Political Violence in Bengal

Violence begets violence. And political violence in West Bengal is now endemic, with the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) documenting an average of 20 political killings annually from 1999 to 2016.

Particularly alarming is the surge in violence following the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, with at least 47 political killings of workers affiliated with the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP), the majority of which occurred in South Bengal. Right now South Bengal is again in the news for what is happening -or not happening- in Sandeshkhali. Accusations of sexual harassment and land grabbing have been levied against some of their leaders. And the opposition parties are utilising it to derive maximum mileage in the coming parliamentary elections. The Centre sent a fact-finding team, led by the former Chief Justice of the Patna High Court, possibly to assess the damage the ruling TMC might suffer in the coming general elections due to Sandeshkhali factor. Quite expectedly, a member of the ‘independent fact-finding team’, labelled the prevailing atmosphere in the island as ‘horrifying’.

The situation in Sandeshkhali escalated on January 5 when an enforcement directorate (ED) team conducting a raid at one Sheikh Sahajan’s house, was attacked by a mob allegedly owning allegiance to the ruling TMC. This incident further fuelled public outrage, particularly among women, who have been protesting vigorously since February 7 against atrocities committed by local TMC leaders.

For one thing data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reveals a concerning trend in missing women cases, with West Bengal ranking as the second-largest state in terms of reported missing women. Despite being less populous than Maharashtra where 33,964 women were reported missing in 2018, West Bengal reported 31,299 missing women cases in the same year, disproportionately high for its population size. Notably, Kolkata, Nadia, Barasat, Barrackpore, South 24 Parganas and Murshidabad recorded the highest number of missing women cases, highlighting the severity of the issue.

Sandeshkhali, a region in South 24 Parganas, reflects the state’s diverse demographic composition. Scheduled Castes (SCs) constitute 30.9 percent of the population, while Scheduled Tribes (STs) make up 25.9 percent. Ironically, this area–Sandeshkhali–once witnessed historic ‘Tebhaga’ movement and communists had huge following among peasants. And people were above communal influence. Even the Muslim League during the British period failed to mobilise Muslim peasants for its communal agenda in this locality. Today communist presence among tillers can hardly be recognised.

The state’s political history is characterised by a cycle of power shifts between different parties. The Indian National Congress (INC) dominated the political scene for over two decades post-independence, followed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)–CPI (M), which held power for more than three decades. Currently, the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) is in power. However, regardless of the ruling party and their professed ideological orientation, the culture of violent clashes between political workers, especially in rural Bengal has persisted, intensifying in recent years.

The proliferation of political violence has made it a central issue in public discourse and policy debates in India. It’s a staple for the mainstream media with their committed bias towards the ruling dispensation at the centre. The contentious nature of politics in West Bengal has often led to violent confrontations, posing significant challenges to governance and stability.

The root cause of political violence lies in how to loot the exchequer through vote. In absence of employment opportunities foot soldiers are always ready to serve the parties with guns. And bomb making has become a cottage industry in Bengal.

Not that other states are free from political violence. Only the degree varies. It can’t be otherwise in a situation of continuing criminalisation of politics. The mass mobilisation against social and economic injustice is the answer and yet all parties, irrespective of their colour indulge in cheap populism while doing some kind of shadow boxing during election season, avoiding real issues that affect ordinary people. Both communists and anti-communists are in the same boat. All of them are in a rat race to win elections–or lose them at any cost.

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Vol 56, No. 38, Mar 17 - 23, 2024