The just-concluded panchayat elections in West Bengal saw a veritable bloodbath. Violence had erupted even before the nominations could be filed. In a lot of places, the Opposition parties could not even file their nominations. The process was so farcical that in many places the ruling party won the seats “uncontested” or “unopposed”.
There’s an important distinction to be made here: it is not the absence of opposition but the absence of an Opposition candidate. A situation like this is unprecedented, and the opposing parties could have boycotted the election. But they had put up a spirited fight and risked a lot by campaigning despite the atmosphere of fear. If they had boycotted, all their efforts would have then been in vain and their morale broken. So they participated in the election process anyway.
Whatever was expected from the ruling party happened, inevitably. Booth after booth was allegedly captured. Ballot papers were tampered with and suspect votes were reportedly cast. Armed with guns, they allegedly scared away workers from the booth. Initially, this election was supposed to have been conducted over three days — by the time the election started, the violence had already kicked off. Unable to file their nominations, the Opposition sought the intervention of the High Court, following which the elections were put off for another date. Finally, the HC said that if the SEC can make appropriate security arrangements, then the elections can be held on May 14. The SEC did make arrangements but here’s the nature of it: rifles were given to police personnel who were on the brink of retirement, and looked like they had never used the weapons before nor did they know how to. The police watched helplessly as the ruling party forces vandalised and attacked the election centre — a collective violence unleashed on democracy.
Raj Kumar Roy had gone to Raiganj as the presiding officer. On voting day, he stepped out of the booth for a smoke and never returned. The next day, his mutilated body was discovered. The SEC refused to comment on his death. The ruling party has said it’s a case of suicide. But how can a person commit suicide by mutilating his own body is a question they don’t have an answer to. This is clearly a case of horrific murder.
A couple, Debu Das and Usharani Das, were burnt alive inside their house. Their crime? They were CPM workers. Their bodies were given to their only son after five days, that too after the son approached the courts.
For many days now, Bhangar, in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district, has been witness to a farmer’s agitation over the construction of a power grid on the village’s farmland. Just before the panchayat polls, Hafizul Molla was killed while participating in a political rally there. Out of the eight centres in Bhangar, the Left won five, riding on the back of massive ground support. It proves how, in the face of a united people’s front, the defeat of the ruling party is inevitable if democratic procedures are followed and fair elections held.
The ruling party claims they’ve brought in tides of change and development to Bengal, the likes of which the state hasn’t seen before. But in that case, the people should be freely and happily voting for them. What is the need then, for all this booth capturing, rigging and violence?
The present panchayat structure started in Bengal during the early days of the Left in the state, in 1978. The main objective was decentralisation of power so as to ensure a high degree of self-rule at the grassroots. This was a good way to ensure that the general public also participates and asserts their choice in the functioning of the country.
That right of the common citizen has been rendered impotent in the absurdity of the elections. Beyond the immediate question of who won or lost this election, the much larger truth that looms over us is that the panchayat system lost. Democracy lost.
The circumstances we are living in in the state has meant that constitutional structures and institutions — neither the election commission nor the police machinery — are in favour of the common citizen. Even justice weeps and whimpers silently in the state. Where will the common man go? Whose doors would they knock at to ensure their fundamental right to live? There are no answers to these questions.
Regarding development, I am reminded of what a representative of the ruling party said — development, apparently, has come to our state and is waiting at our doorsteps. I say, no. I say that “development” has entered every household it could. “Development” has set fire to homes and burned those sleeping within; has stood at the threshold of homes and shot those inside, and destroyed lives. The question is, how long are we willing to remain in this situation.
Gopal Krishna Gokhale had said that, ‘What Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow’. Today, the people of Bengal are thinking of escaping the claws of the oppressors. India, you too are oppressed. Come, together, let us try to live.