West Bengal violence

Charge of bias against NHRC in West Bengal

Print edition : August 13, 2021

Suvendu Adhikari of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, observing Shahid Sraddhanajali in Kolkata on July 21, along with family members of party workers who died in post-election violence. July 21 is the day the Trinamool Congress observes as Shahid Divas in memory of Congress workers who died in police firing back in 1993 when Mamata Banerjee was a Congress leader and West Bengal was ruled by the Left. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at press conference on July 15. Her party has dubbed the NHRC report partial and vindictive. Photo: PTI

The Left has pointed that it has been drawing attention to political violence in West Bengal for several years now and that the BJP is not the only party at the receiving end. Here, Left Front chairman Biman Bose and CPI(M) State secretary Surya Kanta Mishra leading a rally against political violence in Kolkata in April 2018. Photo: PTI

While highlighting the undeniable culture of political clashes in West Bengal, the NHRC’s report on the violence following the Assembly election in the State has also raised questions on the Commission’s own neutrality.

The report submitted by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on the post-election violence in West Bengal has caused a major flutter in political and social circles. The Calcutta High Court had directed the NHRC to look into complaints of violence following the Assembly election; on July 13, the Commission submitted its final report to the court. Scathing in its criticism of the newly elected Trinamool Congress government, the report has brought to the fore the alarming rise of political violence in the State. However, its apparent political slant has raised questions regarding the Commission’s absolute impartiality. “The situation in the State of West Bengal is a manifestation of ‘Law of Ruler’, instead of ‘Rule of Law’,” the report stated at the very outset.

The report tore into the State government, the police and the State administration. It said that the declaration of the Assembly election results on May 2 was followed by “retributive violence by supporters of the ruling party against supporters of the main opposition party (the Bharatiya Janata Party). It resulted in disruption of life and livelihood of thousands of people and their economic strangulation. The local police has been grossly derelict, if not complicit, in this violence.” It stated that the “spatio-temporal expanse” of violent incidents reflected the “appalling apathy of the State government towards plight of victims”. The NHRC recommended that the Central Bureau of Investigation take up the matter and trials be held outside the State. It also suggested that a “court-monitored” Special Investigation Team be formed “consisting of senior supervisory IPS [Indian Police Service] officers and others” which would also start investigating cases of violence.

Post-election violence has been a burning topic in West Bengal in the past three months. Following its humiliating defeat at the hands of the Trinamool Congress, the BJP has made the issue its main political tool against the State government. Within four days of the declaration of the election results, a team from the Union Home Ministry arrived in Bengal to look into the allegations of widespread violence and the saffron party’s IT cell went on an overdrive with the #bengalburning campaign on social media. Even after Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee appealed for peace, the BJP alleged that the violence continued unabated.

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According to the BJP, 38 of its activists were killed and around 20,000 rendered homeless. On June 18, the Calcutta High Court directed the NHRC to “examine all the cases... and submit a comprehensive report”. The court asked the NHRC to suggest “steps to be taken to ensure confidence of the people that they can peacefully live in their houses and also carry on their occupation or business to earn their livelihood” and point out “the persons prima facie responsible for crime and the officers who maintained calculated silence on the issue”.

Trinamool cries foul

Mamata Banerjee maintained that the violence was a “pre-poll” phenomenon and took place at a time when the Election Commission was in charge of law and order. “They [the BJP] are misleading the people and distorting the facts. When the court will give us the time, we will file affidavit and give our opinion to the honourable court,” she said. Reacting angrily to the leaking of the report, she said, “We have to give our opinion also. The court has also given us time. How could they leak it to the press before that, if not out of political vendetta?” She said this was the BJP’s ploy to get back at the Trinamool and “malign the people of Bengal”. Sougata Roy, member of the Lok Sabha from the Trinamool, said the report was “exaggerated” and even alleged that it was engineered by the BJP. “What can you expect when BJP activists become NHRC members?” he said.

