Murshidabad District with its Headquarters at Berhampore, located almost in the middle of West Bengal, is a very important district of the State. During the early eighties due to emergence of the new Panchayat system following the panchayat elections of 1978 the relationship between government officials and elected representatives at the cutting edge levels was deteriorating in all the districts of the state. Murshidabad was no exception. After the second panchayat elections in 1983 this relationship was further strained and in many cases ended up in assault of the government officers by the Panchayat functionaries and their allies and their resultant transfer. In Murshidabad during 1982-83 there were 11 such incidents and in all cases either the Block Development Officer (BDO), or the Junior Land Reforms Officer (JLRO) or the Agriculture Extension Officer (AEO) were the victims. Because of their posting in remote areas they were becoming soft targets whenever they came in the way of corrupt practices or tried to implement the declared policy of the Central and State governments impartially. After the establishment of the three-tier Panchayat-system multifarious developmental work came under the purview of the Block and resultantly the volume of work increased considerably.
Raninagar Block, situated in the eastern side of the river Ganges, is about 42 kms from the district headquarters Berhampore. A great portion of Raninagar Block is very fertile due to regular deposition of alluvium by the river Bhagirathi. Rice, jute, wheat and pulses are the main crops of the area. Smuggling to and from Bangla Desh is a constant problem.
After the second Panchayat election in May, 1983, the Raninagar Panchayat Samiti was formed by the ruling left parties. Five Gram Panchayats (GP) out of nine belonged to the ruling parties and the remaining four to the Congress. Since the Panchayat election just got over and many new persons were inducted into the system, there was much enthusiasm in the work of the Panchayat sector.
The BDO was a direct recruit of the 1979 batch of the West Bengal Civil Service (Executive) posted there in June 1981. The BDO worked hard and maintained good relations with all concerned. The District Magistrate (DM) took charge of Murshidabad in September 1983. He had put in 12 years of service in the Indian Administrative Service and had returned to West Bengal after 6 years of service in the Government of India on deputation.
An allotment of 800 units of Wheat mini-kits (seeds for sowing) were received in Ramangar Block from the Principal Agricultural Officer (PAO), Murshidabad, for the winter season for distribution among the marginal and poor farmers of the block. A meeting of the Krishi-Sech-o-Samabay Sthayee Samiti (KSSS, standing committee on agriculture, irrigation and cooperation) of Raninagar Panchayat Samiti (PS) was convened on 9-11-1983 for taking a resolution on distribution of these mini-kits. In the meeting, which the BDO could not attend on account of some urgent official work at district headquarters, 800 mini kits were sub-allotted to the 9 Gram Panchayats (GPs) and it was resolved that the Karmadhyaksha (chairman of the concerned Standing committee) of that Sthayee Samiti would prepare the beneficiary lists in respect of all the 9 GPs, including the 4 GPs under the Congress party, and the Sabhapati (Chairman) of the PS would approve the lists. The Pradhans of GPs would have no role in the process. According to prevailing norms, the Sthayee Samiti in its meeting was to sub-allot the mini kits to all the GPs and the concerned Pradhans in the meetings of the GPs would prepare and approve the Beneficiary Lists and place these in the meeting of the KSSS for approval after threadbare discussion.
Coming to know of this unique resolution, the BDO after a day or two took up the matter with the Sabhapati, PS and tried to persuade him not to follow this resolution as this would encroach the democratic rights of the GPs. The Sabhapati turned a deaf ear. The BDO immediately took up the matter with the DM who, on the basis of the resolution of the meeting of the District Co-ordination Committee (DCC), set up under Chief Secretary’s orders, held on 9/11/1983 at Berhampore Circuit House, issued orders on 18-11-1983 on how to distribute mini-kits. On the same day, the BDO sent a note to the Sabhapati for arranging distribution of wheat mini-kits according to the orders of the DM. The Sabhapati refused to accept it and used filthy language in respect of the BDO and the DM.
In the meantime the Director of Agriculture issued a circular to the district authorities making it mandatory that the distribution of mini-kits be done by the Panchayat Samitis. The Panchayat Samitis were asked to prepare lists through KSSS. However, in this circular the process of preparation of the list by the KSSS was not mentioned. In many instances it was seen that the Panchayat Samitis prepared the list arbitrarily on their on keeping the GPs, especially those belonging to other political parties, in dark.
