A look back at the history of Bengal’s political violence
The violence that marked the second phase of Bengal assembly polls, which ranged from the murder of a Trinamool Congress (TMC) worker at Keshpur in West Midnapore district to a face-off between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the state’s ruling party supporters during Mamata Banerjee’s visit to a polling booth in East Midnapore’s Nandigram, neither surprised citizens nor political experts.
Even as the Election Commission (EC) thought of prolonging the presence of central armed police forces to tackle post-poll violence, political observers said that with the BJP’s rapid and phenomenal rise posing a threat to the TMC, a new chapter is apparently being added to the state’s history of bloodshed inked over the last six decades.
The turbulent 1960s
After Bengal emerged from pre- and post-Independence communal bloodbath, the seeds of violence were sown deep inside its political ethos in the 1960s.
Bengal’s Marxists first tasted power in 1967 through the formation of the United Front government. Since the Congress was losing ground, especially in the rural belts, the turf war between the state’s two primary formations—the Congress and communists—was bloody and widespread.
Kolkata witnessed processions by armed Communist Party of India (Marxist) cadres who swore to establish the rule of the proletariat. Three years later, in one of the most macabre displays of political hatred, members of the Sai family in Burdwan were butchered on March 17, 1970. The victims were ardent followers of the Congress and refused to switch allegiance to the CPI(M). In February 1971, just ahead of the general election, All India Forward Bloc national secretary Hemanta Basu was murdered in Kolkata. A section of Bloc leaders pointed fingers at the CPI(M), while the latter blamed the Congress. The actual killer was never caught.
But this was also a time when a radical Left movement emerged from Naxalbari—a small hamlet in the state’s northern district of Siliguri. With the aim of waging war against the State and winning power through the barrel of the gun, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) engaged in the “annihilation of class enemies”—which, translated into reality from theory, meant the killings of land owners as well as all those elements the party decided were serving the regime.
Records show that between 1972 and 1977, the Congress government headed by Siddhartha Shankar Ray then unleashed a fierce attack against the ultra-left. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted the movement to be crushed and Ray’s regime faced countless allegations of police atrocity and fake encounters.
The years of Left rule
The Marxists returned to power in 1977, this time to stay rooted for 34 years. One of the key ingredients of their hold over state power was their control over the rural political and government apparatus—through an almost parallel machinery. While the Left did initiate progressive land reform measures and continued to enjoy mass support, it also relied on coercion and violence—sometimes direct, often merely the threat of violence—to cement its hold.
A major incident that helped Mamata Banerjee rise during the Jyoti Basu regime was the lynching of 11 landless Muslim labourers by CPI(M) cadres at Suchpur village in Birbhum district on July 27, 2000, almost a year after a general election. The killings rocked the nation and most of the accused men were convicted.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who took over in November 2000, managed to ensure peace during the first years of his tenure but things changed once he tried to set up new industries and the issue of land acquisition came up. Fatal clashes between CPI(M) and TMC workers at Nandigram, where Bhattacharjee wanted to set up a chemical hub, became an election issue that led to the Left’s downfall in 2011.
On March 14, 2007, 14 residents of Nandigram in East Midnapore fell to police bullets when they set up a blockade. CPI(M) cadres engaged in a violent clash against the TMC-backed Bhumi Uchched Protirodh Committee. The Maoists, then a strong force in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, also joined the farmers. More than 50 people were killed in two years, although Bhattacharya abandoned the project.
The 2008 panchayat polls were rocked by violence which claimed more than 20 lives. Even Left Front allies, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the CPI(M), got into a protracted battle to retain control over some villages in South 24 Parganas district. Gauri Naskar, a relative of senior RSP leader and irrigation minister Subhas Naskar, was injured in a blast at the minister’s ancestral home while the house of Uday Naskar, his nephew, was attacked. The RSP accused CPI(M)-backed goons. Left leaders were weary because RSP supporters retaliated at some places.
“It is true that our men had weapons. But their crude bombs and improvised firearms were no match for the firepower of CPI(M) cadres,” a senior RSP leader admitted on condition of anonymity on Thursday.
