Kolkata: Mrinal Kanti Debnath, a renowned doctor, has never visited a polling booth after being stopped from exercising his franchise as a first-time voter over 50 years ago. Now, he will next month cast his maiden vote in the upcoming Lok Sabha election.
Despite having spent over 27 years overseas as a psychiatrist, Debnath — the BJP candidate from West Bengal’s Barasat constituency — still can’t forget the disappointment of not being able to cast his vote.
“As a new voter, I could not exercise my franchise in the late 60s during the United Front regime in the state as some miscreants had asked me and my father to go back home as they had already cast our vote,” he said.
“This incident of scientific rigging had hurt me and I did not vote thereafter before leaving India in 1981,” said Debnath, who is up against a fellow doctor, sitting Trinamool MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, and All India Forward Bloc’s Haripada Biswas. The Congress has nominated Subrata Dutta.
During the campaign, his opponents flayed him for never taking part in the democratic process in India even after returning 11 years ago.
But Debnath, a former member of Overseas Friends of BJP, is quick with his rejoinder.
“After returning to India permanently, I enrolled myself as a voter here in Rajarhat area (in Kolkata’s north eastern fringes). But I settled in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on the request of my friend who had stood by me during my period of struggle,” he said. “Me and my wife came to West Bengal in 2013. In between, I wasn’t able to cast my vote because I didn’t enrol myself in the voter’s list in the islands.”
What prompted the Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, London, and a trained professional in Psychiatry from the University of Vienna to return to India?
“I’m indebted to this country, which awarded me the National Merit Scholarship that streamlined my career and changed my life. I returned to India in 2008 with the objective of repaying my debt,” Debnath said.
Born in a remote village in the Khulna district of then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Debnath, a meritorious student, went to Khulna town in January 1964 to pursue his higher studies as one could only study up to the eighth grade in schools in his village, he said.
Within a couple of days, he had to flee the town with “a bitter experience of communal violence” and migrated to India.
Refused accommodation by a family friend in West Bengal, the teenage refugee found a shelter at Habra railway colony in the North 24 Parganas district.
“I came to India with only a half pant [shorts] and a shirt, and without a single rupee in my pocket. One of my friends, who too had fled the country after being attacked during the Khulna violence, and I had to sweep and clean buses for a livelihood,” Debnath said.
Separated from his family, Debnath used to regularly visit Habra railway station in the hope of meeting his parents as many refugees were arriving in India daily, but he gave up after a few days.
His parents looked for him at the rented accommodation where he stayed for a short period in Khulna town, and learnt that two people — an old woman and a youth — were burned to death during the riots.
His relatives believed he was dead and collected the ashes of the deceased youth.
“Later, I myself immersed the ashes,” he said.
Recalling his hardship, Debnath said he had managed to get admission to grade nine at a local institution with the help of a school teacher who gave him Rs20 (Dh1 in today’s currency) as the admission fee.
He borrowed books, but could not afford electricity. However, he emerged a topper in the school’s final examination in the then undivided 24 Parganas district and secured a National Merit Scholarship with Rs110, which got him out of his financial crisis.
“My achievement was featured in a local newspaper that wrote of a planned felicitation ceremony for me. Maybe it was an insignificant piece of news for a newspaper but it was enough to let my parents, who had by then migrated to India and started living in Dum Dum, know where they could find me.
“I wasn’t aware of my parents’ migration to India and meeting them at the felicitation programme was something out of this world,” he said.
Debnath completed his course in medicine in Kolkata and practised for a while before moving to the Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent as the medical officer of a state-run hospital. He also served the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) of the Organization of American States in the US before returning in India.
Now, as a Lok Sabha poll candidate, Debnath is “enjoying his new innings” at the age of 68. His overseas friends across Europe and America are helping him out through a massive social media campaign.
“Reaching out to youths is important and the tool to reach out to them should be social media as voters in Barasat constituency are active on Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp,” he said.
He has also charted an elaborate plan to roll out an e-health programme for all the Assembly segments within the Lok Sabha constituency if he is elected.
Debnath, an Indian citizen by registration, slammed the ruling Trinamool Congress for opposing the implementation of the National Register of Citizens in West Bengal. According to him, the NRC is a must for the country’s security and to identify the infiltrators.
He claims to know Barasat constituency like the back of his hand, is confident of emerging the victor when the votes are counted on May 23.
“Of course, I will win. I am confident,” he says. In 2014, BJP nominee P.C. Sorcar Junior had finished third, garnering around 23 per cent of the votes.
Barasat votes on May 19 in the seventh and final phase of the general elections.