5 killed in voting day violence in West Bengal
The fourth phase of assembly elections in West Bengal was marred by violence as five people were killed in two separate incidents — including one involving firing by central forces — in Cooch Behar, prompting the Election Commission of India to temporarily ban the entry of political leaders into the district even as rival parties continued to trade blame over the attacks.
The ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) alleged Saturday’s violence was proof that forces on poll duty were acting on directions of the central government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said TMC “goons” were behind the incidents.
Hours after voting began at 7am, four people were killed after Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) personnel on election duty, allegedly under attack by a mob, opened fire in self defence in the district’s Sitalkuchi constituency, police and EC officials said. In another incident at a different polling station in the constituency, a first-time voter was allegedly shot dead by unidentified men, according to the police.
The poll watchdog, in an order on Saturday evening, banned the entry of political leaders into the district for 72 hours to maintain law and order.
Hours before, ECI suspended voting at polling station number 126, where the four people were killed, and ordered a re-poll at the booth. It also sought a detailed report from district authorities on both incidents.
The incidents triggered a bitter political slugfest.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the Election Commission to take strict action against those responsible for the violence. “What happened in Cooch Behar is unfortunate and sad... Mamata didi and her TMC goons have become jittery because of groundswell of support for BJP,” PM Modi said at an election rally in north Bengal’s Siliguri.
Similarly, chief minister Mamata Banerjee demanded Union home minister Amit Shah’s resignation for the deaths of those “standing in a queue for voting”. She also alleged that the CAPF forces did not act in “self-defence” but opened fire at voters. “After killing so many people, they [Election Commission[ are saying the firing was in self- defence. They should feel ashamed... This is a lie....The central forces opened fire on people standing in the line for voting, killing 4 in Sitalkuchi. As the BJP knows, it has lost the people’s mandate, they are conspiring to kill people,” Banerjee, who has repeatedly accused the ECI and central forces of favouring the BJP, said at a rally in North 24 Parganas district.
Banerjee announced that her party will observe Sunday as “black day” and hold protests across the state. She said she would visit Sitalkuchi to meet the families of the victims on Sunday. TMC leaders later said she may postpone the visit as the ECI had banned the entry of political leaders in the area for three days.
Earlier in the day, a delegation of TMC leaders submitted a complaint to the state’s chief electoral officer Aariz Aftab, calling the deaths in firing “murder in cold blood” and accusing the EC and central forces of working on “the command of the BJP”.
Preliminary voter turnout in the state was 76.16% till 5pm, the Election Commission announced, adding that polling in other constituencies was largely peaceful.
On Saturday, BJP MP Locket Chatterjee alleged that her car was allegedly attacked by a mob of locals in Hooghly; she is contesting from the Chinsurah constituency in the district. At Bally in Howrah, BJP candidate Baishali Dalmiya also alleged that her car was attacked. TMC dismissed allegations that it was behind the attacks. Minor clashes and bombs being hurled at polling booths were reported from Sonarpur in South 24 Parganas and Howrah districts.
Polling was held in 44 assembly constituencies of north and south Bengal on Saturday, with 135 of the total 294 now having voted in the four phases. The eight-phase election will end on April 29 and counting of votes with be held on May 2.
Following Saturday’s events, the ECI ordered that the “silence period” — when campaigning comes to a stop ahead of voting — be extended from 48 to 72 hours before the fifth phase of polling. This means campaigning for 45 constituencies that vote on April 17 will end on April 14, instead of April 15 earlier.
The poll panel also ordered deployment of additional forces in the state for the remaining phases of elections.
According to a senior ECI official, voting was going on smoothly at booth number 126 at Jorpatki until 9:45am, when a 14-year-old boy named Manik Md fell ill and some people, including CAPF personnel huddled around him to enquire about his health. However, due to a “misunderstanding”, some local residents thought the boy had been beaten up by the CAPF and around 300-350 villagers soon gathered.
“The agitated mob attacked the CAPF personnel and some even tried to snatch their arms and ammunitions. The people were armed with sharp weapons.When the mob advanced, security personnel opened fire, killing four and injuring others. The CAPF later lodged a police complaint,” said Cooch Behar superintendent of police Debasish Dhar. EC officials later said three people were injured.
Annappa E, deputy inspector general of police, Jalpaiguri range, gave a similar sequence of events. “A mob attacked the central force personnel and they opened fire in self defence, killing four persons,” he said.
A CISF spokesperson, too, told news agency ANI that the soldiers deployed at the polling station fired six to eight rounds in self defence. Villagers, however, said a team of security personnel attacked the voters. “They suddenly opened fire and killed four villagers. A few others were injured. It is a blatant lie that we attacked them. Villagers were running for shelter when they opened fire,” said Noor Mohammed, a resident. “Some of us also took videos but the central forces snatched our mobile before leaving the place. If we get the mobile phone, we can prove what they did,” said Sheikh Ismail, another resident.
Those who died in the firing were identified as Jobed Ali, Chhalmu Mia, Amzad Hossain and Nameed Mia, all residents of the area.
In the second incident, 18-year-old first-time voter Ananda Burman was allegedly shot dead near booth number 285 at Pathantuli, also in Sitalkuchi. “He was a first-time voter. We have already arrested two persons,” said SP Debasish Dhar.
CEO Aftab said a total of eight people had been arrested in connection with the two incidents.
(With inputs from agencies)