The explosion in an illegal firecracker factory in Egra, Purba Medinipur district on May 16, in which nine people died and several others were seriously injured, has once again exposed the declining law and order situation in West Bengal. According to local residents, Bhanu Bag, the factory owner, also operated a bomb-making unit on the premises, which they believe contributed to the intensity of the explosion. Bag and his family are currently on the run and are suspected to have fled to the nearby Odisha border.
Around 11 am on May 16, Khadikul village in Egra-1 block was rocked by a tremendous explosion that reverberated throughout the entire region. The factory’s roof was blown off, and the charred remains of the victims were scattered. The bodies were found on the road adjacent to the factory, in a nearby pond, and several metres around the explosion site.
Most of the victims were women and residents of the village who had been employed by Bhanu Bag in his factory. Bag, allegedly a former Trinamool panchayat member, had previously been arrested in October 2022 for operating an illegal firecracker factory. However, he was released on bail, and continued his illegal trade without hindrance.
In response to the tragedy, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced compensation of Rs 2 lakh for each of the deceased’s families and Rs 1 lakh for those injured. She blamed the local police administration for the incident, stating, “The incident occurred due to a lack of proper information... We will take action against the IC (inspector-in-charge). How could he have had no information and allowed the illegal factory to continue operating?” Banerjee ordered the CID to take over the case and expressed no objection to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) investigating the incident.
With the panchayat election around the corner, the tragedy immediately became a political issue, with Opposition parties targeting Trinamool. Sukanata Majudar, the State president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), expressed on social media: “In Egra block, East Medinipur, a huge bomb blast took place, causing multiple fatalities and injuries. This occurred in the factory of a TMC leader where bombs were being manufactured. This raises serious concerns about the law and order situation before the panchayat election in West Bengal. Is TMC involved in large-scale bomb production to intimidate people before the panchayat election?”
In response to the accusation, Mamata Banerjee highlighted that the local panchayat is currently under the BJP’s control. She questioned, “If he (Bag) were a party worker, then why was he arrested last year? ...Why did the BJP panchayat allow illegal activities to be carried out right under its nose?”
As the State gears up for the panchayat polls, the tragedy has undoubtedly dealt a severe blow to the party. The day after the blast, when a team of senior Trinamool leaders, including Rajya Sabha member Dola Sen and MLA and former State minister Manas Bhunia, visited the victims’ families, they faced hostility from the local residents. Some villagers chanted “Chor! Chor!” during the Trinamool team’s visit. Dola Sen remarked, “This is not the time for petty politics. We have spoken to the family members of the deceased, who have requested Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s support.”
Even though Mamata Banerjee claimed to have no problems with the NIA taking over the case, the charges under the Explosive Substances Act were conspicuously absent in the FIR filed by the State police. The FIR included Sections 188, 286, and 304 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), as well as Sections 24 and 26 of the Fire Service Act. Former Inspector General of Police, Pankaj K. Datta, suggested that the State government’s omission of charges under the Explosive Substances Act might be an attempt to delay the NIA’s involvement in the investigation.
Datta explained, “Whenever you invoke the Explosive Substances Act, the NIA is required to get involved almost immediately. This appears to be a deliberate strategy to prevent the NIA’s intervention. With the death toll currently at nine and more people likely to succumb to their injuries, there is a high possibility of the case being investigated by the NIA. It’s an old tactic employed by State governments to await the final opinion of forensic experts before applying the Explosive Act section. By then, they can buy a considerable amount of time,” Datta told Frontline.
Not an uncommon event in West Bengal
Similar incidents of blasts and tragedies are not uncommon in West Bengal, where violence has become an integral part of politics. Over the past three years, there have been at least three similar cases resulting in loss of life due to explosions. In December 2021, three people were killed in a blast in Nodakhali in South 24 Parganas.
Additionally, in December 2022, three more people lost their lives in an explosion in Bhupatinagar in Purba Medinipur district. Despite the State government’s denial and attempts to refute the opposition parties’ accusations that bomb-making has turned into a “cottage industry’‘ in Bengal, it consistently finds itself unable to prevent or preempt acts of violence or accidental deaths indirectly linked to violence.