Kotwali Darwaza on the India-Bangladesh border in Mahdipur viewed from the Bangladesh side. Mahdipur is in the Malda South Lok Sabha constituency
Mahdipur is a spectacular border-crossing. The drive to it from the Indian side is on a narrow but smooth road that winds through Malda’s famous mango orchards and the ruins of Gour, the capital said to have been founded by a democratically elected Buddhist king about 1,400 years ago.
To get to the zero-line, you go past the Lukochuri (hide-and-seek) Darwaza where a sultan and his wives played the titillating game and go through the Kotwali Darwaza. The Kotwali Darwaza is the ruin of a gateway about 700 years old, several times older than the two republics combined on either side of it.
One, Bangladesh, went into an acrimonious election in January this year and re-elected Sheikh Hasina in a poll boycotted by almost the entire Opposition. Four months later, India is in the middle of its own long election.
From the Bangladeshi side, the Kotwali Darwaza’s battlements bulge out from its east and west in arcs that make it look grander than it is. Atop the Darwaza is a picket of the Indian Border Security Force from where you spot the red sun-on-green-backdrop flag of Bangladesh.
The road rolls down easily into a little green valley and vanishes in a right turn. Trucks and lorries form a long queue. The Darwaza is narrow and has space for barely two heavy vehicles parked side by side.
Rocky Khan has despatched a few trucks through the gate. Rocky, who is in his early 30s, is the son of the CPM candidate for the Malda South Lok Sabha constituency, Abul Hasnat Khan.
A vastly experienced politician, Abul Hasnat was the MLA from Farakka from 1977 to 1996. He was also twice elected the MP for Jangipur before Pranab Mukherjee, now President of India, won the seat on a Congress ticket. Mukherjee’s son, Abhijit, is now contesting from there.
Rocky is in the party himself. He heads the CPM’s youth front, the DYFI, in Farakka and is also in the party’s branch committee. To earn his keep, Rocky runs a business transporting fly-ash from Farakka’s thermal power station, mostly to Assam but also a couple of times to Bangladesh. Fly-ash is in demand for cement and brick-making. Rocky wears a gold ring.
In the Farakka office of his party, he is alone at home, stretched out in his off-white track pants and striped brown T-shirt. His fair complexion is attention-grabbing. He introduces himself as his father’s son.
“I’ll tell you this personally: Muslims consider Congress a safer option; there is a certain fear about Modi,” he says above a whisper. In the Malda South constituency where his father is pitted against Abu Hashem Khan Choudhury, the sitting MP and minister of state for health, a majority of the voters — 70 per cent most say — are Muslim.
Malda South is one of the six in Bengal that the Congress is trying to retain. For decades, it has been probably the safest seat for the party in the state. Abu Barkat Ataur Ghani Khan Choudhury’s legacy continues to bestow favours on the party and his family eight years after he died.
Indeed, it may have even helped the Kotwalibari — the family residence — expand its power and pelf since the delimitation of parliamentary constituencies divided Malda into two. His niece and sitting MP Mausam Noor is contesting from Malda North.
“Malda is the land of Congress and Ghani Khan. I have also got so many projects, the Ghani Khan Choudhury Technical College, for example. People believe in our family,” Abu Hashem — known as Dalubabu — will say.
If Narendra Modi has whipped up a wave, it stops at Malda’s borders. The BJP has put up a candidate but he is forgettable here. Even so, Abu Hashem is confined, in a way, to Sujapur. The Sujapur Assembly segment — one of seven — has traditionally given the Congress the highest margins.
Known as the “chupchap” (tight-lipped) MP, Abu Hashem is not much in demand elsewhere. But reasons for the Congress’s nervousness lie in the defections from the party to the Trinamul Congress. His comfort factor lies in the legacy of his “Borda”, a legacy that even Trinamul is claiming with its candidate, Moazzem Hossain, saying he was “Barkatda’s” physician till his last days.
That Barkatda’s legacy — the development projects that put Malda on the map — should endure is not in itself so much of a surprise. In the land of Gour and the Kotwali Darwaza, 30 years can go by in the blink of an eye.
But Malda’s recent history also endures: failed promises of strengthening embankments, for instance.
Year after year floods swallow up village after village; year after year, Abu Hashem will say “if I get elected I will get more funds to strengthen the embankments” and year after year Bapi Sarkar, or someone from his family in Biharitola village in Manikchak, will curse politicians.
“They say they will do it and we are told money has been sanctioned but where does it go? Last year we lost half our land,” he says. He says that Abu Hashem will win. “But that is irrelevant,” Sarkar says. Malda knows its mind. It’s politics minuses the poor.
That is evident in Sujapur, the Assembly segment from which Abu Naser Khan Choudhury, another brother, is an MLA. The town is creaking under the weight of the trucks that roll down the broken road to Calcutta on National Highway 34. “Barkatda” was an MLA from Sujapur before he went to the Lok Sabha. There is no doubting which way Sujapur will vote.
But Sujapur’s perspective on the national elections is worth recording. Just outside the Congress office at a tea stall, Mohammed Afsar Ali, the “anchal” ( a cluster of panchayats) Congress vice-president, speaks to a group of about 30 people, all Muslim.
Afsar Ali was a labour contractor, he says, for the Bhola Sinh Jaiprakash Construction Company (BJCL) at Patan in Gujarat in 2002. They were working on the Narmada Main Canal project.
During the riots, he tells his listeners, “there was no police administration; the masjids were burnt, we had to hide, the houses were burnt”.
His unstated point: Modi will repeat a Gujarat in all of India. The audience is all ears.
Then he tells them that Sonia Gandhi will be visiting Sujapur. (She did so on Tuesday). They should all go to her public meeting. Later, he says, he expects more people to vote for the Congress this time because those who had left the party were returning to it to stall Modi. The appeal of the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Delhi, had also been heard.
In the sweet shop next to the party office, Maniruzzaman, 26, says “jaan’er toh khyal rakhte hobey” (we have to take care of our lives).
Despite its beautiful gateways, Malda South is a sealed border.
Malda South votes on April 24