I was in class three when I first heard that my father wanted to sell our house. It was great news to me.
Back in the 1980s, we used to live in a three-storey house in a sleepy "para" (locality in Bengali) in Howrah district of West Bengal. The house was built by my great grandfather after he migrated to Bengal from Bangladesh. The property had huge sentimental value attached to it, especially because we migrated under duress from Saatkhira Zilla of Khulna district (formerly a Hindu majority district in Bangladesh) where many Hindus were put to death during Partition in a series of riots.
Looking back, my beautiful house seems like a dream.
The house had a stretch of land in front where we had a guava tree, a jackfruit free, a Shiuli tree, Frangipani, two coconut trees, seven papaya trees and countless bushes and shrubs. There were three large ponds surrounding our house and they were filled with fish.
On my little cycle, it almost took 30 seconds to reach the main gate of my house from the main exit door.
But I never liked the house.
Always afraid of the dark, I thought there was a Brahmadoitya (a legendary Bengali Brahmin ghost which resides on treetops, according to popular Bengali legends) on the jackfruit free.
Snakes, scorpions, leeches and other insects sneaking into the house was a pretty regular affair. I hated the loud duet between the crickets and the frogs after dark. I didn't like the rotten stench during the monsoon that used to come from the garden. On top of that, there were mosquitoes, like billions of them, and frequent, long power cuts.
We wanted to stay in Kolkata's Salt Lake area where many of my friends stayed. My mom and my brother and I used to nag my father constantly to sell off the house and migrate to Salt Lake. My father finally gave in after years of nagging.
When I was in class three, he finally agreed to move towards Kolkata.
Then it all began.
As my father asked around and tried to look for a prospective property buyer, the local party office got in touch with us and wanted to come home for a 'discussion' — my father had no choice but to engage with them.
After the initial discussion, they set out their terms. They demanded 5% of the entire sale amount of the house as a donation — and in cash. The person who was buying it from us also needed to pay the same 5% donation from his share. As my father tried to negotiate with them, they declared smugly that unless we agreed to their demand, all the prospective buyers would be fobbed off.
That is exactly what they started doing a few days later.
It's no secret: Whether you want to set up an office or buy a property in Bengal, you have to shell out cash. To the Dadas. (Photo: Reuters)
Each and every prospective buyer who used to come to our house backed off after a few days. Some said they had heard that our house is a "Bhooter Bari" (haunted house) and others were told that the "local club" was not happy with the sale. Some others who wanted to buy the house were made to understand that the local club members were planning to "arrive" during the sale process. Naturally, they immediately backed off.
When we didn't fall in line, the pressure on us to give in intensified.
I remember that on many occasions, I would go out in the porch to find out that someone had defecated right in front of our main door. Or, a beer bottle had been hurled into the courtyard in the middle of the night. Or, ominous loud knocks on the main iron gate, late into the night (in an eerie silence zone, these knocks appeared louder).
Our house remained unsold for many decades till it was finally bought by a businessman who had political connections in all the right places and the ability to pay off the local goons.
When we finally shifted close to Salt Lake, I had already graduated from St. Xavier's College.
The house was sold at a price which was much less (at least by 20%) than the market price.
I told you the story about my house because it explains the core of Bengal's politics today — it has been that way for more than six decades.
My school friend the other day was narrating an incident to me when his office servers and office furniture were confiscated by the local "dada" as "they" learnt that the company was shutting shop. The IT services company shut shop because of constant interference from the same local dadas (they tried to dictate terms about whom to award contracts, hiring of peons, etc.). The HR manager and a few employees were not allowed to leave unless they signed the consent letter of handing over the office furniture to these local "dadas".
This is popular Bengal culture — known as "dadagiri".
If 'adda' (intellectual discussions and debates), classical music and excellence in the creative arts are part of Bengali culture, then on the flipside, "dadagiri" has become part of the same culture.
"Dadagiri" is a culture in West Bengal that started with the CPM — and it has gained massive ground during the reign of the Trinamool. Whether you want to set up an office or close down an office in West Bengal, the chances are that these politically sponsored dadas will arrive at your doorstep to demand money.
These dadas are now spread across all "disciplines" and they have organised themselves into a well-oiled system under the Trinamool regime — it's called the Syndicates.
For the uninitiated, these Syndicates are networks of "dadas" patronised by local political leaders.
Usually the head honchos of local clubs, these dadas survive on "donations" doled out to them by local businessmen and real estate developers. They are used to extort money from everybody — common people to businessmen.
Here's a special India Today stealth investigation into the "Syndicates of West Bengal" which caught the toxic Bengal Syndicate system on camera.
See how the dadas are openly demanding money from the India Today reporter who posed as a businessman aspiring to open a restaurant in Bengal.
These networks become most active during elections. When you need to disrupt elections, these dadas will scare people away from the booths and organise "chhappa votes" or proxy votes for their chosen candidates.
Want to know how lethally effective these dadas are? Well, consider this!
During the recent Panchayat Elections in West Bengal, the Trinamool candidates won uncontested in 1,600 seats in West Bengal!
This unprecedented "dadagiri" during an electoral process even made the Supreme Court sit up and take notice.
Apart from disruption of the electoral process, you find these dadas on campuses, disrupting education too.
They looked Left when it began: Dadagiri culture has its roots deep in the CPM regime. (Photo: Reuters)
No, I am not talking about colleges where students have understandably developed political acumen. I am talking about these "dadas" infiltrating into school compounds where the students are too young to understand even what a political party is.
The rot has now become so deep that the Calcutta High Court had to issue an order this January that the premises of a state-aided school cannot be used for any other purposes, especially of political nature. "Instances of local Trinamul leaders using premises of state-funded schools for their party activities are also common in a number of districts," a senior official of the school education department told The Telegraph.
Things have come to such a head that these "dadas" — emboldened by the tacit support of the police — and these "syndicates" have become a driving force in the politics of West Bengal.
What was largely a political tool to manipulate the voting process, threaten people into submission, collect extortion money and garner more volunteers has started to raise an uglier head in Bengal — the unprecedented free hand given to these dadas has adversely affected law and order in Bengal.
It is also a fact that Bengal is steadily losing out on investment because industrialists are not keen on putting their money in a state where the law and order system is so fragile.
Because the Dadas run wild: Political violence is on an upward trajectory in West Bengal. (Representative image of a Nandigram protest: Reuters)
Such is the menace of these Bengali dadas that the Election Commission, too, took no chances and is holding the Lok Sabha elections in seven phases and even then, there were incidents of sporadic violence and manipulations coming across the spectrum right after the second phase of the elections.
It's a general consensus that Bengal is a hotbed of political crimes — the opposition is now alleging that there has been an unprecedented spike during the tenure of chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Things have come to such an end that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has claimed that there were more incidents of political violence in Bengal during the Panchayat polls than even Kashmir!
Bengal is going into a tailspin because the Bengali intelligentsia is not talking about the Syndicate Raaj.
There are talks and symposiums about films, art, music and poetry as usual — but nobody ever dares to raise the topic of the Syndicate Raaj and how it is eating away at the vitals of the state.
Bengalis love nostalgia and they romanticise the idea of living in the past. But it is time to acknowledge that a scary ghost from the past has come to haunt them.
Unlike the fearsome Brahmadoitya (Brahmin Ghost) of my jackfruit tree, which was a figment of my childhood imagination, this ghost from the present is real — and a scourge to everybody living in Bengal.