Dalgaon (Jalpaiguri), Nov. 11: Tarakeshwar Lohar’s support among his men appears to have burned down with his house that took with it 19 lives last week.
“Yeh aur ek Gabbar ki kahani hai (This is the story of another Gabbar),” labourer Bishnu Kharia said, equating the union leader with the film baddie known for his ruthlessness. Bishnu is a member of what is called an “action group”, an outfit Lohar had set up to enforce his writ in the Dalgaon tea estate.
According to Bishnu, the former Citu leader had set up the group to fend for him. Comprising 80 youths willing to draw blood at a command of their “boss”, the group allegedly moved into wood smuggling, extortion, arson, rioting and murder.
“I feel terrible when I think of the past. Every (tea garden) labourer was against him. It is this group that used to do everything for him,” Bishnu said. Lohar was known to have taken up the cudgels for his colleagues when he started off as a labourer. He changed over the years.
“We paid a monthly subscription of Rs 15 each to maintain the action group and ensure our safety. If anybody opposed Lohar, either he would go missing or his body would be traced days later,” alleged Rajen Ekka, a senior labourer.
He added that they were also forced to buy lottery tickets and make donations during Durga puja and other occasions, if Lohar so wished.
Pratap Ekka, Lohar’s servant of eight years who served him without pay, said the action group members — from Dalgaon, other gardens and outsiders — were armed.
“Many people, mostly rowdies, used to come to his house. I have seen Chinese pistols, six-chamber revolvers, one shutter pipegun and even a rifle,” he said. “I had also founds cardboard boxes packed with bombs and sharp weapons everywhere in the house,” Pratap added.
As for his “free service”, Pratap said he was “forced to do my job without money. I used to get only lunch and dinner”. “I had stopped asking for money” after getting a “thrashing every time I asked for it”.
The grip of the “action group” on the labourers was so firm that even the district Citu and CPM found it tough to dislodge Lohar from his power perch. The most the party could do was expel him, two years ago.
Robin Rai, the secretary of the party’s Birpara-Madarihat zonal committee, admitted he had been to Lohar’s house the day of the torching. “I had asked him to stay calm. We were probing certain allegations against him,” he said.
Manik Sanyal, the Jalpaiguri secretary of Citu and CPM, agreed that the party had failed to launch an active campaign against Lohar. “We admit it was a fault on our part not campaigning against him.”
“We also admit that we could not spare enough time to look into such matters at the grassroots level. Instead, we needed to depend on local leaders. There has been some communication gap on our part,” Sanyal said. “It is hard to remove a person like Lohar, who is popular in the garden and operates through a new committee (apparently the alleged action group).”