The overwhelming political culture of violence, existing for more than 50 years, has again taken the centre stage in the state of West Bengal, when a BJP worker Ganesh Roy was found hanging from a tree in September 2020. The incident hasn’t come as a shock in the continuous occurrence of political murders of the party workers which are now part of ‘normalised’ and ‘routinised’ face of violence in the state but has further raised concerns for the future of politics in Bengal.
Political violence is not only apparent during elections, instead violence is entrenched within the political structure of the state. Biswanath Chakravorty, a political analysist, has stated “The society of the West Bengal has always been highly politicised and political conflict is increasing day by day.” With the corrupt regime of the congress, toppled by the CPI(M) which ruled for the longest unopposed, overtaken by the TMC- similar tactics have served the political ends.
According to the report published by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) the state recorded highest number of political murders in 2018. Every election in the state is marked with increased violence and higher level of killings. Capturing polling booths, tampering with ballot papers, vandalism and clashes leading to killings during campaigns constitute the election season.
The culture of violence in bengal isn’t a new phenomenon rather has existed for over 50 years. History provides enough evidences for understanding prevailing forms of violence. According to political scientist, Bidyut Chakraboty, “violence was part of West Bengal’s political history. It existed during Freedom movement too. For instance, even for the elections to the Union Board, there was a big fight between Subhash panthi (supporters of Subhash Chandra Bose) and Gandhi panthi (supporters of Mahatma Gandhi).” The recent deaths of BJP workers are nothing but the part of normal murderous brutality in West Bengal and the manifestation of continuous power struggle between Mamta Banerjee led TMC Government and the Far rightist BJP.
While every state has different nature of politics, localised territorial control forms the state politics of West Bengal. Bengal has a formidable rural population, with around 70 percent of it living in the villages. Policy implementation at the ground level is the role of local leaders who have strong party loyalties since, the political parties contest for panchayat elections unlike in other states. Citizens constantly in touch with the local leaders getting access to the party hence, become the leaders’ source of legitimacy. Thus, power moves in the bottom up approach, party that wins at the grassroot level has clear chances of sweeping the state and national level polls. Where parties are in the constant battle to achieve the mandate of the people at the local level- violence seems inevitable.
The nature of violence is the same when the faces have changed- the overthrow of congress regime by the left led- CPI(M) was bloody. In 1971, killing of Hemanta Basu, national secretary of All india forward bloc, became a highly controversial matter and still covered in a mystery. After the incident congress was sure of losing ground in the state, mainly in the rural areas rigged the elections in 1972. Congress rule ended with CPI(M) coming to power in 1977, continued to rule till 2011. Violence and corruption became the hallmarks of CPI(M) 34 years of regime, rigged elections became a routine. The rise of TMC as a challenger to CPI(M) brought a new hope with Mamta Bannerjee raising slogans of ‘poribortan’ (change) and coming up with the promise of peace. Within the 15 days of TMC coming into power opposition party workers faced the brutality- continuing the tradition of violence in the state and assimilation into the old patterns of containment.
TMCs rule has been no different than the previous ones. Violence before, during and after elections is a regular activity along with booth capturing, burning ballot papers, bomb attacks- every election with increased action.
The 2018 panchayat polls were fatal with killings of around 60 people, 34 percent of seats went uncontested with TMC winning those unopposed. ‘Thank you’ rallies of the opposition party workers were crashed and had to be relocated. The three parties- Left, Congress and BJP accused TMC of threats and violence. Achieving its objevtives through targetted killings and intimidating the opposition, controlling the overall elections process is mundane practice which were evident even during 2019 during Lok Sabha elections. A new wave of politics jolted Bengal with the newest addition of the Bhartiya Janta Party to the state.
The BJP created history with a huge leap from 2 seats in Lok Sabha elections in 2014 to 18 of 42 seats in 2019 Parliamentary elections from the state. The party is slowly establishing itself pouring in with its hindutva narrative wooing the disgruntled Bengali Hindus. Targetting TMC, BJP has often accused it with appeasement of the muslim community and biased public welfare system- attracting young voters as well. More funds to the mosque, restrictions on the celebration of durga puja, influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh has for years frustrated the citizens and BJP well played around it to gain a strong ground in the state. TMCs stand on the supreme court’s judgement on triple talaq as hindrance of the muslim women rights and the publicly condemning of the Citizenship Amendment Act as discriminatory has further helped BJP fit in its narrative the criticism of TMCs political ideology. The saffron wave is slowly penetrating into the cracks developed with administrative failure over 9 years of TMCs rule
BJP further is gaining ground in the rural belt of the state and has emerged as an only and the best alternative to the corrupt and terror filled rule of TMC. The infuriated citizens, traditionally associated with now fading congress and the left are finding a relief with BJP therefore, has brought a shift of combined Anti-Mamata votes towards it and consolidating a huge support base for the party.
The rise of BJP for the first time has severely come to challenge in last 9 years of TMC’s domination, creating dent in its vote bank. The anticipated danger from BJP has led TMC to resort to violence and other tactics to contain the opposition form making gains in the state. BJP has often claimed to resist and counter violence with violence. The tuff between BJPs aim of capitalising its base and TMC objective of maintaining its domination has turned Bengal into a ‘real’ battlefield intensifying the political culture of violence.
Clashes between the party workers is a new norm and a everyday practice specially when elections are around the corner. The state recently saw violent confrontation between the TMC and BJP party workers in the Sunderban costal police station area, injuring 6 police personnel. Such violent encounters are often followed by allegations and counter allegations fomenting each other’s image.
Death of a party worker is generally an organised and well executed from of violence. It isn’t as costly as communal clashes but works well enough to create fear and suspicion among the members- serving the political purpose very well. Resorting to such violence is the clear indication of government using any means to maintain its dominance and contain the opposition tactics of expanding the base in the party’s alleged territory.
BJP claims to have lost 105 workers since 2019 parliamentary elections holding TMC responsible for all violence. The threats by BJP such as “will pay back inch by inch and burning down of police station if another bjp worker is touched” clearly implies for 2021 assembly elections would be no exception- intensified violence. In the battle of numbers of the dead both the parties claim larger deaths than the other. With BJP claiming to seek revenge for the dead, has even instructed the party workers to beat up TMC members and police in case attacked.
Setting the stage for 2021 elections aggression is evident in the tone of BJP with the slogans like- Badla o hobe, badal o hobe (revenge along with change) came in line with TMCs slogan badla noi, badal chai (need change not revenge) when it came to power overthrowing CPI(M) in 2011.
TMCs leader Mamata Bannerjee decision to diverting the strategy indicates the intimidation by BJPs slogans as ‘Aar noi Mamata’. The tactics of raising newer issues, launching membership shuffles, referring to BJP as ‘outsiders’, TMC is all set on eyeing the hattrick.
With BJP working on saffronization surge of bengal and TMCs attempt to maintain the dominance- setting the aggressive stage for 2021 legislative assembly elections, political violence is sure to play a key role in the power struggle.
Author- Ritika Gupta