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Opinion: Political Violence In Bengal Is Not New, But Its Communal Colour Is

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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.

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. Representational image.

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.

The BJP is simply communalising what is yet another instance of party-based political violence in the state. Representational image.

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.

Featured image is representational.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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