While political violence unleashes in West Bengal post its 2021 Assembly elections, the police remains a silent spectator. This is not new in the state, or even in the country for that matter. From the Delhi pogrom in February 2020 to the Gujarat riots of 2002 and other numerous instances of violence, it has been observed that the police can almost never work independently. It mostly acts as an extension of the government, either by actively participating in the violence and enabling it or by simply remaining inactive in stopping it. In Bengal, one has to think hard to remember even one name in the police force who had shown some spine in front of power and been a face for an independent and accountable police force.
The recent post-poll violence took place hours after the Trinamool Congress (TMC) won its third successive term in the state on May 2. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), along with several other parties, accused the TMC of carrying out attacks on the cadres and offices of their political opponents in the state. On May 6, Mamata Banerjee stated that at least 16 persons, mostly from the BJP and TMC, and one from Samyukta Morcha, died in the violence.
Political violence in the state has a long history — from the Naxalbari incident in 1967 and Ek Paisa Andolan in 1953 to the Tebhaga movement in 1946 and the Food Movements of 1959 and 1966. In the recent past, too, there have been regular incidents of violence but no one from the police force or a political party shown any accountability towards it. It seems as if election violence has become a normalised and an accepted culture in Bengal that no one even thinks of questioning anymore.
The ‘gun-culture’ in Bengal’s politics only increased during the Left regime, as studied minutely by researcher Partha Sarthi Banerjee in his article Party, Power and Political Violence in West Bengal. He also studies how violence in Bengal was never in the name of religion or caste, but solely responsible for political factors. After the Left lost power in the state, this tradition has been carefully carried forward by the TMC, and now the BJP, too. Let us look at some of the incidents from the recent past.
The ferocious assault on Mamata Banerjee in 1990 — when members of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the CPI (M)’s organisation, surrounded her and hit her with rods and sticks, and broke her head — can be recollected as one of the worst instances of violence in Bengal’s political history.
The July 21, 1993, march on Writers’ Building by Mamata Banerjee leading the Youth Congress was yet another fierce incident. To stop the march from progressing beyond the Section 144 line, the state police had used teargas, batons and even opened fire. Thirteen young people were killed within minutes.
A series of violent confrontations between the CPI (M) and the TMC — over land acquisition for the Tata Motors Nano car factory in Singur and the land acquisition proposal (terminated later) in Nandigram in Midnapore between 2006 to 2008 — are deeply etched in our memories even today. The official number of people killed in these confrontations were never clear, but bombs, guns and building of trenches were an everyday sight.
In 2009, Lalgarh in the Jhargram district, adjacent to West Midnapore, was seen turning into a war zone when the Maoist-backed People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities led by Chatradhar Mahato set a series of attacks on the CPI (M) and the police. Over 70 people were killed in a matter of months, according to reports. The resurgence of the Maoists and the cult status that the leader of People’s War Group, Kishen ji, made in that period created havoc across West Bengal. It was very similar to what happened during the Naxalite movement in the 70s where the police was responsible for an age of massive violence, custodial torture, custodial death and encounter killings.
There are statements of former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in 1997 when he said that between 1977 and 1996, 28,000 political murders had been committed in the state. In 2010, the Leftist Weekly Mainstream recorded that between 1977 and 2009, 55,000 political murders had taken place in the state.
Another violent election was the 2018 Panchayat elections that saw instances of vicious attacks on civilians (including assault and murder), riots and armed battles among party members. Despite that, only about 4% of all reported cases were investigated on. According to the data by the National Crime Records Bureau, six people died in the 2003 Panchayat elections (across political parties), 39 in the 2013 Panchayat elections, and 29 in the 2018 elections.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, out of the total poll time offences registered in India, 18% were in West Bengal. During the 2014 Lok Sabha election, of the 16 political workers killed across India in poll-related violence, 44% were in West Bengal. Data for 2019 shows that of the 2,008 political workers who were injured, 1,298 (i.e. 64%) were in West Bengal.
The BJP is simply communalising what is yet another instance of party-based political violence in the state. This way, it is trying to send a message to the country about what people’s fate might be if the BJP is not in power – violence against Hindus by Muslims. This allegation has little evidence.
However, putting the communal colour aside does not make it acceptable either. Just because there is a known history of political violence in Bengal does not give it an excuse to normalise it. It was criminal in the past, it is criminal even now. It raises questions of the independence of our police as well as the efficiency of political leadership. After a sweeping victory in the elections, the nation looks at the TMC and its leader Mamata Banerjee as a hope against the BJP (which supposedly has no strong alternative).
It is being said all across media outlets that what Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow. This incident could prove to be a huge blotch for didi in her emergence as a national figure. And if not, certainly yet another blotch in the history of Bengal.