July 26, 2020

Jyotirmoy Prodhani

On 13 July one Ranger and his beat officer from the Belacoba Forest Range in Jalpaiguri, North Bengal, raided the house of Swapna Barman at Gomostopara village near Jalpaiguri for alleged possession of timber without papers. The Range Officer went there with a full platoon, at least three SUVs and half a dozen armed guards in combat fatigue with the preparedness of dealing with any dreaded forest mafia. They got down from the vehicles, rushed to Swapna Barman and triumphantly pointed guns at her as if they had just caught hold of a prized timber Don.

During heavy monsoon, the river Teesta overflows and that is also the time when tree logs come floating which some of the local enthusiasts try to pull ashore. These logs are then sold at a much cheaper price in the local markets. This has been a phenomenon every monsoon. In fact, the floating logs have become so predictable that it has become a sort of monsoon festival to collect logs from the Teesta. As the water recedes, it even becomes easier to drag the logs from the dry river banks. The forest department, on the other hand, is not known to have chased the logs though most of the logs are well sectioned tree stems apparently get drifted from the piles of felled logs from inside the forests. One reason of this inertia on the part of the department being that too much of monitoring on the drifted logs might well open up a cupboard for more skeletons to tumble down as most of these logs are unaccounted timbers ostensibly felled as part of the irregular chopping of forest trees.

But this time for the lone pair of such logs there was extraordinary eagerness and hyperactive drives on the part of the forest department. Therefore, this time they had raided the house of Swapna Barman, a daughter of a rickshaw puller, a native Rajbanshi Schedule Caste girl, whose family, till the other day, just could manage two square meals a day. But the situation slightly changed when Swapna Barman became the only Indian so far to have won the gold medal in the 2018 Asian Games in the event called heptathlon, an athletic event which, like many of them, most of her own villagers never heard of till she won the medal. Earlier, she had also won a gold medal in the Asian Athletic Championship in 2017 and got a silver medal in the SAF Games in 2016. Being the champion of one of the toughest athletic events she soon became well-known all over the country. For her extraordinary sporting achievements, she was also conferred with the coveted Arjuna Award. In the same Asiad Games,  Assamese girl, Hima Das too won the gold medal in the 400 metres mixed and women’s relay. Young Hima Das deservedly became a celebrity in Assam. She has also been offered the job of DSP by the state government. In stark contrast to such glorious journey, Swapna Barman received a lukewarm welcome in Kolkata airport, the capital of her home state, moderate cash rewards from the state, and that is about it, where it all ended. Swapna belongs to the Koch Rajbanshi community, an indigenous repressed community recognized as Scheduled Caste in the state of West Bengal. But in the caste sensitive Bengal society, they have always been considered as pariahs, the low castes; the mainstream castes of Bengal even twisted a term to describe them as the Bahés, a Rajbanshi colloquial term of respect turned into a derogatory word by the mainstream Bengal to stigmatize the entire community. In a well-known Bengali novel (TeestaParerBrittanta) the community is symbolically represented by a loin clad semi civilized character, Bagharu. The popular novel has forever immortalized the image of naked Bagharu as the quintessential identity of a Rajbanshi in Bengal. Swapna Barman belongs to this community who are, for the mainstream Bengal, a ridiculous Bahé, a Bagharu, a semi civilized, quasi savage entity.

Swapna Barman, as was revealed later, was constantly cajoled for about three days by an incumbent to buy a pair of floating logs from him. The desperate seller finally could dump two timber logs in the front yard of her thatched house. Like most of the people in the village, she finally agreed to purchase the log. But before even a lone plank of the wood could be used, the very next morning the forest department, on a ‘tip-off’ appeared in lightning speed and she was caught ‘red-handed’ dealing with illegal timber.

This apparently highly ‘laudable’ forest activism generated a variety of responses. Predictably, the mainstream Bengal media turned the forest officers as the ultimate protagonists, the champions of forest protection. The arrival of the forest team was well organised and well equipped. Right on their landing, about half a dozen guards aimed their guns at Swapna and another half a dozen opened their mobiles and cameras to shoot videos of Swapna being ‘caught’, a scoop for the media that the forest officials brought to cover the event. Swapna was seen pleading the lady beat officer not to take videos of her because that would ruin her career which, she said, ‘I had painstakingly built for the last nine years. I toiled with my sweat and blood to reach here. Please don’t destroy me.’ Then came running her brother to stand in front and said it was he and not his sister who had got those logs. The half a dozen gunmen then turned their guns to the young boy, put him in a corner and forced him to squat on the ground, the boy then ended up looking helplessly at the barrels pointed at him. When Swapna ran to her brother to protect him from assault, then Panchali Ray, the ‘upright and highly active’ Beat officer dragged out Swapna to face the guns again. When Swapna was still pleading to listen to her, and let her explain, the ‘upright’ beat officer asked that famous question, ‘Tumi Key?’ (Who are you?)

Surely before she came to the house of Swapna Barman, the most famous address of Gomostopara, she did not come as an ignorant as to where they were heading to for the catch. She could not be as dumb. In fact, she did not ask the question to get an answer; rather she had asked the question to give an answer. With that question she had instantly turned Swapna into a persona non-grata; with that question, the Beat officer had actually shown the wretched daughter of a rickshaw puller, a Rajbanshi bahe, a low caste pariah, as one with despicable social credibility, what she actually was. Swapna was reminded by that question that she was an expendable non-entity, no matter what might have been her achievements for the country. The Range Officer showed his officious authority by issuing her challans to show the papers of those logs within 30 days sharp and heroically zoomed off after giving precious bytes to the media which they had brought along to the spot.

