With its support base fast shrinking, the ruling Trinamool Congress has intensified violence against the main opposition BJP and RSS
In 2019, three of a family, including an eight months
pregnant woman, were found dead in their blood-splattered house in Jiyaganj area of Murshidabad
Violence as a political instrument has been a force-multiplier in Bengal.
In a critically acclaimed Bengali film, noted actor Anil Chatterjee playing the role of a lawyer says, “Murder should never have any adjective, murder is murder”.
The scene sums up the paradoxes of Bengal politics. The film and the plot were much in discussions as the storyline talks about an acid throwing incident and how ‘political goondaism’ used to be given legitimacy in Bengal. This was decades ago, during the stint of Marxists when across the nation, the CPI(M) top guns did not mind moving around and lecturing about political morality, rights of the underprivileged and what-not.
The reality in their backyards -- Bengal -- was always different. In 1989, a report in ‘India Today’ had said: “The Naxalite period is testimony to this. What is frightening is that West Bengal has become yet another mirror of India where leaders make political capital out of riots, casteism, communalism and now, even death. And for this, not just West Bengal, but also the country is bound to reap a grim harvest of political shame.”
Violence had become part of polity and the democratic opposition was never tolerated by the Marxists and other Communist outfits like Forward Bloc who formed part of the Left Front. At times, even Forward Bloc cadres and leaders were easily eliminated.
In 1971, a respected Forward Bloc leader Hemanta Basu was murdered. On his death, Ajit Kumar Biswas was nominated to contest elections, and he was also killed. The CPI(M) cadres were blamed. The wanton violence has thrived even post-2011 when Mamata Banerjee came to power.
In 2019, three of a family, including an eight months pregnant woman, were found dead in their blood-splattered house in Jiyaganj area of Murshidabad
The violent politics and misgovernance have now pushed Bengal’s electorate into the arms of the BJP. "Of course, this is not what Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee would like to be remembered for," a CPI(M) leader in Purulia had told this writer in April 2019.
The cult of violence thrived; and it passed onto the Trinamool Congress-dispensation by 2011 as the power factor shifted allegiance.
Some of the old cases of terror and horror starting from mid-seventies are only grim reminder of the political legacy of a state – where otherwise people cherish rasogollas, macch-bhat (fish rice) and cool healing melodious Rabindrasangeet.
Much before the Leftists came to power in 1977, two prominent Congress leaders of Sain family were murdered in Burdwan. The episode of March 17, 1970 left the ill-fated mother shell-shocked and mentally disturbed as long as she lived and those who perpetrated the violence went onto become important leaders under the Left. A former industry minister, Nirupam Sen, was an accused. Even Indira Gandhi later visited the victim’s house.
But no accountability was fixed. Interestingly, Justice Tarapada Mukherjee Commission, set up by Congress Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray in 1973, had probed the killings. The report, however, did not name any CPI (M) leader.
A number of such gory incidents were reported from various parts of the state especially after the Left Front came to power. In 1979, on the Saraswati Puja Day, the Jyoti Basu-led and perceived to be a ‘poor-man’s Government’ starved, opened fire and killed perhaps 500 Bengali Hindu refugees from Bangladesh – mostly backwards called Namasudras. This happened in Marichjhanpi in Suderbans. In 1982, at least 17 Anand Margis were charred to death in south Kolkata’s popular bridge Bijon Setu as the apprehension was that the Hindu cult ‘Margis’ would emerge as a ‘difficult force’ which could have affected political growth of the communists. None were ever punished.
- On July 13, 2020, Hemtabad MLA in Uttar Dinajpur, Debendra Nath Roy died. Trinamool Congress cadres were allegedly involved, but police claimed it was suicide.
- In recent times, it was the second death of a legislator. Satyajit Bswas, Krishnaganj MLA, was also killed at the Saraswati Puja celebration in February 2019.
- In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, 16 political workers were killed across India in poll-related violence; seven of them were in Bengal.
- Between 1999 and 2016, violence in Bengal saw 365 politically motivated murders.
- In 2014 general elections, of the 2,008 political workers who were injured, 1,298 (that is - 64 per cent) were from Bengal.
- January 3, 2016: Over a lakh Muslim residents in Kaliachak area of Malda town gathered to protest the supposed comments from a Hindu Mahasabha leader. A local religious group, Edara-e-Sharaia circulated some leaflets. The mob gradually turned violent and quarrelled with a BSF team, stoned Hindu houses in the locality and set a nicely built Kaliachak police station on fire.
- National Crime Records Bureau reports say in the 18 years between 1999 and 2016, on an average Bengal witnessed 20 political murders every year.
