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Bhangar agitators file nominations through WhatsApp in face of ‘TMC intimidation’

Residents of a dozen villages in Bhangar have been embroiled in a pitched battle against the ruling party, which is hell-bent on completing a power grid project in the region, since January 2017.

kolkata Updated: Apr 25, 2018 10:25 IST
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Trinamool,Whatsapp,Rural polls
Protesters stand in front of a vehicle burnt during the Bangar land agitation. Villagers have been demanding the scrapping of a power grid project in the region since early last year. (Samir Jana/HT Photo)

Technology came to the aid of nine land agitators from restive Bhangar, who were allegedly being prevented from filing nominations to the Bengal rural polls by Trinamool Congress workers over the last few weeks.

The nine managed to exercise their inalienable political right through WhatsApp on Monday.

Residents of a dozen villages in Bhangar have been embroiled in a pitched battle against the ruling party, which is hell-bent on completing a power grid project in the region, since January 2017. Consequently, the region has witnessed a number of clashes between villagers and Trinamool activists over the last one-and-a-half years.

Matters came to a head when some of the agitators decided to stand up to chief minister Mamata Banerjee by contesting the gram panchayat elections. The Trinamool Congress had won all 16 seats in Bhangar unopposed in the 2013 rural polls. To ensure a similarly impressive performance this time, party supporters allegedly put up blockades along all connecting roads to prevent agitators from leaving their villages to file nominations. Left with few options, the latter sent PDF versions of their nomination papers to the block development officer, joint-block development officer and sub-divisional officer through the social messaging platform on Monday afternoon.

They received a response the same night. “In compliance with the Hon’ble High Court order dated 23.04.2018 and the direction of the State Election Commissioner, WBSEC bearing no. 1201-SEC/1E-88/2017 received nomination papers of Entajul Khan and eight others of the Polerhat II gram panchayat under Bhangore-II development block today,” read a letter issued to the Bhangar agitators through Whatsapp. It was signed by the district panchayat and rural development officer in accordance with the order of the district magistrate, South 24-Parganas.

This mode of filing nominations for an electoral contest is novel in many ways. According to prevalent rules, nominations must be submitted in person at the office of the authority concerned.

The BJP had earlier made a legal appeal for e-filing of nominations, citing alleged violence and intimidation by Trinamool activists. Although the court turned down the plea, it directed the state election commission to extend the period of submitting nominations by a day.

On Monday, the high court directed the state election commission (SEC) to ensure that the 11 candidates from Bhangar were allowed to file their nominations – even if it meant extending the stipulated deadline. The court also asked the poll body to present a compliance report the following day.

“We informed the court that despite its previous order asking the SEC to extend the nomination submission date, potential contestants were still being prevented from reaching the designated government offices. When the court enquired about the status of nominations at Polerhat-II from the poll body, it found that only one nomination had been submitted for each of the 16 seats – meaning, uncontested victory for all. So it instructed the SEC to ensure that the 11 candidates were allowed to file their nominations,” said Sharmistha Chowdhury, one of the leaders of the agitation.

The problem, however, was far from solved. Candidates who visited government offices in person were still beaten up by alleged supporters of the ruling party. “Later that evening, election officials began making phone calls with requests that we submit our nominations. We said it wasn’t possible because the activists of the ruling party had laid siege to all government offices in the region. Only then did they send copies of the document informing us that the nomination papers sent over Whatsapp had been accepted,” said Alik Chakraborty, the main leader of the Bhangar agitation who is currently evading arrest.

However, it was still doubtful if the nominations – despite being acknowledged by the administration – would hold up to scrutiny at a later stage due to the candidates’ inability to produce documents as per the prescribed procedure. When Chowdhury expressed this concern before the court on Tuesday, it instructed the SEC to accept the nominations. The poll body’s representative in court agreed to comply.

The Bhangar agitation is spearheaded by the Jami, Jibon, Jibika, Poribesh O Bastutantra Rakha Committee. Although this body is primarily led by the CPI(ML) Red Star, an ultra-Left outfit, it has received the backing of the CPI(M) and the Congress.

A third party also came forward to hail the state poll body’s decision to accept electoral nominations filed through Whatsapp on Tuesday. “It’s a welcome development,” said BJP state president Dilip Ghosh. “We are also ready to file thousands of nominations by e-mail.”

But Arabul Islam, a former Trinamool Congress MLA from Bhangar, denied all charges of intimidation by party workers. “The agitators have created a reign of terror, becoming isolated from the local residents in the process. As they could not get people to contest for them, they created all this drama and pretended as if they were being prevented from filing nominations,” he said. “It’s their handiwork to malign us.”

Islam’s son, Hakimul, is the incumbent chief of the Polerhat II panchayat.

First Published: Apr 24, 2018 15:38 IST