Inside Malda: A ground report on West Bengal's toxic cocktail of opium farming and communalism

By Sanjay Pandey

Kaliachak, Malda: On 3 January, the Edara-e-Shariyah called for a protest march in Kaliachak, a nondescript, dirty town lodged in the gullet of the Siliguri Corridor – or what is known as the chicken’s neck – a sliver of northern West Bengal hemmed in by Nepal and Bhutan in the north and Bangladesh in the south.

The Muslim organisation, hitherto unheard of outside Malda district, within which Kaliachak lies, was angered at what it alleged were defamatory remarks made against Prophet Muhammad. The offensive speech was delivered by the Hindu leader Kamlesh Tiwari in Lucknow on 2 December, 2015, a month before the protest march.

According to district administration estimates, close to 1.5 lakh people attended the Kaliachak rally. As speakers delivered their perorations, a group of protestors broke away. The band rushed towards Kaliachak police station, ostensibly angered at the recklessness with which a Border Security Force vehicle, a Mahindra Bolero, sped through the crowd, endangering lives. This gang of men hurled stones and kerosene bombs at the police station, setting it ablaze. The pack then turned towards Baliadanga, a residential block behind the police station, singling out homeowners for abuse.

Inside Malda: A ground report on West Bengals toxic cocktail of opium farming and communalism

Rioters in Malda captured on camera. Firstpost/Sanjay Pandey

Late in the afternoon — police have the time as 3 pm — a special containment unit was dispatched from Malda to Kaliachak. Violence was contained that same day.

Local newspapers and soon the national media began to trace the narrative of that day’s violence along a communal arc — fed mostly by statements of young Hindu men in Ghariyalichak, a Muslim neighbourhood in Kaliachak, who said they felt the real targets of mob fury were their temples. The West Bengal chapter of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was quick to back these claims.

I spent three days in Kaliachak a fortnight after the riots, to understand what caused it and to examine if it was indeed communal in spirit or if it was purely criminal in intent. It became quickly apparent that clambering up such a binary tree would prove ill-advised. But a couple of preliminary indicators did point in the direction of unlawful rather than purely religious motivation, and bore the markings of a criminal conspiracy.

The first was the behaviour of the mob at the police station. Of particular interest was the focus of its violent energies — the file storage unit and the evidence repository. According to my sources in the police force, files related to gang networks in Kaliachak were incinerated, and seized poppy resin and counterfeit currency looted.

Second, identifying Baliadanga, which is a predominately Hindu neighbourhood, after the gang had destroyed police records and stolen poppy seeds hinted that this was a deliberate diversionary tactic, one intended to create “a beautiful cocktail of crime and communalism”, as a lawyer from Baliadanga, Asit Baran Choudhury, put it to me.

That this breakaway gang of men followed a script became all the more evident when I obtained footage of the riots (see video). The man who recorded it is heard barking orders, orchestrating riotousness and curating the action. “Burn it! Burn it! Set the van on fire, I will pay for petrol,” he shouts. “Yes, snap the telephone wire, the b*****s won’t be able to make calls.”

I began my inquiries by asking about this gang and its antecedents. No one from Kaliachak I interviewed for this article was willing to speak on record. No one from the Muslim community agreed to speak to me. Almost everyone was unanimous, if hesitant, in naming the two men they said were responsible for the group’s actions on 3 January in specific, and illicit activity in Kaliachak in general. These were cousins Asadulla Biswas and Tuhoor Ali Biswas or Tuhoor Mahajan. They were estranged over two decades ago, I was told, and had since grappled over control of Ajgubidhap, a lake spread over 100 acres, and used primarily for fish farming. “At least 250 people from Moazampur and Narayanpur have died in the gang wars so far. But not a single case has been registered as the bodies are hurriedly buried and families given adequate compensation,” a political activist told me.

Their rivalry intensified turn when Biswas, a Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) henchman who had just switched loyalty to Trinamool Congress (TMC) before the crucial 2011 state elections, allegedly ordered the killing of Congress muscleman Tuhoor’s son Ismail.

