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Battle for Bengal: Recurrent violence between TMC, BJP casts shadow over polls as state gears up for remaining phases

Kolkata: With the fifth phase of elections over on Monday, 424 out of the 542 Lok Sabha constituencies have undergone polls. As the day of results (23 May) approaches, the ruling party’s fate will largely depend on its scores in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will hope to make up for its losses in Uttar Pradesh and other Hindi heartland states with gains in Bihar and West Bengal, where the ruling Trinamool Congress is posing a tough challenge to the organised groundforce of the BJP workers and party members.

West Bengal is witnessing much violence during the elections, as has been the tradition in the state. Every phase in the state has seen numerous reports of attempts to rig polls, clashes near polling booths, bullets being fired and crude bombs being hurled. Earlier, during the third phase of polling on 23 April, a voter reported to be a Congress party worker, Tiyarul Kalam, had lost his life in Murshidabad in poll-related violence.

While the Opposition parties claim that the ruling TMC is forcefully manipulating the polling procedure, TMC cadres blame them, particularly the BJP, of instigating violence, to which they seem prepared to respond. To gain a foothold among the Opposition at the national level in the aftermath of polling, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has sought to highlight the prominence of her own state, and in order to make her bid stronger, her party cadre are prepared to defend every seat across the state by all means as it goes to polls through all seven phases until 19 May.

Death before fifth phase

On Monday, West Bengal witnessed polling on seven Lok Sabha seats — Bangaon, Howrah, Arambagh and Hooghly — notorious ones when it comes to violence — and, Serampore, Uluberia and Barrackpore. Voting was conducted at a total of 13,290 booths, while reports of violence, bombing, mismanagement and EVM malfunction occupied TV news screens for most part of the day.

Violence was reported ahead of the fifth phase, albeit in East Burdwan, where polling was conducted in the fourth phase on 29 April. Reports of clashes, which claimed one person’s life and left four others severely injured, came from Khandagosh area on Sunday midnight. While the Communist Party of India (Marxist) claimed the deceased, Sheikh Kamrul, as their party worker in a tweet on Monday, one of the TMC workers involved in the clash said that it was an incident of infighting between TMC workers supporting different leaders in the area.

 Battle for Bengal: Recurrent violence between TMC, BJP casts shadow over polls as state gears up for remaining phases

Local women gathered near booth nos 118 and 119 in Hingli under Bangaon constituency in West Bengal, after bombs were hurled and shots were fired. Image: 101Reporters

Sheikh Sabbir Ahmed, one of the TMC workers from East Burdwan involved in the clash, said, “We were attending a marriage ceremony with our friends while the other group of people came in and picked up a fight. We are all part of the TMC party.” Ahmed said “the other group” of TMC workers was accusing them of colluding with the CPM and of planning to shift to the party.

EVM malfunctions kept voters waiting during the early hours of polling (until 1.00 pm) at many booths, with several complaints coming from Howrah, Hooghly and Barrackpore constituencies. Voters either left the booths, or waited for hours, depending on their determination to deal with the heat and sweat, the uncertainty around a functioning EVM/VVPAT, and the threat of violence breaking out at any moment between party workers looking for opportunities to scuffle.

“There have been many EVM malfunction issues till now,” said TMC minister Dinesh Trivedi, adding that the issues were “taken care of” with the help of EC officials.

Voters at polling booth no 145 in Haskhali area of Shantinagar alleged voting was being rigged in their area as they were not allowed to enter the booth.

“We don’t know which party it is, but we are just not allowed to enter the booth. There are no security officials around whom we can approach. We came from a distant place just to cast our votes but looking at the situation, it seems like a big mistake,” said Subhash Das, a 45-year-old voter in Haskhali.

Instigators in charge?

If BJP’s Babul Supriyo stole headlines in the fourth phase, the ‘action stars’ in the fifth phase were two other BJP members — Arjun Singh and Locket Chatterjee — candidates from Barrackpore and Hooghly Lok Sabha constituencies, respectively.

A broadcast news reporter working from the ground in Dhaniakhali under Hooghly Lok Sabha constituency, where Chatterjee reportedly got into a scuffle with TMC members and claimed to have caught a fake voter, said, “(During)... polling in West Bengal, rigging seems to be the most natural thing. What Locket Chatterjee was doing could be called instigation. Her men vandalised the EVM machine. A candidate can reach out to the EC, but has no right to destroy an EVM. I tried chasing the man (who broke the EVM), but was the odd one out ‘following the news’.”

