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Why West Bengal has been violently political

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There is no doubt that Communists of West Bengal were responsible for introducing violence in the politics of the state. The history and tradition of violent politics in West Bengal can be broadly divided into two phages. Between 1947 and June 1971, the violence was mainly perpetrated by aggrieved people of some section or other against government, public and private properties and civilians. But after June 1971, it has been a continuous tale of government sponsored violence to crush political opponents. Unlike East Pakistan, communal riots were, however, uncommon in West Bengal politics after independence.

The “Tebhaga Andolon” (Movement of ‘third) was initiated in 1946, in which the sharecroppers of British Bengal demanded two-third of produce from land lords. At many places the movement was grossly violent. In British Bengal ‘Bangiya Pradeshik Kisan Sabha’ was the prime mover of ‘Tebhaga Andolon’. But after partition, Communists took the leadership of movement in West Bengal. The peasant movement broke out in Kakdwip, Sonarpur, Bhangar, Namkhana and Canning of present day South 24 Parghana district of West Bengal. Kakdwip and Namkhana were the storm centres of the movement.

Bengal was divided in 1947, and East Pakistan and West Bengal were destined to follow different socio-political paths. The ‘Tebhaga Andolon’ continued till 1950 in West Bengal with violence committed by sharecroppers. It subsided when the ‘Bargadari Act’ was enacted. The Act recognized the right of the sharecroppers to two-third of the produce.

Communists in Bengal got life line when British government withdrew ban on the party in 1942 following the formation alliance between Britain and USSR. The violent Communists revolution in USSR was source of inspiration of the Communists of West Bengal. Thus, violence was injected into the ‘Tebhaga Andolon’ by the Communist party in the state. It was their first chance to experiment with violent movement. Gone were the days of Gandhian non-violent civil movement against British government.

The years following partition of Bengal were very chaotic in West Bengal. It was also very difficult period for Congress led West Bengal government. Millions of Hindu refugees were pouring in from East Pakistan. But no similar displacement of Muslims from West Bengal to East Pakistan was occurring. Communists supported creation of Islamic Pakistan so that they could easily penetrate into Hindu majority West Bengal politics. ‘Tebhaga Andolon’ gave them the golden opportunity to organize disgruntled peasants against infant independent West Bengal government in a secular but violent manner. That was the beginning of violent politics in West Bengal.

Following partition of Bengal, the Muslims of East Pakistan were engaged in killing and driving out Hindus. But in West Bengal, Communists (and Congress) made the Hindus (including refugees) secular. That gave impetus to ‘Tebhaga Andolon’ in West Bengal and helped the Communists in the long run.

After ‘Tebhaga Andolon’ came the “Ek Paisa Andolon” (Movement of one paisa). In July 1953, a massive and violent mass protest broke out in Calcutta for increase in tram fare by ‘one paisa’. Tens of thousands of refugees and local youths were organized by Communists to launch the movement. The violent protesters burned trams, threw bombs, uprooted tracks, and destroyed public and private properties across the city for days together. It was mainly the refugees who vented their frustration of displacement on the streets of Calcutta against West Bengal Congress government at the behest of Communists. The urban middle class, very surprisingly, supported the movement, in which some died and many were injured when government tried to crush the violence by brute force. At the end, the tram fare was reverted to old rate. Communists of West Bengal had tasted blood of success of their violent agitation twice by then.        

The next violent political movement spearheaded by Communists in West Bengal was the infamous ‘Khadya Andolon’ (Food Movement). It occurred in two phases during 1959 and 1966. Scarcity of food items, price rise and poor performance by Public Distribution System led to that movement. To maintain law and order, government had to resort to violent means too, which resulted in the death of many protesters. In larger picture, all three movements (‘Tebhaga Andolon’, ‘Ek Paisa Andolon’ and ‘Khadya Andolon’) had mass support base and were spontaneous. Communists of West Bengal were in right place at right time to push their violent ideology of ‘Class Struggle’ among the common people of the state. This had made a basic and distinct difference in the political courses of West Bengal and other states of independent India.    

Meanwhile a violent peasant revolt erupted in a non-descript place called Naxalbari of Northern West Bengal in 1967. It was the most violent Communist mass movement thus far in the state. The violent peasants started killing land lords and their brokers indiscriminately, looted their granaries and captured their lands.

