Birbhum killings and after: West Bengal’s cycle of violence churns ceaselessly
The TMC under Mamata Banerjee not only co-opted the Left Front model of dealing with dissent under Jyoti Basu, but also co-opted many Left goons whose sole job was to terrorise people to get the job done
West Bengal is one of those Indian states that is ostensibly “at peace” but frequently experiences endemic violence. Those with roots in the state know well the history and severity of conflict. Thirty-four years of Left Front rule saw wanton killings that continued under Mamata Banerjee’s regime. In that light, the brawl in the West Bengal Assembly is just another statistic.
Mamata Banerjee did suffer and stood up to the brutal repression unleashed during the Left Front rule. She was physically beaten by cops, threatened and came close to being killed on a few occasions. And she never backed down. But after coming to power, she retrofitted the Left Front model under the new umbrella of the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
Fair to say, the current trigger of violence in Birbhum is the result of an internal fight within the TMC. Massive collateral damage as eight people were burnt alive, including women and children. When the BJP protested under the leadership of Suvendu Adhikari, a man the TMC loves to hate as he beat Mamata from Nandigram in the last Assembly elections, retaliation was imminent.
Adhikari demanded a statement in the House from the chief minister but she was away in Darjeeling. All hell broke loose. Visuals of a brawl went viral when the MLAs attacked each other. Someone filmed the incident triggering further outrage.
But first, what exactly happened in Birbhum. A minor TMC politician Bhadu Sheikh was murdered in his village Bogtui in Birbhum district on 21 March. Within hours, a mob attacked the families of the suspected killers, set fire to their houses and burnt them alive. At least eight people died — six women and two children.
This appears to be an intra-TMC clash over the alleged loot from the illegal stone and sand trade. The Calcutta High Court has handed over the probe into the Birbhum killings to the CBI and set a deadline of 7 April to submit its progress report.
What happens next would be part of routine inquiry. But what interests me is how the TMC under Mamata Banerjee not only co-opted the Left Front model of dealing with dissent under Jyoti Basu; but also co-opted many Left goons whose sole job was to terrorise people to get the job done.
I also find it fascinating how the phrase “land of Tagore” has been bastardised by successive brutal regimes. Some of it I witnessed as a kid when the Naxalite movement was raging in Kolkata. Use of hand-made grenades called “Peto” was rampant. The cops were equally tough going around the by lanes; mopping up young males.
What made Mamata tweak and adopt the Left Front model?
Mamata’s biggest failing is the inability to evolve a new model of governance in West Bengal. She used all the skullduggery of the CPM to beat them at their own game. She not only ended their reign after 34 years; but ensured the party would literally and ideologically cease to exist.
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Their cadres were systematically destroyed, poached and absorbed. However, the campaign of terror did not end; just the branding changed.
Mamata has travelled her own parallel journey. In December 1992, Mamata took a physically challenged girl, Felani Basak, who was allegedly raped by CPM cadres to Writer's Building to the then chief minister Jyoti Basu. She was brutally harassed by the police instead. Detention followed later.
Then as State Youth Congress leader, she organised a protest march to Writers Building in Kolkata on 21 July 1993. Their demand was that voters’ ID cards be made the only required document for voting, to put a stop to CPM's “scientific rigging”. Thirteen people were killed in police firing. Then chief minister Jyoti Basu infamously said the “police had done a good job”.
Meeting her during the Singur agitation, I found her driven and righteously belligerent. Sitting in stifling heat over a drain in a small tent-like shack, Mamata had her eyes set only on the goal. In that process, I believe the feeling of vendetta gave her manic energy. And that feeling would always be inside her head like a memory chip.
Looking at the state’s history of violence, when Naxalism was decimated by the Congress in 1972, many died unaccounted for. The Left Front came to power in West Bengal in 1977. In 1979, the government forcibly evicted Partition refugees who had settled in Marichjhapi in the Sunderbans. Instead of being rehabilitated they were seen as an unwanted problem. The cops were told to make them disappear. No official figure ever gave the right number.
In 2000, 11 agricultural wage labourers, supporters of TMC, were killed at Nanoor. Somnath Chatterjee, then the speaker of the Lok Sabha, described the victims as “hired goons, dacoits and dreaded anti-socials”.
In 2001, 11 TMC supporters were burnt alive in their home in Chhoto Angaria village by CPM goons. In 2007, 14 people were shot dead by the police at Nandigram, where the Left Front government was planning to set up a chemical industry hub.
In 2011, nine people, including four women, were shot dead by CPM cadre in Netai village.
After the savage clash with TMC members on the floor of the House on Monday, Leader of the Opposition Suvendu Adhikari, and four other BJP MLAs have been suspended from the House, until further notice.
“They brought Kolkata Police personnel in civil dress to clash with eight to 10 of our MLAs… I will write my complaint to the Speaker, demanding action as per the rules. We need Centre's intervention,” Adhikari said.
“Suvendu Adhikari hit me. My glasses were broken when I went to stop the BJP legislators with folded hands as they were engaged in a scuffle with the security personnel inside the Assembly,” said Asit Majumdar, TMC legislator from Chinsurah in Hooghly district.
Adhikari says only “small fries” had been arrested so far in the arson case and demanded the arrest of Anubroto Mondal as the main man behind the incident. Mondol is very close to Mamata as he manages the elections in the area. Of the 11 Assembly seats in the district, the TMC controls 10 at the moment. In 2019, it won both the Lok Sabha constituencies there.
Ironically, Suvendu Adhikari used to do the same role for Mamata as her key lieutenant from Nandigram.
If you look at it closely, all forms of election in the state are hit by violence. That domino effect continues even after a win. Reason being those who did not fall in line need to be taught a lesson. The biggest one being: If you are not with us, you are against us.
The author is CEO of nnis. Views expressed are personal.
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