The timing of the Kaliachak attack

Biswas and Tuhoor face charges of murder, counterfeiting, and smuggling drugs and arms.  According to Asit Baran Choudhury, who was the public prosecutor in several cases against the cousins, there are at least 50 cases pending against each of them in Malda Sessions Court

It isn’t just local law enforcement that’s tracking the two men. The National Investigation Agency has found signs of their involvement in poppy farming, smuggling opium, counterfeit currency and arms.

“Though they are avowed enemies, a common purpose (to destroy evidence stored in the police station) brought them together. But it was not possible for them to galvanise such a huge crowd on their own, so they must have prompted outfits like Edara-e-Sharia to organise a protest against Kamlesh Tiwari’s derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammed. That would eventually be hijacked by their supporters,” said Ujjwal Pandey, a BJP youth wing leader from Malda.

Riots in Malda. Firstpost/Sanjay Pandey

Riots in Malda. Firstpost/Sanjay Pandey

I wanted to meet one or both these men, the chances of which were bleak, but if they did grant me an audience, it would be at Moazampur, I was told. A big car would attract attention, so I rode pillion on a motorbike. A 20-minute journey on traffic-choked NH-34 and a detour later, we reached the village. It was 2 pm. I had been warned beforehand that it was imperative I return by dusk. Fifteen minutes later we crossed a small bridge and rode up to a large lake. The local journalist accompanying me said this was Ajgubidhap.

I didn’t meet the cousins that day – police officials in Moazampur told me Biswas was “absconding” and there was no word about Tuhoor – but I was shown acres of opium poppy fields. The plant was being cultivated in plain sight, just off the road to Kadamtala a neighbourhood in Moazampur panchayat.

Our presence hadn’t gone unnoticed. A lanky, half-clothed teenager stopped his bicycle near our bike, threw us a menacing stare and sped away. We decided to leave. A few kilometres down the village road, we spotted poppy being grown everywhere, just off the path, in the backyards of houses, and in the fields — like wheat or paddy.

I’d asked to meet a poppy farmer and was taken to the home of a 30-year-old teacher. He showed us around his backyard, which was covered with opium poppy. A cricket match was underway in the field next to his house. Each four or six was met with staccato gunshot celebrations. The teacher dismissed it as “just crackers”. The sharp report of gunfire increased in frequency and the teacher led us inside his home for safety.

“The cops have destroyed the crops several times. But for the past three years, we have been growing poppy without any fear, as every farmer started paying Rs 6,000 per bigha (a third of an acre) to the police,” said the teacher (he is seen wearing a red t-shirt and striped lungi in the video we shot). “People are switching to poppy farming because it gives them good money in a short span of time. It takes three months to mature and makes the field available to grow other crops for the rest of the year.”

The teacher told us Hindu farmers in particular had been lured into cultivating opium poppy, which led me to a small village near Mohdipur checkpoint, dominated by that community. I made plans to visit it the next day. This time, I was in an SUV, accompanied by a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist, whose presence would make it easier to talk to people in the village.

Poppy is a new entrant to Mohdipur; it became the preferred crop in Kaliachak eight to 10 years ago. “Influential Muslims of Moazampur (he meant Biswas and Mahajan) brought this to our area. It first started in Kaliachak, but in the past three or four years, it has spread through the Hindu villages also. They are tempting us to shift to poppy-farming by offering money in advance with a condition that the resin be sold only to them,” a 35-year-old farmer t0ld me. “But unlike farmers of Moazampur, we are paid just half the market rate. Say it sells for Rs 1 lakh per kilo, we will be paid only Rs 65,000.”

I was led to the fields. Farmers here are understandably jittery. They spring to attention at the slightest inkling of trouble, like nervous antelope. I began to shoot spycam footage while pretending to ask for directions to the next village. Soon, people began to rush out of their homes, cellphones pressed against their ears. News had come in that district administration officials had begun destroying poppy fields in neighbouring villages.

We left Mohdipur in a hurry. I was told later that the man who had shown us around had been questioned by villagers and roughed up. Back in Malda, sources at the police superintendent’s office told me: “BSF, Narcotics Control Bureau officials and local police are carrying out joint raids on poppy farms, destroying approximately 100 acres a day.”