The movement was idolized and romanticized by youths and students of West Bengal who were brain washed by Communists with Maoist preaching of “political power comes from the barrel of guns”. Thousands of educated youth across the state in general and Calcutta in particular left colleges and universities and took guns and bombs in hand. By 1971, the Naxalite movement became an urban violent mass movement, mainly centered in Calcutta. Those violent Communist minded youths and students wanted to destroy all the institutions of establishment to usher in a new classless society.

In the question of party politics, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (Dr B C Roy) of Congress was the chief Minister of West Bengal from 23 January 1948 to 1 July 1962. He was an eminent doctor, a statesman and an able administrator. Even today he is rightly credited to be the architect of West Bengal state of independent India. From August 1947, Communist Party of India (CPI) was the largest opposition party in West Bengal Assembly as Muslim League party went to Pakistan. CPI was, as usually, a disruptive and power hungry party. But Dr B C Roy could tackle them somehow politically till his death on 1st July 1962.

In 1962, Communist Party split into CPI and CPM for ideological differences, but both remained power hungry and equally hostile to Congress. Following the death of Dr B C Roy in 1962, Congress lost its political clout. Though a soft spoken, Gandhian and utterly simple Prafulla Chandra Sen of Congress succeeded Dr B C Roy and remained as Chief Minister of West Bengal up to 1967, the writing on the wall was becoming clear. A period of political instability followed then. West Bengal witnessed three elections, four coalition governments and three stints of President’s rule between 1967 and 1972. Communists were major constituents of those coalition governments and CPM and other left parties used that period of political instability to consolidate their political position in the state.

In June 1971, third President’s rule was imposed in West Bengal by Indira Gandhi government. Indira Gandhi saw that the violent Naxalite movement was going out of control in the state. She mobilized Army, Para-Military Forces and local Police to crush the Naxalite movement. That was a paradigm shift and from then violence in politics became state sponsored activity in West Bengal. During that phage, the CPM and other Left parties were waiting in the wings for the right opportunity to get power through democratic process. By that time those Left parties had created a very big political support base in West Bengal cutting across caste and religious lines.

The next general election in the state was to be held in March 1972. CPM led Left Front was confident to come to power. But the gruesome murder of saintly 76 years old Chairman of All India Forward Block and a veteran freedom fighter Hemanta Kumar Basu on 20 February 1972 stirred the conscience of the state’s people as nothing before during the entire period of violent lunacy that had come to hold West Bengal in its grip.

The spontaneous expressions of grief and condemnation immediately after the murder brought normal life in Calcutta and parts of the state to a standstill. Those were not merely a respectful homage to the personal qualities of the departed leader whose simple life of dedication was really exemplary. Those demonstrations also reflected the pent-up feelings of dismay mingled with wrath against the degeneration of political struggles into a war of gangsters in West Bengal. Predictably, the Left Front lost the 1972 general election and Congress under Siddhartha Shankar Ray came to power.

Siddhartha Shankar Ray continued with state sponsored repression of Naxalites by extra-judicial killing of thousands of students and youths in Calcutta and other parts of state. He crushed the movement at the cost of earning a very bad name for him and Congress party as well. During his time Netaji Indoor Stadium was constructed in Calcutta and World Table Tennis Championships were held in the city during February 1975. It was a glorious and rare achievement for the state of West Bengal. But Siddhartha Shankar Ray earned much anger and disrespect from the people for his involvement in proclaiming Internal Emergency by Indira Gandhi government in India during June 1975. Congress lost the political importance in West Bengal and could never regain power thereafter.

The rest of the tale is brief. In 1977, CPM led Left Front under Jyoti Basu came to power in West Bengal. Left Front retained its power for 34 continuous years by violently neutralizing political opponents. Mamata Banerjee, a Youth Congress leader then, gradually came to prominence as a victim of political violence of Left Front rule. She later founded Trinamool Congress party and came to power in West Bengal during 2011 by defeating Left Front. But picture of violent politics has not changed under Mamata Banerjee’s rule too.

On 2 May 2021, Trinamool Congress retained its ruling party status for third consecutive time. But keeping with the tradition of West Bengal, Trinomool Congress has been practicing the same violence on its political opponents till date. There is no reason for change of this tradition in West Bengal in foreseeable future. Violence has entered into the DNA of the politics of ruling party irrespective of which one it is.

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