Kolkata, October 09 IN the capital, comrades may be all worked up on George W Bush and the IAEA but here, in their electoral bastion of rural Bengal, they are battling an unprecedented breakdown in what was once considered their formidable organisational structure: the party is directly under attack in a string of "ration riots," violence over food grain siphoned off the Public Distribution System.
What started six weeks ago as a local law-and-order problem is spreading and has now touched six districts, acquiring political undertones that's giving sleepless nights to the party and the government. For, it has brought together the Naxalites and the Jamiat-e-Ulema Hind, the same two groups that pushed the CPM against the wall in Nandigram.
Today, Utpal Narasundar, the 27-year-old son of a ration dealer hanged himself after his grocery shop and rice godown were looted at a village near Nalhati in Birbhum. Utpal's is the third suicide in a fortnight of the riots, the other two victims were ration dealers. Two villagers have been killed in police firing so far.
Utpal had taken a loan from a bank to set up his grocery shop and the godown. Villagers angry at not getting ration supplies from the PDS outlet his family owned slapped a fine of Rs 27 lakh on his father Chandra Kishore. He was asked to shell out the money to each cardholder as compensation for the months they did not get their supplies.
Fear has gripped several of the 20,000 ration dealers across the state, many of them having enjoyed the patronage of the ruling CPM for decades.
Of the 8.35 crore ration cardholders in the state, almost 60% are APL (above poverty line). While the government has taken care to ensure that BPL cardholders get their supplies, it's the APL ones who are angry. Many of them have routinely depended on the open market rather than the PDS shop for supplies but price rise has fuelled the anger: in Birbhum, one of the centres of the violence, for example, APL wheat sells for Rs 6.75 a kg while the open-market rate is Rs 13. Even Food and Civil Supplies Minister Paresh Adhikari has had to admit that there is "large-scale diversion" of grain from APL PDS to the open market. An investigation into the violence shows why the CPM has reason to be worried:
* In Barjora in Bankura, where one of the worst rioting took place, Narayan Dutta, a ration dealer, owns the only two-storied pucca building. He's a CPM cardholder and his brother is a unit secretary while another brother owns a grocery shop. The party's district secretary in Bankura, Amiya Patra, openly admits the nexus between the party and PDS dealers: "So far, we have been able to identify as many as seven CPM cardholders who own PDS dealerships."
* In Sian in Birbhum, a district secretariat member of the CPM was beaten up by an angry mob when he tried to defend a ration dealer.
* In Burdwan again, Pradip Ta, a district secretariat member, was assaulted for trying to come to the aid of a ration dealer accused of siphoning off the grain.
* In Radhamohanpur in Bankura a violent mob ransacked the venue where a CPI(M) party meeting was underway.
* Riot-affected areas are also those where there's a significant presence of Maoists and the Jamiat-e-Ulema Hind: Ranibandh, Barjora, Onda and pockets in Burdwan, Birbhum, Nadia and Murshidabad. In Nandigram, these were the same two forces that got together to force the CPM to call off its SEZ plan.
* Police officials say that Naxalite fingerprints are evident in the nature of the violence — torching jeeps, godowns, shops and PDS outlets. And in the method of punishment: imposition of "fines," considered the hallmark of Maoist groups.
* Shrewdly, the Trinamool and Congress have not rushed in yet leaving the field wide open for Naxalites and the Jamiat.
* Cardholders are increasingly not interested in lifting food grain but, instead, want money as compensation for the months they have not got their supplies. In most places, meetings have been held and huge "fines" imposed on the dealers, many of them forced to give it in writing that they will compensate in cash.