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Hush-money finger at party

Asansol, Aug. 3: The family of a contractor who died yesterday after a brawl with a Trinamul labour wing leader has alleged a local party official offered them Rs 5 lakh not to lodge a police complaint.

But the family did go to the police, who later yesterday arrested and slapped murder charges on Kedar Pal, secretary of the INTTUC-backed trade union at an Eastern Coalfields Limited mine.

“Local Trinamul leader Sandip Sarkar offered us Rs 5 lakh yesterday as compensation for my elder brother’s death and asked us not to lodge a police complaint and, instead, settle the matter amicably,” Anup, brother of deceased Ashim Mukherjee, said at the family’s home in Asansol town today.

Sarkar, Trinamul general secretary in Pandaveswar block, denied the allegation saying he had offered the family “financial aid” in his capacity as head of an association of local contractors enlisted with ECL.

Ashim, 36, was an electrical maintenance contractor with the Jambad opencast mine in Andal near Durgapur. Yesterday, he was kicked, punched and had his head banged repeatedly against a wall by Pal outside the mine gates, an eyewitness has said.

Anup has accused Pal of extorting money from Ashim for years, and then attacking him after he refused to pay any more. After Anup lodged a police complaint yesterday, Pal surrendered to Andal police under the INTTUC leadership’s instructions.

Sarkar said: “I offered some financial aid to the family after raising money from other contractors who are members of my association --- even though he (Ashim) was not a member --- but the family misinterpreted my gesture.”

A contractor who is a member of the Kenda Area ECL Contractors’ Association said on the condition of anonymity: “I’m not aware of any effort to raise money from the association’s members.”

A Durgapur court today remanded Pal to seven days’ police custody, an officer said. Pal’s lawyer Debabrata Sain said the police should have booked his client for culpable homicide rather than murder. “I moved for bail but it was rejected,” he said.

A local Trinamul leader has claimed Ashim suffered from “cardiac ailments” — which Anup denies — and collapsed from “chest pain during the argument”.

Pal has not been charged with extortion because, the police say, the family has failed to establish the extortion charge.

But several miners at Jambad said that Ashim was trying to bag the electrical maintenance contract for the mine’s expansion site and Pal was demanding a bribe to help him secure the deal.

“When Ashim refused, Pal began trying to disrupt his work at the mine and yesterday’s incident was the fallout,” said a miner who claimed to have been close to Ashim.

Anup alleged that Ashim had “become tired” of paying Pal, whose demands kept increasing.

“My brother had been an ECL-enlisted contractor for the past 12 years. He told us several times he was fed up with the increasing demands for money from Pal,” Anup said. Labour minister and Asansol leader Malay Ghatak, who has blamed the incident on “personal animosity” and denied any role by his party, visited the Mukherjee home this evening.

Anup said his mother had requested Ghatak to provide a government job to Ashim’s wife, and the minister had promised to convey the demand to the chief minister.

Hours earlier, a BJP team led by the party’s state vice-president, Subhas Sarkar, had met the family.

“We demand exemplary punishment for Kedar Pal. The ruling party has unleashed a reign of terror in this industrial belt,” Subhas said.

Ashim, a commerce graduate from Kulti Government College, ran an electrical maintenance and supply company, Industrial Service Centre, from the ground floor of his home.

His employee Kartik Dhibar, who accompanied Ashim to the mine yesterday, has said the scuffle was provoked by Pal’s men who objected to the duo parking their motorbike outside the mine’s gates.

Sunil Yadav, additional deputy commissioner of police, Asansol-Durgapur commissionerate, said Pal would be interrogated thoroughly in custody.

ECL has declined comment as the incident took place “outside the mine” and the coal major is “in no way linked with it”.

“We have nothing to say in this matter,” said Niladri Roy, general manager (technical), ECL.