The bloodshed and killings during the nomination phase of the panchayat election in West Bengal, from June 9 to June 15, once again highlighted the fact that violence has become an inseparable part of politics in the State. At the time when nominations ended, at least three people were killed, several critically wounded, and a considerable number of police vehicles destroyed. As different parts of the State, from the north to the south, turned into battle zones, the Calcutta High Court on June 15 directed the State Election Commission (SEC) to requisition central forces for all the districts for the rural election.
While violence and intimidation during the panchayat election have been a regular affair in West Bengal, there was an expectation that the intensity of violence would be less this time, particularly after the fiasco of the 2018 election when Trinamool Congress won 34 per cent of the seats uncontested, and the repeated assurances from the leaders of the ruling party of free and fair election in 2023. However, the fact that political murders and sporadic violence began in May itself—more than a month before the election dates were announced—was an ominous sign of things to come.
Attacks and counter attacks
On June 8, the newly appointed West Bengal State Election Commissioner Rajiva Sinha announced that the election to the three-tier panchayat will take place on July 8, and the nominations will take place from June 9 to June 15. On the first day of the nominations itself, Fulchand Sheikh, a Congress activist, was shot dead allegedly by Trinamool workers in Murshidabad district.
What followed was seven days of bloody mayhem in different parts of the State. In most places, the opposition parties (the Left, Congress, and the Bharatiya Janata Party) repeated the allegation that they were forcibly prevented from filing their nominations. While in certain places, the attack on the opposition by the ruling party was allegedly a one-sided affair; in parts of North 24 Parganas and Purba Bardhaman districts, resistance from the opposition resulted in a prolonged and fierce bloodbath. Several places, including Canning in South 24 Parganas, and Nandigram in Purba Medinipur, witnessed fierce clashes between different factions of the Trinamool.
Bhangar in North 24 Parganas was the worst affected, as members of the Trinamool and the Indian Secular Front (ISF) - the party set up by influential Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui ahead of the 2021 Assembly election—waged a pitched battle for six days that resulted in two deaths and several serious injuries. On the last day of the nominations, a procession of the Left and Congress activists in Chopra in Uttar Dinajpur district was fired upon by miscreants, resulting in one person being shot in the head and put on ventilator support (as of June 16), and several others sustaining bullet injuries. The Left-Congress procession was on its way to file nominations after allegedly being prevented from doing so in the past five days. The same day, a Trinamool worker and an ISF activist were killed in clashes in Bhangar.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee blamed the opposition for precipitating the violence at several places, including Bhangar. “Nothing was one-sided. To tell you the truth, our people also retaliated (on June 15) at Bhangar,” she said. Trinamool has pointed out that 2.1 lakh nominations were filed, and the opposition’s allegations of being prevented from filing nominations were baseless.
However, the Calcutta High Court on June 15 directed the SEC to requisition the deployment of central forces within 48 hours for the rural election. In its order, a division bench of Chief Justice T. S. Sivagnanam and Justice Uday Kumar said, “...considering the sensitivity of the problem, the Court in the earlier writ petition had directed the State Election Commission to forthwith requisition the Central forces. However, the matter has been dragged on, and we find that the State authorities have not extended the due support though a decision was taken as early as 09.06.2023 for the identification of the sensitive areas from a law and order point of view. Therefore, we are of the view that we will be well justified in issuing appropriate directions which, to our mind, are absolutely essential to ensure free and fair election.”
Governor visits Bhangar
On June 16, West Bengal Governor C. V. Ananda Bose went to violence-hit Bhangar on a “fact-finding, data-gathering” mission. Stating that he has made his own “inferences” on what had happened, he assured the people of the State that “violence will be the first victim” in the coming election.
“The peace-loving people of Bengal have a right to exercise their franchise, unfearful of anybody else. This election should be a resolve by the silent majority of the State and the lovers of democracy to ensure that peaceful election will become a rule rather than an exception in Bengal. This calls for concerted efforts by all concerned. As Governor, I will take the initiative to see that all stakeholders are brought together, and a joint effort is made to cull this situation of violence that mars the peace and quiet of this peaceful State,” said Bose.