West Bengal panchayat election plunges into chaos and violence

Rampant rigging, bloodshed, and lawlessness leave democracy in tatters. 

Published : Jul 08, 2023 21:34 IST - 4 MINS READ

People block a road in protest against the killing of an independent candidate during West Bengal panchayat polls at Barasat in North 24 Parganas district on July 8, 2023

People block a road in protest against the killing of an independent candidate during West Bengal panchayat polls at Barasat in North 24 Parganas district on July 8, 2023 | Photo Credit: PTI

Despite the assurances of the ruling party and the intervention of the Calcutta High Court to ensure free and fair elections, the panchayat election in West Bengal on July 8 turned out to be exactly what most people in the State expected: violent, lawless, and a mockery of democracy.

On the day of the election itself, at least 12 people were reportedly killed as violence, rigging, and vote-looting raged across the State. The 2023 panchayat election proved once again that bloodshed and rigging have become integral parts of elections in Bengal.

The killings began the night before the elections. Four people, including Yasmin Seikh, a Congress worker from Rejinagar in Murshidabad district, Sabiruddin Seikh, a Trinamool worker from Khargram in Murshidabad, Babar Ali, a Trinamool worker from Beldanga in the same district, and Ganesh Sarkar, a Trinamool worker from Cooch Behar, were murdered hours before the elections commenced.

Once the polling began at 7 am on July 8, mayhem ensued. Activists from the contending parties—the ruling Trinamool, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress, and independents—engaged in pitched battles across the State.

Rampant rigging took place in front of the police and presiding officers. Political activists were seen making off with ballot boxes, throwing them into ponds, breaking them open, setting the ballot papers on fire, and rendering them unusable by throwing water on them. In Dinhata, Cooch Behar district, a presiding officer reported that miscreants had burst into the polling station, put a gun to his head, and started putting the stamp on the symbol of a particular political party.

By midday, six people had been killed, and by the end of the day, at least 12 people, including seven from the ruling party, had lost their lives in electoral violence. In the span of just one month, from the nomination phase on June 9 to the day of the election, more than 30 people were killed in the election process.

Although the State Election Commission (SEC) had requisitioned 822 companies of central forces for the election, only 649 ultimately arrived, despite the Calcutta High Court order. As a result, violence continued unchecked. Clashes occurred, polling booths were vandalised, polling officers were intimidated and attacked, voters were threatened and prevented from casting their votes, and even the police became targets, with several police vehicles destroyed. A repeated complaint was that the central forces were nowhere to be seen and the police were helpless bystanders.

In the face of severe criticism from all quarters, the State Election Commissioner, Rajiva Sinha, said, “Stopping violence is the responsibility of those in charge at the district level. My job is to make arrangements, and we have made all possible arrangements. It is impossible to predict who is going to harm whom, but I can say that our arrangements for the elections were not inadequate.”

Meanwhile, Suvendu Adhikari, leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly, called for the implementation of President’s Rule in the State. “The Centre should intervene with either Article 355 or 356... we want action from the custodian of the Constitution,” he said.

Trinamool in the dock

The Trinamool Congress government also found itself cornered as the violence exposed the declining law and order situation in the State. Cabinet Minister for Women and Child Development and Social Welfare, Shashi Panja, refuted allegations made against the government. She pointed out that out of the 61,539 polling booths, trouble occurred in only around 60 booths. “Serious incidents took place in only 8-9 booths… The opposition parties had demanded the presence of central forces, but we need to question their role in this election. We have come to know that the Border Security Force and the central forces were trying to influence the voters,” said Panja.

She also alleged that there was a clear conspiracy on the part of the opposition parties to provoke and instigate the ruling party and create a tense situation. Trinamool spokesperson Kunal Ghosh, also trying to downplay the widespread violence, claimed that Trinamool was under attack. “The CPI(M), Congress, and the BJP are pretending to be saints and engaging in theatrics. Both the CPI(M) and the Congress are known for committing atrocities when they were in power, and the BJP, after what it is doing in other States, should remain silent,” said Ghosh.

However, the day-long visuals of violence, dead bodies, and election rigging shown by various television news channels and on various social media platforms have been a major embarrassment for the Trinamool, which is trying to change its image ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

It should be noted that the alleged excesses committed by the Trinamool in the 2018 rural election resulted in a setback in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in the State, where the BJP won 18 out of the 42 Parliamentary seats, and the Trinamool’s tally decreased from 34 MPs in 2014 to 22.

Even if the result of the election, to be declared on July 11, favours the Trinamool, the ruling party of Bengal has reason to be concerned about the long-term consequences of what transpired in the past month since the election date was announced.

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