Bhaskar Dam isn’t used to the limelight. But he isn’t shying away from it either. The last day of 2015 found him where he is always to be found, in the grounds of the Naktala Youth Club, surrounded by friends, acolytes and contacts for whom “Gano-da” (Gano being his nickname, a must-have for Bengalis) is the go-to man, showing no aversion to explaining at length to curious strangers his “deep sentiment” for the club that he loves more than life itself and that earned him his 15 minutes of fame last month.
The club doesn’t look prepossessing at all. A lumpy, uneven plot of land with barely any grass cover, a dilapidated shack in one corner that was meant to be a pump house but never really lived up to its promise, a small club house in the back almost hidden by a bamboo structure covered by tarpaulin which the club hires out for marriages and other occasions, a badminton court standing testimony to one of its main activities and several red plastic chairs in the middle of the grounds where Bhaskar Dam holds court. But the blood, sweat and tears expended behind it is not to be scoffed at.
"Do you know, this club, this land where you are now sitting, used to be a deep pond even in 1970?" demands the 56-year-old Dam who has lived in this area all his life. Naktala, on the southern edge of Kolkata, is part of the vast stretch of swampy, marshy, overgrown land that became home to hundreds and thousands of refugees, uprooted and dispossessed by the Partition in 1947. With little government support it was a bare-knuckled battle for survival. Land-grab was the norm, vast acres taken over by people for whom the law meant nothing, squatters’ right was all. It was only after the then owners went to court that the government took on the task of acquiring these lands but it was not until 1986 that ownership deeds came the way of the people who had built up homes here brick by brick.
"The pond was filled up with garbage, yes garbage," claims Dam, whose roots are also in what is now Bangladesh and whose present home, built by his father, is barely a stone’s throw away. "The flies, you can’t even imagine the flies, it was all garbage you see, I can’t tell you how horrible it was. We used to go about with a white powder, Bayer used to make it, and sprinkle it all over to keep the flies away." This was in the early Seventies. Bhaskar Dam was still in his teens and already well on his way to becoming a local Dada and a political activist.
The city’s refugee belt, of which Naktala was a part, was also the area that turned red the swiftest. The stamping ground of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) it produced leaders like Sailen Dasgupta, nicknamed “Kalo [Dark] Brezhnev” by friends and foes alike, for years chairman of the Left Front and head of the CPI(M)’s West Bengal unit. “Once,” recalls Dam, “CPM boys were painting slogans on the wall and we instigated my younger brother, who was then in class 3 or 4, to go and write YC, Youth Congress you know, on the same wall and with their paint and brush. He did so and then, what they did to my brother, I can’t even bear to tell you but I decided I will never ever be CPM, in fact I will do whatever I can to oust them.” He remained true to his words, joining first the Congress and then progressing naturally to Trinamool Congress or TMC.
Politics became his full-time activity, a car that he’s given out for hire to a school his ostensible means of income. He even fought the corporation elections to be a councillor in 1990, but did not strike lucky. "There was massive rigging that year," he says. But all through, he never took his eyes off the Youth Club, his first love. "Soon after CPM came to power they came and dumped 42 Hume pumps, you know the 42-inch diameter drainage pipes, on the club’s grounds. Just so we couldn’t use it. As if that could stop us," says Dam proudly.
No surprises that Kolkata woke up on 19th December to find photographs of Bhaskar Dam splashed all across the front pages – standing higher than the crowd milling around him in the club grounds, his shock of silver hair blowing in the wind, holding a small plastic bottle in his raised hands and threatening to set himself alight if the police did what it had come to do, i.e. take over the grounds and hand it over to its rightful owner. It could have been a scene from an Amitabh Bachchan starrer from his angry young man days. But for Dam it was more than a filmi moment. He meant it – “Only over my dead body,” he still insists.
Fortunately there was little chance of such an eventuality. True, one Leena Das had gone to court asserting her legal rights to the land which houses the club and the Calcutta High Court had ruled in her favour, ordering the plot be vacated and handed over to her and commanding the city’s police commissioner to be present during the eviction. The police commissioner had indeed turned up with a sizeable contingent that included an additional commissioner, two joint commissioners, two deputy commissioners no less but the city’s police have long come to know that there are limits to their powers.
Bhaskar Dam is the husband of the Trinamool councillor of ward 100. Dam would have been the candidate himself but the ward was reserved for women in the 2015 municipal elections so it had to be his school teacher wife Sushmita (who won the elections by three, yes three votes). “Listen, the water pressure in the lane next to Bunty Cinema Hall is low, do something about it,” Dam tells someone over the phone. It is clear: it is to Dam everyone in the area turns to when there is no water or the street lights are not working or garbage is piling up and it is Dam who makes city officials and engineers jump. In fact, the councillor’s office is right next to the Youth Club or maybe legally even part of it.
The patron saint of the Youth Club is Aroop Biswas, a minister in Mamata Banerjee’s cabinet and one of her closest lieutenants with Tollywood at his beck and call and Didi’s partiality for Tolly stars is no secret at all. The club falls within the assembly constituency of Aroop Biswar. While another TMC supremo, education Minister Partha Chatterjee, lives in this area and organises one of the city’s leading Durga Pujas here.
The Naktala minibus union is now part of Dam’s fiefdom. It used to be with the CPI(M) of course but times change and loyalties change accordingly. “But we have no quarrel with the CPM,” says Dam. “Just the other day, their local secretary called me to ask for some minibuses to take their cadres to the Brigade rally. I gave them. Why shouldn’t I? If it’s in the interest of minibus owners or their workers, I have no quarrel with that. Ask them, some of the owners are sitting right here.” The bus owners get their chance, plead with him for some time, they’ve been coming here for the last two days but the media has been keeping their union president very busy. Finally a date is settled, they leave in hope.
Add to this the centrality of youth clubs, sports clubs, dramatic clubs, any club, in Mamata Banerjee’s scheme of things. Like hundreds of other clubs across the state, Naktala Youth Club has also got a dole of Rs 2 lakh from the state government. In the absence of a regimented party structure like the CPI(M)’s, the clubs are a sure link between the Trinamool and the Bengali youth.
Is anyone surprised then that Dam’s display of histrionics and his mobilisation of hundreds of local people in and around the grounds on the day the police came to execute the court’s orders ended with the police playing the role of mere spectators? “I had come here under the instruction of the court. I cannot say anything else,” was all that the police commissioner found to say to the media before leaving with his team, empty-handed.
Meanwhile, 70-year-old Leena Das has gone back to court but with a heavy heart. “I am so disturbed,” she has told the country’s leading Bengali daily, Anandabazar Patrika. “If this can happen after a court order than what hope is there?” The court has been most supportive though. At the hearing on 23rd December, the judge lashed out that “This is lawlessness.... how is it possible that some people could agitate right in front of the city police commissioner? One person threatened to end his life with kerosene. I have come to know that the commissioner was there with a 500-strong force and he remained a mute spectator? This is a crime. Why didn't the police commissioner arrest him? I will not spare anybody... if needed, I will call the army to tackle the issue.” The next hearing is scheduled for 14th January.
Will things be different in the new year? Unlikely. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation has decided to fight for the club or at least for not handing over the land to the rightful owner. They plan to set up a water reservoir they claim. And Bhaskar Dam? He is ready with his defence: “The court says give back the land but when it comes to giving back the land in Singur they say their hands are tied. Let them give back the land in Singur and we will give up this land. No, enough of this, no more taking over any land anywhere, wherever something like this happens I will go and put up a fight.” Even Didi couldn't have put it better.