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Battle for north Bengal booms
‘Attack’ on Abu Hasem Malda rally

Mehtab Hossain, the CPM supporter who was shot thrice near Raiganj by suspected Trinamul activists. Picture by Nantu Dey

July 16: Union minister and Congress leader Abu Hasem Khan Chowdhury has alleged that gun-wielding and bomb-hurling assailants attacked his rally in Malda today. Hours earlier, a CPM leader was shot thrice in North Dinajpur.

Blamed for both the attacks, the Trinamul Congress denied the charges and termed the minister’s allegation “laughable”. Caught between the two, police blamed a dispute linked to a cricket match.

A common link in the flurry of charges is the places in question: north Bengal, swathes of which have been Congress bastions that has now come under attack by Trinamul that is seeking to crack open a region that was once out of bounds.

Trinamul has denied any role in the attacks but sources in the party said that the two incidents were meant to send “twin messages” to the Opposition parties ahead of the panchayat polls in the region. North Bengal goes to polls in the fourth phase on June 22 and the last phase on June 25.

The first message was for Raiganj, the stronghold of Congress MP and Mamata Banerjee-baiter Deepa Das Munshi, and second for Malda, known as the “fief” of the Khan Chowdhury family.

“We have made significant gains in north Bengal in the last two years that our party has been in power and we should now consolidate our position,” said a Trinamul leader. “It is time to prove that our writ runs across entire Bengal and not just in the south as many think.”

Around 1.30pm today, Abu Hasem, along with party members and the zilla parishad candidate of seat 34, Rishba Bibi, had reached Jadupur in Malda’s Kaliachak block when alleged Trinamul supporters attacked them, bursting bombs and opening fire.

Hamidur Sheikh, a ration dealer of Jadupur, said: “The rally had passed my shop and gone ahead when I heard bombs bursting and the sound of shooting. I instantly fled.”

So did Abu Hasem and the other Congress leaders. They got into their cars and sped away to Malda town.

“Trinamul activists attacked me and our party members in order to disrupt our campaign. Bombs were hurled at our rally in Jadupur and there was even shooting. We quickly left the area in our vehicles to save ourselves,” Abu Hasem told The Telegraph.

Police said the bombs were burst as part of a dispute between two groups during a cricket game in an adjoining field.

Trinamul minister Sabitri Mitra said Abu Hasem’s claims were “laughable”. “Trinamul was not involved in this. The Congress is making a big thing out of this because they are losing support in Malda,” she said.

Jadupur, which is not unfamiliar to strong-arm tactics, was till recently a stronghold of the Congress. So firm was the grip of the party that during the 2008 panchayat elections, not a single Left candidate could file nomination papers for the grams panchayat polls though the Left was in power at Writers’.

But the picture has changed since then — as is the case in some other parts of this district. Trinamul rules the roost in Jadupur now. So much so that in this panchayat election, only Trinamul candidates have filed their nominations for the Jadupur gram panchayat elections and the Congress has been forced to leave the seats uncontested.

“This shows how the mood is changing in Malda,” said state tourism minister Krishnendu Choudhury who switched from the Congress to the Trinamul and won a recent byelection. “Today the people are with Trinamul and the Khan Chowdhury family should realise that Malda is no longer their backyard.”

In Raiganj, the CPM alleged that Trinamul-backed goons had thrice shot at Mehtab Hossain, a party leader, while he was returning from campaigning.

In an FIR, the CPM said three “Trinamul-sheltered” criminals shot at Mehtab who has been admitted to Raiganj district hospital.

The CPM’s Raiganj zonal committee secretary, Aniruddha Bhowmick, said: “Trinamul is trying very hard to make its presence felt in North Dinajpur since it has a negligible support base here. In the Barua gram panchayat area, the CPM is strong so Mehtab was attacked.”

Congress sources said Trinamul might be targeting the entire north Bengal region but North Dinajpur holds a “special significance” because of the Deepa factor.

In the 2008 panchayat elections, the Trinamul had failed to win even a single zilla parishad seat from North Dinajpur. Of the 24 zilla parishad seats from this district (this year it has increased by two), the Congress had bagged 16 and the Left eight.

“This equation is what the Trinamul is trying desperately to alter. Hence, the terror tactics,” the Congress’ North Dinajpur district president Mohit Sengupta said.

In 2008, in Malda, too, Trinamul had drawn a blank. Of the 34 zilla parishad seats (this year it has increased by four), the Congress had won 18 seats, the Left 14 and the BJP and an Independent one each.

Some leaders both in the Congress and the Left concede in private that the picture may not be the same this year in north Bengal. They say that it was “possible” that the Trinamul may open its account in some districts.

A recent opinion poll by ABP Ananda-Nielsen among voters in the 17 poll bound districts revealed that Trinamul was widening its reach in north Bengal. According to the survey, Trinamul was decisively ahead in South Dinajpur and all set to give a tough fight in North Dinajpur and Malda.