In the meeting of the DCC held on 9.11.83, a question was raised by an MLA regarding the modalities of distribution of wheat mini-kits by the Panchayat Samitis. In reply the Principal Agricultural Officer (PAO) stated that according to the circular, issued by the Director of Agriculture, the list of beneficiaries would be prepared and finalised by the PS and in case the PS failed to finalise it, the list would be prepared by the ADO (erstwhile AEO). The Sabhadhipati of the Zilla Parishad (ZP) held a different opinion and stated that the GPs in this matter should not be ignored. The GPs are organic limbs of the PS and should prepare the basic list according to the sub-allotments by the PS through the concerned Sthayee Samiti. The Sthayee Samitis concerned were to approve the list unless there was serious material objection sustained on enquiries by competent officers like AEO. This view was unanimously accepted and resolved in the meeting.
It was in pursuance of these decisions of the DCC, in which the MPs and MLAs were also present, that these guidelines were issued by the DM in consultation of the Sabhadhipati of the ZP. The order issued by the DM was aimed at further decentralisation and was based on the earlier resolution taken in the meeting of the DCC.
On 21-11-1983 the BDO discussed the matter with the Karmadhyaksha, KSSS, apprised him of the guideline issued by the DM and requested him to follow it in toto in the interest of equity and fairness. The Karmadhyaksha was unwilling to do so.
The BDO met the DM on 30-11-1983 and apprised him of the situation. The DM advised him to send a fresh note to both the Sabhapati and the Karmadhyakasha with a request to place the matter before the Sthayee Samiti by 6-12-1983 in view of the advent of the sowing season of wheat.
On 1-12-1983, the BDO accordingly sent a fresh note to the Sabhapati and the Karmadhyaksha. They were furious and refused to accept it. After returning from the State Bank of India, Lalbag, which was the Sub-Divisional Headquarters, after encashment of salaries of the Block officials on 1-12-1983, the BDO called over the ADO to discuss the next course of action for distribution of the mini-kits in view of the advent of the sowing season for wheat.
While discussion was going on, at about 3 PM about 150 people, mainly of the nearest Raninagar GP, gathered at the Block compound led by the Sabhapati of the PS and the ex-Sahakari Sabhapati (former Vice Chairman) of the Panchayat Samiti and the Chowkidar of the Zilla Parishad Dak Bungalow at Raninagar. They shouted slogans against the so-called non-co-operation of the BDO and the DM in the distribution of wheat mini-kits. They even shouted slogans with filthy abuse:
“We do not accept the scrap of paper from the DM. Wheat minikit must be given as per our list. Otherwise that wheat will be shoved into the rear of the DM and the BDO. Break, pulverize the BDO’s black hand.”
The Sabhapati, the ex-Sahakari Sabhapati and the Chowkidar provoked the mob and directed an attack on the BDO and the ADO. Thereafter, the three along with some of the followers entered the office chamber of the BDO and demanded distribution of wheat mini-kits in pursuance of the unique resolution of the KSSS. The BDO expressed his inability in view of the guideline issued by the DM and requested them to abide by the DM’s order for the sake of equity and fairness. They paid no heed, went on shouting slogans as above and stuck to their demand. The three went on abusing the officers, hindering the administrative work and gheraoed the BDO and ADO. Suddenly, at the instigation of the Sabhapati, the ex-Sahakari Sabhapati and the Chowkidar, the mob began to assault the ADO and the BDO physically. One follower hit the ADO on his back, who fell face-down on the table. The BDO was heckled and physically assaulted by the mob provoked by the three. The BDO along with the ADO was forced to sign the distribution list prepared by the Sabhapati, PS, and under duress.
After this, they dispersed shouting the same slogans. The BDO and the ADO were traumatised after the incident. They were physically hurt, mentally stressed and felt unwell. In the meantime, evening was drawing near and gradually darkness fell.
On 2-12-1983, the BDO and the ADO went to the subdivisional headquarters at Lalbag. The SDO, a 1970 batch WBCS (Executive) cadre officer, was out of Headquarters. The BDO spoke to the DM over phone from Lalbag. The DM sent the District Panchayat Officer (DPO) and a F.I.R. was drafted. The BDO and the DPO went to Raninagar Thana (police station) and lodged the F.I.R. No action was taken by the Officer –in- Charge (O.C.) to arrest the persons named in the F.I.R. In view of this, the DPO informed the DM and the same night the DM and the Superintendent of Police (SP) came to Raninagar Thana.
