Spate of violence rocks West Bengal ahead of panchayat elections

The tussle in the State is directly linked to economic control of areas.

Published : May 19, 2023 16:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

During a 2018 clash between BJP and Trinamool activists, while votes were being counted in Birbhum district.

During a 2018 clash between BJP and Trinamool activists, while votes were being counted in Birbhum district. | Photo Credit: PTI

On May 1, Bijoy Krishna Bhuiyan (60), the BJP’s booth president of Moyna in Purba Medinipur district, was returning home with his wife and son when he was abducted allegedly by a large group of Trinamool party workers. Later that night his battered, lifeless body was discovered at a hospital in Tamluk, around 20 km from Moyna. In her police complaint, Bhuiyan’s widow Lakshmi named 34 local activists of the Trinamool. As of May 10, three of them were arrested. While the local Trinamool leadership claimed that Bhuiyan’s murder was a result of an intra-BJP conflict, a section of the BJP has sought a probe by the CBI.

The same day, in the same region, another BJP activist, Sanjay Tanti, was forcefully taken to an undisclosed location allegedly by Trinamool workers and severely beaten up. On April 29, another BJP leader, Rajendra Shaw from Asansol, was shot dead on a national highway.

Although the reason behind Shaw’s death is yet to be ascertained, the killing of Bhuiyan and the recent spate of violence in different parts of rural West Bengal, even before the announcement of panchayat elections, is an ominous sign of what may happen in the coming days once the dates are actually announced.

Murders, attacks, and bombings

Within a week of Bhuiyan’s murder in Moyna, a prominent Trinamool activist from Amdanga in North 24 Paraganas was shot at and injured. On May 7, Toyeb Ali Mandal was returning home at night on his motorbike after attending a party meeting when a group of miscreants on motorbikes stopped him at Mathurapur on the way and shot at him. He sustained arm injuries. The attackers hurled crude bombs while making their escape, injuring several local people.

The same day, a fierce and bloody confrontation broke out between Youth Trinamool members and the “original” party workers in Basanti in neighbouring South 24 Paraganas. Several youth members, who were driven out of their homes by a rival faction within the party, were returning home to prepare for the upcoming panchayat elections when they were stopped and badly beaten up.

According to local sources, the main cause of the conflict was which faction would be in control of the area when Abhishek Banerjee, the Trinamool general secretary, conducts his Statewide ‘Jana Sanjog’ (reaching out to the masses) campaign, clearly with an eye on rural local body elections.

The faction known as the “original” Trinamool denied having anything to do with the attack, even as the youth Trinamool stuck to their allegation.

Trinamool general secretary Abhishek Banerjee announcing a new mass outreach programme called Trinamooley Nabojowar (new wave in Trinamool) with an eye on the upcoming panchayat elections, in Kolkata on April 20.

Trinamool general secretary Abhishek Banerjee announcing a new mass outreach programme called Trinamooley Nabojowar (new wave in Trinamool) with an eye on the upcoming panchayat elections, in Kolkata on April 20. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Abhishek Banerjee

Ironically, Abhishek Banerjee, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and widely acknowledged heir apparent to the party leadership, has time and again stressed on the need to avoid violence during elections and the importance of exercising discipline within the party.

Earlier in April this year, he had even referred to the “excesses” committed by his party workers in the 2018 panchayat elections, in which Trinamool won more than 34 per cent of the total seats in the three-tier panchayat system uncontested.

The events during 2018 rural elections, widely considered one of the most violent and bloody elections in the State’s recent history, are believed to have swayed a large number of people away from the Trinamool in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, in which the BJP won 18 out of the 42 seats and secured 40.25 per cent of the votes (just three per cent less than the Trinamool).

Apart from the issues of corruption and high-handedness of local-level leaders, the main anger of the people against the ruling party at that time was that they were forcibly prevented from exercising their franchise. “They robbed us of our votes” was the complaint that echoed across the length and breadth of West Bengal.

According to Trinamool sources, Abhishek, in an address to district leaders in April, had said that “there should not be a repeat of 2018”. However, the killing of Bijoy Krishna Bhuiyan, an influential and popular leader in Moyna, is being perceived as a clear case of physically eliminating an opponent for electoral victory.

Miscreants destroying ballot boxes snatched from a polling booth in Malda district during  the 2018 panchayat elections.

Miscreants destroying ballot boxes snatched from a polling booth in Malda district during the 2018 panchayat elections. | Photo Credit: PTI

Institutionalised violence

According to Biswanath Chakraborty, psephologist and professor of political science, Abhishek’s instruction to party members is unlikely to change the situation overnight. He said: “Violence has been institutionalised over the years to become a part and parcel of the political culture of West Bengal. It is next to impossible to conduct any election without resorting to intimidation and use of force.”

He added: “In the earlier regime under the CPI(M)-led Left Front, violence was used strategically in some blocks, but under the Trinamool rule it is universally used, be it Assembly elections or panchayat or municipal elections.”

According to a study made by Chakraborty, which was recently published as a book titled Opposition’s Place in West Bengal Politics, during the Left regime around 50 blocks in the State were prone to political violence; however, during Trinamool rule, out of the total of 343 blocks, “violence has been institutionalised in as many as 210 blocks”.

Chakraborty said: “The most recent example is what happened at Moyna, where a leader was killed because he was popular in the region. This kind of elimination of political competition has become common in Bengal today, where violence has got a structural form.”.

Political observers said that while the violence during the Left rule was mainly for political domination, now it is also a struggle for economic control. The lack of industry and employment in the State has resulted in more and more people becoming dependent on government projects and schemes, which are currently the main sources of income generation, particularly at the panchayat level.

As a result, any party that controls a panchayat controls the economy of that area. This is also the reason why there are so many instances of vicious conflicts within the ruling party across the State in places, like Basanti, where the opposition either does not exist or is too weak to be of any consequence.

Huge amount of money at stake

The enormous amount of money flowing into the panchayat system can be gauged from the fact that the Fifteenth Finance Commission recommended a grant of Rs.2,36,805 crore for constituted rural local bodies in 28 States, and Rs.43,928 crore “for strengthening the primary health infrastructure and facilities in rural areas under the supervision of Panchayati Raj institutions” during the period between 2021-22 and 2025-26.

While 60 per cent of the amount is earmarked for national priorities such as drinking water supply, rainwater harvesting, and sanitation, 40 per cent is “untied” and to be used “at the discretion of Panchayati Raj institutions for improving basic services...”

West Bengal’s total share of this has been calculated at Rs.17,199.4 crore.

Chakraborty said: “There are also a lot of funds for innumerable Central schemes for social and infrastructure development that are disbursed through the panchayat system. This is the prime reason for [parties] desperately trying to control the rural bodies in the State.”

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