Update: After this story was published, news channels aired multiple videos purportedly from Booth No 126. One video shows a group of villagers, men and women, standing near the polling station carrying sticks. The situation appears tense but there’s no mob attacking the forces. In fact, some men with sticks are standing outside the booth and talking to the police. Some policemen gesture at them with their batons to step away from the polling station.
At one point, policemen can be seen watching as personnel purportedly from central forces charge towards the polling booth. Then gunshots are heard, there’s commotion, and villagers storm the booth.
Newslaundry hasn’t been able to verify the authenticity of the videos yet.
There’s seething anger against the media at Jorpatki village in Bengal’s Sitalkuchi assembly constituency in Cooch Behar. Here, four men were killed in by the Central Industrial Security Force on April 10 and their families have an alarming allegation to make: that the Kendra Vahini, meaning central forces, shot at villagers lined up to vote at Booth 126, without reason. There was no mob that attacked the CISF as media reports have claimed, they say. And their allegations have gone mostly unreported so far.
Newslaundry spoke to five eyewitnesses to the firing, family members and neighbours of the slain men and several other villagers. Their recollections of what happened at Booth 126 during polling in the fourth phase of the Bengal election are consistent. “The media is showing lies” is the common refrain. Booth 126 has just about 900 voters and the majority of them are Muslim.
‘Came, shot and left’
On polling day, rumours of a child being beaten up by central forces led to a mob surrounding the booth, leading to the CISF firing and the killings. This is the official version. “The action on part of the force personnel was in self-defence after the crowd attacked the polling booth and officers. There is no doubt about that,” CISF’s chief spokesperson DIG Anil Pandey told Newslaundry.
The villagers, however, say Jorpatki saw two separate incidents of violence that morning. At around 9 am, they claim, a boy who was playing at Kazi Mod, a crossroad near the polling booth, was roughed up by the central forces. Seeing this, men and women, two dozen or so, surrounded the forces. This led to the forces firing in the air, but the tempers cooled down and the forces drove the child to nearby Mathabhanga hospital.
The situation had normalised and they were peacefully voting, the villagers say, when, close to 10 am, two vehicles arrived at Booth 126. “Men in uniform got out of the car and approached the booth. They hit one of the boys standing in the line as soon as they entered the polling area. He was a young boy who had come to vote,” recalls Makshidul Miyan, 40, a migrant labourer whose work takes him to Delhi, Bihar and Nepal.
In a moment, there was firing. “One man standing in my line got shot, there were four people between me and him. I escaped through this narrow alley,” Makshidul claims, pointing to a gap between two classrooms of the school that doubled up as the voting booth. He never got to vote.
Makshidul, like most villagers we spoke with, could not say which of the central forces arrived in the vehicles, and allegedly shot at the voters. They can only distinguish between men in police uniform and those in an “army-like uniform” they commonly refer to as Kendra Vahini.
The Election Commission’s special police observer, though, has maintained that it was the CISF who had to open fire to defend against a violent mob.
There was no mob, violent or otherwise, the villagers insist. “I have been saying this to the media for two days, but no one is showing what really happened,” complains Zamiul Hoque, 31, who was injured in the firing and is now being treated in the Mathabhanga hospital.
Zamiul has metal pins in one of his legs, put in about a decade ago to fix a fracture that he had suffered in a truck accident. “I walk very slowly because of my injury. I cannot walk even properly, do you think I would go to the booth to create a ruckus? I have been sitting home 10 years. When I cast my vote and came out of the booth, I saw two cars come and stop outside the polling area. They approached and shot at the line of voters.”
Zamiul’s cousin was one of the four men killed.
The ‘bad boys’
The BJP’s chief in Bengal, Dilip Ghosh, has the men killed by the CISF as “bad boys”, and declared that such people will not remain if his party takes power. Fellow BJP leader Rahul Sinha has that the CISF didn’t shoot dead eight men. Speaking with the families and neighbours of the “bad boys” didn’t exactly serve to bolster their image as local strongmen. One of them, in fact, was a migrant worker who had come home to see his baby girl for the first time and vote. The second was a farmer, the third a mason, the fourth an aspiring undergraduate student.
