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As the fight for political space gets brutal in West Bengal, a look at its violent past

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It did not start in 2019 — as claimed by the BJP. Nor did it start in 2016 — the year TMC claims BJP went after its workers. Political violence in Bengal has a long and welted past.

The Congress started it and the Left mastered it. The TMC opposed it tooth and nail to win votes, only to end up perpetrating it. In its 2021 Mission for Bengal, can the BJP be far behind in following this gory course?

Last month, BJP president JP Nadda’s convoy was attacked allegedly by TMC goons. Stone-pelting and open fight followed soon after. While it made national headlines, Bengalis would have slotted it under routine pre-election skirmish. For, Bengal’s encounter with violence runs deep. It has seen worse days.

As the state is in the first flush of campaigning for the 2021 assembly polls, the fight is getting tense, especially between the ruling TMC and a charged-up BJP, which is leaving no stone unturned to topple Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

BJP has been sharpening its attack on TMC from the 2019 Lok Sabha polls onwards. “I would not have escaped unhurt without CRPF protection when my convoy was attacked in Kolkata by TMC,” said Amit Shah on May 15, 2019, referring to an attack on his road show during the Lok Sabha campaign.

Claims and counter-claims fly thick and fast. BJP claims 137 of its party workers have been killed in the state since the 2019 polls in which it won 18 of 42 seats. TMC says the loss of lives is greater on its side, calling BJP’s numbers fabricated. “137 is an absurd number. They even include cases of suicide,” alleges TMC MP Saugata Roy. BJP retorts in the same vein. “Did we kill our own men? When TMC goons kill our members mercilessly, should we sit on our hands?” asks state BJP president Dilip Ghosh.

BJP believes it stands to gain electorally by calling Didi and her party the perpetrators of violence. But violence is as old as the state itself. Muscle power, intimidation and bloodshed have been the tools of parties to protect their turf, intimidate opponents and silence dissent.

“There is a wrong perception that violence has hit the political landscape of Bengal recently. It has always been the means of establishing political control. The nature of violence may have changed through the decades. But violence was and continues to be integral to maintaining political control in the state”

— Monobina Gupta, Author of Left Politics in Bengal and Didi: A Political Biography

Agrees Samir Kumar Das, professor of political science, University of Kolkata: “There was more violence earlier, but it was more one-sided as any voice of dissent was silenced with brutal force.”

Violent uprising in pre-independent India differs from the recent clashes and bloodshed by political parties, but the soil of Bengal has always been soaked in blood.

During the 20-year rule of the Congress till 1967, there were violent movements and demonstrations by both the ruling party and the opposition Left. Then the Naxalbari movement, led by Charu Mazumdar, gripped the state. Following his call — “He who has not dipped his hands in the blood of the class enemy is not worthy of being called a communist” — clashes, bombings and killings became par for the course in Bengal.

After the tumultuous period of 1967-72, which saw three elections, four coalition governments and three periods of president’s rule, marred by many incidents of political violence, came the “brutal” era of Siddhartha Shankar Ray of the Congress. The 1972 election, held under president’s rule, was allegedly massively rigged. It reinstated the Congress, under the new leadership of Ray, who was pulled into the job by Indira Gandhi herself. What followed was the ruthless elimination of Naxals, with the Left forced to go underground. The barbaric killing of pro-Congress Sain brothers in 1970 by CPM supporters in front of their mother who was allegedly forced to eat rice soaked in their blood remains one of the darkest chapters in Bengal’s history.

Since the 1970s, political murders, violence and killing of opponents have wracked the state, especially in rural areas. Many political observers feel the recent rise in political murders since the 2018 panchayat polls mirrors the violence that gripped the state in the 1970s.

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The Left, led by the CPM, came to power in 1977 and ruled for 34 years. The Left brought hope and some relief. The initial years saw welfare measures such as Operation Barga that gave legal protection to sharecroppers against eviction by landlords and entitled them to a due share of the produce. Simultaneously, there emerged a section who did not benefit from government dole. The society was strongly divided along party lines. Those who were affiliated to the ruling party got priority. Then in 1979, the Marichjhapi crackdown took place. The eviction of Namasudra refugees from Dandakaranya brought to the fore the aggressive ways of CPM. The party soon had unquestionable sway over the masses.

“What was most unfortunate about the Left rule was that after the 1991 reforms, it was either criticising reforms or doing lip service. They could not effectively engage with these reforms for the larger benefit of the masses”

— Samir Kumar Das, Professor, Political Science, University of Kolkata

A period of uneasy silence was truncated by the formation of the TMC in 1998 which, in alliance with the BJP, questioned the ways and means of the Left. TMC’s rise saw a spurt in political violence in many parts of Bengal. CPM would start losing its unquestionable dominance in many rural areas to TMC. Soon entire CPM networks would shift to TMC, lending it the cadre and muscle power it lacked in many areas.

It was the violent confrontations at Singur and Nandigram in 2006-08 that catapulted Banerjee to power. The Left paid dearly for the police firing in Singur. Didi stormed to power with a massive mandate in 2011.

“When the TMC came to power, initially there were some skirmishes, but Didi was soon able to control the situation,” says Roy of TMC. Political observers think otherwise. “Initially she talked about badlaav (change) not badla (revenge), but she could not keep her words,” says Das. Didi who came with the promise of ‘poriborton’ had a change of heart herself. “As regimes changed and new ideologies came up, political violence was either justified or opposed through new and more violent ways. After five decades of political violence, there was a lot of hope about Mamata. Sadly, instead of focussing on cadre-building, she depended on local strongmen — mostly CPM turncoats — who again resorted to violence,” adds Das.

The culture of violence continued uninterrupted. In a way, TMC has now come full circle. Formed as a breakaway faction of the Congress in 1998, it had joined hands with the BJP to challenge the Left. It is now under threat from its former NDA partner itself.

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The BJP wants to focus on the here and the now of Bengal’s history of violence for immediate gains. “TMC is trying to psychologically harm our workers with their brutal ways. Bodies are being hanged from trees and left there for an entire day. The body of our MLA from Hemtabad, Debendra Nath Roy, was found hanging in the middle of a bazaar,” says party spokesperson Kabir Shankar Bose.

Amit Shah launched BJP’s Aar Noi Annay (No More Injustice) campaign in West Bengal to make this an electoral issue.

TMC counters this narrative. Roy says BJP is amplifying stray incidents to paint a picture of large-scale violence in the state for political gains. “Why do such (violent) incidents happen when Shah and Nadda are in Bengal? It’s because they instigate such incidents for political mileage,” says Kalyan Banerjee, TMC MP from Serampore. Describing TMC’s acts in terms of “every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” Banerjee says the party is only being “defensive”. “To top it all, the governor has become servile to BJP,” he adds. Many in the party dismiss TMC’s role in the recent incidents of violence. “The entire fight is between new BJP and old BJP. We have no time to fight, especially when elections are so close,” says party MP from Arambagh Afrin Ali aka Aparupa Poddar. Many experts think the BJP is not just anticipating violence in the 2021 assembly polls, but also stoking it.

“Bengal has had a violent history of political violence that has been perpetrated by the ruling party. Just when there was some semblance of normalcy, BJP is trying to foment trouble for political gains. I see a lot of bloodshed as we inch closer to elections. It’s our duty to expose the violent ways of Didi but BJP is a greater menace”

— Abhijit Mazumdar, Darjeeling district President, CPI (ML) Liberation

The continuation of violence is the brutal truth of Bengal politics. BJP’s entry has only raised the pitch.

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