On April 1, Rajesh Jha, a prominent businessman with a shady past, was travelling towards Kolkata on the Durgapur Expressway. His white SUV stopped outside an eatery in Shaktigarh, Bardhaman, at around 7:45 pm. According to eyewitnesses, while Jha was waiting in the car for the driver and an associate to bring him food, a blue car stopped near Jha’s vehicle and two men armed with guns and a rod alighted from it. They walked up and shattered the window of Jha’s car and shot him point-blank repeatedly before leaving. Jha was pronounced dead when his bullet-ridden body was taken to hospital.
Rajesh Jha or Raju was a well-known figure in the coal belt of Asansol-Durgapur: he was connected to political parties and the underworld, and held several businesses (coal, hotel, restaurant). His murder is the latest in a series of what looks like supari (contract) killings in West Bengal and brings to the fore the changing face of political violence in the State.
Jha’s murder also highlighted the growing nexus between politics and organised crime. Though a section of the BJP leadership has denied that Jha was a party “leader”, the fact is that he was closely associated with the party in the Durgapur-Asansol region. He often led motorbike rallies and took part in processions organised by the party. Trinamool leader Arjun Singh, who won the Barrackpore Lok Sabha seat on the BJP ticket in 2019 and returned to the Trinamool in 2021, described Jha as a “younger brother.”
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Interestingly, the SUV was found to be in the name of Abdul Latif, a man wanted by the Central Bureau of Investigation in connection with illegal cattle smuggling. According to reports, the police are also looking into the possibility of Latif having been in the SUV with Jha on the evening of his death. Jha himself had had run-ins with the law: he was arrested in 2006 and 2011 on charges of coal smuggling.
According to former Inspector General of Police Pankaj K. Datta, such assassinations have been on the rise since 2011. “Earlier there used to be political violence, political killings, lynchings, and riots; but cases like Jha’s murder have something in common—the killers are hired assassins. So far, in political murders in Bengal, the killer/s and victims were usually known; in these new cases, the victim has no idea who is killing him because the mastermind is someone else. This is a growing phenomenon in Bengal politics and society,” Datta told Frontline.
In February, another businessman, Arvind Bhagat, know for shady dealings and political connections, was shot dead in the lobby of his own hotel in Asansol by gunmen, who seem to have casually strolled in, killed Bhagat and calmly walked away. One of them wore a helmet concealing the face.
The use of contract killers for political crimes can be traced to the 2017 killing of local strongman and Trinamool leader A. Srinivas Naidu (better known as Srinu Naidu) in Kharagpur in Paschim Medinipur district. Naidu and his associate were killed in the party office by hitmen hired from Jamshedpur.
It is not just individuals with dubious business dealings, existing on the periphery of mainstream politics, who are targeted; time and again, elected representatives, including legislators, prominent party leaders, even a Minister, have been attacked. On December 13, 2018, Biswanath Das, a Trinamool MLA from Jaynagar, escaped when his car was attacked at a petrol bunk with bullets and bombs. Das had got off minutes earlier, but the driver and two of Das’ aides were killed. Less than two months later, on February 9, 2019, Trinamool legislator Satyajit Biswas was gunned down in broad daylight by assailants on motorbikes at a Saraswati Puja pandal at Fulbari in Nadia district. Nine days later, Mithu Thikadar, a Trinamool councillor from Budge Budge municipality in South 24 Parganas, was shot at inside his party office. He took bullets in the chest and abdomen, but survived.
- Contract killings have been on the rise in Bengal since 2011.
- It is not just individuals with dubious business dealings, existing on the periphery of mainstream politics, who are targeted; time and again, elected representatives, including legislators, prominent party leaders, even a Minister, have been attacked.
- The supari killings involve personal gain in the backdrop of regional or local politics.
- Social scientists and political observers attribute the phenomenon to a shift in the nature of politics in West Bengal.
Less than a year after Satyajit Biswas’ murder, on October 5, 2020, Manish Shukla, an influential BJP leader from Barrackpore (North 24 Parganas), was shot dead. Shukla was chatting with people at a tea stall near a police station when gunmen in motorbikes came up to him and shot him from close range.
The then BJP MP Arjun Singh, who is now in the Trinamool, claimed there were 19 bullets in Shukla’s body.
On February 17, 2021, barely two months before the Assembly election, Minister of State for Labour Jakir Hossain was injured in a bomb attack at Nimtita railway station in Murshidabad district. Hossain, who is also a well-known beedi baron, suffered severe injuries in his hands and legs.
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Then, in 2022, two councillors were killed in a single day, within hours of each other, highlighting the extent to which organised, politically motivated violence had gripped West Bengal. On February 13, Congress councillor from Jhalda in Purulia district, Tapan Kandu, was killed by gunmen on a motorbike; Trinamool councillor from North 24 Parganas’ Panihati municipality, Anupam Dutta, was shot dead by unidentified miscreants in Panihati on the same day. Video footage showed Dutta sitting pillion on a stationary motorbike when a person simply walked up to him and shot him in the head at point blank range.
Pankaj K. Datta pointed out that unlike murders that take place for political gain, the supari killings also involve personal gain in the backdrop of regional or local politics. “Money and muscle power are being invested for personal gain. We do not know how much money went into the killing of Anupam Dutta, or investments worth how many crores are the motive for the murder of Rajesh Jha. But one thing is certain: all these deaths are linked to money, muscle power, politics, and are meant to benefit some individual or the other. Such killings are on the rise today because the people involved do not care for the custodians of law and order. They are confident that there will be no serious repercussions,” said Datta.
According to political sources, many of these killings and murder attempts are also a result of inner-party conflicts, particularly within the Trinamool. Though numerous arrests have been made in connection with the attacks, in most cases the masterminds are still at large.
“Pankaj K. Datta pointed out that unlike murders that take place for political gain, the supari killings also involve personal gain.”
Social scientists and political observers attribute the phenomenon to a shift in the nature of politics in West Bengal. Political analyst and professor of Political Science at Rabindra Bharati University, Biswanath Chakraborty, believes that the change from “ideology-driven politics” to “muscle-power politics” is one of the primary reasons behind the rise in supari killings in the State. “There is a direct link between muscle-power politics and the mafias, as such politics depends more on brute force and ammunition strength than on support and consent of the people. Gang wars are increasing concomitantly with the growth of muscle-power politics,” Chakraborty told Frontline.
The struggle is as much for political domination as it is for economic control. Said Chakraborty: “The resources in areas under gang control—be it sand, stone chips, or coal—are the chief means of revenue generation for the leaders, and essential for maintaining and augmenting the gang army. After 2011, we have also seen a nexus between the players of power politics and the local police administration, and this has given a structure to the rise of gangster politics in Bengal.”