New Delhi: Dressed in caps, “tourist-like” clothes and armed with Google Maps to check the next tourist destination to answer questions at police barricades, five Trinamool MPs divided into two groups, reached where no other political leader has managed to arrive at least so far — Lakhimpur Kheri.
All political roads currently lead to the UP district where eight people died on 3 October after a car in the Union minister’s convoy allegedly mowed protesting farmers, and in the violence that followed.
But among those who have been detained or initially denied permission to reach there are Congress leaders — Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, Sachin Pilot and Punjab CM Charanjit Channi.
Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi have now been allowed to go.
But TMC leaders used a combination of subterfuge, years of experience in dodging the police from their times as opposition leaders under Left-ruled West Bengal, connections across the political spectrum including the Left, and at times sheer luck to meet the families of the deceased and the agitating farmers.
‘Gave them a slip’
Lok Sabha MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar and Rajya Sabha MP Sushmita Dev, a former Congress leader who recently jumped ship, formed the first travelling group.
On Monday, both of them arrived at the Lucknow airport, where a posse of policemen awaited them, seeking to escort them to the site, over a 100 km away, said Ghosh Dastidar.
“I behaved as if I was very thankful so all was well and they relaxed a bit. Just then Asaduddin Owaisi arrived and the media rushed to him and the police got busy. We gave them the slip, took our car and sped away even before they had realised,” she said.
“On the way, at the check posts we told the cops that we were tourists headed to Dudhwa National Park,” she said. When the going got tough or when detours were needed, the duo even flagged down random bikers with the request “bhaiya thoda aage tak chhod denge (could you please drop us a little ahead)”. People obliged, often without knowing who they were ferrying.
The other group comprised MPs Dola Sen, Protima Mondal and Abir Ranjan Biswas, who arrived in the national capital early Monday.
They left immediately to take the longer route of 444 km by road as they travelled from Delhi to Lakhimpur Kheri. But their journey ended up being much longer.
They had planned everything intricately, including the model of the car they would hire — an Innova Crysta, but had not budgeted for a Sikh driver. That was a bit of a setback because Noida onwards UP Police had set up multiple barricades with cops being especially suspicious of anybody who had any apparent Punjab connections.
“But we had dressed like tourists in flashy clothes, we had caps and we kept saying we were going to Bareilly, then we said we were going to Nainital. Thank god also for the masks. We kept checking maps to see which is the next tourist destination so that we could lie effectively at the checkpoints,” Sen told ThePrint.
“After Rampur when the road bifurcated we started saying we are going to Paliya, which is the gateway to Dudhwa. The cops let us go because they saw it was a commercial vehicle with tourists and a commercial driver with nothing to be suspicious of. But what all this checking meant is that we took 14 hours to reach our destination,” she added.
Old Left connections came handy
As the three-MP group neared Lakhimpur Kheri late Monday night, the cops had started leaving their posts so the legislators entered the district without much hassle.
But there was another problem at hand — where to spend the night and what to eat.
Because of the time lost at the checkposts for questioning, the MPs had survived only on bottled water the whole day.
“I started making calls. I was in touch with Rakesh Tikait ji and his people. I also used my old connections. I do not know if you are aware but Lakhimpur Kheri used to be an old haunt of CPI(ML). So I started calling everybody possible and some of them responded despite the late hour,” said Sen, who rose from Left trade union ranks before she joined the TMC.
The farmer leaders had asked them to stay in the Gurdwara guest house, but local Left connections warned them about the possibility of midnight police raids there.
So they chose to stay at a “shabby” hotel using their voter identity cards instead of the MP cards to check-in.
Meanwhile, Dev and Ghosh Dastidar travelled back to Lucknow to spend the night and returned the next morning.
“The next morning we started at 5 am and dressed like Punjabis — I even looked like one in a salwar kameez. Farmer leaders sent by Tikait ji kept telling cops that we were relatives of the dead people who had come from Punjab to meet the grieving family. The cops did not stop us because they thought we were from Punjab. I was in the front seat and Protima and Abir at the back could have been a couple. They let us go,” Sen said.
“In the house of one of the victims, one person even asked me if I had come from Punjab,” she recalled.
‘Farmers want Mamata to visit’
The MPs met families of the deceased Tuesday and also visited the place where the post-mortem took place.
“By law you cannot do a post-mortem post sunset yet they did it. That is why the families are now refusing to cremate the bodies. There is no mention of bullet wounds. UP Police are very deft in wiping the signs of a crime. This is not the first time I have seen it,” Ghosh Dastidar said.
While TMC has some organisation in Uttar Pradesh, the clamour is for Mamata Banerjee to make a visit, claimed the MP.
“We have some organisation in UP. Our local boy Neeraj helped us arrange cars and reach the place. He travelled with us to identify the route but it is so remote that even he did not know. But even there people are very excited about Mamata di. I told her that on the phone. She said she would talk to people, take inputs from all and then take a decision,” added Ghosh Dastidar.