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POLITICAL VIOLENCE

Stench of brutality in West Bengal’s Rampurhat

Print edition : Apr 22, 2022 T+T-
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Bereaved relatives mourning their dead, at Bogtui village in West Bengal’s Birbhum district on March 24.

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Eight people were burnt to death in this house in Bogtui village on March 24.

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West Bengal Chief Miister Mamata Banerjee interacting with villagers at Bogtui village in Birbhum.

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One of the homes that were attacked.

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A protest rally against the Bogtui violence, in Kolkata on March 25.

The arson in West Bengal’s Rampurhat where eight women and a child were killed in internecine violence between supporters of the ruling Trinamool Congress has once again underlined the culture of political violence in the State.

West Bengal has never been a stranger to political violence. In fact, over the last several years, the violence, instead of declining, has intensified to the point where it appears to have become a part and parcel of political life. However, the recent killings in Birbhum district’s Rampurhat region, in which eight women and a child were burnt to death following the murder of an influential Trinamool Congress gram panchayat leader, has once again exposed the horrific reality of violence and brutality in the State’s socio-political fabric, which can no longer be denied or kept under wraps. Even for a State that has become inured to news of bloody turf wars, shootouts in broad daylight, audacious assassinations of elected representatives and displacement of victims of political violence, the Rampurhat massacre has sent shockwaves across the State and sparked off a huge outcry in political and social circles.

On the evening of March 21, around 8:30 p.m., Bhadu Sheikh, deputy pradhan of Barshal gram panchayat and an influential leader of the ruling Trinamool Congress, was killed in a bomb attack at Bogtui Morh near Bogtui village in the Rampurhat region. Within an hour of the murder, Bhadu’s followers and associates rampaged through the area, setting fire to several houses. In its first information report (FIR), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) said that “as a retaliation of the incident of murder of Bhadu Sk”, a mob of 70 to 80 people, led by 22 persons, “set fire to the houses with a view to kill the persons inside and their family inmates…” Incidentally, at the very initial stage of the investigation, West Bengal Director General of Police Manoj Malviya said that the violence and deaths were due to “deep-rooted personal enmity” and were “definitely not” political murders.

Village residents claimed that neither the police nor firefighters showed up when the violence was raging. They came the following morning and extricated seven charred bodies from one of the gutted houses. Another woman succumbed to her injuries on the same day after she was admitted to the Rampurhat Medical College and Hospital. On March 28, another victim, Najema Bibi, who had 65 per cent burns, passed away after battling death for seven days, taking the casualty figure to nine. Bogtui village wore a deserted look, as most of its residents fled their homes and sought shelter in neighbouring villages, fearing further violence.

Turf wars

The region, which is known to be a Trinamool stronghold, hardly has any presence of opposition parties. The locals themselves claimed that both Bhadu Sheikh’s people and those whose homes were destroyed were Trinamool supporters and activists. The incident thus seems to be yet another deadly faction feud within the ruling party, a problem that has been plaguing the Trinamool practically from the time it came to power in 2011. Though the real reason behind Bahdu Sheikh’s murder was unclear, by all indications it appeared to have been the result of a political turf war with links to illegal sand, coal and stone chips businesses. Bhadu’s father, Marfat Sheikh, alleged that his son was killed for a “bokhra” (share) of the economic turnover in the region. “These days everybody wants bokhra,” Marfat said when asked why his son was killed. In January last year, Bhadu’s elder brother, Babar Sheikh, also a prominent Trinamool leader, was killed in a similar manner.

Also read: Rampurhat massacre toll rises to nine as one more woman succumbs to burn injuries

After the Trinamool came to power in 2011, political violence in Bengal has never been confined to feuds between different parties. Some of the most vicious and bloody turf battles in the last few years have been between different factions of the Trinamool. According to Biswanath Chakraborty, well-known political observer and professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, the ruling party's constant attempts to achieve an opposition-free State fuelled feuds within the Trinamool. “Earlier, the goons involved in coal and sand pilfering were only part of the political system; now they themselves have become candidates in rural elections. With the opposition decimated, these factions within the ruling party are competing with one another to control the economy in their respective regions. The Rampurhat incident is a result of that fight," he told Frontline .

Faced with the massive social and political outrage over the death of unarmed women and children, the ruling party was seen desperately trying to salvage the situation by pointing to a “larger conspiracy at work to malign the State government and tarnish the image of Bengal”. Anubrata Mandal, Trinamool district president of Birbhum and party strongman of the region, initially even suggested that the fire might have been caused by a short circuit. Later, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said: “It is our government in power here; will we ever want bloodshed? Will we want anybody murdered? Will we want any bombing? Who are the ones doing these things? Those who are not in power conspire to tarnish our image. The incident in Rampurhat was unfortunate. Those who did it will not be spared.”

Two days after the incident, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement of grief at the Rampurhat massacre further highlighted the possibility of brutal inner-party conflict being the cause behind the murders. “I urge the people of West Bengal to not forgive either those behind the incident, or those who encourage such criminals,” he said, adding that the Centre was ready to help out the State government in any way to punish the criminals.