Politically slanted

While the report has come as a shot in the arm for the BJP, certain aspects of it, including glaring omissions, have raised questions on the NHRC’s political neutrality. From the very start, the report makes it seem that only the supporters and activists of the BJP were the victims of violence at the hands of ruling party members. “Most of the violent incidents included murder, rape, molestation, assault, vandalism, looting, dispossession, arson, extortion, threat and intimidation. Pertinently, they were neither sporadic nor random; instead, they targeted specific persons (those associated with the main opposition party),” the report stated. It also had a separate annexure containing a long “List of notorious criminals/goons” which included such Trinamool heavyweights as Jyotipriya Mullick, a Minister, and Saukat Mollah and Partha Bhowmik, both MLAs.

It repeatedly referred to one-sided attacks against BJP members but did not attempt to put the violence in any context or explore the nature of the violence. Instead, it appeared to choose a more simplistic stand that ultimately seemed to be politically advantageous for the saffron party. “Violence was retributive. It was in retaliation to those who ‘dared’ to vote or support the major opposition party,” the report stated. It did not mention that the Left parties had also suffered at the hands of ruling party goons. In fact, on the night of May 2 itself, Kakoli Khetrapal, Communist Party of India (Marxist) election agent from Jamalpur, was killed when she and her husband Anil were attacked by alleged Trinamool activists. According to the CPI(M), no one had been arrested as of July 20.

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Opposition parties have welcomed the fact that the NHRC report has brought to the fore the culture of violence prevalent in the State. But they also point out the report’s pronounced bias in favour of the BJP. Senior CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty told Frontline: “Earlier it was only Left workers who were targeted, this time it was also the BJP, and even sections of the Trinamool, too. There is something lopsided about the NHRC report, and it gives the appearance of being a pro-BJP report. But certain undeniable truths have also come to the fore. The report echoed what we have been saying all along—in Bengal in place of the rule of law there is the law of the ruler.”

However, even if the report appears politically motivated, it has caused considerable embarrassment to the ruling party, particularly since it cites data provided by the State police itself. According to the report, out of the total of 1,934 complaints filed in police stations across the State, first information reports were filed in 1,168 cases; and out of the 9,304 accused cited in the FIRs, only 1,354 (14 per cent) had been arrested, and out of those arrested, 1086 (80 per cent) were out on bail. “Thus, overall speaking, less than 3 per cent of the accused are in jail while 97 per cent are out in the open, making a mockery of the whole system,” the report stated.

The well-known psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty feels that these figures, more than mere allegations, have put the State government in a spot. “The report will be assessed by different political parties in their own manner, but the extent of the violence, as indicated by data provided by the State police, does not allow the government to remain in a state of denial. In Bengal we are seeing workers and supporters of the defeated political party being suppressed and harassed after elections like a people of a defeated country in medieval times,” he told Frontline.

While there is no doubt that the violence perpetrated on the BJP was severe, it is also undeniable that the violence was a direct fallout of a highly charged and intense electoral battle in which both the BJP and the Trinamool exchanged threats of dire retribution once they come to power. The political analyst Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay pointed out that the recent violence was different from the violence witnessed in the past mainly because of the intensely polarised nature of the election. Speaking to Frontline, he said: “In the past also there was violence, but it was more sporadic and on issues which were local. But this election, right from day one, was a hard, long-drawn polarising battle…. The NHRC report appears to be one-sided and biased towards a certain political perspective, which constrains and denudes it of important research content. It appears to have been done in haste. In their hurry to nail the State government, they have come up with shoddy work.”

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The brunt of the criticism in the report fell on the police and the administration. “Poor and common people have lost faith in police…. The police was either negligent or complicit or under pressure not to take any action against the goons belonging to the ruling dispensation,” the report stated. In a separate annexure, the NHRC made a list of “delinquent police officers” in 13 police stations across the State where the registration of FIRs was “abysmally low” and where there was “no trust in the police and fear of retaliation by both the goons as well as the police was evident” in the verbal and written statements of the victims. The report spoke of a “pernicious politico-bureaucratic-criminal nexus” that “will ultimately corrode the entire edifice” of the State. “The presence of this nexus in a border State also has larger national security implications,” the report stated.