Seven years before West Bengal entered the historic period of Left rule, an incident took place in the small town of Burdwan that sent tremours across the state. On March 17, 1970, a day after the United Front government had been toppled, two brothers from the Sain family who were known to be Congress loyalists were attacked and murdered in front of their mother. After brutally killing the two, the mother was allegedly forced to eat rice soaked in their blood. The accused in the murder, Benoy Konar, Nirupam Sen and Anil Bose were all top-most leaders of the CPI-M who went on to occupy ministerial positions in the state later. Since the 1970s, political murders and violence had become a norm in the state, particularly in the rural and semi-rural areas.
After the Panchayat polls this year, the state has seen murders for political reasons, mirroring the spate of political violence the state has witnessed since the 1970s. Twenty-one-year-old Trilochan Mahato from Supurdi in Purulia and thirty-year-old Dulal Kumar from Dava village had just one thing in common- both were supporters of the BJP. While both the murders have been hushed up by the authorities, reports suggest a political motive behind them. Political murders of the kind have taken place in the state over and again, and they especially point to moments when a threat is seen to be born to the incumbent party. “Historically speaking, violence was part of West Bengal’s politics even before independence. For instance, even for the elections to the Union Board, there was a big fight between Subhash panthi (supporters of Subhash Chandra Bose) and Gandhi panthi (supporters of Mahatma Gandhi),” says political scientist Bidyut Chakraborty.
Since the 1970s, however, there is a distinctive nature to this form of violence. “It is different from the class-based Naxalite upheaval in the 1960-70 period. It is also different from the caste-based violence that can be seen in parts of North India,” writes historian Sumanta Banerjee in his article, ‘West Bengal: Violence without ideology.’ He goes on to explain that the political violence in Bengal needs to be located in a socio-economic crisis that haunts the rural population of the state. Land reform policies and the importance of the Panchayat system are some important factors that have contributed to the distinctive nature of political violence in Bengal.
Land and panchayat in West Bengal
When the Left Front came to power in West Bengal in the late 1970s, it carried out a host of welfare measures for the rural poor such as Operation Barga, redistribution of land among the rural landless and increase in minimum wages. What resulted was a class of beneficiaries with new found aspirations. What was originally a plan of equitable distribution turned into a fierce competition among the rural masses for the largest share of the benefits offered by the government. Further, government benefits were posed as reforms made by the CPI-M. Consequently, this coincided with the swelling of the CPI-M ranks with a large number of apolitical persons, “whose only objective was to make hay while the sun shines,” writes Banerjee.
Simultaneously though, another class emerged who could not profit from the benefits given out by the government. The discontent caused by the nature of this dole-giving form of welfare measures resulted in a rural society that was deeply divided along party lines. “Party loyalty seems to have become the most important identity, crucial for one’s survival in rural Bengal, where houses can be burnt and people evicted only because they have chosen to vote for a party of their choice,” writes researcher Partha Sarthi Banerjee in his article, ‘Party, power and political violence in West Bengal.’
A simultaneous development that took place alongside the land-reform measures was the increasing financial powers bestowed upon the panchayats after the 1980s. “After gaining stability, the CPI(M) first gained control over the administration and used its superior organisational machinery to capture power in the panchayats,” writes Partha Sarthi Banerjee. Over the years, the panchayat in West Bengal has continued to remain the focal point of political and economic power despite the Left no longer being in power.
“To me, panchayats are nothing but centres of empowerment, money, and privileges because most of the central government schemes are given directly to the panchayats,” says Chakrabarty. He goes on to explain that the importance of capturing the panchayats has grown over the years given the scale of unemployment issues in rural areas. “Given the fact that employment in rural areas is shrinking every day, so the panchayat is giving people money, privileges, and dignity, making it necessary for people to capture power in the panchayats in order to survive. In such a situation, violence is inevitable and is been happening in an organised manner,” he says.
The importance attached to panchayats in West Bengal is evident from the way elections are held. “Elections in the state are usually controlled by parties having exclusive hegemony in a particular area. Exclusive hegemony ensures that no opposition polling agents will be present in polling booths to challenge malpractices of the dominant party,” writes Partha Sarthi Banerjee. Further, people are coerced to vote for a certain candidate or not allowed to vote at all. It is noteworthy that since 1978 the number of uncontested seats in the panchayat elections has kept increasing. While in 2003, 11 per cent of the seats were uncontested, in the 2018 elections, 34 per cent of the seats were won uncontested by the TMC, which is evidence of the dominance held by the ruling party in these elections. Further, the violence that accompanied this year’s elections had left 14 dead and several others injured.
Recurring instances of political violence
“Politics of violence has become part of the Bengali psyche now,” says Chakrabarty, adding that this has been the case regardless of which party has been in power. Going back to the 1970s, even when Congress came to power in Bengal it did so through an exceptional show of muscle power and creating a reign of terror using police and goons. The ‘gun-culture’ in West Bengal politics only increased during the Left regime.
While hard statistics of the number of political murders that have taken place in West Bengal under the CPI-M is difficult to come across, one can make a guess from a statement that had been issued by former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in 1997 when he said that between 1977 and 1996, 28,000 political murders had been committed in the state. In 2010, the Leftist weekly Mainstream had recorded that between 1977 and 2009, 55,000 political murders had taken place in the state. The scale of violence had reached a peak in the 2007 Nandigram incident when, in order to acquire land for an industrial project, the state machinery organised a massive operation. The resulting altercation between the police and the villagers had resulted in the death of 14 and left many more injured.
The Nandigram incident was the trigger for Mamata Banerjee’s resurgence in the state politics and it was also the beginning of the end of Left rule in Bengal. Eventually, in the 2011 Legislative Assembly elections, CPI-M was ousted in favour of the Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee. The birth of TMC in 1998 had seen a spurt in political violence in many rural areas of the state. This was the first time that the Left Front regime had come under threat from a new party. But it took more than a decade for the Mamata Banerjee-led party to finally oust the Left. However, the culture of violence in no way retreated.
Reportedly, in 2013 the CPI-M had accused the TMC of killing 142 political opponents. Statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau that year, however, claimed that 26 political murders had taken place in West Bengal. The scale of brutality involved in these incidents is also worth noting. Hacking of bodies into pieces, burning people alive, burning households and even entire slums and other crimes of a similar nature are regularly reported from the state. Of late though, the target of political violence has shifted from the CPI-M to the BJP-RSS, which is being seen as a threat to the ruling party. The recent reports of the two murders is evidence of history repeating itself with yet another spurt in political violence in West Bengal. “If this violence continues, it will affect economic growth, and it will also affect our cultural ethos that generations of people tried to build,” says Chakrabarty.