West Bengal violence

Prolonged violence

Print edition : September 28, 2018

The local body elections in West Bengal saw violence and killings right from April, when the filing of nominations began. Bloody conflict has erupted once again, during the process of panchayat board formation. The fresh round of killings began on August 26, a day after the Supreme Court turned down an appeal for fresh elections for over 20,000 seats that the ruling Trinamool Congress had won uncontested. Clashes took place not only between Trinamool supporters and members of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Congress, but also between rival factions of the ruling party.

In fact, the latest wave of violence began with a clash between two groups of Trinamool activists in Islampur in North Dinajpur district. One person was killed and at least 10 were reportedly injured in the incident.

In Purulia, two BJP supporters were shot dead on August 27. Sayantan Basu, State BJP general secretary, said: “We are not certain if they were shot by the police or by Trinamool workers dressed in police uniforms.” The police claimed that they had only resorted to tear-gas shelling when BJP workers turned violent. The same day, in Malda district, two Trinamool activists were killed in alleged faction fighting. District Trinamool leaders said the Congress was behind the attacks, in which a three-year-old child was also injured.

At Amdanga in North 24 Paraganas, the violence was intense. On the night of August 27, CPI(M) and Trinamool supporters waged a pitched battle over the control of the panchayat board. Three people were killed in the incident, two from the ruling party and from the CPI(M). Scores of people were injured, houses were burned down, and families fled the region. The police retrieved huge caches of arms and ammunition hidden in paddy fields or near village ponds. More than 25 people have been arrested (as of September 3) in connection with the Amdanga violence.

Many political observers have expressed surprise at the Supreme Court’s refusal to allow fresh polling in the 20,159 panchayat seats (34.34 per cent of the total seats) won uncontested by the Trinamool. “The Supreme Court has given its verdict within the framework of the West Bengal Panchayat Election Act. But when the rights of the citizens are grossly violated by the state machinery, as has been alleged, who will give protection? This is a key question that the apex court apparently did not take into consideration,” the psephololgist and social scientist Biswanath Chakraborty told Frontline.

The obvious reason for the violence is the control of the economy of rural Bengal. For industry-starved West Bengal, State-funded projects at the local and rural levels are an important source of income and employment generation. The party that controls the panchayat or the urban municipal body of a region controls the economy of that place. Moreover, with the rise of the BJP in the State and the Trinamool’s perceived minority appeasement, a disturbing new trend is emerging in which local political clashes are often threatening to take a communal colour. “Communalisation of West Bengal politics is one of the reasons for the rise in violence at the panchayat level in the State,” said Chakraborty.

West Bengal is no stranger to political violence, but its intensity and frequency have increased manifold since the Trinamool assumed power in 2011. According to Chakraborty, violence has become the primary mode of politics in West Bengal today. In a study on the recently concluded panchayat elections, he has shown how violence is now directly linked with the performance of a party. In places where the uncontested seats are the fewest (under 10 per cent), the Trinamool’s performance has not been very promising, but where the number of seats uncontested by the opposition is very high, the ruling party has won overwhelmingly in seats where there was a contest. In the districts of Alipurduar, Malda, Jalpaiguri, South Dinajpur, Jhargram and Purulia, the number of uncontested seats was only around 10 per cent, and the Trinamool’s victory percentage in the contested seats was just 52.26 per cent. In Nadia and Purbo Medinipur, where the number of uncontested seats was “moderate” (more than 10 and less than 25 per cent), the ruling party’s performance in the contested seats was better, with its share of victory at 69.72 per cent. In Murshidabad, Bankura, East Bardhaman and West Bardhaman, where the number of uncontested seats was high (between 55 and 70 per cent), the Trinamool’s share of victory in contested seats stood at over 78 per cent. “It is clear that the more the Trinamool can generate an environment of fear, the more successful it is in the elections,” said Chakraborty.

On August 27, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee appealed for peace. She alleged that “outsiders” also played a role in fomenting trouble.