A few days ago, she could hardly use a cellphone, far less send text messages. Yet Jahanara Bibi, a 23-year-old farmer’s daughter from a remote village in Bhangar, in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district, who is contesting the upcoming panchayat elections in the state, was forced to use WhatsApp to file her nomination papers. “Earlier, I had no idea about this function,” she tells Outlook at her home beside a pond, along a mango grove. “But thank heavens for it.” The technology saved her life, literally.
When the pre-monsoon April Nor’westers lash Bhangar, the administrative neglect of this backward region is at its crudest. The first to be adversely impacted is road connectivity. The well-travelled roads to Bhangar are riddled with potholes, their asphalt cover stripped away in large chunks and ‘maintenance’ is a foreign word. It’s a hazard to even walk on them. So, when early April was declared to be the deadline for filing of nominations for the panchayat polls—with elections itself set for the first week of May—aspiring contestants girded their loins before the daunting task of having to make their way across the “impossible terrain” to the offices of the block development officer.
What they were not prepared for, even in ‘politically disturbed’ Bhangar—the centre of violent agitations by locals against a government plan to erect a power plant—is the psychological intimidation and physical assault that they faced on their way to the BDO office from goons allegedly sheltered by the Trinamool Congress. “First they subjected me to the worst humiliation, threatening me with the loss of my...(honour),” Jahanara trails off, cringing as she recalls the attack. “Then, they started beating her and ripping off her clothes,” says Sheikh Anjun, the secretary of a panchayat committee who had advised her to contest the polls. A scared, scarred Jahanara abandoned the idea.
That is, until WhatsApp came to the rescue. Jahanara is among nine persons from Bhangar who have been allowed to file their nomination by WhatsApp by the Calcutta High Court. In a historic first for elections in the country, the HC has declared that it is a perfectly legal way of submitting documents.
The sequence of recent events that led to this unprecedented judgment merits a recapitulation. Soon after the start of the nomination process for the panchayat polls, the state’s opposition parties came under unprecedented attacks. Their candidates, they claimed singly and in unison, were prevented from even approaching the premises of the BDO offices, the venue for filing nominations, far less allowed to register their names. Indeed, evidence of groups of men—party cadres and criminals allegedly employed by parties during polls—intimidating and assaulting candidates were captured by news cameras. The images show candidates being dragged out of the BDO offices, and then hit, kicked, punched, thrown on the ground and beaten with sticks and stones. The thugs seemed to be undeterred by the media coverage, brandishing the tools of their trade—pistols, knives and iron rods—in broad daylight.
“That kind of audacity, to brazenly engage in criminal acts without a trace of fear, can only come from a sense of being protected by the powers that be,” says BJP leader Chandra Kumar Bose. Not just the administration, the police too has been accused of inaction. The government promptly denied the charges, with Trinamool leader and education minister Partha Chatterjee pointing out how several police personnel were critically injured during clashes between rival parties. The opposition parties also declared that they were not satisfied with the role of the state election commission (SEC), which is solely responsible for the logistics of the panchayat polls.
With their candidates cowering under intolerable attacks, a united opposition demanded a rescheduled date for filing nominations and filed pleas at the Calcutta High Court. Quashing the state government’s counter-argument that such rescheduling would inordinately delay the polls, an extension was ordered and a four-hour window from 11 am to 3 pm on Monday, April 23, was granted to aspiring candidates who could not file their nominations or had to withdraw them under duress. Though the SEC specified that candidates who once withdrew their nominations could not reapply for the same constituency but could do so from another within the court stipulated time-frame, opposition parties were not without apprehensions even after being granted this relief. “We had full faith in the judiciary to deliver justice,” Congress leader Om Prakash Mishra tells Outlook. “But what we had major concerns about was the execution of the order.” In a “vindication of these apprehensions” as CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty called it, the four hours were marred with as much violence and bloodshed as recorded earlier.
The Trinamool’s area domination, if it can be termed thus, is proven by the fact that even after new nominations were filed, the party is slated to win 20,000 (out of 58,962) seats, or 34 per cent of the seats, uncontested. Not a single seat will be won uncontested by any opposition party.
In anticipation of violence on April 23, Jahanara and other candidates from Bhangar filed a petition in the Calcutta High Court to allow them to file their nominations through WhatsApp. Led by the Jomi O Jibika Rakkha Committee (Committee for the Protection of Land and Livelihood), which has been at the forefront of the agitation against the proposed power plant and has been supported by the CPI(M-L) Red Star party, the move, say locals, was the brainchild of Red Star leader Sharmistha Chowdhury. Chowdhury tells Outlook that it occurred to her as being the only logical step towards the preservation of the democratic rights of the people, considering the dangers with which the traditional route was fraught.
The candidates from Bhangar could not agree more. “It has given us back our faith in democracy,” Shariful Mullick, one of the nine who filed his application via WhatsApp tells Outlook. Explaining the process, he said that they had to send photos of their documents, which included identity cards such as OBC (other backward castes) cards, Aadhaar cards or PAN cards to a specified WhatsApp number within the time limit, along with the relevant forms filled in. “Our leader (Chowdhury) was with us throughout the process—right from the filing the petition in the court to filling up the forms—and we could not do this without her help,” says a grateful Shariful.
Most of the nine candidates of Bhangar are running as independents, with Shariful directly taking on the powerful local leader, Arabul Islam, who leads one of the factions of the ruling Trinamool Congress. “At this stage, whether we win or lose is not really the point. The restoration of democracy is,” says Shariful.
Undeniably, with a new nomination date and a novel way of filing papers like this, a step has been taken towards that goal. But Bengal’s panchayat polls can be in for more turmoil yet. On April 26, the SEC announced May 14 as the day of polling, in lieu of the earlier three-day polls slated for early May. Fearing that the thinly stretched police and security forces available would be unable to maintain order across the state on a single day, which would lead to largescale violence, the BJP cries that the unilateral decision—taken by the SEC without discussing security arrangements with opposition parties—was illegal. Both the BJP and the CPI(M) have moved the Calcutta HC against the decision. Going by their experience during the nomination process, their fears seem to be fully justified.
However, at Bhangar, residents feel emboldened by their small victory, and have been taking out rallies to campaign for the polls. “At one point I had decided to just quit,” Jahanara says. “But now I am no longer afraid.” She grips the banner tightly as she prepares to lead a rally. But not before taking a quick glance at her WhatsApp messages. It’s all good news so far.
By Dola Mitra in South 24 Parganas