After nine people were killed in West Bengal’s Birbhum district last month, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) hastened to begin a damage-control exercise.
The party’s district chief, Anubrata Mondal, admitted that both the accused and the victims were TMC workers and supporters. Following Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s directive, the government suspended police officials for alleged dereliction of duty and ordered the arrest of a local party leader. The government also expedited the payment of compensation to the victims’ kin, did not oppose a plea in court for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe, and directed the police to conduct a statewide search for crude bombs and illegal guns.
The ruling party’s response to the incident that occurred in the village of Bogtui on the night of March 21 was not the same as its reaction to recent incidents such as the alleged murder of student leader Anis Khan in February, and the murder of Congress councillor Tapan Kandu in Purulia district last month. In both those cases, the state government opposed pleas in the Calcutta High Court for CBI investigation and did not offer either any monetary compensation or jobs to their kin.
After the 28-year-old student leader’s death, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee praised him and claimed that he was “close to the TMC”. But Khan’s father disputed this and refused to meet the chief minister. After the High Court agreed with the state administration and rejected a petition for a CBI inquiry, a Special Investigation (SIT) continued its probe. A home guard and a civic volunteer have been arrested in the case.
Earlier this month, a single-judge Bench of the Calcutta High Court ordered a CBI probe into Jhalda councillor Tapan Kandu’s murder but the TMC government challenged the decision and appealed to a Division Bench. The state Criminal Investigation Department (CID) that initially probed the incident arrested four people. With the Division Bench yet to decide on the appeal, the case is with the CBI at present.
In contrast, a state police SIT arrested 22 people within 72 hours of the violence in Bogtui that was triggered by the death of TMC panchayat leader Bhadu Sheikh. In alleged retaliation, nine people were killed. The violence was attributed to an internal party feud. Banerjee visited Bogtui within three days and ordered the arrest of the party’s Rampurhat-1 Block president Anarul Hossain. She distributed a part of the Rs 7-lakh compensation, including Rs 2 lakh for house repair, during the visit. The rest was given later. On April 4, the chief minister handed over government job letters to 10 family members of the victims.
“We are happy with the chief minister and the administration. Mamata Banerjee kept her promise and gave us compensation and jobs. We were with the Trinamool Congress from the beginning. Now we are waiting to get justice. The accused should be hanged,” Mihilal Sheikh, who received a government job, told The Indian Express over the phone.
The state government also did not challenge the Calcutta High Court’s order for a CBI probe into the alleged retaliatory killings and Bhadu Sheikh’s murder.
“If all cases are to be investigated by the CBI, then what will our police do?” asked senior state minister Firhad Hakim.
“Bogtui incident is an appropriate case for the CBI to investigate. But the state police are equipped to handle cases of murder. In Bogtui, those who lost their lives were our supporters and our partymen were also involved. We took immediate action. After the incident when we got to know strict action was taken. In cases like Anis Khan and Tapan Kandu, our party was not involved.”
A senior Trinamool leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Indian Express that the “different approach” was primarily down to the fact that both the accused and the victims were TMC workers. “Secondly, no matter how good a job the state police would have done, questions would have been raised. Therefore, the CBI is perfect for this case. Secondly, our chief minister did whatever possible for the family members of the victims. Thirdly, even our leaders were not spared,” the leader added.
TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said the investigation in all the cases had progressed on the right path. “Whatever needed to be done, the administration did it,” he added.
But a sceptical Opposition claimed that the state government treated the Birbhum case differently because it was the result of an internal party feud.
“Since its victories in the Assembly and civic polls, the TMC is struggling to control its leaders. With overall supremacy at the grassroots level, the TMC is facing a tremendous internal factional feud. So, in the case of Bogtui, Mamata Banerjee realised that it is time to allow the CBI to investigate even at the cost of sacrificing one faction,” said CPI(M) leader Kallol Majumder.
BJP leader Samik Bhattacharya alleged that the government opposed CBI inquiry in the Anis Khan case and the Kandu murder because “the police are the main culprits”. He added, “The police are now working for the TMC. In this situation, if the state government does not oppose CBI inquiry, then two things may happen — one, the CBI will solve the actual case and will arrest the main culprits; second, if the state government does not safeguard the police, the force may not remain in its control. So, the state government has no option but to oppose a CBI inquiry.”
Political analyst Subhamoy Maitra said the government was “sensitive in the Birbhum case” as it did not want unrest brewing within the TMC’s rank and file in the area.
“Had the hope for justice been lost for a section of party workers, it would have boomeranged for the TMC. Therefore, the party left no stones unturned and no compromise could have been made in the Bogtui case,” Maitra told The Indian Express.
He added, “Before 2021, the TMC had the support and supervision of a professional team. After 2021, the support of the professional team seems to have dwindled. Unlike the BJP or the CPI(M), the TMC is an agenda-based party with weak regimentation.”
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