Kolkata: At around 8.30 pm October 4, shortly after a Trinamool Congress protest rally over the alleged gang rape and murder in Hathras had passed Titagarh Bazaar area in Barrackpore, North 24 Parganas, two motorcycles carrying four helmet-covered men made a brief stop next to a makeshift joint alongside the BT Road. What followed was mayhem.
Manish Shukla, an advocate and local BJP leader, was chatting up with his followers after having ordered tea from a local roadside stall. A BJP party office and an under-construction Durga Puja pandal next to the joint kept the place crowded despite the Pandemic scare.
Shukla had only just returned from a party programme in Howrah, a daily routine for the party now in poll-bound Bengal. A close aide of local strongman and BJP’s Barrackpore MP, Arjun Singh, Shukla accompanied Singh in the programme before parting ways at Titagarh.
The unidentified gunmen sprayed Shukla with bullets, targeting his head and torso, at very close range. Before anyone could react, the assailants had escaped leaving Shukla in a pool of blood. He was declared dead on arrival at a private hospital on EM Bypass in Kolkata shortly after.
The Titagarh Police Station stood on the other side of the road at a stone’s throw distance from the scene of crime. Shukla’s armed private security was conspicuously absent when the attack was orchestrated.
The incident, and the very brazenness of it, sent shockwaves across political fraternities of the state and the masses alike, with the Mamata Banerjee government quickly ordering a CID probe, much to the chagrin of the BJP which demanded a CBI inquiry right from the start.
Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar was quick to throw his hat into the ring and summoned state home secretary and the DGP to Raj Bhavan first thing on Monday for a report. His concerns were addressed by newly appointed chief secretary of Bengal, Alapan Bandyopadhyay, who, armed with a report from the Barrackpore Police Commissioner, met him for over two hours.
BJP leaders Kailash Vijayvarghiya, Mukul Roy, Arjun Singh, Locket Chatterjee and Arvind Menon took to the streets, visited the victim’s family and stayed with them till the body was cremated late evening. The rest of the party’s central leadership took to social media in full throttle and even held press conferences in Delhi to condemn the crime and breathe fire at the Mamata Banerjee administration.
Monday’s daylong drama spanned from violence in Titagarh by bandh sponsoring BJP supporters to entry scuffle at NRS Hospital where Shukla’s body was moved for autopsy and finally to SN Banerjee Road in central Kolkata where a marching BJP convoy with Shukla’s hearse was stopped from reaching Raj Bhavan by the city police.
Governor Dhankhar also received a delegation in the evening from the victim’s father Chandramani Shukla and BJP leaders for a prayer for a CBI probe.
Shukla’s Political Journey a Factor?
It seems prudent at this stage to take a look at Shukla’s political background and why his horrible fate evoked reactions of such mammoth proportion.
Shukla first hogged political spotlight during the 2009 general elections as a CPI-M activist when he worked as an election agent for Barrackpore MP Tarit Baran Topdar. Topdar lost, and Shukla soon found a father-figure in Arjun Singh who had then moved to the Trinamool. Ten years later, in 2019, Shukla switched camps again, along with his mentor Singh, to the BJP.
Police confirm that during the above-mentioned period there were at least 16 pending cases against him including murder, attempt to murder and possession of illegal arms at various police stations in and around Barrackpore.
Yet, none of that stopped Shukla from winning the Titagarh civic body polls in 2015 as an independent candidate.
Political observers say that Shukla’s proximity to Singh made him the front runner for a BJP ticket for the Khardah seat in 2021 state polls.
That X factor is being used both by the BJP and the TMC to point fingers at each other and trade charges for the gruesome murder. While the BJP alleges Shukla was always a target for the Trinamool since eliminating him would weaken Arjun Singh’s domination in the area, the latter has questioned whether Shukla’s rise in the party could have caused heartburns within a section of local BJP leaders who found him a threat to their political ambitions.
Trinamool minister Firhad Hakim even stuck his neck out and claimed that Shukla was “forced to join BJP at gunpoint by Arjun Singh and was sending fillers to return to the TMC on account of his disillusionment with the BJP.”
What Lies Beneath
Bengal is at the threshold of its big push for the all-important state elections next year. Post pujas, political atmosphere in the state is likely to turn sharply volatile and all stakeholders, from the ruling TMC to its challenger the BJP to the dark horse Left-Congress alliance, are likely to hit the open with all political ammos in their respective arsenals. But there is also a preface to that beginning.
Both the TMC as well as Left-Congress have come out strongly against the Farm Bills and the alleged rape incidents of UP. The BJP was holding on to its Save Democracy campaign and the party plans to march to the state secretariat Nabanna on October 8 in its biggest show of strength. Shukla’s murder may well have led to the BJP workers feeling the anger party leaders were so desperately hoping for ahead of that march.
As for who killed Manish Shukla, the probe is on.