Last year, the district administration destroyed 4,000 acres of poppy crop. This year, around 1,000 acres have destroyed so far. The purge is carried out by the Narcotics Control Bureau, local police and the BSF.

The unmaking of Malda

In the past four decades, Malda turned from a region producing raw silk yarn and mango to a clearing house for opium, counterfeit currency and illegal arms. According to locals and police officials, this is primarily because the Left, which ruled West Bengal for three decades, largely ignored the district, seeing little political capital in expending energy on a cluster of villages loyal to the Congress. “Over the years, people got lured into producing drugs,” said West Bengal’s Food Processing Minister Krishnendu Narayan Choudhury. If nothing, the Kaliachak attack has jolted awake the TMC government and impelled Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to destroy the region’s poppy plantations.

One of the many poppy fields of Malda. Firstpost/Sanjay Pandey

One of the many poppy fields of Malda. Firstpost/Sanjay Pandey

“Our government is very serious to develop horticulture, sericulture and vegetable farming. Through this, we want to give them a parallel economy. If you don’t give them a parallel economy, they will drift towards poppy farming. We need to convince them of what is legal and illegal. If they still want to grow poppy, they will have to rot in jail and their families will suffer. But if the farmers grow traditional crops, they will earn less money, but will be able to give their families happy and peaceful lives,” said Choudhury.

The government, he said, plans to launch a “proper campaign” against poppy farming.

“We intend to convey the message through Gambhira (the popular folk dance of the area). Social activists, police and BSF personnel will also be roped into keep farmers away from poppy farming,” he told me. “If someone colludes with international criminals and tries to destroy our local economy, we will not spare them, no matter what their political and religious allegiance.”

But the gangs that ply their trade on the drug route are entrenched and determined. Folk dance and activists are unlikely to prevail upon them. The villagers of Narayanpur and Moazampur typify this resilience. They began trading in marijuana and restricted pharmaceutical drugs when a barbed-wire fence was erected along the Indo-Bangladesh border, a decade ago. Soon, they switched to opium. The resin they harvest from the poppy fields is sent across the border, or to Murshidabad, 150 km south of Malda. Here, it is processed to make heroin or brown sugar. The pecuniary benefits are felt at every section of the supply chain. Each bigha of land under poppy cultivation produces about 4 kg of resin. Each kilo fetches between 2 lakh and 2.5 lakh. Earlier, when farmers here grew wheat, they earned Rs 15 per kilo when prices were at their highest – a bigha of land yields about 800 kg of wheat. According to farmers in Kaliachak, an investment of Rs 10,000 in wheat resulted in profit of Rs 2,000-Rs 5,000.

A poppy farmer told me police officials didn’t just permit cultivation of the crop, they were actively engaged in growing it. He named two officers – Pradip Sarkar, a sub-inspector and Ram Saha, assistant sub-inspector – who he said are particularly active. They retained their positions as senior inspectors in Kaliachak police station for ten years before being transferred to Harishchandrapur and Gajol police stations after the 3 January attack. I was unable to locate them during my three days in Kaliachak. Additional Superintendent of Police Abhishek Modi remained noncommittal. I called Inspector General of Police North Bengal RN Babu, who presides over Malda, two days after I returned to Kolkata. He agreed to talk to me but the moment I steered the conversation towards the violence in Kaliachak and the opium trade in the region, the phone line went dead.

That apart, there are no cases filed against Sarkar or Saha and it is unclear if local law enforcement will act against them – or Biswas and Mahajan – to signal its new-found enthusiasm in curbing narcotics trafficking.

It is clear, however, that this network has metastasised. A senior TMC leader told me poppy is now grown in North Dinajpur, Birbhum and Nadia, all of which are perched in the fertile Gangetic plains. “The epidemic has spread. Assadulla Biswas has become the Mullah Omar of our area. If something is not done immediately, Malda and the neighbouring districts will soon become India’s Afghanistan,” he said.

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Updated Date: Jan 27, 2016 17:29:03 IST

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