Wednesday’s statewide bandh in West Bengal sponsored by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was billed as a crucial showdown. It was staged to protest police firing at a crowd composed largely of school students in Uttar Dinajpur district in North Bengal. Two young men, one an alumnus of the school that was at the epicentre of the trouble, were killed.
The sponsors of the bandh announced on Saturday had said that they did not support shutdowns in general but had been forced to call one because of the breakdown of governance structures in the state. They had also said they would not force people to observe it, but the ‘people’ would support their call spontaneously.
The ruling Trinamool Congress, on the other hand, had geared up to neutralise the bandh on an industrial scale. The entire state public transport fleet was to be pressed into service, the Metro would run; all government employees had been told they had to attend office; schools and colleges were t0 remain open; education minister Partha Chatterjee had also cautioned private schools against observing a holiday or postponing scheduled examinations; and the administration had let it be known that police deployment would be at maximal levels to assure people they could keep establishments open or otherwise go about their normal work.
In the event, the bandh was partially successful, if that’s the right word in this context. There were a couple of violent incidents in Kolkata: a bus was set ablaze by a few people trying to enforce the bandh, injuring a couple of people. Elsewhere in the state, vehicles were vandalised, including a couple of police cars. There were clashes between those trying to enforce the bandh and those bent on keeping normal life moving.
On the whole, educational institutions, government offices and commercial establishments (including banks) remained open and attendance was on the high side. But a lot of people in private employment and citizen, in general, chose not to brave the possibility of being caught in the crossfire and did not venture out. Both human and vehicular traffic was light in Kolkata and elsewhere.
The BJP can draw heart from the fact that their cadres proved a match for the administration. Mobilisation and organisation seemed to have been both smart and on a scale not anticipated, though mostly in areas where the party had gained ground at the time of the panchayat elections. The Trinamool Congress will have to factor in the growing assertiveness and aggression of the BJP when it draws up its political and mobilisational blueprints. A backlash cannot be ruled out in the near future, with the ruling party drawing up plans to capture 42 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 elections, which are a few months away.
As the two sides confront each other, questions will point backwards at the genesis of the troubles. It started last Thursday with a seemingly run-of-the-mill protest meeting outside a school in Islampur, Uttar Dinajpur, over the appointment of three teachers. Claims and counter-claims make it difficult to ascertain the whole truth, but it does appear that while the students of Daribhit High School wanted teachers for core disciplines, two Urdu teachers and one Sanskrit teacher were given appointments.
This was really a minor dispute, which ought to have been sorted out fairly peaceably. But the situation was apparently complicated by unilateral actions by the district inspector of schools and the not entirely straightforward role of the school principal and the managing committee. But these are details. The Trinamool government ought never to have allowed the situation to spiral out of control.
The local people are fairly clear that the police opened fire on the protestors, but the police say they did not. The superintendent of police of the district says tear-gas shells were exploded and rubber bullets fired. The families of the victims and the BJP want a CBI probe. The administration has ordered its own probe and has not really taken notice of this demand.
The Trinamool Congress alleges that the BJP and Daribhit High School were responsible for instigating the violence. From Italy, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee claimed that people were brought in from outside the state—Islampur is practically on the border with Bihar—to foment violence. The claim has not been substantiated.
But even if that were the case, it does not absolve the ruling party or the district administration. The district administration should have been alive to the problem, which had been brewing for some time. In that sense, it was not just a spontaneous outburst. If there had been an abnormal movement of outsiders into the area, it should have been all the more prepared for an eventuality. It wasn’t. Nor did the education monitor the developing situation, as it ought to have been doing. Had it done so, it could have talked to the students and arrived at some kind of understanding.
The point of detailing this background is to point to two things: first, there is the matter-of-course incompetence of the administration from the district level downwards, which cannot be addressed politically because of excessive centralisation focused on the person of Mamata Banerjee.
Second, and perhaps more important, is a political question. The Trinamool Congress, as a party and as the incumbent in power, should know that the BJP has emerged as the biggest opposition force in Bengal, will follow its sectarian agenda by trying to polarise Bengal. And they will focus on areas most receptive to its ideology. The ruling party must have a political strategy to counter the BJP agenda. It must, therefore, mobilise from an avowedly ‘secular’ vantage. It’s very possible because Bengal’s post-independence history shows that sectarian politics has never had many buyers in the state.
Updated Date: Sep 27, 2018 13:10 PM