On 3rd May 2021, West Bengal was in the throes of post-poll violence that allegedly left several people dead and injured in clashes, and shops being looted and set on fire. At least 17 people have been allegedly killed due to this goondaism– that was unleashed by goons of both political parties and their supporters. In the past week, social media has been flooded with images that paint a gruesome picture of the reality of the ethics of political parties in India.
As terrifying as it sounds, the history of politics in Bengal has always been laced in violence, ranging from the left parties which did initiate progressive land reform measures etc but also relied on coercion and violence to tighten its grasp. A major incident that helped Mamata Banerjee rise during the Left 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 sent shock waves throughout the nation, and most of the accused men were convicted.
When Mamata, (popularly hailed as ‘Didi’) came to power, she promised the people of Bengal prosperity, peace and “politics of change, not vengeance”. Yet, the killings and turf wars between TMC and the Left continued to occur. In February 2012, former CPI(M) MLA Pradip Tah and Burdwan district leader Kamal Gayen were bludgeoned to death, allegedly by TMC workers. The post-poll casualties of CPI(M) leaders and workers added up to 56, in only 9 months. Therefore the culture of goondaism and state-sponsored violence is not novel- irrespective of the party commanding power.
“West Bengal has over the last three decades or so been marked by a political culture that treats opposition as enemy and not as a respectable interlocutor with a different and rightful view. The recent spurt of violence should be seen as a continuity of that old culture. The BJP introduced (and aggressively promotes) this political culture of violence at the national level,” says Pankaj Jha, Professor at LSR and Editor at The Indian Economic and Social History Review.
Similar to regional party Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the TMC is a closeted Right-wing party that has recently tried to revamp its identity as the guardian of the people and liberal secular democracy. But the reality is that it is simply a matter of comparison of party culture and power- and barely has anything to do with policies that affect the poorest of the poor and the marginalised.
In comparison to the party culture of its farther Right nemesis- the Bharatiya Janta Party, the Shiv Sena and TMC seem milder and progressive, but to assume that they are strangers to political violence and champions of social justice is nothing but foolish!
As the people of Bengal entrust the TMC with their lives for the third time, it is more important than ever that the TMC is held accountable for its actions and bring about huge organisational, structural and ideological reforms within itself.
“The TMC has been voted to power a record third time, and with an unprecedented majority. It must do everything it can to promote a more democratic culture of dialogue and stop the party-cadre goondaism. TMC must realise that suppressing the political culture of violence is not just good ethics, it is also good politics. That is the only way it can stop the right-wing juggernaut in the state. TMC might have won this election, but BJP did not lose. It raised its tally from 3 to 77,” adds Professor Jha.
The incident was not purely a result of TMC workers’ actions, the BJP has chosen to wash its dirty laundry in the flood of fake information, peddling hate as well as painting the incident with a communal colour. BJP leaders, the ‘IT cell’ and BJP supporters have been aggressively using social media to carve out a communal narrative by spreading fake photographs and videos as well as information- insinuating that these attacks were carried out by minorities and Muslim party workers of the TMC.
Using social media as machinery for their anti-minority anti-Dalit pro-Hindutva propaganda is a tactic that BJP has always relied on. The event was evidently not a one-sided battle, and there was violence on both sides. However, the BJP immediately spread old images of injured people, false information about the death of certain individuals that are very well alive, to churn out sympathy and support- steps that seem to be moving in the direction of a coup.
— Abhijit Majumder (@abhijitmajumder) May 4, 2021
Hindutva vigilante groups immediately took to their beloved communal rhetoric and expressed open threats on social media as well.
The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) put out a statement on Tuesday saying, “There are continual reports from almost every part of the state that the anti-social goons and “Jihadi” elements of TMC are victimising Hindus through public violence, arson, looting and destroying their houses, temples, settlements, outraging dignity of their sisters-mother-daughters and torching their business establishment.”
The statement issued by the VHP also gave a mobilisation call, saying: “Hindu society also has the full right of self-defence, which it will use.”
To differentiate itself from the BJP and the right ideology, the TMC must evolve from its nature of reactionary, retaliatory, dissident-suppressive politics to a party that is truly committed to good public policy and conflict resolution via diplomacy. If this is not assured, then it is abundantly clear that the TMC is not a suitable alternative to the BJP’s violence, but merely a version of it.