I started as a photojournalist in the 1980s whilst at college in Kolkata, starting in local Bengali newspapers and magazines then to Bartaman, a daily newspaper then Reuters International News agency as staff photojournalist then for the Times of India Bhopal edition. I came back to Kolkata in 2011 and joined the BCCL Times of India’s Bengali daily Ei Samay (‘This Time’’). I now work as a consultant photographer for Ei Samay.
I had to travel 1500 km to cover recent Vidhan Sabha elections in West Bengal; I was afraid of using public transport because of COVID-19, so I decided to use my own car, which I shared with three fellow photographers.
I have covered both Assembly and Parliamentary elections regularly from the start of my career. This year they are different; Bengal has been in a Pandemic grip, followed by lockdown and super cyclone Amphan, which combined severely affected life. Elections are unsettling for the state ruling party, The All-India Trinamool Congress (TMC), because many leading party members changed colours and joined the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Mamata Banerjee (MB), TMC leader and West Bengal Chief Minister is contesting Nandigram constituency against her ex-lieutenant Subhendu Adhikari who joined BJP only a few days before elections. In 2019 Parliament elections, BJP candidates won unexpected seats in West Bengal. Massive political turmoil was potentially imminent.
March 10, 2021, Haldia
Our first stop was Haldia; MB submitted her nomination for the Nandigram constituency. We started early - a 100 km drive from Kolkata and reached there just in time. MB landed her helicopter and walked with thousands of supporters waving their hands, party flags and shouting slogans. She held a press conference and later flew to Nandigram for more electioneering; whilst there she injured her leg, initially alleging that the injury was caused by BJP supporters.
We rested at a Kolaghat dhaba (roadside cafeteria) for refreshments en route to Kolkata.
MB was taken back to Kolkata PG Hospital. MB since electioneered in a wheelchair for the next 44 days.
26-27 March, 2021, Jhargram
The first election phase was on 27 March - we chose Jhargram, a tribal area.
I started early in the morning from Kolkata with Ashim Paul who had retired from Dainik Jagaran, and Subhendu Ghosh who works as a freelancer at IANS. We reached Jhargram college at around 11:30am and found hundreds of election officials collecting electronic voting machines (EVM) boxes. Communicating with officials was difficult because of social distancing and a very inquisitive crowd. We got a few shots and managed a couple of rooms in a budget-hotel with the help of a local correspondent, Ashok Bhowmik, who works for PTI as a staff photojournalist. He joined us that night.
We left early next morning and visited a local tribal village, Binpur; tribal men women were queueing separately; some were sitting on the ground, their faces were masked but they didn’t seem to care about maintaining social distancing.
Health workers were checking body temperatures and administering sanitizers to the villagers before they entered the polling booths. Central police forces were present in full regalia, sporting guns and didn’t let us enter the polling booths in spite of election commission cards. We took photos of the exterior. Party cadres were waiting outside distributing packets of puffed rice to each voter. The scorching heat was getting worse. We visited some more tribal villages. Kendapara, Belpahari, Lalgarh, Nowhere did we get a permission to enter the polling booths. Thermal guns excited the tribal population if nothing else. They weren’t worried about COVID. After covering those villages we got back towards Kharagpur leaving the magnificent Saal forests behind us.
28 March 2021 Nandigram
Today was the Hindu festival of Holi. We drew up a plan to cover MB’s election campaigns, at her contested Nandigram constituency. We spent the night at Tamluk. Next morning we visited the place where MB stayed. She had a public husting at Reyapara ground; thousands of TMC supporters waved flags and shouted frantically in the heat. Women blew conch shells to welcome MB. We then returned to Kolkata.
30th March Nandigram
We left Kolkata early for Nandigram to cover the last day of the election, reaching Home Minister & BJP strategist Amit Shah’s 5-kilometre-long road show by 10 AM. Tribal women were dancing in their traditional attire. Amit Shah threw rose petals at the public. Rose petals were being showered from roadside houses too. MB’s convoy got stuck behind this crowd. After the road show Amit Shah prayed at a nearby temple in Reyapara. Then we went at MB’s election campaign at Tengiya crossing. The meeting couldn’t get started it was sparsely populated, and that’s putting it mildly. She blamed the BJP’s road show for the lack of enthusiasm - which must have been very surprising for someone who has seen quite the opposite only a few years back.
Later that afternoon we came to Reyapara helipad and from there the Bollywood superstar Mithun Chakraborty was returning after finishing his road show and meeting. He declared they will win 200 seats from West Bengal. The villagers here witnessed two separate helipads - the first was specially made for MB and another for BJP leaders.
31st March Nandigram
The next morning we went to Tengiya. Election officials were gathering EVMs. They were scared as two heavy weight politicians were contesting and anticipated political violence. In West Bengal political violence is a very common thing during elections. We did a bit of scouting in nearby villages to understand the situation around polling stations.
1 April 2021 Election Day, Nandigram
We reached the first polling station near Khujari; voters were standing in strictly maintained queues outside a school building. Central forces asked us not to photograph. We went to another place where we found an old sick voter being carried physically to the booth. Health workers checked him with a thermometer. Local people were tense, had arguments with each other. We decided to go to Reyapara again as MB might make speeches there. We followed a large MB convoy with media and security guards. After 7 kilometres the convoy stopped and MB shot through a narrow village path in her wheelchair. She entered Boyal school polling station to allege to the election commission that TMC voters were prevented from voting. Security personnel surrounded the school building. Villagers were shouting furiously with expletives against MB and scuffling with police. A lady official tried to manage the situation, but she was assaulted by the furious crowd. MB was escorted from the site by paramilitary forces.
MB held a press conference accompanied by 100 media personnel. Afterwards we came back to Reyapara; a policeman from Midnapore was standing beside my car – young, tired and sweating. We had a friendly chat. He was very confused and needed a break.
April 10,2021 Kolkata, China town, fourth phase of election
We reached Tangra, site of a famous Chinese restaurant, early on election day. A large Chinese origin population was standing, socially distanced outside a government school wearing masks. They considered themselves to be Indians. I meet Monika Liu whose family owned restaurants in Tangra for three generations. She discussed that only 400 of the original 2000 Chinese voters stayed in this city. They finished casting their votes and the place deserted by 10.30 am.
April 26,2021 Kolkata
It was the last day of West Bengal's state legislative assembly elections campaigning; I rushed to the historic Minarbha theatre hall in North Kolkata. Only a few party members and media were allowed inside. MB spoke via video link and was emotional while delivering her last speech. She thanked TMC party members asking them to not fear voting. Police personnel assisted with her wheelchair as she slowly waved her hands towards party members and disappeared behind giant black screen of the historic Minarbha theatre.
TMC won the election but MB lost her own seat in Nandigram; she then walked unaided. Hundreds of BJP supporters were forced to leave their homes for safety in Assam – likened to ethnic cleansing.
On April 22nd, India registered a global record for COVID-19 (315 000 cases with 2102 deaths). These were associated with the alpha (Kent) variant in the Punjab, a delta double mutation (B484Q and L452R) B.1.617 variant in Maharastra and triple mutation B.1.618 variant in West Bengal, Delhi and Chattisgarh.
Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist, stated that these variants are more transmissible and evade vaccine protection from Covishield – the indigenously produced (Serum Institute of India) Astra Zeneca vaccine. 650 teachers recruited for election duty in adjacent Uttar Pradesh State died of COVID-19. Nationwide oxygen shortages occurred including at Kolkata Medical College Hospital, Kolkata was in full curfew.
Other blogs in this series: