People in Malda, the medieval capital of Bengal, believed to be founded by a democratically elected Buddhist king about 1,400 years ago, love its history, besides the succulent mangoes that grow abundantly in the region.
They never miss an opportunity to reminiscence about its past glory, enriched by three dynasties – the Buddhist Palas, the Hindu Senas and the Muslim Nawabs.
It’s perhaps this love for history that explains the district’s clinging to a political legacy for six decades, impervious to winds of political changes that blew around it.
Malda remains a Congress stronghold despite the grand-old party being turned into a relic elsewhere in the state.
Congress dominates Malda
In 2014, it won both the Lok Sabha seats of the district. The Congress’s dominance here is to do with another “dynast” Abu Barkat Ataul Ghani Khan Choudhury, a former Union minister, who lorded over the area until his demise in 2006. Old timers still recall how the uncharismatic, short-tempered barrister, fondly called Barkatda, even at times circumvented norms to provide jobs in government and semi-government institutions, to unemployed youth, irrespective of their political affiliation, from his constituency. He is still remembered for his contribution to Kolkata Metro Rail (the country’s first metro railway system), Kolkata Circular Rail, NTPC Farakka, Malda Railway Division and many more projects he brought to the state and his constituency.
“Apart from his developmental works, Barkatda was also hugely respected for his secular credentials,” recalled Kalisadhan Roy, the working president of the Malda district Congress. Pictures of Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Swami Vivekanand were reportedly always placed on his bedside table. He also donated generously for the construction of a hospital by the Ramakrishna Mission in Ranchi.
Ghani Khan was the only Congress leader from West Bengal who never suffered defeat in any election since his first electoral success in 1957, which sums up his popularity. Former chief minister and Communist leader Jyoti Basu often referred his arch-political rival as the “nawbab of Malda.” The two shared excellent personal rapport, despite their political differences.
TMC attempts to usurp Barkatda’s political legacy
So strong is his political legacy that even today, 13 years after his death, members of his family from their ancestral residence at Kotuwali on the outskirts of Malda town continue to dominate the political scene in this north Bengal district.
The ruling Trinamool Congress is now trying to usurp this much endured legacy of Ghani Khan to breach the Congress citadel. It has pitted Barkatda’s niece Mausam Benazir Noor from the Malda North Lok Sabha seat against his nephew Isha Khan Choudhury of the Congress.
Thirty-nine-year-old Mausam Noor won the seat in a Congress ticket in 2014. But she switched over to the TMC in January this year, “inspired by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s development works.”
Her maternal uncle and Isha Khan’s father, Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury viewed the switchover as a betrayal to Barkatda, “who breathed Congress.”
Incidentally, Gani Khan’s 81-year-old brother Hasem has been re-nominated by the Congress as its candidate from the Malda South parliamentary seat.
Mausam Noor, however, claims she is the true representative of her late maternal uncle, “who had always given first priority to the development of his area.”
“I have joined the TMC for the betterment of my constituency and people here have welcomed my decision because they know my uncle would have done the same if he had to choose between development and the party,” Noor said, whose mother late Rubi Noor was also a Congress MLA from the district’s Sujapur Assembly constituency.
Meanwhile, the BJP which has fielded another turncoat, Khagen Murmu, who recently deserted the CPI-M, hoped that political infighting within Kotuwali Bhavan, a two-storeyed palatial house Ghani Khan had built, would benefit it.
“Infighting within Choudhury family will split the Congress’s captive votes to our advantage,” Murmu claimed.
Whether his assessment would hold true in the hustings on April 23, remains a matter of debate. But the rift in the district’s first political family certainly has challenged the Congress’s monopoly over Ghani Khan’s legacy.
As his family fights over his legacy, flowers on the legendary leader’s grave near the sprawling Kotuwali Bhavan that has been partitioned recently with a newly constructed wall, lay withered like the decaying historical ruins.
“Aaj aar sei Barkatda-o nei; aar tar sei Malda-o nei (With the death of Barkatda, gone are the good old days of Malda )”, rued Nazibul Sheikh, a resident of Engrezbazar block of the district.
No wonder, Malda loves to live in its past.