However, when they had departed with the satisfaction of having effectively ruined Swapna as the videos got uploaded within seconds to circulate Swapna’s ignominious fall, the same video also reached others- her community members, for whom Swapna was one of the very few reasons to be proud of. The incident turned to be a catalyst for one of the biggest mobilisations of the Koch Rajbanshi Kamatapuri community for a social cause in North Bengal. The incident even created a furore in Assam.

The news story that followed in the mainstream media of Bengal screamed with the headline, Illegal Timber found at Swapna’s House. Curiously a moral brigade appeared who got ‘devastated’ at such reprehensible criminal act of Swapna Barman. Some even demanded setting up of a bigger commission to investigate Swapna’s connections with the illegal timber traders. In short, they demanded enquiries into the links of Swapna in plundering the forest of Bengal. The District President of the Sports Association, Mihir Bandopadhyay was quick to project Swapna as a criminal, ‘No matter how big a player she is, there must be exemplary actions against her’. One Purajit Bakshi Gupta of the District Sports Association seemed to have got equally devasted at Swapna’s crime, ‘As a sportsman, I am aghast and ashamed.’(in UttarbangaSambad, 14 July 2020) The same newspaper wrote with enthusiasm, ‘Swapna broke down in front of the officers and finally gave in to admit her crime.’

To the local Koch Rajbanshis the incident had given them a sense of déjà vu, for this has been too familiar a pattern through which the Rajbanshis have been routinely criminalized by the mainstream narrative of Bengal. The virtual spaces on the mobiles crowded with uproar as the Koch Rajbanshi youths set the social media platforms ablaze. The video of humiliated Swapna got viral.

The political parties, TMC and BJP found themselves in a Catch 22 imbroglio, the 45% voter share of the Rajbanshis in North Bengal is too pricey to be given away on a platter to the opponents. The forthright and straight-to-your- face community leader, the firebrand Bongshi Badan Barman, the Chairman of Rajbanshi Unnayan Parishad, called up the Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, and warned that the situation would go out of control if those officers were not taken to task for having plotted against the biggest Rajabanshi sporting icon and the CM must ensure removal of all the false charges against her. Almost soon after, Mamata Banerjee came on camera to castigate the two forest officials, ordered their transfers and declared Swapna as innocent. But curiously, her own Forest Minister had earlier showered praise on the two forest officers for having nabbed one involved in illegal timber trading. However, after her announcement, Babul Supriyo, Union Minister of State for Environment and Forest, was enraged at the CM for having encouraged the ‘plunderer of the precious forest’ and for having discredited two of the most ‘pious forest officers of the country’- Sanjay Dutta and Panchali Ray. When Babul Supriyo’s video statement had gone viral, the BJP sensed trouble at the growing anger of the Rajbanshis against the party, so soon Babul Supriyo amended his statements. It turned into a macabre political comedy of sort.

This incident, however, is not an isolated one, it is part of a pattern through which the Rajbanshis in Bengal have been criminalized, racially discriminated against and socially castigated. This incident was preceded by another event where a gang of extortionists had locked up a house in Coochbehar and driven out the owner of the house who was a Rajbanshi school teacher. The extortionists had demanded Rs. 10,00, 000/- (rupees ten lakhs) as a ‘donation’ to be paid by the teacher in order to get back his own house. All the three extortionists happened to be Hindu Bengalis who had to be arrested following extraordinary public protests and pressure. There are reasons to believe that Swapna’s incident might as well be a calculated act to remind the Rajbanshis that the land, the erstwhile Kamrup Kamata, in which they have been living for centuries, no longer belonged to them.

The transfer orders of the two high caste Bengali officials immediately followed by a volley of racist and despicable misogynist slurs in the social media against the community and Swapna Barman. The racist and misogynist slurs were so vile and abusive that several Koch Rajbanshi women organisations from Jalpaiguri had to approach the cyber cells to formally lodge complaints.

The Swapna Barman episode was followed by another tragic incident in North Dinajpur, where, on 19 July, a 16 years old Rajbanshi school student was allegedly raped and brutally murdered. As the protest erupted the Bengal media reported the incident as the protest of irate people at the ‘death of a girl’. This time the suspected perpetrator appeared to be a Muslim following the recovery of his mobile and his bicycle at the spot. Officially the incident was quickly termed as suicide. Since the perpetrator appeared to be a Muslim, the BJP got overactive and turned into the biggest supporter of the Rajbanshis. The body of the rape and murder suspect was found a couple of days later. This time the TMC government turned too swift to arrest the father, the uncle and younger brother of the 16 years old rape and murder victim.  Earlier, on 12 July, the Rajbanshi MLA from Hemtabad constituency in North Dinajpur, Debendranath Ray, was found hanging in the verandah of a shop in the market. Nobody believes the official version that he went to the market and committed suicide.

This is symptomatic of Kafkaesque existential experience of the Koch Rajbanshis in Bengal who have been brutally subjected to repressions and been reduced not just into peripheral disjuncts but into effective non-entities.

The author teaches at North-Eastern Hill University, (NEHU) Shillong.