Understanding politics of violence in West Bengal: Shaped by fault lines in social structures, politicians play zero-sum game to maintain dominance

The ongoing political violence in West Bengal is blamed either on Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee's quest for domination or on the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) ambition to deepen Hindutva's footprint countrywide. Both the parties are, in fact, complicit in the violence scarring the state, as were the Left and the Congress before them.

Yet what is forgotten in the blame-game is the erosion of social structures — caste, religion, a dominant feudal class — that once played a vital role in evolving consensus in West Bengal's rural life and ensuring peace and stability. The ensuing vacuum has been filled by village-level leaders owing loyalty to one party or the other. With their clout dependent on the fortunes of their parties, they have been drawn into a zero-sum game to maintain their ascendancy.

This thesis was put forward by renowned social scientist Partha Chatterjee in The Coming Crisis in West Bengal, a piece he wrote in 2009 for the Economic and Political Weekly. Arguing that each region and state in India has its own peculiar practices and idioms of democratic politics, Chatterjee pointed out, "Rural life (in West Bengal) is literally inconceivable without the party."

Only the nomenclature of "the party" changes from time to time — from Congress to Left, and from Trinamool to the BJP.

 Understanding politics of violence in West Bengal: Shaped by fault lines in social structures, politicians play zero-sum game to maintain dominance

With no demarcation between the public and the personal sphere, politics has become pervasive. And so has violence. AFP

What has remained constant over the years is the monopoly that political parties have acquired in mediating or intervening in every sphere of social activity in rural West Bengal. "This is indeed the true significance of the shift from old days. Every other social institution, such as the landlord's house, the caste council, the religious assembly, sectarian foundations, schools, sporting clubs, traders' associations, and so on, have been eliminated, marginalised or subordinated to the 'party'," Chatterjee further argues.

From Chatterjee's perspective, Bengal is caught in the throes of what can be called 'total politics.' From implementing welfare measures introduced by the State to carrying out development projects, to negotiating disputes involving property, marriage, and even issues of morality, these are all the responsibility of that party's functionaries who preside over the village panchayat. With no demarcation between the public and the personal sphere, politics has become pervasive. And so has violence.

It wasn't always like this.

Dramatic changes in West Bengal came after 1977, the year in which the Left Front came to power. Over the next five years, it introduced land reforms, popularly known as Operation Barga, which gave inheritable rights to sharecroppers cultivating the fields of landlords and protected them from eviction. These years also saw the establishment of Panchayati institutions or units of local governance, which were responsible for executing welfare measures and development projects.

Operation Barga undercut the economic base of large proprietors who constituted the class of zamindars in colonial times. This class was ousted from its pre-eminent social and political position in rural Bengal. "Evert village in West Bengal has its own story of the 'old days' when zamindars and big men dominated rural life, when the poor suffered from economic oppression and social humiliation, and how things changed since the 1980s," wrote Chatterjee.

The Left may have delivered a decisive blow to landlords between 1977 and 1982, but their decline was a long time in the making. Violence was an aspect of their gradual dethroning from the rural perch. As this piece in The Indian Express points out, "The famous Tebhaga movement (1946-47) was the first major manifestation of the altered scenario where the peasants demanded a two-third share of the crops. The landlords rejected the demand and that led to violence from both sides."

Violence was to soon become endemic in West Bengal's politics. The influx of refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and their demand for food and shelter led to violent outbursts in 1959. A few years later, in 1967, began the peasant uprising in Naxalbari, leading to the forcible occupation of land owned by landlords. It spawned what is now known as the Naxal movement, which was brutally quelled. Largely batting for the landlords, the Congress rigged the 1975 Assembly elections and won.

"For the first time, the state machinery was used to physically target the Opposition," the article observed. "Even (the late chief minister) Jyoti Basu lost his seat and the entire top brass of the CPI(M) (Communist Party of India-Marxist) had to flee Bengal. Such extra-Constitutional measures continued till 1977 when West Bengal — along with the nation — voted against the Congress," the article further notes.

The advent of the Left led to the ouster of landlords and redistribution of their surplus land to the landless. It ensured peace and prosperity between the 1980s and the 1990s. Even though the redistribution of land led to a mushrooming of small holdings, these became economically viable because of intensive cultivation, use of better seeds, and small irrigation projects.

The uprooting of landlords, however, saw their mediating role being usurped by party leaders. Not only were they responsible for the village-level governance, but also arbitrated all social, family and personal disputes as well as assisted those who required access to healthcare, education, finances and employment. In return for the help rendered and for maintaining social consensus, the party and its village-level leaders expected electoral support.

But the one crucial difference between the ousted landlords and the new leaders who replaced them was their source of legitimacy. The latter did not derive their legitimacy, as Chatterjee wrote, from the economic and cultural capital that the displaced landlords once commanded. Rather, it came from their participation in the political sphere. This meant the village-level leader's legitimacy depended on his capacity to distribute largesse, which, in turn, was determined by whether or not they were on the side of the ruling party in the state.

While Trinamool Congress and the BJP engage in blame game over ongoing violence in the state, Congress and the Left did the same during their rule. AFP

While Trinamool Congress and the BJP engage in blame game over ongoing violence in the state, Congress and the Left did the same during their rule. AFP

Social scientists have called West Bengal's model of rural society post-1977 as 'party-society', which signifies a blurring of the line between the society and the party. The crop of new leaders constituted the new lords of rural West Bengal. No doubt, the Left, particularly the Communist Party of India (Marxist), dominated the party-society, but it was also true that village-level leaders of all parties played the same role in their pockets of influence.

1990 onwards, Bengal's rural life came under strain, largely because of the increasing fragmentation of what were essentially small landholdings, rising input costs and a creaking infrastructure. As discontent grew, village-level leaders found difficult to manage consensus. Demands on the finite financial resources of the state grew; it became increasingly difficult to distribute it among targetted beneficiaries; political affiliations determined who received help and who did not. Factional competition became intense and bruising.

Those who lost out coalesced around the party which they thought was best placed to take on the one ruling the state — and which, not coincidentally, often also dominated the panchayats. Violence and vengeance became favoured methods of village-level leaders to retain or seek control over funds and acquire or maintain social status. Such dynamics became an impetus for them to switch parties, increasingly a defining feature of the politics in West Bengal.

Regardless of which party is ousted or ushered in, West Bengal's party-society model will have the rural, smalltime lords engage in the bloody zero-sum game. Until, of course, the pressure on land — West Bengal is second to Bihar in terms of persons living per sq km — dramatically decreases because of rapid industrialisation and expansion of the service sector.

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Updated Date: Jun 13, 2019 13:13:46 IST