In the past two months, the electoral violence in West Bengal stepped beyond its usual timeline. The expanse of such violence is considered commonplace in West Bengal. The history of violence in West Bengal had far-reaching implications on the politics of the State. Once justified in the name of revolution and upheaval, the violence has acquired a looming permanence in the State. Jaibatruka Mohanta presents a nuanced reading of the incidents of violence that followed election results in West Bengal, meeting it halfway with an analysis of the historical events that lead to the present scenario.
By Jaibatruka Mohanta, a fourth-year student of B.L.S L.L.B at VKMs Pravin Gandhi College of Law, University of Mumbai. Jai is a member of the Lawctopus Writers Club.
‘What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.‘
These words by Gopal Krishna Gokhale describe the historical significance of Bengal, imagining its future as a progressive state.
Unfortunately, West Bengal didn’t quite live up to Gokhale’s words. The violence that followed the Bengal election results is anything but democratic or progressive.
After Mamata Banerjee led All Indian Trinamool Congress (TMC) restored power for the third consecutive term, several areas witnessed blood-shed, mob violence and brandishing of lathis and iron rods. Amidst the violence, on May 17, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested three TMC MLAs and a former minister, which caused more drama.
This article will throw light on the rise of politically motivated violence in West Bengal. It will touch upon the recent arrests made by the CBI and how the drama staged by the two parties only encouraged local party workers. While writing about the violence, the article is aware of the social and economic vulnerability of those subjected to violence. Lastly, the article concludes with the recent developments in West Bengal that show almost no change in the tonality of the leading party both in the State and Centre.
The Recent History of Political Violence in West Bengal
Despite human rights violations as a post-poll consequence, political parties expressed their muted concerns, which didn’t have any tangible change. Such a response only dictates the logic that electoral violence in Bengal is common parlance. But why is it so?
As the Britishers left West Bengal, the Indian businessmen who bought the jute mills and engineering units at walk-away prices were unsuccessful at reviving them to their full potential. The same led to a scarcity of jobs, brewing a politically dominated atmosphere in West Bengal.
The 1960s witnessed immense political disturbances in West Bengal, which ushered after an upheaval organised by small farmers and sharecroppers in Naxalbari, West Bengal. The violence throughout the 1960s was a combination of economic and social resentment.
Although different from electoral violence, the Naxalite upheaval marked the first shift to the Bengal’s political landscape. The year 1967-71 was defined by state politics of street rivalry and violence in rural and non-rural West Bengal. After the Indian National Congress came to power in 1972, the State saw a relative lull.
Another significant event between 1967-71 that normalised violence further in West Bengal was the Sainbari massacre.
In 1970, three members of the Sain family were murdered, and their house was set on fire. The eldest son’s eyes were gouged, and he was murdered a year after this incident. The Sain family had alliances with the Congress Party, which was one of the many reasons that led to their killing. Following the brutal incident, a complaint got registered against the three top leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M). But the complaint hardly affected any of the accused.
In 1977, the Left Front came to power in West Bengal. And those accused of the murder occupied position in the Ministry.
Just two years after the Left Front came to power, the 1979 violence of Marichjhapi hit Bengal. The incident also exposed the elitist and upper-caste tendencies of the Left Front.
After the Left came to power, Namasudra (Bengal Dalits) refugees who were earlier settled in Dandakaranya migrated to ‘Marichjhapi’ in West Bengal. Marichjhapi was an island filled with shrubs and thick forest in the Sundarbans.
When the Left Front came to power, there was some hope that the plight of the Dalit refugees, which the Congress ignored, will finally be addressed.
But things had changed, and the Left Front’s ways of functioning too.
The Left Front government claimed that the refugees had destroyed a reserve forest to settle themselves. Furthermore, they claimed that since Marichjhapi was an island surrounded by a saltwater body, the Namasudras’ refugees settlement interrupted waterway transportation.
The state police cut off medicines and essential supplies for the refugees. Amid such harassment, many people left the island to settle in a safer destination.
Further, on June 14, 1979, the police set ablaze the shelters of Dalit refugees. Several died due to starvation. Some were shot dead into the darkness while trying to escape.
This massacre remained outside of the legal purview. Unfortunately, the people subjected to the state-sponsored killings didn’t get justice.
Despite this dreadful incident, the CPI (M) government ruled the State for the next thirty-two years until 2011, when Mamata Bennerjee’s led All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) took over.
From CPI(M) to TMC, not much has changed in West Bengal even today. Even after Mamata Banerjee came to power, the language of violence in Bengal had become part of the state fabric, especially in rural Bengal. The same played out loudly in the recent state elections.
Post-Poll Violence in West Bengal: Continuing the Brutality
The 2021 assembly elections’ campaigning and its aftermath is part of an ongoing practice. This violence primarily impacts economically or socially vulnerable sections; therefore, conveniently ignored.
