Once a part of Dihi Panchannagram – a group of 55 villages bought by the East India Company from Mir Jafar in 1758 – Bhabanipur has been an important chapter when it comes to the ‘Bengal Renaissance’.
Despite being home to primarily Marwaris, Gujaratis, Sikhs and Hindi-speaking communities who first came here in the seventeenth century to dabble in yarn, textile, tea, coal, money-lending and food processing businesses, Bhabanipur had its own Bengali traditions and culture predominantly practised by the upper-class Bengali Hindus. In those days, it was considered an elite and safe suburb.
The reason: it was beyond the reach of the ‘Bargis’ (a rampaging cavalry of Maratha empire) because of the ‘Maratha Ditch’, which was about a 4km moat in the northern side of Dihi Panchannagram dug by the British to prevent the invasion.
The place has seen many struggles and witnessed notable residents like Subhas Chandra Bose, Hemant Kumar, Uttam Kumar, Satyajit Ray, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Ashutosh Mukherjee and Syama Prasad Mukherjee.
Since then, a lot of water has flown under the bridge and the tone and tenor of Bhabanipur have changed drastically.
The fading identity of once-famous personalities amid urban sprawl has reduced the pride of Bengal to mere political issues on who is the real custodian of the ‘Bhadralok society’ (civilised society), say observers. And this has been happening for decades, barring a few post-Independence years.
However, in recent years there has been a paradigm shift in Bengal’s politics and key issues like economy, jobs, industry, education have been overshadowed by slogans such as “Joy Ma Durga” and “Jai Sri Ram”.
Since the near-absolute routing of the Left Front and Narendra Modi’s ascent to power in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party has emerged as a force to reckon with in the state with the help of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
So, veteran journalists who have covered politics for years are now getting into the habit of making the rounds of Keshav Bhavan in north Kolkata, a nondescript building that houses the Sangh’s regional headquarters. Until a couple of years ago, most reporters would have walked past the building without a second glance.
The sudden attention from the media has not changed things much for the RSS and it continues to run its show the way it always has, away from the public eye, barely drawing any attention towards itself, and helping the BJP to fill the political vacuum in Bengal.
And when talking about the Sangh, one cannot ignore Bhabanipur, which was once the ‘para’ (neighbourhood) of Jan Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mukherjee.
“When we talk about the paradigm shift in Bengal’s politics, when we talk about slogans like “Joy Ma Durga” and “Jai Sri Ram”, which were never so prominent in Bengal’s politics, then we have to believe that the seed of polarisation was sown decades ago by Syama Prasad Mukherjee through the Jan Sangh. I don’t want to go into whether he was right or wrong but the fact is the issue was never an agenda in Bengal’s politics until Narendra Modi came to power in 2014,” said political expert Kapil Thakur.
“With the help of the RSS, the BJP managed to spread its wings in Bengal through polarisation and it succeeded in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In the 2021 assembly polls, we have seen the BJP manage to increase its seats. This means people in Bengal didn’t outright reject its ideology. The BJP fought the 2021 battle in Bengal on communal lines. But in a broader perspective, the BJP may have dug its own grave as Muslims (a decisive factor with more than 30% vote share) moved towards the Trinamool Congress and Mamata stormed back to power. Now we have a bypoll in Bhabanipur on September 30 and, as per 2016 records, the constituency has nearly 22 per cent Muslim voters and this could be decisive this time.”
Amid many chapters of Bhabanipur, 30B, Harish Chatterjee Street is indeed one of the most influential addresses in Indian politics. This is the place where Mamata Banerjee lives.
Located right behind the Adi Ganga (Tolly’s Nullah) and filled mostly with lower-middle-class shacks with brick walls, roadside eateries and garages the street leading to Kalighat Main Gate has seen many influential leaders visiting ‘Didi’ (Mamata) in the past.
Be it Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit in July 2000 to steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal in December 2017, history says it all: how the occupant of this single-story house has continued to draw the bigwigs of the world over several decades.
But the Trinamool chief got the shock of her life when she lost the prestigious Nandigram seat to the BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari in the assembly polls this year.
This has forced Mamata to contest the bypoll, which will be held on September 30, and the counting of votes will be on October 3.
