Revisiting Bengal’s chequered history of political violence in last 70 years

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By PTI

KOLKATA: Violence has been an integral part of West Bengal politics since the late 1950s, interspersed by periods of calm.

Feeding the culture of violence was the economic slowdown over the past decades, with some people having to migrate and the rest making do with modest jobs, even as incumbents on this land, who usually enjoyed a long run, interweaved their interests in the state’s social fabric.

With the Calcutta High Court ordering a CBI probe into the “heinous crimes” that marked the aftermath of assembly elections in West Bengal, the reminder that the state, which boasts of its politically conscious population, has violence entrenched in its legacy grew starker.

A five-judge bench of the court, in its order, has observed that “women were raped and houses of certain persons who had not supported the party in power were demolished”.

According to sociologists, historians and analysts, just like politics, over the years, have evolved from being ideologically driven to identity-oriented, reasons for violence, often employed by various parties to make their presence felt, have mutated, with clashes now centered around turf control and not the establishment of principles or ideals.

Experts also believe that unemployment, poverty, overt dependence on political parties and the government of the day to earn a living, bitterness among political activists at the grassroots level and the domination of a single party for years could be grounds for violence.

“Due to the rise in unemployment over the last three-four decades, people in rural and semi-urban areas have mostly become dependent on the government to make a living, and ruling parties have used this dependency to their advantage. Also, the prevalence of illegal arms is another key reason,” social activist and professor of economics Saswati Ghosh said.

Echoing her, other sociologists stated that multiple triggers which have accumulated since the pre-independence era have led to the violent nature of Bengal politics.

“Bengal was a hub of revolutionary activities during the pre-Independence period. Then violence during Partition, followed by the Tebhaga movement, and the Naxalite movement in the sixties acted as triggers. Now, however, violence happens mostly due to economic reasons,” emeritus professor of sociology, Presidency College, Prasanta Roy, maintained.

Noted Historian Sugata Bose believes that the dominance of a single party for too long has been one of the root causes of the problem.

“Initially it was clashes between the communists and the Congress, then came the Naxalite period during which various factions of communists sparred. When the Left was in power, they used intimidation to rule over common people. Long history of single-party domination, especially 34 years of Left rule, is one of the key reasons behind the state’s legacy of violence,” Bose, Gardiner professor of oceanic history at Harvard University, told PTI.

A quick look at Bengal’s political history will reflect how blood-soaked political movements have been the order of the day.

Post-Independence, the state had its first brush with violent politics in the form of the Tebhaga Movement between 1946 and 1948, with landowners supported by the Congress engaging in a conflict with the then undivided Communist Party of India-backed peasantry, who demanded a two-thirds share of harvest for the sharecroppers.

The food movement of 1959 and the students’ movement of the early sixties were equally bloody, leading to deaths of several people both in inter-party clashes and police crackdown.

Frequent dismissal of the anti-Congress United Front government in 1967 and 1969 also sparked clashes and skirmishes in parts of the state.

The fierce Naxalite movement of 1967, led by Charu Majumdar, had left Bengal in a state of disarray.

Rampant killing of class enemies such as landlords, law enforcers, and political opponents had prompted the police to unleash a brutal crackdown.

Another blot on the state’s political landscape was the Sainbari killings in 1970, which eclipsed every act of brutality as brothers owing allegiance to the Congress were hacked to death by the alleged supporters of Left, and their mother was reportedly forced to eat rice smeared with the blood of her sons.

Post Operation Barga in the early 80s — under which plots were distributed among landless farmers and a new class of landowners was created in rural Bengal — sporadic scuffles were recorded in parts of Bengal.

Mass upheavals that had led to bloodshed and earned the state the dubious distinction of being “politically violent”, however, gave way to turf war in the later years, with parties using threats and intimidation to strengthen their foothold in the state.

After the creation of the TMC in 1998, key stakeholders of opposition politics changed, but violence continued unabated.

At least 14 people were in police firing during the Nandigram anti-land acquisition movement in 2007, and several others lost lives in political violence between the TMC and the CPI (M).

Between 2008 to 2011, Maoist insurgency, targeting Left cadres in the Junglemahal area, led to the death of more than 100 CPI(M) workers.

The episode revived memories of the turbulent 60s and 70s.

With the TMC storming to power in 2011, a more structured form of violence was witnessed in 2013 and 2018 panchayat polls, with the party bagging rural bodies without having to take part in a contest.

Shortly after, the BJP replaced the CPI(M) as the main opposition, and political skirmishes largely got limited to two parties.

The saffron party, which bagged a major chunk of assembly seats but failed to seize power in the April-May elections, has alleged that more than 100 party workers have been killed in Bengal earlier this year.

According to the NCRB data, Bengal topped the chart in political murders in 2019.

Former ADG and whistleblower IPS officer Nazrul Islam feels that the “politicisation of police force” is the key reason for the “prevailing lawlessness”.

“This politicisation began during the Left rule, and the circle got completed in the TMC rule. If the police administration is allowed to work freely, violence can be checked within a month,” he asserted.

All major parties have agreed that violence has to take a back seat for the state to make rapid strides towards development and industrialisation, but did not dither from shifting blame on its political opponents.

“Yes, this culture of political violence has to stop. The communists have imported this culture since the sixties, and it was institutionalised during the three decades of Left rule. But after we came to power in 2011, we did not pursue vendetta politics. The BJP now is trying to incite political and communal violence in the state. All stakeholders must shun this culture,” senior TMC leader and a veteran in Bengal politics, Saugata Roy, said.

The Left leadership, on its part, held the TMC responsible for “criminalising politics”.

“These allegations that Bengal always had a violent history are being made to justify the sins of the TMC. The ruling party has criminalised politics in Bengal,” CPI(M) politburo member Mohammed Salim claimed.

BJP state president Dilip Ghosh said the onus of ending the culture of violence lies with the ruling party.

“The Left may have brought in this culture, but the TMC, like a student, mastered this art of killing and intimidation. Thousands of our party workers have been rendered homeless, and several have been killed in post-poll clashes,” he alleged.

Political analyst Suman Bhattacharya feels this cycle of violence might end as and when “we stop making politics an integral part of our daily life”.

“In Bengal, it’s a do-or-die battle for the parties and that has only led to a chain of violenct incidents. Both the government of the day and the opposition have an equal role to play to end this cycle,” Bhattacharya added.



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