Political violence that rocks Bengal manifested itself 50 years ago | Opinion
After the state of West Bengal emerged from the pre and post-Independence communal bloodbath, a new seed of violence was sown deep inside its political ethos in the 1960s. As regimes changed and new ideologies surfaced, use of force was either justified or opposed through new and conflicting interpretations.Updated: Sep 10, 2019 13:45 IST
With the Bharatiya Janata Party’s phenomenal rise in West Bengal, something few could foresee in the eastern state till four years ago, political violence appears to be a part of daily life. More than 50 people have been killed since May 30 last year but are Bengalis really in for a surprise? Perhaps not.
Even as the ruling Trinamool Congress accuses the BJP of deploying coercive tactics, the state’s history narrates a tale of seamless bloodshed inked over more than 50 years.
After the state of West Bengal emerged from the pre and post-Independence communal bloodbath, a new seed of violence was sown deep inside its political ethos in the 1960s. As regimes changed and new ideologies surfaced, use of force was either justified or opposed through new and conflicting interpretations.
“Power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” a comment Mao Zedong, chairman of the Communist Party of China, made during the civil war in his country was silently adopted over the decades by Bengal’s apparatchiks who pursued quite different goals in a republic governed by a Constitution.
The turbulent 60s
West Bengal’s Marxists first tasted power in 1967 through formation of the United Front government. Since the Congress was rapidly losing ground, especially in the rural belts, the turf war was bloody and widespread. Kolkata witnessed processions by armed Communist Party of India (Marxist) cadres who swore to usher in 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 and the latter blamed the Congress. The daylight killing, like many others, remains wrapped in mystery.
Naxalites and Emergency
Between 1972 and 1977, the Congress government headed by Siddhartha Shankar Ray became a nightmare for doctors at police morgues. Inspired by “Chairman Mao,” Naxalite leader Charu Majumdar and his comrades declared war against the state in 1971 and told youths and college students how to assassinate government officers, policemen, businessmen, landlords, lawyers and leaders of the Congress and Left parties.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted the movement to be crushed and Ray’s regime was marked by countless allegations of police atrocity, fake encounters and last but not the least, the Emergency. The anarchy left a deep impact on Bengal’s society, art and literature.
Jyoti Basu takes over
The Marxists returned to power in 1977, this time to stay rooted for 34 years. The first two governments led by Jyoti Basu witnessed not only militant trade unionism, factory closures and bandhs (general strikes) but also political violence. This was the period when CPI(M) leaders in the districts established absolute control though most of it happened in the name of land reforms and Panchayati Raj.
The administration, too, spilled blood during Basu’s regime. In January 1979, the Bengal Police wrote a dark chapter in history by opening fire on Bengali Dalit refugees at Marichjhapi in the Sunderbans, killing, according to unofficial accounts, more than a hundred men, women and children. It was not the age of live television but world still got a wind of it. So, media teams and parliamentary delegations were stopped from entering the region after the massacre.
The refugees were brought to India from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the 1950s and given shelter at Dankaranya, a forest land with no civic amenities spread across four states in central India. They migrated to West Bengal at the behest of some Marxist leaders who were apparently eyeing the vote bank.
Researchers later found that the refugees refused to come under the umbrella of the Left and were in no mood to leave Marichjhapi either. Basu declared an economic blockade, saying the refugees were ravaging natural resources of a reserve forest. It was alleged that after the massacre, bodies were dumped into the Raimangal river.
Basu’s regime came under question again in 1982 when 17 monks of the Ananda Marg, a Hindu religious cult, were burnt alive on Bijon Setu in the heart of south Kolkata allegedly by CPI(M) workers after rumours that the monks were child lifters.
The most talked about incidents that helped Mamata Banerjee rise during Basu’s tenure were the police firing on youth Congress agitators at Kolkata’s Esplanade that left 13 people dead on July 21, 1993 and the lynching of 11 landless Muslim labourers at Suchpur village in Birbhum district on July 27, 2000. The killings rocked the nation.
Final years of the Left Front
Basu’s successor Budhadeb Bhattacharjee, who took over in November 2000, managed to ensure some peace during the first years of his tenure but things went haywire 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, remained in news for two years.
On March 14, 2007, 14 residents of Nandigram in East Midnapore fell to police bullets when they set up a blockade. Instead of letting the administration take over, CPI(M) cadres were allowed to start an armed conflict against the TMC-backed Bhumi Uchched Protirodh Committee. The Maoists, then a strong force in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, joined the farmers. More than 50 people were killed in two years although Bhattacharjee abandoned the project.
Significantly, the final years of Bhattacharjee’s regime witnessed an ideological decadence in the rank and file of the Marxist cadre and corruption became the driving force behind territorial domination. The slide down did not spare a section of TMC district leaders. By the time the Left juggernaut screeched to a halt, Panchayati Raj had become money rolling machines for thousands.
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. But 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 2013, the elections stood out because of unprecedented rigging, booth capturing and burning of ballot papers in front of the media and policemen.
TMC, which won 34 % of the seats uncontested, had to take the blame of perpetrating violence in all the districts although the state election commission was asked by Calcutta high court and Supreme Court to ensure free and fair polling.
The polls triggered the rise of the BJP since, by then, the Left was virtually wiped out. Bengal’s tryst with violence saw a new beginning. And, Bengalis were not really in for a surprise. Violence, like politics, is just a part of life in the state.
First Published: Sep 10, 2019 13:30 IST