At the Thana, The DM asked the SP to immediately arrest the persons named in the FIR. The police officers rushed out and came back with the Sabhapati first. The SP accused the Sabhapati of assaulting the BDO and the ADO, obstructing the discharge of duty by government servants and abusing the DM and the BDO in filthy language. The Sabhapati denied the charges. The BDO confirmed that he was the very person who along with the ex-Sahakari Sabhapati and the Chowkidar instigated their followers to assault the BDO and the AEO physically and uttered such filthy language. The Sabhapati was then arrested. Then, one by one, the other two were brought in and arrested in the presence of the DM and the SP.
The arrest of a leading Panchayat functionary like the Sabhapati and a local leader who was a whole-timer of the ruling party and the ex-Sahakari Sabhapati caused a great commotion. This was particularly so because on the 11 earlier occasions of such assault on officers no one had been arrested, whereas here the chairman of the elected panchayat samiti had been jailed. The arrested persons were produced in the court at Lalbag the next day but they refused to take bail as a tactic to create pressure on the administration and draw sympathy from the public in general. In protest there was a call for Raninagar Thana Bundh on 6-12-1983.
The Bundh activists became unruly and looted shops mainly owned by Congress supporters at different places. During the reckless loot, some persons sustained injury. In spite of their best efforts, the magistrate and police could not prevent the happening.
The Sabhapati and the Sahakari Sabhapati finally accepted bail just before this incident. The ex-Sahakari Sabhapati was suspended from service as a school teacher, as he was in police custody for over 48 hours.
From March 1982 to December 1983 11 BDOs and AEOs in Murshidabad district were assaulted on duty. All the major political parties were involved and because of the greater number of the ruling party people, most of the assault was by them.
Both the service associations of WBCS officers (Senior and Junior) made deputations to every DM and Sabhadhipati in the State. The WBCS Association also met the Minister for Panchayats and Land Reforms, the second man in the cabinet, to express their grievances over the issue and demanded justice.
The Secretary of the WBCS (Executive) Association wrote a letter to the Chief Secretary. In this he said “Nobody is willing to work as a BDO in the district.… If ‘BDO bashing’ turns out to be the latest political pastime, and the Government does not take any preventive measures, the Administration will be a mockery.”
The BDO received information through his reliable source that a meeting had been held at Raninagar Dak Bungalow under the leadership of the Chowkidar who was a local leader and a terror. They conspired to attack the BDO on his way back to his residence in the evening with bombs, ingredients for which were already in their possession.
The BDO informed the DM and the SP and the latter ordered the Circle Inspector of Police to arrest the criminals with the arms and ammunition which were reportedly in their possession and keep the miscreants under close surveillance. As a result of the drive, some ingredients of bombs were recovered from them and legal action was initiated.
In spite of the incident of assault, the BDO tried to remain cool and carried on the day-to-day and the developmental works of the Block. Raninagar Panchayat Samiti called a meeting on 17-1-1984 to move a resolution against the BDO. The agenda included the following:
- That the BDO tampered with papers relating to relief during the last flood and acted against the decision of the Sabhapati and thereby resorted to malpractices.
- That the BDO by distributing wheat Mini-kits amongst the farmers in his administrative capacity at a belated period in collaboration with the AEO did harm to wheat cultivation in the Block and violated the decision of the concerned Sthayee Samiti.
- That the BDO caused the arrest of the Sabhapati, the ex-Sahakari Sabhapati of the Panchayat Samiti and the Chowkidar of ZP Dak Bungalow on the basis of false case.
- That accordingly, let the BDO be recalled by the Government as per provisions of the Section 119(1) of The W.B. Panchayat Act, 1973.
Regarding item no 1 of the Agenda, the BDO’s point was that he tampered with no documents and did not resort to any malpractice while distributing relief to the affected persons in the last flood. Only modified arrangements to some extent were done on emergency basis in view of the fact that the number of affected persons taking shelter in the relief camps was more than expected. This was done purely on administrative grounds to tackle the emergency in the interest of public service.
Regarding item no 2, the BDO’s point was that as the Panchayat functionaries failed to distribute wheat mini-kits among the poor and marginal farmers of the Block as per the DM’s guideline, the BDO arranged to distribute these departmentally through administrative personnel like Krishi Prajukti Sahayak (KPS) etc. with the active cooperation of the AEO on the basis of departmental data, as the sowing season for wheat had already set in.
