There is one constituency in West Bengal that is truly exceptional.
Domjur, in Howrah district, is the battle ground against “Syndicate Raj,” the elaborate network of illegal enterprise with a legal front that in turn controls a private force of mercenaries to assist in the extortion, supplies, intimidation and violence rackets that have burgeoned in the past five years.
Challenging the syndicates is a woman, a widow, from a family that was once a flag-bearer of the Trinamool Congress. The soft spoken but infinitely courageous Pratima Dutta is a former member of the Jagaccha Panchayat Samity. She is a victim of the nexus between crime and power. Pratima's husband Tapan, who was the vice president of Trinamool Congress’s Bally-Jagacha block unit, died because he took on the land mafia.
Tapan Dutta was shot by assailants on 6 May, 2011, close to his home. Various TMC leaders including the now-expelled Howrah party secretary, Satish Gayen, and his brother Asit were picked up by the police. Flawed investigation by the state’s Criminal Investigation Department complicated and ultimately stonewalled the process of finding the killers and prosecuting them.
The killing made headlines in 2011, a sensational announcement of sorts that Syndicate Raj has come of age. Tapan paid the price for trying to protect a 750 acre wetland – Jaipur Beel —from syndicates that wanted to fill it up and sell off to developers. He had formed the Jalabhumi Bachao Committee (Save the Wetlands Committee) to fend off the syndicates.
Pratima is not scared to assert that she is fighting to protect the wetlands from the land mafia on the one hand and for restoration of law and order on the other. It is also a battle against the idea that development is just a collection of shoddily constructed infrastructure that serves to percolate cash into the hands of unemployed youth with nothing to look forward to. Her fight is bigger than battling the land mafia or the racketeering over supply of construction materials.
It is an unequal fight. Pratima is pitted in a straight contest against the powerful TMC minister Rajib Banerjee, who has every resource to convince voters that it would be a bad idea if they do not vote for him. Domjur is one of the two constituencies where the Congress-CPI M alliance did not put up a candidate, making Pratima an independent contestant supported by both parties. The support, however, is more moral than substantive as the resources needed to cover a constituency as spread out as Domjur is not easy for a lone crusader with limited means.
Finding Pratima in Domjur is one way of uncovering how difficult the contest will be. People avoided giving directions, claiming they did not know the locations she mentioned as landmarks. Very few people admitted to knowing that she was the candidate from Domjur. And even fewer admitted to knowing the approximate direction in which she resides.
The claims of ignorance, the confusing directions were all part of a larger design; to pretend that there was no such challenge to the idea of the Trinamool Congress. Of the two people sitting in a shop, one person pointed in one direction and the other in the opposite.
In any other election in West Bengal, searching for an independent candidate in a semi-rural constituency would have been a nightmare. In this election, not knowing who Pratima Dutta is and where she lives is very strange because she and her cause have been constantly in the public domain.
Akranto Amra, which literally translated means, 'We, The Victims', is a platform that has projected itself successfully as the Save Democracy forum. And, Pratima is a very visible member of it. From Kamduni (the brutal gang rape and murder of a college student on her way home) to the Kolkata flyover collapse, Akranto Amra and Pratima Dutta have been part of the public protests against the TMC government and Mamata Banerjee as the Chief Minister.
If Domjur pretends not to know who Pratima is, then it is more than simple ignorance. It can mean that the ruling party is dismissive of her as a challenger. It can mean that the TMC is uneasy about her as a dark horse, the unknown quantity that can pose a challenge to its dominance. Both possibilities are intriguing, because with very little resources and no organisation of her own, Pratima's fight becomes meaningful only and only if there is a hidden undercurrent of public support that will manifest itself on polling day, provided the Election Commission can create the conditions for free and fair elections.