• Prabhpreet Singh

Political Violence in West Bengal

As on the 5th of May, 2021, 3 days since the Trinamool Congress had won a sweeping election victory in West Bengal at the detriment of the BJP, the death toll of the ensuing violence stands at 14.


‘There have been reports of lynching and subsequent deaths of various political party members in Bengal at the hands of goons from opposing parties.’

That is one sentence which can be used to describe the political climate after almost every election in Bengal. This violence is not unprecedented, rather it was expected. West Bengal has a long history of violence after elections, from the apparently brutal CPIM to the still brutal but to a smaller extent TMC, Bengal is no stranger to such political violence.


The role of Violence in Politics

Violence and politics go hand in hand in West Bengal. It is a party society where people identify themselves and others on the basis of the Political Party they support, rather than religion or caste. From 1970 when the CPIM first rose up against the Congress with rebellion and violence to go along with it, Political Parties had started to hire goons to participate in this violence as a means to establish control.


A New York Times headline from 1971 - "An average campaign day in West Bengal: 10 Political Murders"

This wave of violence saw a new uprising after almost 30 years in 2006 when the TMC in alliance with the BJP first emerged to challenge the Left. People on the Left were burning houses of anyone who supported the new coalition. The TMC had to adapt as it recognized that violence was the only way to consolidate power in that brutal political ecosystem. After the violent face offs in the Nandigram Movement, the TMC had won the hearts of the poor as Mamata Banerjee emerged as an immensely popular figure in Bengal. Her popularity grew exponentially over the years as in 2011, TMC won the Bengal elections.

Mamata Banerjee and TMC emerging victorious in 2011

Political, not communal.

The thing that separates Bengal from other places in India is that the violence in Bengal is completely political, in fact no political attention is paid to denominations such as religion or caste. Social divisions are on the basis of party support, a system proliferated by CPIM during its time in power. But in 2014, this all seems to have started to change. With the emergence of the BJP, communal polarization became the name of the game in Bengal. Communal riots have showed an upward trend from 2014 and nowhere else is this trend best observed than in Nandigram.


The Nandigram Battleground

Nandigram, a constituency in East Midnapore, West Bengal became the host for a bitterly fought election between former comrades in Mamata Banerjee from the TMC and Suvendu Adhikari, a former member of the TMC now in the BJP, in 2021. Nandigram is no stranger to poltical violence, case in point the brutal 2007 Movement which had left 14 dead. During the campaigning period for this election, Nandigram faced the brunt of polarization like no other constituency did.


Controversy sprung up this year when early polls suggested a TMC win in the region, but soon, after a few blackouts and other disturbances, the election commission reported that Suvendu Adhikari had won with the small margin of 2000 votes. The vote was disputed and the case has gone to court for a potential recount.

Violence hence again broke out, still political in nature but was fueled by the years of communal polarisation that the constituency had experienced.


The Current Political Ecosystem of Bengal

After the 2019 General Election in West Bengal, the BJP was on a high horse after capturing an unprecedented 18 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats for West Bengal. This election signified a historic shift from left to right in Bengali Politics. Senior BJP leaders like the Home Minister proclaimed a position of strength and said that this wave would carry over into the 2021 election and win them Bengal. BJPs political strategy was one based on displaying a position of supreme strength and Hindutva. The BJP played a game of extreme polarization where they hoped to capture the vote of the Hindu Majority in Bengal but this plan required polarisation of the most strict measures, as around 30% of the population is Muslim.

The TMC had to bounce back in 2021 after the close margins in 2019, it knew that it had the Muslim vote in the bag due to BJPs Hindutva stand, so it too looked to appease to the remaining Hindu Population, as seen clearly in Mamata Banerjee reciting the Chandipath in one of her rallies. By and large, Mamata Banerjee is adored by the bengali people, which proved to be cause for her success, as the TMC won the elections in 2021 with an outright majority against the BJP and even improved its position from 2016.



Thus the 2021 election in Bengal became a game of appeasement and polarization. Dividing Hindus and Muslims, Hindus and other Hindus, one party and another party, and so on, sowing the seeds for the violent discourse we are seeing unfold in front of us today.


Dispelling the myths from the facts.

Several accounts of the violence have been given and are circulating around social media, being amplified explosively. Claims of heinous crimes such as rape and murder at the hands of party sanctioned goons have come up, but not all of these claims are true. One particular reported case of a 20-year-old girl from West Midnapore district, being gang-raped and murdered is indeed harrowing, but this crime being committed by “Rohingya and Bangladeshi jihadis” for supporting BJP is not true, as this case is not a fallout of the post-poll violence, as confirmed by the West Bengal Police.


Another claim of TMC workers attacking police officers has also been disputed and deemed as fake news by the police.


The violence is not one sided. Yes, a lot of BJP members have been lynched, their houses have been ransacked, but the TMC and the Left have suffered casualties as well.


Conclusion

There has been a culture of brutal political violence after polls in West Bengal and the same continues to this day. The TMC cannot be absolved for its role in the violence, but neither can the BJP. The constant polarization and the enticement of violence by the right wing media houses has gone a long way to influence the unrest we see today.


From the conflict between the Congress and the CPIM in 1977, to the CPIM and TMC in 2006, and now to the TMC and BJP in 2021, the political actors change, but the violence seems to stay.


~ Prabhpreet Singh