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October **, 1999


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Robin Hood takes on the Revolutionary

Tara Shankar Sahay in Berhampore

Some people sink with a trace. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury rose without a trace. But having risen, the Congress candidate for the Berhampore parliamentary seat is rapidly consolidating his popular support in this land of Siraj-ud-Daulah where the descendants of the legendary nabob of Bengal regard Chowdhury as their Robin Hood who is emphatically changing their dreary lives.

For the record, the constituency is witnessing a triangular fight with Chowdhury taking on the Revolutionary Socialist Party's outgoing MP Promothes Mukherjee and the BJP's Lt-Col (retd) Sabyasachi Bagchi.

While Bagchi's presence is minimal with the voters considering him an outsider from Calcutta, the RSP candidate's relentless and bitter salvoes against Chowdhury indicate that his party has been rattled by the persisting threat of the Congress upsetting its apple cart.

Despite Mukherjee's tirade that Chowdhury is an "illiterate, anti-social element", the Congressman's soaring popularity is to be seen to be believed. Young people, old men, women and children are perceptibly getting attracted to him like iron filings to a magnet. And the impression keeps growing.

"No political leader in this constituency, without exception, since 1952 has done what Adhirda has done in just two years," says Abdul Halim, a local schoolteacher who owes his job to the Congress candidate.

Halim goes on to relate how he was about to be overlooked for the job as another candidate with 14 per cent less marks was sought to be foisted on him by the principal. "Adhirda approached the principal and pointed out that mine was a more deserving case. The principal apologised for his mistake and I got the job," says Halim, adding that his family of nine was thus saved from "extinction". He has been a Chowdhury acolyte ever since.

What Halim failed to mention is that Murshidabad district's Robin Hood (Berhampore is the district headquarters) has oodles of quiet menace about him which infrequently graduates to cold rage against persistent offenders.

This part of his make-up is understandable if one considers his political background. "Adhirda is a self-made man, he has nothing to be ashamed of," says Anwar Alam, an NRI based in London who has his roots in Berhampore and who visits his hometown every two years.

Alam points out that during his student days, Chowdhury dabbled in Naxalite politics. Though he later abandoned Naxalism, he developed a fearless character and a yen for helping out the poor.

But survival depended on money and he became a contractor. Getting seasoned in such a risky enterprise, Chowdhury's killer instincts soon had fortune smiling on him. Money began rolling in and his zest to rescue the penurious grew. So did his larger-than-life image.

Chowdhury won the hearts of the Bengali Muslims settled in Murshidabad since Siraj-ud-Daulah's time by revealing a thick, secular streak. Says Mohammed Haneef, a shopkeeper on A N Road, "Adhirda is secular by heart, Muslims can vouchsafe for that. In 1988, there was a communal flare-up in the town's Katra Masjid when fanatics from the Hindu and Muslim communities spewed poison. The safety of Muslims was jeopardised and they sought refuge in neighbouring villages. But Adhirda brought them back and restored their confidence. Muslims will vote for him, wait and see."

Chowdhury's palatial two-storeyed house on A K K Banerjee Road indicates that Berhampore's Robin Hood is not depriving himself even as he helps out the deprived. But the telltale crowd jamming the ground floor -- rickshawmen, thelawalas (hawkers), poor peasants -- reaffirms his purpose of helping the have-nots. "Call me by whatever name you want," he says modestly. "I help the poor people and if they like me it's a good thing."

"My work in Berhampore has been recognised. That is why my opponents are getting nervous. They have a problem because while they merely doled out promises, I proved my intentions by action," he adds.

Chowdhury takes special pride in fighting religious bigotry and rewards youths who have proved their secular credentials. "Among his immensely loyal supporters, Muslims constitute at least 50 per cent," says Guru Haldar, Congress activist. "Berhampore has about 12 lakh [1.2 million] voters and Muslims represent 40 per cent. Adhirda has popular support. The RSP is in trouble, I can tell you."

The Berhampore Town Club set up by the Congress candidate is a mecca for unemployed youth who flock there daily to discuss their future. There is an air of optimism about them as the Robin Hood has already given them various incentives. The club has a library stacked with books worth Rs 1 million. And taking a member's suggestion, Chowdhury has also made it a coaching centre for students wanting to appear in competitive civil services exams.

One beneficiary of the coaching scheme is Rukhsana Begum, 18. "Adhirda has made this possible. I could never afford coaching classes outside," she exults. "I belong to a poor family. I am a good student and that is my only credential."

The Congress candidate has not forgotten the women of Berhampore. According to a manager of the Whitehouse Hotel, women and girls could not dare to venture outside after dark because of the eve-teasing menace. Chowdhury recently caught more than a dozen eve-teasers and had them soundly thrashed in full public view, the manager says. Now women are free to move about town even after sundown.

Chowdhury's monetary assistance for the marriage of young girls in Berhampore is another reason for his popularity. The boys of the town club contend that eight girls have been married with Adhirda's blessings. In Village Jhaubena in the Nouda assembly segment, Biya Khatun and Hayat Khatun testify to his largesse in meeting the entire marriage expenses of their daughters. "Saheb amadar jonno sob kicchu (Chowdhury means everything to us)," they say.

A veteran Congress activist close to Chowdhury, Tapash Ghosh, who works as a teacher in the Rupampur High School, says Adhirda's generosity is "all-encompassing". He refers to the recent flood that inundated large parts of the constituency. "Dada helped 22 blocks out of the 26 devastated by the flood in Murshidabad district," he contends. And the youths are repaying the Congress candidate's generosity by campaigning round the clock for him.

Babul Roy, a young member of the town club, underlines the developmental work in the constituency undertaken by Chowdhury. They are i) putting up street lights, ii) setting up the toy train project in Lal Dighi for people's amusement, iii) constructing roads in Berhampore by paying unemployed youths to do the job, and iv) toning up the town municipality in which he has had Akbar Kabir appointed as chairman. Besides, Chowdhury has comprehensive plans to industrialise the town and "young people in all communities believe him because of his track record", Roy says.

The RSP's Mukherjee does not share the Chowdhury camp's optimism. "I don't know whether he is Robin Hood, but I certainly know that he is a hood," he scoffs.

"The Congress candidate is a school dropout and he is indulging in cheap, populist measures," Mukherjee fumes at his party office in Berhampore. "Chowdhury is a criminal and he has earned crores of rupees through his criminal contacts."

But Chowdhury's supporters say Mukherjee is scared that his non-performance in the constituency is being exposed. Runu Khan, a resident in Professor's Colony, claims the RSP candidate was recently snubbed when he visited the area for campaigning. "We reminded Promothes Mukherjee that despite his party winning from Berhampore for 22 years since 1952, there has been no development in the constituency. We also drew his attention to the fact that he has spent Rs 22 lakh for constructing the road leading to his house in Burdwan," says Khan.

Chowdhury's aggressive supporters say their mentor is matchless. "Even Sonia Gandhi cannot be as popular in Berhampore as Adhirda," they contend.

"Even if Jyoti Basu wants the RSP to win from here through violence, we can assure you that it will lose," says Tapash Ghosh, the Congress worker.

His parting shot sums up the situation. "The people will vote for Adhirda because of his tireless, selfless work. It won't be a vote for the Congress but for Adhirda, the angel."


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