Chhaimul Hoque, 19, had applied for a bachelor’s degree but couldn’t afford the fees. He was at the polling booth with his sister Anjupa Khatun and brother Saidul Hoque, 18. According to the villagers, Chhaimul was shot dead when he tried to stop a CISF man who was thrashing his brother. Saidul is currently in the Cooch Behar hospital.
It’s hard to understand Anjupa through her inconsolable sobbing but she clearly alleges that the CISF firing was unprovoked. “My brothers and I went to vote in the morning and were in the line when the central forces came in two to three cars. And within a few minutes there was chaos and firing,” she recounts. “Before we could understand what had happened, I saw my brother lying on the ground. My father couldn’t gather who to pick up, who to help. I request you to please find out who did this.”
Had a mob gathered at Booth 126 and threatened the CISF personnel? “That is completely false,” she replies. “It never happened.”
Her neighbour Fajlu Rehman was in the queue as well, waiting his turn to vote. “The four officers at the booth were nice, there was no problem with them. The men who came in the car were the ones who did this. Both her brothers were in the line. First they hit Saidul and he fell. When Chhaimul asked [a CISF man] why he had done this, he was shot at.”
Fajlu goes on a rant against the BJP government and talks of conspiracies to suppress voting in his village. But he’s asked by fellow villagers not to peddle rumours and stick to explaining what he saw.
Anjupa’s neighbours also say her brothers were recording the CISF men unleashing violence and so their phones were taken away.
At Monirul Jaman’s house, where he has left behind his wife and a baby daughter, his maternal uncle, Majidul Hoque, tells us he is in no mood to speak to the media. “I have repeated my story for two days straight and no one has aired it yet,” he says. “They have only shown that the chief minister spoke to me via video conferencing. They are only showing what Dilip Ghosh is saying, which hurts us even more. They don’t understand our pain.”
Monirul, 28, worked as a construction labourer in Gangtok. “His wife gave birth to a girl child six months ago and he was unable to visit them because he didn’t have the money to travel. He had sent whatever he had earned back to them,” Majidul adds. “The media is saying people at the booth tried to snatch the a security personnel’s weapon. Do you think any of us would have the guts to do so? We are daily wagers, scared of their uniform and guns. If they are saying there was a mob, do they have video proof to show?”
The CISF spokesperson told Newslaundry they would release a video after the enquiry was completed. However, he added, there was a limitation to what might have been captured on camera. “You may be aware that cameras are placed inside the polling booth,” he pointed out, “towards the EVM machine.”
At Hamidul Hoque’s house gloom hangs heavy. His frail father looks at us and starts crying. His sister-in-law Sobitan Bibi who was standing in the women’s queue when the firing started has the same story to tell as all eyewitnesses. She says she ran as soon as she realised what was happening. Hamidul worked as a mason in Mathabhanga and earned about Rs 300 a day. His wife is nine months’ pregnant.
Similar scenes greet us as Noor Islam’s house. His parents just stare at us in silence. Noor, 19, had been working on a farm adjacent to Booth 126 and stopped to speak to a friend when the firing took place. There’s little clarity that his parents can provide on the chain of events apart from that they lost their sole breadwinner.
At the Mathabhanga hospital, Jahidul Hoque, 14, is resting on a bed, his mother beside him. According to the police, rumours of him being beaten up were what started the violence.
Jahidul tells us he was indeed beaten up by men in uniform. “I was not running, just going back to my house and walking fast when one man from the central force held me by my shoulders. Another said, ‘He’s a kid, let him go.’ But he still hit me. He hit me on my bum and back with a stick. They did not hit me very hard but pushed me to the ground, I fell and fainted. I woke up near the hospital and realised the police had brought me here. They were nice to me,” he recalls.