The highest was in 2009 when 50 murders were motivated by political reasons. This was the year; the Leftists started losing their grip.
At much later stage came the infamous ‘Nanoor massacre’ in 2000 (July 27) when eleven landless labourers were eliminated allegedly by CPI(M) activists in Suchpur, near Nanoor in Birbhum district.
But it may not be proper to blame the Communists alone. The Congress, which was in power till 1977 and later became principal opposition force against the Marxists has been hardly a sacred cow. Of course, for a brief spell Leftists were in power in 1967 also.
“In effect, political violence is the history of Bengal politics. If Leftists did it for three decades, the Congress days in power under Siddhartha Shankar Ray between 1972 and 1977 particularly saw violence directed against Bengali youths. The community’s spinal cord was broken and so by the time, the Communists were in power for next 34 years, the helpless common people had learnt to crawl and abide by any ‘Marx-vadi’ local dada’s dictum in Kolkata or in places like Burdwan and Jalpaiguri,” sums up an Asansol-based educationist Neehar Dasgupta.
On July 21, 1993, there was police firing youth Congress activists and this episode had brought in focus on Mamata Banerjee, who then headed the Youth Congress. The protest was to demand making voter photo-ID cards mandatory.
Jyoti Basu-led Left Front had won the 1991 state polls with a huge mandate but the Congress had alleged a big time rigging. The then Home Minister SB Chavan under PV Narasimha Rao had rushed to Kolkata after the police actions and advised the state government to order a judicial probe, as 13 people had died in police firing. No such probe was ordered by the Chief Minister. In fact, Basu had even supported the police actions, saying they had "done a good job" in preventing the attempted siege of the Writers' Building. No wonder, Tushar Talukdar became one of the most controversial police commissioners in the city.
Paradoxically, a similar police firing haunted the Left regime many years later.
As many as fourteen villagers were shot dead on March 14, 2007 in Nandigram. Two days later Calcutta High Court had said police action was "wholly unconstitutional and cannot be justified”. The Left leaders also said entire campaign after March 14, 2007 was only aimed at maligning the Buddhadeb regime. Of course, Singur was another episode.
The politics and governance Mamata heralded was mere ‘anti-Leftism’ only in papers, sloganeering and lip-service. Her governance was only a ‘bad replica’ of the Communists – with politics of intimidation becoming the order of the day
Many such incidents could be reflected upon here. But it is also essential to take a closer look at the state under Mamata Banerjee who, of course, created a credible ‘her-story’ in 2011 by ousting the Leftists. The hopes were unfortunately belied.
The politics and governance Mamata heralded was mere ‘anti-Leftism’ only in papers, sloganeering and lip-service. Her governance was only a ‘bad replica’ of the Communists – with politics of intimidation becoming the order of the day. There was much intolerance to any kind of dissent and the same old but dreaded ‘anti-industry mindset’ persisted.
In 2012, just a year after Mamata came to power, Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra, who taught Chemistry at Jadavpur University, was arrested for posting a cartoon mocking at the Chief Minister on social media. In 2018, of course, her machinations came in confrontation with the BJP’s ‘growing acceptability’ in the state.
There were reports of unprecedented rigging, booth-capturing and burning of ballot papers in front of the media and policemen for the panchayat polls.
Mamata managed 34 per cent of the seats ‘uncontested’ but her dispensation got all the blame. The state election commission was asked by Calcutta High Court and the Supreme Court to ensure free and fair polling.
Appearing helpless and defensive, Mamata Banerjee and her party triggered debate that only 10 people died on the day of polling (in 2018) as against an all-time high of 76 in 2003 (when the Left was in power).
On May 14, 2018, Banerjee’s trusted aide Derek O’ Brien tweeted: “To all 'newborn' experts on Bengal Panchayat elections. State has a history. 400 killed in poll violence in 1990s in CPI(M) rule. 2003: 40 dead. Every death is a tragedy. Now closer to normal than earlier times.Yes, few dozen incidents. Say, 40 out of 58,000 booths. What's percentage?”
By June 2018, the BJP got more aggressive in making inroads in rural Bengal. Subsequently, violence also picked up. At a rally at Purulia on June 28, 2018, BJP chief Amit Shah said about 20 BJP workers have been killed and 1341 injured “but if you (Mamata Banerjee) think by this violence you can continue in office, you cannot”.
The key takeaway was the sacrifice of BJP workers and RSS swayamsevaks would not go in vain.
The saffron party strategists have statistics to rely on for their optimism. For Mamata, the seats in 2019 parliamentary polls went down to 22 from 34. The BJP won 18 seats -- quite a jump from two in 2014 -- and the vote share increased from 23 per cent in 2014 to 40 per cent of the popular vote.