18 killed in panchayat poll violence in West Bengal | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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18 killed in panchayat poll violence in West Bengal

By, Kolkata
Jul 09, 2023 12:02 AM IST

The death toll has now reached 37, raising questions about the role of the state election commission in ensuring a smooth polling process.

At least 18 people died across eight districts of West Bengal on Saturday as the three-tier panchayat elections in 20 districts were marked by widespread violence, looting of ballot papers and rigging, people familiar with the developments said. Polling was peaceful only in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, the two hilly districts that have two-tier panchayats.

Ballot papers at a polling booth in Cooch Behar were set on fire during polling on Saturday. (ANI)
Ballot papers at a polling booth in Cooch Behar were set on fire during polling on Saturday. (ANI)

Saturday’s violence raised the death toll to 37, calling into question the role of the state election commission over its failure to ensure smooth conduct of polling. The poll body was initially opposed to the idea of deploying additional forces and was even pulled up by the Calcutta high court. In a state where violence at the booth level is deeply seeped in the political culture, the election watchdog ought to have been much more competent and serious about its responsibility.

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In the last 2018 panchayat polls 23 people died across Bengal, with 12 of them losing their lives on the day of polling.

Also Read: ‘Matter of great concern’: Bengal governor on panchayat poll violence

The results are scheduled to be announced on July 11 but the Opposition, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the CPI(M) and the Congress, demanded a repoll at a large number of polling booths. The Congress moved the Calcutta high court seeking action against state election commissioner (SEC) Rajiva Sinha who was earlier pulled up by the court for not taking enough steps to stop pre-poll violence that claimed 19 lives between June 8 and July 7.

“The TMC (Trinamool Congress) has killed democracy today. They have looted votes everywhere. The TMC has already won the panchayat election,” state Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who is the Lok Sabha parliamentarian from Berhampore, said.

In 2013, two years after the TMC came to power for the first time, 15 people died during a multi-phase panchayat election.

Also Read: ‘War-like situation’: BJP shares videos of ‘goons’ brandishing gun, fleeing with ballot box in Bengal

Although the high court, while acting on a petition filed by BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari, ordered on June 15 that the SEC must deploy 822 companies of central armed police forces (CAPF) across all 22 districts, only 649 companies reached the state on time, state police officials said.

Voters and opposition parties alleged that the CAPF were not deployed in sensitive areas on Saturday.

A Punjab Police contingent reached Kolkata after the elections were over since trains were running late, a state police officer said on condition of anonymity.

Among those who died on Saturday, at least 11 were supporters of the ruling TMC, even as officials indicated that some of those casualties were a result of internecine battles between Trinamool workers while in several instances clashes were reported between TMC men and those from other parties. Cooch Behar district in north Bengal — where the BJP performed well in the 2019 Lok Sabha and the 2021 assembly polls — witnessed the deaths of two BJP workers and a TMC supporter.

In south Bengal, Malda district accounted for the deaths of two TMC supporters and an unidentified person. The adjoining Murshidabad district, which has the state’s highest Muslim population, saw the deaths of three TMC workers, a CPI(M) supporter and a voter.

Calling the election “a farce”, BJP’s Adhikari said, “Only imposition of Article 366 of the Constitution can protect people’s right to franchise in West Bengal.”

TMC state general secretary Kunal Ghosh and minister Sashi Panja claimed that elections in 14 districts were peaceful, and the violence was restricted to areas around just 60 of the state’s 61,636 polling booths.

“Violence took place in only 60 polling booth areas and the big incidents were restricted to only 8-9 booths. These were part of a conspiracy against Bengal and the TMC. Will TMC kill its own men? Those who want to impose President’s rule in Bengal should immediately visit Manipur where hundreds have died in ethnic clashes since May but the Centre has done nothing,” said Ghosh.

Rajiva Sinha did not make any statement on the deaths and the alleged rigging till Saturday evening. The state police, too, did not officially comment on the violence.

The spate of violence on Saturday showed that opposition workers tried to violently counter the TMC before the crucial Lok Sabha polls next year.

At least five people died and as many as 40 people sustained bullet and bomb injuries between late Friday night and Saturday afternoon in Murshidabad district. Most of the injured were rushed to Murshidabad Medical College and Hospital in Berhampore town.

The first victim of Saturday’s violence in the state was TMC worker Babar Ali, 45, who died in the Beldanga area of Murshidabad. Police said he was talking to fellow party workers in front of his house on Friday night when he was attacked by some armed men. He died in hospital in the early hours of Saturday. The TMC alleged that the Congress was behind the incident, a charge the latter denied.

Parties circulated videos of violent incidents from polling day on social media and blamed each other for the clashes.

The polls were held for 63,229 gram panchayat seats, 9,730 panchayat samiti seats and 928 zilla parishad seats. The number of eligible voters was 56.7 million. More than 9.5% of the panchayat seats across all three tiers were won uncontested, mostly by the TMC, data released by the SEC after the withdrawal of nomination papers showed last month. This indicated a huge dip since 2018 when the ruling party drew flak for winning 90% seats, of which 34% were uncontested.

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