PURULIA: On a cold winter evening, Chandana Shabar draped her two-year-old daughter in a blanket before sprinkling kerosene over it. The widow was about to set the kid ablaze because she found it impossible to feed her. But the child’s destiny had something else in store.
A passer-by found the smell of kerosene emanating from her dilapidated hut unusual and stormed in. He snatched away the matchbox from Chandana, lifted the child and informed a man who runs a welfare unit to provide education with free boarding facilities.
Three years later, the child has a new name, Kajol, a bed to sleep in, and a plate full of rice every day. “She has grown up enough to write Bengali alphabets and now calls me baba (father),” said Arup Mukherjee, standing in front of his welfare unit at Puncha in Purulia, one of the most backward regions in West Bengal and a hub of Maoists till a few years ago.
Though her daughter got a new life, little has changed for Chandana and her fellow tribal villagers who form 25 per cent of the electorate in Purulia. The only change they have seen is in poll graffiti—the lion, the symbol of Forward Bloc, changed to Trinamool's twin flowers in 2009. A decade later, the lotus is blooming, in urban and rural pockets, and the mud walls of Chandana’s neighbours are painted saffron.
Tribal communities have always been a deciding factor in Purulia’s poll narrative. Trusting the promises of Trinamool leaders in 2009, they ousted the Forward Bloc, which had ruled the constituency on the Bengal-Jharkhand border since 1996.
A decade later, they are disillusioned with the Trinamool. Chandana and thousands like her survive on a single meal a day in Bengal’s poverty-stricken and drought-hit region. “Both the Left and Trinamool politics in Purulia was based on promises of a better life. Nothing happened. Instead, they have deprived us of our rights. I was given jobs for a few days under the 100-days work scheme last monsoon. Nine months have passed and I am yet to be paid,” said Nibaran Tudu of Baghmundi.
Corruption among ruling party leaders had paved the way for the Maoists to infiltrate and turn the region into their stronghold in 2004. Maoist cadres sneaked into the forests of Ayodhya Hills from East Singbhum district of Jharkhand and set up a base there.
“They won our hearts. We used to get medicines from them. We allowed them to stay in our villages. They made it clear that we would have to fight an armed battle against our tormentors, mostly local political leaders,” said a man in his 70s at Ghatbera village at the foothills of Ayodhya Hills.
The Maoists killed more than 300 people in Purulia, including senior CPM leaders and police officers, between 2004 and 2011, but had to retreat after the outfit’s Bengal in-charge and politburo member Koteshwar Rao alias Kishenji was gunned down in November 2011, six months after Mamata Banerjee became chief minister.
The Trinamool gained ground in Purulia after Kishanji’s death, cashing in on the corruption of Left leaders. Several years later, it’s the corruption of Trinamool leaders that has helped BJP win over the locals. “I purchased 60 katha land on the outskirts of Purulia town to set up a fly ash factory. I had to pay a heavy amount to local Trinamool leaders as protection money,” said Onkar Mishra.
The BJP’s gain was cemented after the murder of an 18-year-old booth supervisor, Trilochan Mahato, at Balarampur last year, allegedly by Trinamool workers. The incident changed Purulia’s poll narrative as people realised how brutal Trinamool supporters were, said Mahato’s brother Vivekananda.