After-effects of the Notice:
a) From Panchayat Samiti Members: Most of the members of the Panchayat Samiti, including Pradhans belonging to ruling party, contacted the BDO and stated that he had done no wrong and accordingly they were with him. They also assured him that they would remain absent on 17-1-1984 and hence the recall resolution would not be passed.
b) From the WBCS Officers and the ADO: It was decided in the meeting of the WBCS Association that if the BDO of Raninagar was removed on recall by the Government on the basis of the resolution, no BDO would join at Raninagar Block. In addition, SATSA (the State Agricultural and Technologists Association) joined hands with WBCS Association and both the associations jointly warned that if such a trend of assaults on BDOs and AEOs continued, they would be compelled to go on strike. Their feelings were ventilated also to the Minister for Panchayats.
At the given time the BDO with the Extension Officer (Panchayat) [EOP] attended the meeting. There was full participation by members belonging to the Congress party, but members from the ruling party side were very few. There was a quorum, but the Sabhapati sensed the trouble ahead and in spite of the quorum postponed the meeting on “indispensable grounds”. The BDO recorded his note of dissent that in spite of there being a quorum, the meeting was postponed without showing any cogent reason.
Notice was issued fixing the date for holding the postponed meeting on 2-2-1984. This time the party issued a whip to the members of the Panchayat Samiti belonging to the ruling Front to attend the meeting definitely. It also decided to keep all such members at the ZP Dak Bungalow at Raninagar on the night of 1-2-1984 so that none could be absent on any excuse.
Most of the Panchayat Samiti members belonging to the ruling party contacted the BDO, expressed their helplessness this time in view of the whip, and requested the BDO to fight on his own.
As per decision of the party, almost all the Panchayat Samiti members belonging to the ruling party stayed the night at the Dak Bungalow at Raninagar. They came to the Panchayat Samiti meeting hall in a procession led by the MP with the MLA at the tail, shouting the slogans as already mentioned. In all 33 members, of which 19 were from the ruling party and 14 from the Congress attended the meeting.
At the very beginning of the meeting, the Sabhapati took out a paper from his pocket, read out the agenda and requested the members to raise their hands in support of the decision. Members belonging to the Congress demanded threadbare discussion on every item of the agenda. The Sabhapati referred to agenda no. 3 that the BDO caused the arrest of the Sabhapati, the ex-Sahakari Sabhapati of the Panchayat Samiti and the Chowkidar of ZP Dak Bungalow on the basis of a false case. Then the Sabhapati again requested members to raise their hands in support of the decision of recalling the BDO by the Government.
At this BDO submitted that he had to say something on his part. The MP, who belonged to the ruling party, as an ex-officio member of the Panchayat Samiti argued that it was a meeting of the Panchayat Samiti and as an Executive Officer the BDO had nothing to do but to act upon the decisions taken by them. The MP further stated that BDO was, therefore, not allowed to say anything in the meeting and if he desired to submit something, he would have to show the relevant provisions of law, if any.
BDO then and there consulted the WB Panchayat Act, 1973 and drew the attention of the meeting to section 108 which ran, “The Block Development Officer shall attend meetings of the Panchayat Samiti and shall participate in the deliberations thereof”.
At this, the members belonging to the Congress submitted that the MP was also an advocate and naturally knew the law well. They claimed that the MP, fully knowing what the law actually was, wanted to get wrong decisions passed against the BDO by not letting him speak. They said that this was tantamount to an insult to the House and as such he would have to beg pardon of the House. Having no alternative, the MP apologised to the House. The BDO refuted all the allegations levelled against him.
Then the Sabhapati again requested members to raise their hands in support of the decision and the 19 members belonging to the ruling party raised their hands while 14 members belonging to Congress went against the decision. They recorded a note of dissent that all the allegations were bogus and all the agenda items were not discussed at all. The BDO also recorded his note of dissent as to how the decision was taken without discussion of all the agenda items.
The MP recorded his note of dissent on a remark passed by the BDO during the discussion that the majority does not always speak the truth. The BDO had pointed out in the meeting how only a few like Raja Rammohan Roy and Lord William Bentinck realised the bad consequences of Suttee system, while most of the people took it as sacred and beneficial to society.
The BDO was requested by the House to send a copy of the resolution to the Chief Minister, the Minister–in-charge (MIC), Panchayat and others for immediate implementation of the proposal. Some copies of the resolution were made ready and that very evening BDO met the DM who sent a copy to the Chief Secretary forthwith along with a report on how the resolution was adopted. Other copies were forwarded to the intended persons in due course.
