Violence and intimidation in West Bengal panchayat polls impact women candidates

Across Opposition parties and independent candidates, women face several challenges in contesting the rural polls

Updated - June 29, 2023 01:21 pm IST

Published - June 29, 2023 02:57 am IST - Bhangar/Kolkata

Asma Khatoon, an ISF candidate who is contesting from Bhangar, South 24 Parganas 

Asma Khatoon, an ISF candidate who is contesting from Bhangar, South 24 Parganas  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Three-year-old Rajdeep kept sucking a mango seed for almost half an hour. There is nothing his mother can give the toddler except food to keep him occupied because the family has been taking shelter at Maheshwari Sadan in Kolkata for the past eight days. The child’s mother, Pallavi Mistri (24), a resident of Mullickpur gram panchayat under the Falta Assembly seat in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district, is a candidate for zilla parishad number 64, and had to leave her village after filing nomination papers on June 14.  

Several candidates, including women who have filed nomination papers to contest the panchayat polls as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidates, have taken shelter at Maheshwari Sadan in north Kolkata, just a hundred metres away from the State BJP headquarters at 6, Murlidhar Sen Lane.

Also read | Unedifying row: On panchayat polls in West Bengal and security

Pallavi Mistri with her child and Kalpana Halder. Pallavi is a zilla parishad candidate from South 24 Parganas.

Pallavi Mistri with her child and Kalpana Halder. Pallavi is a zilla parishad candidate from South 24 Parganas.

“From the moment we filed the nomination papers, we started receiving threats. We were followed for several kilometres but somehow we could escape and ended up here,” Raju Mistri, Ms. Pallavi’s husband, who has been staying with her since June 14, said.

The rooms on the first floor of the old building, which is usually used as a hostel, were all occupied by BJP candidates who have filed nomination papers to contest the panchayat polls.

Kalpana Halder and her husband Tapas Halder, who have come from Diamond Harbour in South 24 Parganas and had taken shelter at the building, are sharing the room with the Mistry family. While the Mistry family explained that the closed circuit cameras at the government office where the nomination papers were filed would reveal the identity of the miscreants, a caretaker of the building came and reminded them that they would have to vacate the place as the booking was only for a week.

The adjoining room is mostly occupied by men, who themselves or their wives, are contesting the rural polls.  Pintu Sardar’s wife, Satyaparna Orang Sardar, is a candidate from Nazat 2 gram panchayat polls from Sandeshkhali in the State’s North 24 Parganas. “She was here till yesterday and now has gone to her father’s place. We will have to leave our houses in both cases , whether we win or lose,” Mr. Sadar said.

Nomination for the panchayat polls in the State ended on June 15 and many families, hoping the deployment of Central forces would provide them with security, returned to their villages. The Mistry family, however, went to another place which the BJP leadership calls “safe house” in South 24 Parganas district since Central forces had not been deployed near their villages till June 28.

While the BJP leadership has set up safe houses for its candidates, candidates of other Opposition parties find the situation is even more challenging. 

Asma Khatoon had to hole up at the office of the Block Development Officer at Bhangar II for four hours on June 12 when she went there to file her nomination papers. A candidate of the Indian Secular Front, she said that she was threatened with murder in front of government officials while filing her nomination papers. The 39-year-old resident of Bhangar refused to tell the place at which she lived and decided to meet at a relative’s place, a few kilometres from Bijoyganj Bazaar, which erupted into a battle zone on the final day of the filing of nomination papers on June 15, leaving three persons dead.

“The men cannot stand the fact that a woman is challenging them in the panchayat polls. There is an atmosphere of fear across Bhangar,” Ms. Khatoon said as she narrated how she filed her nomination after the Calcutta High Court’s intervention.

The ISF leader, who spent weeks behind the bars after she was arrested with ISF leader and Bhangar MLA Naushad Siddique earlier this year, said that she had convinced many women to come forward and contest the polls but because of violence, some of them have given up on contesting.

“I am unable to come out of my house so there is no question of campaigning. Hopefully the situation will improve after the deployment of Central forces,” she said.

It’s not only threats and intimidation, women candidates contesting the panchayat elections are facing several other challenges. Sonadi Hansda, an independent candidate for zilla parishad seat number 26 from Birbhum district said that it was difficult for her to rent a place or a vehicle for campaigning in the rural polls.

“First, we tried renting a room at Mohammad Bazaar, where the owner turned us down after accepting advance, and the same thing happened at Deocha. We are not even getting vehicles to campaign and owners are returning the advance, saying that they are under pressure,” Ms. Hansda said. 

She is associated with the Adivasi Adhikaar Mahasabha, an outfit opposed to the proposed coal mine at Deocha Pachami in Birbhum alleged that the leaders and the supporters of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) were behind the situation that she could not campaign in the rural polls.

The TMC’s leadership, and spokespersons such as Kunal Ghosh, have denied all allegations of threats and intimidation during the panchayat polls, and said that such allegations were an attempt to vitiate the poll process as Opposition parties did not have enough candidates to field in the rural polls.

About 48.86% seats at the zilla parishads, panchayat samithis and gram panchayats are reserved for women in West Bengal, psephologist Biswanath Chakraboty said, emphasising that despite so many women contesting the polls, there was no mention of issues relating to women during the panchayat polls. “Most of the women contesting the polls are puppets to the patriarchal political system and that is evident across all parties,” Professor Chakraborty added. 

Elections to about 73,000 seats in the three-tier panchayat in the State are scheduled for July 8, and so far, 11 persons have been killed in violence since the notification of the election was issued on June 8.

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