Chopra, April 30: As our parrot green Maruti Omni stopped in front of the CPM office, the crowd grabbed at us, dragging us out of the car.
“Get these guys, they write nonsense,” someone screamed.
I and my photo-journalist colleague tried to explain to the mob — waving rusty swords, lathis and iron rods with many wearing a red bandana announcing proudly their political loyalty — that we were from the media.
It was the wrong thing to say. The sight of the ‘Press’ only fed the crowd’s hunger for violence as it sought revenge for this morning’s murder of a CPM leader in this small tea town over 500 km from Calcutta and 40 km from the subdivisional headquarters Islampur.
Akbar Ali, a district committee member of the CPM, was holding a meeting at the party office with other leaders when a group of alleged Congress activists launched an armed attack in continuation of a clash between the two sides that occurred last night.
Almost all the party leaders were hurt in the attack but the 49-year-old Ali — grievously injured — died on the road to North Bengal Medical College.
The incident triggered mob fury in this violence-prone border area as a crowd first gathered in front of the police outpost, which was holding alleged Congress activists responsible for the CPM office attack.
The mob wanted to lay its hands on the arrested group, including local Congress MLA Hamidur Rahman, forcing the police to open fire. Three CPM supporters died in the firing — one of them, Bijoy Roy, a candidate for the coming panchayat poll.
In the afternoon, as we approached Chopra driving down National Highway 31, a blockade stopped us around 14 km from the town. The windscreen of a car ahead of us was smashed as news of Ali’s death reached the crowd that had taken over the road. A CPM leader escorted us into Chopra and halted in front of the CPM office on the side of the highway. A violent mob milled about.
“Set fire to the Congress office,” a shout went up. The office, on the other side of the road, had already been ransacked. Now it was torched.
My colleague tried to take a picture, as did the journalist from the Aaj Tak channel. It was the spark that set the mob alight.
“Why aren’t you taking our leader’s (Ali) picture' Instead, you want to shoot this and point a finger at us' Beat them up…”
And the blows started raining, rods, lathis. We had become the target of people enraged by the murder of one of their own.
The assault continued for a few minutes until the mob snatched my colleague’s camera and the focus of fury shifted. The camera was thrown to the ground and smashed to pulp in no time.
“So, you’re going to write against us. How much will you write' We’ll finish you here. Lynch the cameraman.”
Three hundred yards to the west stands Chopra Girls’ High School. Kaveri Haldar, a young teacher of the school, had come down and recognised the Aaj Tak journalist as a friend of her brother. She rushed back to the school, crying: “They’re beating my friend, he’s a reporter.”
In minutes, led by headmistress Mallika Saha, a group of 10-12 teachers marched up, cordoned us off and started to escort us towards the school.
The crowd is pressing all around us. “Didimoni, leave them to us, we’ll take them to the party office. We’ll take care of them.”
My mobile rings. A colleague from Darjeeling is calling.
“These rascals have mobiles. Take them away. Give us the mobiles.”
The mobiles disappear.
Saha says: “You’ll have to return the mobiles.”
“We’ll see, didimoni.” (The mobiles did indeed come back.)
Escorted by the ladies, we walk towards the school, across the playground between the road and the building as Saha warns the crowd: “No one should enter the school premises.”
Saha leads us to her office, shuts the windows and door, asking five lady teachers to stand guard outside.
“You sit here, relax. No one will dare touch you.”
From 2 to 7, we are inside the room. In the darkness of the evening, we are escorted back to our cars by Saha and a CPM leader who turned up to say “sorry” and offer safety.
As we move towards the car, someone shouts: “Write the story truthfully, if you want to ever return to Chopra.”