The children at the orphanage at Mahisda, in West Midnapore’s Keshpur, which witnessed bloody CPM-Trinamul clashes between 1998 and 2001. Picture by Samir Mondal
Raju Ruidas, age 15 or 16 years. The beginnings of a moustache line the upper lip of the wiry Class X student. For 10 years he has grown up in this orphanage deep inside Keshpur, a constituency synonymous with “turf war”.
The Mahisda Kishalay Kalyan Abas, patronised by the CPM and run by an NGO, was set up for the children of conflict. It is not strictly an orphanage though many of its inmates are orphans. The thin and fidgety Raju is one of its oldest residents. His father was a CPM activist in Keshpur’s Satsole village and was killed in a clash with supporters of the Jharkhand Party.
“I was brought here by maa,” he recalls. “I was too young to remember what exactly happened.”
Raju’s two elder sisters live in Satsole. The family is poor and could not support him. The volunteers in the orphanage say Raju is a reasonably good student. He says he finds English the most difficult of all the subjects but loves history and the social sciences.
Raju freezes when asked if he might be interested in politics like his father. Around him are the volunteers and fellow inmates. It is a long silence.
“I want to study,” he says finally after gentle but repeated prodding.
It is Raju’s last few months here. Children have to leave after Class X. Raju is too young to allow the thought of an uncertain future to weigh him down. But he says he is worried and does not know where he will go from here.
The orphanage in Mohisda, a clean village in the middle of paddy fields, is about 4km from the CPM office in Jamshed Ali Smriti Bhavan, named after a party leader who was killed at the spot on Keshpur’s main road in 1984.
Inside, Ahmed Ali, zonal committee secretary, and the party’s candidate, Rameswar Dolui, say the children in the orphanage come not only from “party families” but also from those that have been with the Trinamul Congress.
That is largely true. The backgrounds of the children paint a picture of violent conflict and grinding poverty, with the attendant lack of health care, in a region that today stretches from East Midnapore through West Midnapore’s Keshpur and Lalgarh right up to Belpahari near the border with Jharkhand.
| The CPM zonal office in Keshpur, which is now a Red bastion. Picture by Samir Mondal
Victor Santra, another Class X student, was left here by his father Sachidanand who could not afford to keep him home. His mother, Pushpa, could not be saved after being bitten by a snake.
Bibhash Pramanik, a Class III student from Keshpur’s Ghoshpur village, says he was left here “because I was very naughty”. Voluntary teacher Amit Bhattacharya says Bibhash’s family was too poor.
Subrata Santra, a Class VI student, says his father died of an electric shock. He used to assist an electrician.
Marshal Tudu, a spunky tribal boy with a runny nose and a loud voice, is a Class II student. He is from Akrasole near Lalgarh. His father Gopinath Tudu is a mason’s assistant, earning money occasionally, and mother Gurubari Tudu somehow keeps the household running. His village is crawling with the police one day and with Maoists on another.
Tarash Murmu, from Baishnabpur in Belpahari, a Class IV student, says his father brought him to Mohisda and told him: “At least here you will find something to eat every day and you might be able to study.”
Tarash says: “I don’t feel like going home now.”
Elections in Midnapore mean that the high school to which many of the students go is closed. The police —– some 600 companies from the central forces alone —– have moved in and are camping at the school. So it is haircutting day.
Volunteers Amit Bhattacharya, who teaches, and Biswanath Dolui, who is responsible for the food, had lined up the children in the morning and each of them took turns with a visiting barber. Lunch got delayed.
It costs about Rs 1,100 to support each student for a month at this boys-only hostel. Last year, because of a crunch, the grant from the state government was slashed. So the NGO had to find resources, by raising donations, to support 27 students. They have passed their exams and left.
So this year there are 27 students fewer. The hostel now has 83 boys.
The rising cost of conflict in Bengal’s outback takes a toll in more ways than can be measured. There was so much bloodletting in Keshpur between 1998 and 2001, till the Trinamul supporters were driven out, that even the CPM has had to set up an orphanage to provide a semblance of social security.
There are more applicants than the home can admit or afford. So, admission is based strictly on the recommendation of the panchayat pradhan who certifies if a family is deserving (for reasons of poverty or violence) of the privilege.
Such are the times, however, that even such basic help is becoming unaffordable in the state.
Yet, says CPM candidate Rameswar Dolui, Keshpur bucks the trend seen elsewhere in south Bengal, and the Left wins by record margins, because “people have been through the worst and now they want peace”.
In a region with 12 constituencies of West Midnapore that went to the polls on May 7, Keshpur is easily the most predictable. Dolui’s comrade, Ahmed Ali, the zonal committee secretary and district committee member of the party, says the Opposition may squeeze just one additional seat this time.
The score in the Assembly segments here in the 2009 parliamentary elections was 10-2, the two being seats in Kharagpur. In Sabang, the constituency of state Congress chief Manas Bhuniya, the Left had a lead of more than 6,000 votes but this time it is a tight call.
In Daspur, the Left risks losing a seat because delimitation has added a block where Trinamul had a lead.
In Keshpur, however, there is as much certainty for the CPM as there is for Trinamul in Nandigram. In 2009, the CPI’s Gurudas Dasgupta had a lead of more than 1.12 lakh votes from an electorate of 1.94 lakh. At a meeting in Midnapore town on Thursday, Mamata Banerjee remarked snidely that Keshpur may have more votes than it has voters.
Trinamul has not put up a candidate here knowing that the seat is unwinnable, and the Congress’s Rajani Dolui is contesting. Even if the CPM were to lose 30 per cent of the vote here, it will still win. It polled 83 per cent of the votes in 2009.
The reason is evident in a shanty town by the Kangsabati canal on the outskirts of Midnapore. The row of hutments that have come up here is called Keshpur Colony. Nearly 50 of the 200 households are oustees from Keshpur, driven out by the CPM because they are Trinamul supporters.
On Thursday afternoon, most of the men had gone to Mamata’s meeting in Midnapore. Koresha Bibi, whose husband Kabeel Mullick was arrested when he visited his village Sorshakhola in Keshpur a fortnight ago, said she chose not to go to the meeting “because we do not know what will happen on the way back”.
She said that even when one of her two daughters got married in Keshpur, she could not stay the night there for fear of an attack. Their house was ransacked and burnt.
In Keshpur Colony they are praying for a victory for Mamata. Then they may be able to return home, they hope. Homecomings in Keshpur can be painful. Ask Raju Ruidas, the youth with the hairline moustache in the orphanage, who does not want to go home. He just wants out.