To take on the chief minister, the BJP has fielded advocate Priyanka Tibrewal who was born in Bhabanipur. She joined the BJP in August 2014 after being suggested by Babul Supriyo, the singer-turned-BJP politician, and inspired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She was the legal adviser of Supriyo.
In 2015, she contested the Kolkata Municipal Council elections from ward number 58 (Entally) as a BJP candidate but lost to Trinamool Congress’s Swapan Samaddar.
During her little more than six years in the BJP, she has handled many important tasks, and in August 2020 she was made the vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) in West Bengal.
She contested the assembly election this year from Entally but was defeated by the TMC’s Swarna Kamal Saha by a margin of 58,257 votes.
“I was born in Bhabanipur and ‘Bhabanipur nijer meyekei chaaye’ (Bhabanipur wants its own daughter). For me it’s a fight to serve the people and for her (Mamata) it’s a contest to save her chair. Now it is up to the people to decide,” Tibrewal said.
Mamata has to get elected to the state assembly within six months of taking charge as chief minister on May 5. But why will people vote for her after she recently lost to the BJP in Nandigram, some observers have asked.
To find the answer, one needs to interact with locals at the 109-year-old Sree Hari Mistanna Bhandar at 351/B, Shama Prasad Mukherjee Road, Bakul Bagan in Bhabanipur.
For over a century, this sweet shop has witnessed numerous debates over ‘Bengal Renaissance’ with eminent personalities like Uttam Kumar, Satyajit Ray, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, etc, would participate while enjoying the delectable chholar dal, kochuri and lyangcha.
This reporter too ordered all these items at the shop when a milkman arrived and, after collecting his payment, he left casually saying ‘Khela Hobe’ (game on), the political slogan of the TMC that has become an accepted way of greeting each other in the state.
“It’s true. I am noticing nowadays people are using ‘Khela Hobe’ instead of saying ‘good morning’ and ‘good night’. We have been living in Bhabanipur for decades and we know the pulse of the area better than anyone else. If you ask me personally, why will people waste their vote on a BJP candidate since the TMC is in power in Bengal? People don’t have any alternative and, therefore, people will vote for Mamata Banerjee. Similarly, there is no alternative, presently, to Narendra Modi in national politics. The problem with the BJP is they don’t have a strong face in Bengal. In the 2021 assembly polls, they didn’t have a CM face and that went against them. In Bengal, this is a big factor. The people here want to see the face of those they want to vote for. If I am right, then Mamata Banerjee will win this bypoll by more than 50,000 votes,” said Subrata Guin, the owner of the shop.
Prasad Ranjan Das, a descendent of freedom fighter and founder of Swaraj Party Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, said, “Whoever will do good for the people should come to power. The leader should bring back the lost glory of Bengal.”
Das, who has also performed with American folk singer Pete Seeger and is well known in Bhabanipur, said, “I am not going into who is good and who is bad. All I am saying is people should vote for the most eligible candidate who wants the development of Bengal and who actually cares about the people of Bengal.”
He became emotional while singing and playing the guitar. He was humming the famous Seeger song, “Where have all the flowers gone”.
A close look at the political statistics of Bhabanipur revealed that in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Tathagata Roy was the BJP’s Kolkata South candidate and he stood second to the TMC’s Subrata Bakshi, but he took the lead in the Bhabanipur assembly segment by 184 votes. The constituency has a sizeable BJP support base, mainly comprising Gujaratis, Sikhs and Biharis.
In this year’s assembly polls, of the total eight wards in Bhabanipur, the BJP was leading in two and was trailing by a small margin in two others.
To understand the Gujarati sentiments here, News18 spoke to a few people. One of them was Rajesh Mehta, a food processing adviser, whose ancestors lived in Bhabanipur for several decades before moving to Sarat Bose Road.
His grandfather, Heera Lal Mehta, migrated to West Bengal and became the first Gujarati nominated councillor in 1925 in Kolkata. In 1927, they bought a sauce company ‘Army & Navy’ from a Muslim entrepreneur.
During World War 2, the Army & Navy sauce was very popular and the Mehtas became well known in Kolkata.
