Political violence in West Bengal has historical roots: Ahead of Lok Sabha elections, more bloodshed likely

  • Political violence in West Bengal dates back to the pre-Independence times

  • There were wide-scale clashes reported ahead of, during and even after the 2018 panchayat elections in West Bengal

  • Both the TMC and BJP have accused each other of 'unleashing terror' in the state and trying to disrupt peace

"Talibani Didi" — this is the tag BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra gave West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee after clashes between workers of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the saffron party on Tuesday. Violence broke out in Kanthi in East Midnapore district after BJP president Amit Shah's rally. TMC accused BJP workers of vandalising a local party office, which the BJP accused TMC workers of attacking their buses parked at the venue.

Although it might be a stretch to liken the situation, or any leader, as "Talibani", it would not be an exaggeration to state that violence is entrenched in the politics of West Bengal. This has only worsened in the recent months, with both sides accusing each other of "unleashing terror" in the state and trying to disrupt peace.

West Bengal has a history of political violence. It dates back to the pre-Independence times. There were peasant movements against Congress-backed landlords that led to clashes with Communist cadre. The ultimate fall of the landlord system helped the Communist Party of India (Marxist) sow its seeds in Bengal, leading an often violence anti-landlord movement.

 Political violence in West Bengal has historical roots: Ahead of Lok Sabha elections, more bloodshed likely

File image of panchayat poll violence in West Bengal. PTI

The Congress was accused of rigging the Assembly elections in 1972 using the state machinery to target the Opposition, beginning a trend that every following West Bengal government has been accused of. After the fall of of the Congress government in West Bengal in 1977, the Left formed a powerful panchayati raj system, which has since played a vital role in state politics and is essential to implement government policies.

The bloodshed we see in Bengal is different from the religion- or caste-based crimes we hear of from North India and the anti-Naxal movement in its neighbouring states.

The political structure in Bengal helps give an idea of why the state is often plagues by political violence. A senior CPM member Barddhaman explained to the Hindustan Times: "Bengal's panchayats are not from the 73rd amendment, they are from the Panchayat Act."

"While this allowed for a highly participatory system, in reality, the panchayats became a powerful tool to implement party/state policy at the village level," the report said. "The logic of the system implied that all citizen access to the party and state would be channelled through the panchayat — effectively requiring total territorial control of West Bengal's villages for large-scale policy implementation."

This would explain the wide-scale violence reported ahead of, during and even after the 2018 panchayat elections in West Bengal, a state where panchayat polls are a measure of local power, not popularity. The BJP had claimed that 52 party workers were murdered in the run-up to the elections, while the TMC had claimed 14 of its workers had been killed. The BJP also alleged that the Mamata Banerjee-led party had won 34 percent of the gram panchayat seats unopposed because it had prevented Opposition candidates from filing nominations.

Moreover, political loyalties are as important to the West Bengal youth as a social identity. This is evident in the field of student politics, which is not immune to clashes among the impassioned youth either.

The violence here has never been one sided. Both the BJP and TMC accuse the other of capturing booths or instigating violence as a means of political intimidation (on the TMC's part) and to attempt to grow in West Bengal (for the BJP). With the Lok Sabha elections around the corner, there are bound to be reports of clashes at campaign rallies and a continuous blame game. This is why it may be safe to say that the courts were right to back the West Bengal government in denying the BJP permission to hold a rath yatra in the state, as it would have surely led to bloodshed, one way or another.

Updated Date: Jan 30, 2019 15:15:53 IST