The DM directed the SDO Lalbag to carry out a thorough enquiry into the incident of assault on the BDO and the ADO and was also requested to find out the facts of the allegation made against the BDO by the Panchayat Samiti. Accordingly, the enquiry was conducted and report was submitted on 15.1.1984. As many as 21 persons were interrogated who witnessed the incident. Among the persons interrogated were the Sabhapati and other Panchayat functionaries, the BDO, ADO and 12 members of the staff of the Block and Panchayat Samiti office. As per the report, the presence of the Sabhapati, the ex-Sahakari-Sabhapati and the Chowkidar and their taking leading part in the incident was established. As regards the allegation against the BDO for malpractice in distribution of relief material, the SDO did not find any anything nor did he come across alteration or tampering in the office record after thorough checking. Other charges against the BDO brought by the Panchayat Samiti were also found to be unsubstantiated.
The resolution for recalling the BDO got immense publicity in dailies and periodicals at the State and District levels, being the first such instance in the state. State level dailies like Ananda Bazar Patrika, The Statesman etc. gave wide publicity to the incident of assault on the BDO and the ADO and to the resolution. In addition to the news, editorials were also published supporting the officers assaulted. It was speculated that if, similarly, under section 166(1) of the WB Panchayat Act 1973 a resolution recalling the Executive Officer of the Zilla Parishad (the DM) were adopted by the Zilla Parishad, whether an administrative impasse would result or not.
The MP sent a rejoinder to the news item published in the Bengali “Jugantar” newspaper on 9.2.1984. This rejoinder was published on 25.2.1984. In this he alleged that the conduct of the BDO was against the laid down policy of the government and the BDO had flouted the law. He also spoke in favour of the dismissal of the BDO from government service and implicitly threatened the DM with transfer if he tried to support the conduct of the BDO.
The WBCS Association held a meeting on 8-2-1984 and reviewed the situation arising out of the adoption of the resolution. It requested the Government not to act upon the resolution on the basis of the apprehended administrative crisis. SATSA adopted the same line. In every district there was commotion. The General Secretary of the WBCS Association told a staff reporter of the Bengali daily ‘Anandabazar Patrika’ that, on behalf of the Murshidabad unit of the Association, it was made clear to the DM that if the BDO, Raninagar was transferred, all the BDOs of the district would go on leave for an indefinite period. This was published in that newspaper on 10.2.1984.
On 22-2-1984 the Minister for Panchayats, Rural Development and Land Reforms came to Berhampore and met the DM, the SP and the Sabhadhipati (Chairman) of the Zilla Parishad (ZP) to review the situation. He proposed that the administration should withdraw the criminal case and then the matter of retention of the BDO at Raninagar would be looked into. Both the DM and the SP declined and advised that it would be better for the resolution to be withdrawn by the PS first and then the BDO could be shifted. The Sabhadhipati stated this was impossible. The DM then stated that if the BDO was transferred, the government should transfer the DM and the SP as well. The Minister told the Sabhadhipati in English, “Where there is a will, there is a way”. In view of the stand taken by the DM and the SP, the Government refrained from acting upon the resolution. The Minister held a closed door meeting with the DM, the Sabhadhipati and the Minister of State for Primary Education (who was from Murshidabad district) in which he stressed the need for restoring normal relationship between the panchayat functionaries and the government officials. The DM pointed out that the resolution of the Raninagar Panchayat Samiti was a major impediment in the effort. The Minister told the Sabhadhipati that it was his task to get the resolution withdrawn.
There was an assembly question regarding the Raninagar incident which also got elaborate media coverage. The Chief Minister summoned the Sabhapati later on and rebuked him, as reported by the Sabhapati to the BDO, directed him not to repeat such an incident and requested him to continue working with the BDO and the ADO.
On 3rd January 1984 a meeting was held at Zilla Parishad to discuss the policy of distribution of mini-kits. In this meeting the DM, the Sabhadhipati, all the ADMs, the Principal Agriculture Officer, all the BDOs and Sabhapatis of the district were present. In this meeting, after long deliberations, finally the order framed earlier by the DM formulating the guiding principles of distribution of mini-kits, on the basis of the resolution adopted in DCC meeting, was unanimously accepted.
For nearly two decades after this there was not a single incident of any assault on any officer in Murshidabad District because of the strict action taken by arresting the Sabhapati of the Panchayat Samiti.