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regular-article-logo Saturday, 18 May 2024

'The memories haunt us': In Sitalkuchi, a shiver ahead of Lok Sabha elections

'The memories haunt us. Everything was going fine at the booth and suddenly there was a commotion and then we heard gunshots. People were rushing out of the school and then we found my brother lying on the ground in a pool of blood'

Main Uddin Chisti Cooch Behar Published 10.04.24, 05:37 AM
Amzad Hossain and Pinku Rahaman, the father and the younger brother of Maniruzzaman who lost his life in the CISF firing on April 10, 2021, at their house in Jorpatki village in Sitalkuchi.

Amzad Hossain and Pinku Rahaman, the father and the younger brother of Maniruzzaman who lost his life in the CISF firing on April 10, 2021, at their house in Jorpatki village in Sitalkuchi. Picture by Main Uddin Chisti.

Pinku Rahaman, 25, was leading a peaceful life with his two brothers, parents and sister-in-law at the family’s humble home in Sitalkuchi, around 55km from district headquarters Cooch Behar, till the summer of 2021.

His life, however, witnessed an unforeseen change since April 10, 2021, when a few CISF personnel opened fire in a polling booth during the Assembly elections after a group of locals allegedly attacked the polling centre to disturb the election process.

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The bullets killed Pinku’s brother, 31-year-old Maniruzzaman, and three of his neighbours.

“Not only did I lose my brother, but the bullets that were fired also changed so many things around me,” recounted Pinku.

“I am a migrant worker now and work in Mumbai as a mason. At times, I come home and spend some days with my family. Even during those vacations, I drive tractors here for some additional earnings. Life has become very difficult for us,” said the youth, while cleaning the martyrs’ column installed at Jorpatki village in memory of the four people who died in the firing three years ago.

The martyrs’ column raised by locals in memory of the four deceased at the Amtali MSK (Madhyamik Siksha Kendra) in Jorpatki village of Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar.

The martyrs’ column raised by locals in memory of the four deceased at the Amtali MSK (Madhyamik Siksha Kendra) in Jorpatki village of Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar. Main Uddin Chisti

As a mark of affection and respect to those who were killed during the fourth phase of the Assembly polls, the villagers will hold a small memorial service at the village on Wednesday on the third death anniversary of the quartet.

Recounting the incident that took away his son, who was working as a mason in Sikkim, Maniruzzaman’s father Amzad Hossain couldn’t stop himself from shedding tears while saying: “Maniruzzaman, my eldest son, was standing in the queue with others to cast his vote and suddenly he was hit by a bullet in his chest.... His death has shattered our family. He was the principal earning member of the family. He is lying in the grave now.”

The Sitalkuchi firing became a major political issue during the 2021 elections and many political observers had termed it an inflexion point in the polls in which the BJP, which was expecting to win over 200 seats and form the government in Bengal, faced a rout in the hands of Trinamul.

Immediately after the incident, chief minister Mamata Banerjee had rushed to Sitalkuchi and announced several measures for the bereaved families. Later, she also offered jobs of special home guards to one member of each family.

“My daughter-in-law got the job... But soon after, she left for her parents’ place. Two of my sons, who were much younger then, had to start working to take care of the family,” Amzad said.

The Amtali MSK (Madhyamik Siksha Kendra) — whose booth number was 5/126 for the 2021 Assembly elections — in Jorpatki village near Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar. The booth number has changed to 5/129 for the coming general election.

The Amtali MSK (Madhyamik Siksha Kendra) — whose booth number was 5/126 for the 2021 Assembly elections — in Jorpatki village near Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar. The booth number has changed to 5/129 for the coming general election. Main Uddin Chisti

Like Pinku, Jabed Ali Mian, the father of Nur Alam Mian — another youth who had died in the firing on the premises of the Amtali MSK (Madhyamik Siksha Kendra) — also had to leave his village in search of a living and ended up working at a brick kiln in Bihar.

“His daughter works as a special home guard but doesn’t earn enough to run the entire family,” said a neighbour.

With Eid approaching, most migrant workers, including Pinku and Javed, have returned to their villages for the celebrations, but they still get flashes of that fateful morning.

“The memories haunt us. Everything was going fine at the booth and suddenly there was a commotion and then we heard gunshots. People were rushing out of the school and then we found my brother lying on the ground in a pool of blood,” said Sahidul, the brother of Samiul Islam, who also died in the firing.

Jabed Ali said though the state government stood by the bereaved families, their lives changed forever.

“Nothing can compensate for the lost life of a young son.... But we have to carry on with our lives and that’s why I had to go out of the state in search of work,” he said.

Most members of the bereaved families admitted that lack of employment opportunities in the state added suffering to the misery as someone from the family had to leave Bengal in search of a living. They, however, unanimously agreed that their bigger worry was something else.

“We don’t know when we will get justice. The CISF jawans who killed our sons should be punished. Nothing has happened to them so far. On the other hand, the officer, who was posted in Cooch Behar as the SP (superintendent of police), is now trying his luck in politics,” said Jabed Ali.

He was referring to Debasish Dhar, a former IPS officer, who has been fielded by the BJP from Birbhum for the upcoming polls.

The fateful booth, a nondescript rural school, now bears a new serial number. In 2021, it was booth number 5/126 but this time because of certain changes, it has been renamed as 5/129.

Alijar Rahaman, a Trinamul leader in the area, said the booth number might change but the villagers can’t forget the horrific experience they had three years ago.

“The elections are only 10 days away (polls in Cooch Behar Lok Sabha seat will be held on April 19) and central forces will come again. Some villagers, especially the elderly and women, are apprehensive about going to the polling booths... We are reaching out to them assuring that everything will be fine,” he said.

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