“Don’t get so worked up about bombs being used in Bengal elections. It’s part of our heritage and culture, like rosogolla, Rabindranath, Netaji and ilish maachh.” That was Anubrata Mondal, aka Keshto-da, the most talked about fighter-bomber and Birbhum district chief of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
Mondal, in a way, is right. While other elements of Bengal’s history – both recent and not-so-recent – have been discussed, bragged about and showcased to the point of boredom, the bomb has always been a loosely guarded secret. It protects and nurtures Bengal’s darkest secret – violent, mean and shallow politics.
Bomb has been rhyming with Bengal for quite some time. In fact, since the first awakening of nationalism and terrorist movements against the Raj in the latter half of the 19th century, bombs were the revolutionary’s main weapon. But the scene has changed. It has lost the lofty cause and become simply a tool to capture and retain power.
Now, both pro and anti-establishment forces rely on bombs. With splinters, they are lethal. Without them, they are scary. They serve as a cheap and convenient weapon for political parties to fight each other and, most important, scare away the interfering public.
Plus, its ingredients are cheap and available in open markets and it’s easy to mass-produce and carry and use, while guns and bullets are expensive. Charles Cocksam, a British police officer – who was posted in Calcutta during the early years of the 20th century – said, “A bullet is meant for one person – friend or foe, so to speak. But a bomb can hit as many as you want. And at no greater cost. That’s the logic.”
Bombs, even during the early years of terrorist movements, used to be manufactured in college labs – obviously, with blessings from nationalist professors. It was an expression of nationalism – although not of the drawing room variety.
The Naxalite movement of the 1970s – essentially a guerrilla uprising in Bengal – also relied on the power of bombs. One of the party members, a Chemistry professor in a Calcutta college, even taught his students to make the Molotov cocktail, a petrol bomb named after Russian communist leader Vycheslav Molotov and favoured by the Bolsheviks.
During each regime in Bengal -- ruled either by the Congress, or the Left Front, or the Trinamool Congress -- the strength to grab and stay in power came not from the barrel of the gun, but from the splinters of the bomb. Even recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at an election rally: “There is no industry in Bengal. The only one worth talking about is the industry of making bombs.”
Why have political activists – right from the pre-independence revolutionaries to Anubrata Mondal -- always favoured the innocent-looking bomb? Simple. Besides being cheap and easy to handle, one can get master bomb-makers in almost every district in Bengal. The driving forces: Tradition and obscene poverty.
Mondal said the most daring bomb makers came from the bordering district of Murshidabad. “Give them Rs 10,000 and they will do anything you want. They’re so poor that that much money is almost like a dream for them.” Even children are employed in bomb making, since they have nimbler fingers and nagging hunger to take care of.
Mondal’s own district, Birbhum, however, emerged as the main flash-point in the 2016 assembly elections. An HT team scoured the districts just before and during the elections to find out and meet the master bomb-makers, who make democracy tick in Bengal.
The team first went to a swanky office of a land developer, Ramesh (name changed), in Behala in the southern suburbs of Kolkata. Sitting in his uncomfortably cold office, 47-year-old Ramesh looked like any other self-educated small businessman. But a closer look revealed that the computer terminal in front of him is actually a CCTV screen, showing six picture windows, which he monitors through the day.
An alleged extortionist who now claims to be an angry young man -- Amitabh Bachchan style -- Ramesh is back after spending almost 11 years behind bars. He, however, doesn’t want to talk about the charges against him, only mumbles: “They were only some ‘half’ murders.”
Although he doesn’t admit to his involvement in the bomb-making industry doing a brisk business during the poll season, Ramesh briefed us on the world of the master bomb-maker. “There are areas where it functions like cottage industries, providing employment to both men and women. But they all have an ustad (master), who trains and engages them.”
Bhola (again name changed), Ramesh’s crony-cum-bodyguard, explained the most traditional bombs were the “lal-shada”. The name comes from the chemical ingredients,potassium nitrate and sulphur.
Bhola doesn’t know the names of the chemicals, but can guarantee the havoc they can wreak when combined with ball-bearings, nails and shards of glass and wrapped in simple jute strings.
He said, “The tighter the binding, the better the bomb. The splinters act like bullets when the bomb bursts. There are stingless varieties, too, to scare away people. During polls, bombs are better because they can hit a large number of people at one go. One bullet can get you only one body at a time and draw unnecessary attention.”
What’s more, in the narrow lanes and by-lanes of Kolkata, bombs can create the necessary impact on people’s minds. Not only political parties, but gang lords, too, use them for area domination.
Mohammad Islam, a Birbhum-based master, said, “In rural areas, if you want to storm an opposition village, you need bombs. If you want to defend your village, you need bombs. Since life in rural Bengal is centred on bombs, we have made it our profession.
“For instance, in Nanur area of Birbhum, where the ruling party factions are fighting a bloody battle every day since 2011, every village has stockpiles of bombs. They need them to survive and protect their land. Or else, both will be snatched away.”
The prices, although seem a little prohibitive, are always paid in hard cash. While it costs Rs 500 a piece in urban areas, the rural customers can get them at Rs 200 a piece. The lethal ones, however, may cost around Rs 1,000 a piece.
Ramesh said, “There is a system at work. Both makers and buyers are part of the system.” And that’s the reason why no one is ever arrested for making bombs. Sometimes, police arrest the masters on minor charges. “That’s absolute hogwash. For, the ruling party is always the biggest buyer” said Ramesh.
But how does the industry work? Sometimes, political bosses bring in experts from different areas and a deal is struck. The masters’ fees could be Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000, depending on the number of bombs to be made.
He said, “The client supplies raw materials and a safe place to work, where the maker and his men live and work. In urban areas, it can also be the terrace of a dilapidated building. This model is preferred by political bosses since carrying large consignments of bombs is risky.”
From Ramesh’s cool office, the HT team went to Mondal’s Birbhum district, somewhere in Nanur, about 170 km from Kolkata. Sitting in a field in a remote village, Rafique, a famous master and his gang looked quite proud of what they do. They know the role they play in Bengal’s power play.
Rafique calmly shows his products — crude bombs of the topmost quality. “It’s risky. Ideally, we should have a secluded place beside a pond so that if anything goes wrong, we can throw everything in the water. But we are generally given secluded houses to make bombs.”
He said the makers need to observe strict discipline. Match boxes, bidis and cigarettes are not allowed within a 40-feet radius of the workplace.
But in all this market dynamics, work ethics and standard operating procedures, what’s missing is the political romanticism and adventurism that bombs were once associated with. A state-level CPI(M) leader said on condition of anonymity: “During our student days, I have seen a student leader making bombs with a cigarette dangling from his lips.”
He said, “It was obviously bravado, but it was also a message that revolutionaries don’t care about their personal safety. It’s the bourgeois bhadrolok who is a coward and always careful. But now, I find Bengal’s political tool, however lethal it may be, has changed its character. It’s become a business – a petty bourgeois enterprise.”
Till the end of the Naxalite movement, the makers and users were the same – mostly college educated rebels. But now, a different breed of people has come up to make a living out of bombs. And those who use them are in the business of grabbing and retaining power – a more paying proposition.