Your editorial ‘Power and force’ (IE, June 6) states that violence unleashed by the Trinamool Congress (TMC), during and after the panchayat elections in West Bengal, is not a new phenomenon in the state. The editorial situates the violence in the rivalry between the TMC and the BJP. But in doing so, it misses out on the deeper reasons for the violence in the state.
In the recently concluded panchayat election, the BJP claims that 52 of its cadres were murdered, while the TMC alleges that 14 of its members lost their lives. The violence in rural Bengal has not stopped after the panchayat polls.
To comprehend the reasons for such a widespread role of violence in Bengal’s rural areas, we have to understand the complete absence of intermediary social organisations in the state’s rural life. This void has been filled by political parties which control all aspects of social life including mediation in family affairs, like marriage. The social scientist Partha Chatterjee has written that the rural life of West Bengal “is literally inconceivable without the party”. This total control of rural life by political parties in the state is a post-Partition phenomenon. Before Independence, Bengal’s rural life was similar to the rest of country with mediations by landlords, caste and communal organisations. Partition changed this pattern completely. The famous Tebhaga movement (1946-47) was the first major manifestation of the altered scenario where the peasants demand a two-third share of the crops. The landlords rejected the demand and that led to violence from both sides.
The situation, compounded by an acute food crisis, continued. With the government failing to ameliorate the situation and with famine looming, the discontent reached a bursting point in 1959. There were violent movements throughout the state. The state was again struck by violence in the 1960s. In 1967, the Congress was voted out of power and with that the feudal structure crumbled. The alliance of landlords, local thugs and the police collapsed. Interestingly, it was the Congress which passed a land reform act in 1955 but it was never implemented. The overwhelming problem of accommodating millions of refugees from East Pakistan was one reason for the omission. But the government also feared a Tebhaga-like conflagration between landlords and peasants.
In 1972, in a rigged Assembly election, the Congress emerged victorious. Siddhartha Shankar Ray became the chief minister. Even Jyoti Basu lost his seat and the entire top brass of the CPM had to flee Bengal. For the first time, the state machinery was used to physically target the Opposition. Such extra-constitutional measures continued till 1977, when West Bengal — along with the nation — voted against the Congress.
The Left front government, in one of its first major acts, initiated land reform: Operation Barga. This led to a shift in power equations in rural Bengal. With the eclipse of the landlords, the vacuum was filled by the political party in power. The party members dictated and controlled the Panchayats stifling any dissent with brutality. Max Weber differentiated a state from other institutions by its monopoly over violence. But in Bengal, the political parties ran a parallel state and, in the process, the most violent phase began in Bengal.
In 2001, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya succeeded Jyoti Basu as chief minister. To stem the stagnation in agriculture and reduce the mounting unemployment in the state, Bhattacharya attempted industrialisation. But he did so in a Stalinist manner. The government’s attempt to evict farmers from fertile lands led to the killings in Nandigram and the rape and brutal killing of 16-year-old, Tapasi Mallik in Singur. In a highly polarised state where politics is a zero-sum game, Mamata Banerjee provided leadership and with insecurities created by the Left in rural areas, the peasants switched over to the TMC.
The TMC does not have a rigid party structure like the CPM but it has imbibed the latter’s party-society combine effectively. It aims at total control of the political space in rural Bengal which makes violence inevitable. Not only do TMC members inflict violence on other parties but in a faction-ridden TMC, there is intra-party violence as well. All this is done with the intention of sweeping the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. Without a lack of credible opposition, in which the BJP is a distant second, the party may win again by unleashing violence.
Your conclusion that such violence is not conducive to economic development and might have dented Mamata’s national ambition presumes a model of normal politics in West Bengal. The fact, however, is that normal politics is impossible in rural West Bengal without a dismantling of the party-society combine. In fact, if Mamata succeeds in winning a lion share of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal, she could well have a major say in the government that is formed at the Centre. In West Bengal’s politics today, means are, unfortunately, irrelevant.