Speaking with us, the child breaks into tears saying he doesn’t want to get beaten up again.
The superintendent of Mathabhanga’s Sub Divisional Hospital says Jaidul didn’t have severe injuries when he was brought there but is traumatised. He also said the slain men had bullet injuries in the chest and shoulder region. “The post-mortem would be able to provide exact details,” he added.
The minority in Jorpatki
The people living around Booth 126 are mostly Muslim. Hindus, mostly Scheduled Caste Rajabongshis, are the minority. We ask four Hindu families what they know about the violence.
In one of the families, we are told that young Hindu men and women had fled the evening of the polling after the firing because of tension in the village. They feared retaliation. They also complain they aren’t allowed to vote by the “Muslims” so they don’t know what happened at the booth.
Probesh Barman, a frail old man, says he was threatened and told not to cast his ballot seven days before the election. He doesn’t want to name whoever threatened him but claims that there are no tensions between the Hindus and the Muslims except on polling days. “We are not allowed to cast our vote except during the 2019 Lok Sabha,” he adds. “That went off very beautifully with no problems.” Probesh says he did not vote on April 10.
Sanjay Chakraborty, a BJP district leader, alleges that Hindus weren’t allowed to vote at Booths 136, 145, 146. The same day as the killings, Anand Barman, a BJP supporter according to Sanjay, was shot dead. Two arrests have been made in that case. “There is complete polarisation,” Sanjay adds, “with Hindus on one side and the minorities on the other. All minorities felt that if Hindus were allowed to vote, then BJP would win. And they are so scared of BJP winning that they obstructed Hindu votes hoping the TMC would win.”
This isn’t surprising given the well-documented voter suppression tactics used in the 2018 panchayat election. Bengal has known a long time, with the communists and the Trinamool engaging in a bloody battle for power.
With the entry of the BJP, the legacy of party violence acquired a communal colour as voter preferences split along religious lines. Though we didn’t ask them, it was no secret that the majority of the Muslims we spoke with supported the Trinamool. Indeed, the bodies of the slain men were in the governing party’s flags. The Hindus we spoke with had BJP flags planted outside their houses.
Thus, allegations of voter suppression that were earlier traded between two parties are now being traded between two religions.
Since the day polling began in Bengal, Newslaundry has looked into allegations of voter suppression in , , and elsewhere involving the central forces. In many cases, rumours floating around on WhatsApp turned out to be gross exaggerations, and local residents often refuted claims made by the Trinamool workers.
The Mamata government has fuelled mistrust of central forces with statements such as, “” much before the Cooch Behar violence. These broadstroke accusations have made a section of the Muslim voters visibly scared of Kendra Vahini, who they believe are out to snatch their votes. They have also created a ripe ground for rumour- and fear-mongering, with both the BJP and the Trinamool vying to gain from the resulting polarisation.
The main difference between the incidents we documented earlier and the one in Jorpatki, however, is that four men lie dead, and multiple villagers are making consistent claims of unprovoked firing by the central forces.
As things stand, both the CISF and the brother of one of the deceased have filed an FIR. Siddharth Dorzee, Additional Superintendent of Police of Mathabhanga, Cooch Behar told Newslaundry, “A complaint was lodged by CISF. Villagers also approached us with a complaint. Presently, the matter is under investigation so I cannot say more than this as of now.”
Meanwhile, the CISF spokesperson told us that the incident has now acquired a political tone. “We can’t comment on the villager’s statement. Lots of manipulations can be made afterwards, thoughts can be planted. It is not limited to the crowd or civilians, now it’s a political issue. You can understand yourself to what extent the statements can be tailored,” he says. He adds that thousands of companies are deployed in West Bengal and one should wonder why there was firing in just one particular booth. This is a question that even the residents of Jorpatki are asking.
A free and fair investigation is the least that the families of the slain men deserve. And the news media could start hearing their version of truth to begin with.
Pictures by Parikshit Sanyal.
Prateek Goyal contributed reporting.
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