“We used to live on Pollock Street. Our sauce factory was also there. Then we moved to Chakraberia Road during the ‘Great Calcutta Killings’ 1946. We call it the Suhrawardy riots (after Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who was the prime minister of Bengal in 1946-1947 and prime minister of Pakistan in 1956-1957). Later we had to close our sauce factory and the Army & Navy brand is no more. I have some fond memories of Bhabanipur and if you ask me Mamata Banerjee will win from the seat. There will be a contest because the BJP has a vote bank in the area but mostly ruling party candidates win such elections. In this case, too, I think Didi will win the poll,” said Rajesh Mehta.
Mamata Banerjee’s Kalighat residence is in the Bhabanipur constituency and it has been a stronghold of the TMC since it came to power in West Bengal in 2011.
That year, Trinamool leader Subrata Bakshi won the seat by nearly 50,000 votes, defeating his nearest rival Narayan Prasad Jain of the CPI (M). The TMC had fought the election in alliance with the Congress.
Bakshi then vacated the seat to make way for Mamata Banerjee, who was an MP, so she could get elected to the state assembly. She won the bypoll, defeating her nearest CPI (M)’s Nandini Mukherjee by a margin of nearly 54,000 votes.
On May 21 this year, TMC MLA Sovandeb Chattopadhyay resigned from the same seat so Mamata Banerjee can get elected. And the locals are gearing up to give their verdict.
Talking over tea
Another popular destination in the area is the 95-year-old Balwant Singh’s Dhaba at 10/B Harish Mukherjee Road, where one can find all kinds of people including political workers of nearly every party in the state. This is the place where political workers, besides others, visit to have their fill of the famous ‘Kesar Chai’ and ‘Doodh Cola’.
Its present owner Lakhwinder Singh, son of Balwant Singh, said, “My place is very unique in many ways. This place is famous for its tea and workers from all political parties come to enjoy it. I think Mamata Didi will win this bypoll because she has done a lot of work for the people of this constituency. I won’t say it would be an easy task for the TMC since the BJP also has support here but overall Didi has the edge.”
When asked whether the Nandigram loss will be a hurdle for Mamata Banerjee, he said, “I don’t think so, because people usually vote for the ruling party.”
Col Diptangshu Chowdhury, who has been with both the TMC and BJP, was somewhat cryptic when asked about the bypoll. “This is politics of monumental miscalculation, giving wrong vibes to the people of Bengal and Bengalis in particular,” he said. “Bhabanipur is the birthplace of Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee and the founder of the party which uses him as a poster boy in Bengal. Legends like Satyajit Ray too belong to this. Why none of these families have ever been approached or have they been rejected? Self-pride, self-respect, self-honour of Bengalis be admired instead of being trampled upon by those who lack both education and erudition. Divisive policy will lead to destruction of diverse India.”
In front of Basusree Cinema Hall near Kalighat Metro, a group of young Trinamool workers were busy arranging the party posters depicting Mamata Banerjee as the saviour of Bengal with the ‘Khela Hobe’ slogan. One of them identified himself as Rajat Das. A plumber by profession, Rajat said, “I am not an active member of the TMC but we strongly believe in Didi. If we face any problem, she resolves it immediately through the neighbourhood club. Can you show me a single BJP leader here who we can approach in case of a crisis? We are poor people and if someone helps us in times of crisis, it is enough for us.”
Despite such reactions from the people, both the TMC and BJP have expressed confidence about winning the Bhabanipur seat.
However, going by the ground reality, it will be a tough task for the BJP to secure the seat, political observers say, because the party doesn’t seem mentally prepared and was against the polling.
State BJP president Dilip Ghosh, in fact, accused the Election Commission of helping Mamata Banerjee retain the CM’s post.
“I would like to appeal to the people to vote for the BJP because they must understand that Mamata Banerjee is contesting to save her chair. She is power-hungry,” Ghosh said.
TMC MP Sukhendu Sekhar Roy sounded assured of his party chief’s victory. “The BJP candidate will lose her deposit,” he said. “There will be no fight at all, as our mass leader Mamata Banerjee will emerge victorious by a huge margin.”