A presiding officer at booth no 159 in Dhaniakhali, who was reportedly confronted by Chatterjee, said, “What can I do? Don’t you know how kidnapping and murdering POs has become the easiest thing for these political parties?”. The presence of central forces (Hooghly had a regiment from Manipur deployed for security) did not help the polling officials at this booth.

Chatterjee was later seen sitting on a dharna at the District Magistrate’s office in Hooghly raising slogans against the Election Commission and the state government, while the man who had smashed the EVM at booth no 159 was seen sitting right next to her. The BJP IT cell, however, later in its WhatsApp media group wrote, “TMC goons broke EVM in Dhaniakhali”.

In Barrackpore, Arjun Singh posed for the media after casting his vote at booth no 142/143 in Saraswati Balika Vidyalaya, and merely 30 minutes later, reports came of his cavalcade coming under attack while he was on his way to another polling booth in Mohanpur. His supporters blamed the TMC for the attack.

Eyewitnesses, however, had a slightly different version of the events as they unfolded. The owner of a tea shop near Katalia Chowk in Mohanpur said, “Arjun Singh was being very rowdy as he approached the booth. There were men from the TMC sitting at my shop. I saw how they were provoked and a big fight broke out.”

Soon, visuals from Katalia Chowk showing one of Singh’s aides assaulting a woman, which led to her falling on the ground, started appearing on a TV news channel. However, that did not deter Singh, as he soon set out for Arambagh, telling mediapersons on the way, “These TMC men can never stop me from going anywhere. After all, I have to keep a check on the whole situation.”

On reaching Arambagh, where the local TMC men were already steaming with anger against the BJP, another brawl broke out conveniently. While Singh had a narrow escape, the mediapersons following him faced the music. Kolkata chief correspondent of News X, Tapas Sengupta, and Kamalika Sengupta of Zee 24 Ghanta were left seriously injured.

The EC has filed two FIRs over vandalising of EVMs and private cars and served show-cause notices to presiding officers from booth no 97/42 in Bangaon and booth no. 159 in Hooghly.

Chandra Kumar Bose, BJP candidate who contested the Bhawanipore Assembly constituency against Mamata Banerjee in 2016, said, “How TMC has won all the seats all this while is now an open secret. With this amount of media coverage, their deeds are out in the open and people are losing their faith. Mamata didi is scared of the Modi wave, and is thus acting in an impulsive manner. These violations took place because they are scared. And it is a given that they will blame BJP for their wrong actions.”

Central forces under scanner

Meanwhile, there were reports of bombs being hurled in Hingli under the Bangaon constituency. At booth numbers 118 and 119, BJP leader Santanu Thakur had to intervene when his party’s polling agent was prevented from sitting in the booth. Soon after Thakur came out of the booth, crude bombs were hurled towards it by unidentified men. A security personnel and a TMC cadre member were injured in firing that ensued.

The role of  central forces in West Bengal’s election field remains questionable and vulnerable at the moment, with both the BJP and the TMC, blaming them for connivance with the other.

While BJP state president Dilip Ghosh claimed TMC cadre were bribing the central forces with alcohol to get free entry into polling booths, TMC south block president Jamini Mondal, along with others on Monday claimed they were manhandled at booth no 97/98 in Bangaon by central forces.

“They asked us to vote for BJP,” she said.

Sadhan Pande, minister for consumer affairs, SHGs and self-employment in the TMC government, said that the state government has always questioned the efficacy of central forces when it comes to handling such situations. Talking about the Locket Chatterjee incident, Pande said, “Central forces aren’t trained enough to handle a situation like this. They don’t even have the power. BJP leaders are picking up fights with presiding officers, creating a ruckus, and central forces play the role of a silent audience.”

On the other hand, Jay Prakash Majumdar, BJP's West Bengal vice-president, said that central forces have their own duties to follow and they have got instructions to abide by. He added, “I don't understand why TMC was so worried about their (central forces’) functioning. They were very aggressive.”

Majumder and the chief of the BJP's election management committee, Shishir Bajoria, on 6 May, wrote a letter to the CEO of West Bengal, stating their concern about the violence that took place across seven constituencies during the fifth phase of polling in the state. The letter mentioned the alleged attacks on Arjun Singh and Locket Chatterjee.

(The authors are freelance writers and members of 101Reporters.com)

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Updated Date: May 07, 2019 20:54:50 IST