as well as the current Mamata government for not granting land for the project. “If Deepa Dasmunsi is elected, we will definitely ensure that Raiganj gets an AIIMS. This dream was conceived by Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi,” he says.
BJP’s saffron politics
In 2018, two youths — Tapas Burman and Rajesh Sarkar — were shot dead in Islampur. The students were demanding the appointment of science teachers instead of Urdu teachers in their school. The BJP gave the issue a communal colour and has even made Burma’s house their office in Islampur.
“The Opposition parties are putting false charges on us. We are just trying to help people in need. Hindus, Muslims and Christians, all are same for us,” local BJP leader Jayanta Roy says. The party’s recent activities don’t validate his statement. On the occasion of Ram Navami, which was not celebrated with much fanfare in Bengal previously, the BJP took out huge rallies in the district. Raiganj BJP candidate Deboshree Chowdhury participated in a VHP-organised rally in Islampur.
“The RSS is increasingly trying to put a Hindutva ideology in the minds of Rajbongshis. They are trying to project themselves as a Hindu party. But, we believe that the communal politics of Modi will be rejected by the voters. Only Hindutva will not make them win elections,” Congress’ Pabitra Chanda says.
There are a total of 15.99 lakh voters in Raiganj. Muslims constitute a majority in the district with 49.92% population, while the Hindu population is 49.31%, according to the 2011 Census.
This time, the Muslims vote will be divided between the CPI (M), Congress and Trinamool. The saffron party is also eyeing a share of the minority votes. The Hindu votes are majorly divided between the Trinamool and BJP in the urban area, while the rural Hindu voters are divided between the four parties. In 2014, a major vote share of the CPI(M) and Congress went to the Trinamool whose share increased 17% from 2009. The BJP also saw a 14% increase in vote share.
The CPI (M) is mainly banking on its rural voters in Bindol, Bhotol, Mohinganj, Mohipur and Bahin villages. “Several young boys who were working as migrant labourers are also coming back to the villages to vote for the CPI(M). The CPI (M) supporters are loyal,” a local CPI (M) leader says.
Many people working in local sweet shops and cloth stores are also heading to their respective villages for a day to cast their votes. They hope to exercise their democratic rights peacefully this time.