In Murshidabad district’s Domkal, more than 90 people were injured in a series of clash during the 2008 panchayat polls. Of them, more than 70 were Left supporters.
The rise of the Maoists triggered killings at Lalgarah in West Midnapore. Around the Lok Sabha polls in 2009, many local CPI(M) leaders were killed and the house of the party’s Lalgarh zonal committee secretary, Anuj Pandey, was demolished by a mob.
The Trinamool regime
Before assuming power in 2011, Mamata Banerjee promised to put things in order. “We will bring in the politics of change, not vengeance,” she said.
Yet, the killings and turf wars continued. In February 2012, former CPI(M) MLA Pradip Tah and Burdwan district leader Kamal Gayen were bludgeoned to death, allegedly by TMC workers, taking the number of CPI(M) leaders and workers killed in post 2011 assembly poll violence to 56 in just nine months.
The 2018 panchayat polls virtually took Bengal back in time. While only 10 people died on the day of polling, against an all-time high of 76 in 2003 and 39 in the 2013 rural polls, the elections stood out because of alleged electoral malpractices. The TMC, which won 34% of the seats uncontested, was accused of perpetrating violence in all districts, although the state election commission was asked by the Calcutta high court and Supreme Court to ensure free and fair polling. The polls triggered the rise of the BJP and Bengal’s tryst with violence saw a new beginning.
The rise of the BJP
Eleven men and a two-year-old child died in violence after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in which the BJP won 18 of the state’s 42 seats, posing a major threat to the TMC. The saffron camp now claims that more than 130 of its supporters have been killed since that election and the ongoing assembly polls.
Political scientist and former principal of Presidency College, which is now a university, Amal Kumar Mukherjee said that Thursday’s violence is not unrelated to the bloodshed Bengal has witnessed over the decades.
“The current violence has its roots in the Naxalite movement of the 1970s. The Left Front inherited it. After coming to power the TMC supremo said she would usher a positive change in politics but she has not done that. The tradition continues and it is a shame for any resident of Bengal. While other states conduct peaceful elections Bengal stands out as an exception in national politics,” said Mukherjee.
“I wonder how violence took place during the second phase of polling despite the presence of central forces. The EC tried to best to ensure peaceful polls. It did not work out because violence is an integral part of Bengal politics,” he added.
BJP’s leaders accused Banerjee for the clashes that have been taking place since months.
“The BJP does not believe in the politics of violence. Mamata Banerjee follows that path and she proved it in the 2018 panchayat polls. We assure people that after her defeat elections in Bengal will not be scarred by killings,” said Bengal BJP general secretary Sayantan Basu.
Though they faced criticism for 34 years, the Left parties, too, are accusing the current dispensation of violence.
“Mamata Banerjee created a Frankenstein by not allowing people to cast their votes freely during the last 10 years. Common people have become victim of the violence which is perpetrated either the TMC or the BJP. The latter is the ruling party’s ‘B’ team. In Nandigram, for example, CPI(M) candidate Minakshi Mukherjee’s followers were attacked because she represents the young generation which forms a sizeable chunk of the electorate. But the media did not highlight this,” said CPI(M) politburo member Mohammad Salim.
The chief minister, however. has squarely put the onus on the Centre, saying Central forces allowed the violence under instructions from the Union home ministry.
“I do not blame the Central forces because they have been instructed by the Union home ministry to support BJP candidates. There are Hindi-speaking outsiders. They are not from Bengal,” Banerjee said on Thursday.
Retired Kolkata Police commissioner Gautam Chakraborty said the ECI should come up with a different strategy to end violence during elections in the districts.
“Bombs and guns have always been used in the districts to scare voters so that they do not leave home on the day of polling. The Central forces are deployed around a polling booth, not in the villages where voters live. These forces have no intelligence network to track criminals. It is the job of the local police. In Kolkata, it is possible to cordon off an area and flush out criminals but it cannot be done in the districts,” said Chakraborty