The BJP recently claimed that the TMC killed thirty of its party workers. The TMC, on the other hand, had claimed that four of its supporters were killed a week after election results. The CPI (M) also lost party workers amidst the tussle, and even their office was set ablaze.
Regions predominated by two parties tend to experience more violence. Before, it was the CPI(M) and Congress or TMC, and now, the clashes are rampant between BJP and TMC.
Irrespective of the political party, local party workers are subjected to violence after or during the campaigning and polls.
Although tall leaders from both the BJP and TMC voiced their concerns ahead of the media, it did not ground impact.
For instance, BJP President JP Nadda assured to end the political violence in Bengal during a rally; TMC MP Derek O’Brien, in an interview, blamed the centrally appointed police officers for working under the directions of the ruling party. On the other hand, the Bengal Chief Minister was responsive to ensure relief packages for the victims but kept silent about the violence in West Bengal.
It has been more than a month since the poll results, but the violence continues. Around mid-May, West Bengal was quite heated. Following the arrest of TMC leaders by the CBI and Mamata Banerjee’s protest pushed the violence further.
Corruption, Coterie and CBI
Few days after Mamata Bannerjee took the Chief Ministerial oath, the CBI arrested top TMC leaders. The Chief Minister rushed to the CBI headquarters and staged a sit-in against the arrest.
The background of the arrest goes back to the Narada sting operation case. Mathew Samuel conducted this sting operation against twelve TMC leaders and one IPS officer. It reveals the politicians and the IPS officer favouring a firm in exchange for liquid cash. Notably, this sting operation was published in 2016, just ahead of the assembly polls that year.
Following the sit-in by the Chief Minister, TMC supporters gathered outside the CBI office. They pelted stones, raised slogans against the central agency and attacked the security personnel, which led to increased violence in West Bengal.
The TMC supporters tried to break into the Raj Bhavan and raised slogans against the State’s Governor. This happened because the Governor had sanctioned the prosecution of four TMC leaders at the request of the CBI.
The political drama began after the Calcutta High Court instructed the CBI to seek consent from the Speaker of the state assembly before the prosecution. However, the central agency went against the directions of the Hon’ble court and took the Governor’s approval instead.
Soon after the arrest, a special CBI court granted bail to all the four accused on a personal bond of rupees fifty thousand each. However, concerned by the Chief Minister’s dharna, the CBI approached the Calcutta High Court for transferring the trial outside the State.
The Hon’ble Calcutta High Court took cognisance against the issue for transferring the matter. Alongside, it also set aside the order of the Special CBI Court that granted the interim bail, sending TMC leaders under house arrest.
A few days later, a five-judge bench of the Calcutta High Court granted interim bail to the leaders in exchange for a personal bond of Rs. 2 lakh each.
While the central agency is digging matters against the TMC, political analysts criticised BJP for acting immaturely. Both the parties indulged in violence equally—however, TMC weaponised violence against its opposition after retaining power in the State. More than the BJP or CPI(M), this rampaging by the TMC has hit lower-caste and-class party workers.
Violence in West Bengal Must Stop: Who Is Affected?
The campaign itself raised questions on political parties’ conduct and agendas. Pre-poll and post-poll local politicians and party workers lost their lives. CM Banerjee announced rupees two lakhs as compensation for the lost lives in the post-poll violence.
Even during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, there were around 650 incidents of violence, including eleven deaths. And on the polling day alone, 33 deaths were reported.
In 2020 alone, the home ministry recorded close to 660 incidents of political violence. This included the killing of 57 people from BJP and TMC together. Additionally, 1314 people got injured.
The electoral atmosphere in West Bengal is worrisome.
It already has a blot of communal killings, and the state-assembly elections have only deepened the communal divide.
According to the reports on post-poll violence in West Bengal, the first victim was a 35-year old idol maker from North Kolkata. He was dragged and beaten to death. His only fault, he was a BJP worker. The Kolkata Police was quick to defend his death, they said
‘the victim was not cooperating with the probe‘.
Therefore, it is essential to highlight that the cases that have surfaced in the media are the rare ones reported. Those belonging to the underprivileged sections face continuous harassment at the expense of political parties. However, most of them are lost behind political, violent, communal and hate rhetoric.
This rhetoric in form of violence seems to be a norm now.
On June 14, two women approached the Supreme Court alleging rape charges against the TMC party workers. The women alleged that they were assaulted for supporting BJP in the 2021 West Bengal Elections.
Besides, Biswajit Sarker has moved a plea ahead of the Supreme Court. He has requested an intervention from the Special Investigation Team (SIT) or CBI to probe the killing of his brother Avijit Sarker, a BJP member.
The politics of violence in West Bengal is smothering democracy one election at a time. Such instances of violence and corruption are killing the spirit of Bengal as it was first imagined.
BANERJEE, P. (2011). Party, Power and Political Violence in West Bengal. Economic and Political Weekly, 46(6), 16-18. Retrieved June 17, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27918111