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May 27, 2000
Keshpur - West Bengal's own Jehanabad
Rifat Jawaid in Keshpur, Midnapore
Media personnel touring the strife-torn Keshpur in West Bengal are being advised by the Trinamul Congress and CPI-M workers to leave the area before sunset.
After darkness descends on this small pocket in West Bengal, where several Trinamul and CPI-M activists have died in clashes in the last few weeks, law goes to sleep. And then starts an orgy of violence - houses are burnt, men are hacked and shots ring in the air.
Some residents now compare the Keshpur-Pingla-Garbeta belt to Bihar's Jehanabad, where caste violence has become a way of life.
Though the district administration has put the toll in recent clashes between Trinamul and CPM workers at 25, senior leaders of both parties claim that the figure is much higher.
While the rivalry between the two parties is quite old, at the centre of the recent clashes is the Panskura Lok Sabha by-poll, where the two parties are locked in a straight contest.
According to Imtiaz Ali, CPM's zonal committee member in Keshpur, his party has lost more than 25 supporters, 563 have been maimed and 681 houses looted. He said 580 families of party sympathisers have been displaced, while 127 shops have been vandalised. He, of course, blames Trinamul workers for all this.
Trinamul leaders, on the other hand, accuse CPM cadres of killing 300 of their activists, maiming 2000, looting 3,050 houses and displacing about 4000 families.
The Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee recently alleged that in the last few months alone CPM 'goons' killed 50 of her party activists.
While these claims are difficult to verify, it is a widely known fact that both parties are extremely well armed.
The prime suppliers of these arms are Jharkhandis of Singhbhoom district of Bihar. Rates are reasonable - $25 for a pistol, $10 for a pipegun and $ 2.5 for a bullet.
One Trinamul leader claimed his party recently acquired a bomb - a bharkhal in local parlance.
After much convincing, some CPI-M workers agreed to take the rediff.com team to one of their hideouts.
It was a small hutment where arms and ammunition were lined neatly - guns, bullets, swords and knives. This, the CPM workers said, was in preparation of the Panskura poll.
But the violence is not restricted to elections alone.
On May 20, about 5000 armed Trinamul men attacked CPM activists in Gopinathbati village in Keshpur. They set ablaze everything that came in their way and gunned down two CPM workers.
Such attacks have become an inseparable part of life in Keshpur. People are willing to take an 80-km long detour through muddy fields to reach Midnapore town, but would never dare to take a shorter route which passes through the enemy territory.
Ausaf Ali, a Trinamul activist of Chutragrah in Keshpur, said it's been more than six months since he last visited Midnapore.
"Despite the good paddy crops we are not able to sell it in the market. The only way to transport the paddy to Midnapore is through Keshpur by lorry. Keshpur being a CPM stronghold, we'll never be able to pass through that area. If their men step into our area we kill them.
Just two months back, an unruly mob led by some CPM cadres attacked Majuria, a predominantly Trinamul village under Keshpur block. They hurled crude bombs, fired indiscriminately at peasants and set houses on fire.
Caught unaware by the sudden attack, the frightened villagers scurried for shelter. But the CPM workers succeeded in injuring over 50 Trinamul men before kidnapping Shaikh Hasrat Ali (24). The mob took Hasrat to Gopinathbati and chopped off his hands.
Recalling the attck, Hasrat told rediff.com: "They attacked during noon when most of us were either away in the fields or resting after lunch. The CPM goondas, over 50 in numbers, tied my legs before cutting my hands. "Had there been five or six people, I would have easily tackled them."
Hasrat claims his physical handicap notwithstanding, he will still fight CPM workers. Clearly, Keshpur has not yet seen the last of Trinamul-CPM clashes.
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