Chief Minister’s response

On March 24, three days after the massacre, Mamata Banerjee visited the victims’ families and announced a compensation of Rs.5 lakh for every affected family and Rs.2 lakh to each family for reconstructing their burnt homes. One member of each affected family was also promised a job. Those who survived with relatively minor injuries were given Rs.50,000 each. Mamata Banerjee hinted at a conspiracy at work and expressed concern about the threat of “outsiders”; but she also ordered the arrest of Trinamool block president Anarul Hossein and condemned the local police for not taking action to prevent the violence.

Also read: Mamata Banerjee visits families of those killed in Rampurhat violence

“Anarul must be arrested. When the public wanted him to call the police he did not. All this could have been avoided if the police had picketed the place in time,” she said during her visit to Rampurhat. Anarul was arrested the very same day, and the SDPO (sub-divisional police officer) and the IC (inspector in charge) were suspended. “Those who did not carry out their responsibilities, I want them to be punished. The case must be created in such a manner that there is no scope for relief,” Mamata Banerjee said. But the fact that a local party bigwig's intervention is needed to mobilise the police in the region—as was evident in the Chief Minister’s statement—was not lost on social and political observers. Biswanath Chakraborty commented: “What the Chief Minister said clearly exposes how at the grassroots the local politician of the ruling party controls the police. This is an example of the kind of nexus that exists between the police, the local leaders; and that controls local politics and life in every way.”

Court orders CBI probe

Soon after Mamata Banerjee set up a special investigation team (SIT) to probe the murders, the Calcutta High Court ordered the CBI to take over the case. The State government had appeared determined about having the case investigated by the State police and ignored the opposition's demand for an investigation by a Central agency. At a time when Mamata Banerjee is projecting herself as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s main political adversary and has made clear her ambition of being a key player in national politics, the Rampurhat massacre is being seen as a major setback to her plans at the Centre. Her government’s image has taken a severe beating, as it is seen to be unable to control the persisting violence. While directing the CBI to take over the investigation into the Rampurhat massacre, the Division Bench comprising Chief Justice Prakash Shrivastava and Justice Rajarshi Bharadwaj observed on March 25: “We are of the opinion that facts and circumstances of the case demand that in the interest of justice and to instill confidence in the society and to have fair investigation to dig out the truth. It is necessary to hand over the investigation to the CBI.” The court ruled that the incident had not only “shaken the conscience of the society” but also had “a nationwide ramification and all the national media reports are flooded with the news of this unfortunate incident”.

Also read: Calcutta High Court orders CBI probe into Rampurhat violence

Two days later, Mamata Banerjee wrote a letter to non-BJP Chief Ministers in the country, accusing the Union government of using Central agencies like the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate, the Central Vigilance Commission and the Income Tax Department to “harass and corner political opponents across the country for vendetta”. In the same letter she also voiced her unhappiness with the judiciary in an oblique manner by insinuating that it was getting influenced by the BJP. “I have the highest regard for the judiciary. But at present due to certain biased political interferences, people are not getting justice, which is a dangerous trend in our democracy… Time and again, the BJP is trying to attack the federal structure of this country by attempting to influence a certain section of the judiciary,” she said in her letter.

Unending spiral of political violence

After coming back to power with a massive mandate in the 2021 Assembly election, the issue of political violence has been a continuous thorn in the side for the Trinamool. Barely had the government settled down to its third consecutive term in power when the issue of post-poll violence began to rock the State. On the basis of the report submitted by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on the post-election violence, the Calcutta High Court ordered a CBI probe in the matter. Much to the embarrassment of the State government, the NHRC report stated at the very outset: “The situation in the State of West Bengal is a manifestation of ‘Law of Ruler’, instead of ‘Rule of Law’.” The report described what was happening as “retributive violence by supporters of the ruling party against supporters of the main opposition party [the Bharatiya Janata Party]” and accused the local police of being “grossly derelict, if not complicit, in this violence”. So far, the CBI has lodged 56 FIRs in the course of its investigation into the post-poll violence.

Also read: Student leader’s death sparks protests in West Bengal

However hard the Trinamool may try to deny it, the high incidence of political violence in the State has increasingly been pushing the ruling party into a corner and providing the opposition parties a handle to attack it with. Barely a month before the Rampurhat massacre, the murder of Anis Khan, a 28-year-old Muslim student leader, allegedly by police personnel, had raised serious questions on law and order in the State. Not only did it spark off widespread outrage and protest, it also exposed dangerous lapses in the police administration. In the midst of the protests and agitations against Anis Khan's murder, the Trinamool had to contend with widespread allegations of violence and intimidation and electoral malpractice in the recently-concluded civic election. On March 13, just a week before the Rampurhat murders, two recently-elected councillors—one from the Congress and the other from the Trinamool—were shot dead in full public view within hours of each other. In fact, on the very day that Mamata Banerjee visited Rampurhat to meet the bereaved families, a Trinamool leader from Nadia, Sahadeb Mondal, was shot in the head. While interacting with the victims’ families at Rampurhat, the Chief Minister announced that she had ordered the police to seize all illegal arms and ammunition from across the State. The move yielded almost instant results as the police began to recover and unearth large quantities of illegal weapons from different parts of West Bengal.

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