West Bengal poll violence reveals deep divisions, parties across political spectrum must step up to heal them

Not unexpectedly, the panchayat elections in West Bengal have witnessed widespread violence. Trinamool Congress leader and state higher education minister Partha Chatterjee, however, has claimed that the vote was largely peaceful, though marred by sporadic acts of violence.

With the elections over, it would be useful to take stock of the events of the day. There was violence against people and property. Firearms, sticks and staffs served as evidence of this. At the time of writing, television channels were reporting 13 deaths and injuries to many more, including police personnel. The scenes of violence, and the ferocity of the clashes, were compelling.

Bogus voting was also seen, with people jamming polling booths, driving out the election personnel and even beating the police away. In some cases, booths were vandalised in an attempt to disrupt the polls. Ballot boxes were carried away in some instances and ballot slips burned or otherwise destroyed.

Taken together, the only conclusion possible is that this vote was flawed. Even if it is accepted that in most areas voting was peaceful, the instances of violence and vandalism aired by media channels can hardly be wished away.

It has been reported that judges of a division bench of the Calcutta High Court which had heard cases in connection with the security plan for the election were shown the television footage. The bench has reserved its judgment, but may take cognizance of the way the elections were conducted at a later date.

West Bengal security forces lathicharge a political party worker allegedly involved in ransacking a polling booth. PTI

West Bengal security forces lathicharge a political party worker allegedly involved in ransacking a polling booth. PTI

It has also been reported that the central government has asked for a report on the violence. But the Trinamool Congress has already prepared the ground to oppose this demand, with Chatterjee taking pains to point out that law and order is a state subject.

Clearly, the State Election Commission (SEC) has failed in its duties. It allowed itself to be ramrodded into accepting the state government’s insistence on a single-phase poll, even though it was clear that the security resources available were vastly inadequate. This was clear on election day from the fact that in some areas, crowds of people intent in perverting the conduct of elections overpowered the single armed sentries provided for polling booths.

The state government and the ruling party in Bengal must share responsibility for the violence. They failed in helping create the atmosphere for a peaceful and fair vote in the first place. The leadership of the Trinamool Congress failed to prevent cadres from using force to stop candidates from filing nominations.

It is obviously not possible at this point, with detailed reports awaited, to ascertain which party was most culpable for unleashing this complete anarchy. It is clear, however, that every party was involved. It appears, at this point as a hypothesis, that the violence was most intense in areas where the Opposition parties were a significant force, either singly or after joining hands. This was clear from the pattern of casualties and the reports beamed by the television channels, which showed that in many areas the cadres of the Opposition parties attacked their targets with great ferocity. It is probable that the voting was peaceful in areas dominated by the ruling party.

Political violence is not exactly a new phenomenon in Bengal, whether unleashed in connection with elections or otherwise. But the ferocity of what was witnessed raises some wider concerns. The first is the polarisation of rural society in Bengal. To watch neighbours attack each other with feral and deadly intent was to watch a society being torn apart. Connected to this is the question raised by the levels of violence employed. Such violence is certainly not the symptom of a healthy society in which members, organised along whatever axes, compete for resources in a manner that can be deemed to be even remotely civilised.

The Trinamool Congress alone cannot be blamed for creating such conditions. The Left Front era saw levels of violence that compare with what we have seen. Similarly, when the Congress was in power, up to 1967, it was not innocent in the matter of using violent intimidation against political opponents. The Bharatiya Janata Party has of late contributed its mite by fomenting sectarian tensions in an attempt to polarise Bengal.

At this point, therefore, the final result of the election is not the main concern. The important question is whether all political parties will try to heal the divisions in rural society by refraining from trying to divide it, in whatever way.

This kind of visceral violence must be contained. It is one of the reasons why Bengal has regressed in so many fields of endeavour, including industry. No prospective investor will look at the scenes today and conclude that Bengal is an ideal destination.

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Updated Date: May 17, 2018 10:27:02 IST

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