| File picture of the ruins after a ration protesters’ attack on the CPM office in Burdwan’s Nababhat
The CPM will not recognise Ayub Sheikh and Dhanupada Das, ration protesters who fell to police bullets, as martyrs and place them alongside Nurul Islam and Ananda Hait, who had died in the food movement of 1966.
That’s not because Ayub and Dhanupada are Trinamul members. The CPM can’t fathom why they had to give their lives. Just as it can’t understand why villagers who have always come to it have chosen to act on their own this time.
Said Abdul Jabbar, a CPM local committee member: “In the 1966 food movement, people went berserk since there was no political party or administration that was responsive to their grievances. But now we’re here. Why did they have to turn violent'”
Leaders like Jabbar, of Nababhat near Burdwan town, who are not blind enough to dismiss the explosion of discontent as a conspiracy, have been left blinking at the attack on the party from poor people.
“I’m in politics for 45 years. I never imagined our leaders, including the MLA, would be beaten up. We are yet to figure out why it happened,” Jabbar said.
Jabbar knew Fakir Mohammad was “as corrupt as any other ration dealer”. Still he had tried — unsuccessfully — to persuade villagers not to take the law into their hands when they demanded a fine of Rs 15 lakh and free ration for six months from the dealer.
Nothing like the recent wave of attacks on ration dealers has happened in Bengal since the 1966 food riots when the communists were in the Opposition and the Congress was in power. The CPM can’t be expected to admit the reversal of roles but the language some of its leaders use to describe the protesters, “misguided people”, is straight out of the 1966 Congress lexicon.
Just as the party gropes for an answer to why the poor have turned away from it and at times against it, Suchana, Dhanupada’s widow, was also asking why.
“I never thought the CPM’s police would kill my husband just because villagers had fined the dealer who had admitted selling our quota of wheat in the black market.”
The family has never voted for any other party in a village where the panchayat has only one member who does not belong to the CPM.
Feeling “betrayed”, Dhanupada’s brother Sanat said: “We will not go to CPM processions and rallies any more.”
Sanat’s an-ger, still fresh from losing his brother, is natural. But the anger was widespread.
Asura Begum and her neighbour Meherun Bibi bristle at the party interfering when villagers at Nababhat, who have been denied rice and wheat for years and fobbed off with some sugar and kerosene, enforce their right.
“The party and panchayat leaders never bothered to en- sure our ration. Why is the party now po-king its nose'” asks Asura.
Villagers of Nababhat had beaten up CPM leaders and ransacked the party office after a CPM-led “peace procession” rescued Fakir Mohammad and prevented the dealer’s home and shop from being looted.
To Asura and Meherun — “all of us have been voting for the CPM for years” — it means their party is now defending those who have been cheating them.
Bengal CPM secretary Biman Bose’s call to “people’s resistance” has led the party to organise armed defence against attacks on ration dealers.
In Murshidabad, a CPM zonal committee member cocked his licensed gun to stop villagers marching to a dealer’s den, much like the landlords supporting the Congress in 1966.
“We cannot sit idle when our leaders and supporters are attacked by criminals belonging to the Opposition,” said Amal Halder, the party secretary for Burdwan.
“Criminal” is a charge that is difficult to sustain when the participants in protests against ration dealers themselves are frequently CPM supporters.
In Bankura’s Sonamukhi, the starting point for the ration rage, from elderly Bimalakanta Barui to student Tanmoy Barui, every villager said they supported the CPM.
Besides, ration dealers belonging to Opposition parties have also been attacked. But often the attacker and the attacked or the denied and the denier belong to the same party, simply because of the CPM’s ubiquitous presence in rural Bengal.
For instance, in Bankura’s Borjora, dealer Narayan Dutta was a party member. He and his son Rajib opened fire on villagers who had gathered in front of his house asking for rice and wheat.
The CPM is left asking why because it hadn’t seen it coming. Its rural leaders would also be holding the white cards issued to people above the poverty line, or APL. Still they didn’t know the local dealer was not selling rice and wheat to villagers.
Nirmal Mondal, the CPM branch committee secretary at Radhamohanpur in Sonamukhi, said he wasn’t aware that white card holders like him were not getting wheat. “My family never needed it.”
When Rs 350 a month is the income level beyond which everyone is APL, there will be white card holders and white card holders. Some wouldn’t know if rice was available and some would die because it wasn’t.