It is an election season and West Bengal is in the news for all the wrong reasons. There is violence. And more violence. Phase after phase, rally after rally, week after week. The state sends 42 MPs to the Lok Sabha and this time, election to these is being held in seven phases.
Every phase has had its own share of headlines for violence that was unleashed on and around the polling day. Murders, clashes, stonepelting, lathicharge, firing, arson, you name it and some corner of West Bengal witnessed it in this election season.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Trinamool Congress and the Left parties have been accusing each other of attacking and murdering their workers and supporters. This cycle of accusations and counter-accusations did not come up all of a sudden. But in the immediate context, it started in the run-up to the panchayat elections that were held in West Bengal last year. Media reports suggest that nearly 50 people died during these elections.
When the Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal was accused of having failed to curb election-time violence last year, TMC’s Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien in a tweet said: “To all ‘newborn’ experts on Bengal #PanchayatElections in State have a history. 400 killed in poll violence in 1990s in CPI(M) rule. 2003: 40 dead. Every death is a tragedy. Now closer to normal than earlier times. Yes, few dozen incidents. Say, 40 out of 58,000 booths. What’s %age? (sic).”
On Tuesday, BJP president Amit Shah’s rally in Kolkata was marred by violence as clashes brokeout between TMC and BJP workers. What worsened the situation (by hurting cultural sentiments) was that a bust of Bengal icon Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was vandalised in the mayhem.
But this election season has seen graver violence.
On February 10, sitting TMC MLA from Krishnaganj, Satyajit Biswas, was shot dead from point-blank range in West Bengal’s Nadia district. The TMC held BJP responsible for this murder, while the BJP rubbished it saying Biswas was probably killed due to infighting in TMC.
On March 28, a BJP leader’s brother was allegedly murdered in Malda district. The BJP accused the TMC for this.
The past one year was witness to such political violence where workers/supporters of TMC, BJP, Congress and the Left were attacked or killed in the state. The victims in these cases were mostly ground-level workers who were students, teachers, labourers, farmers, agricultural workers and small shopkeepers.
But is election-time violence new to the political fabric of West Bengal?
WHAT DATA & HISTORY SHOW
Election Commission of India’s reports on past Lok Sabha elections and annual reports of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that West Bengal and poll-related violence go hand in hand.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, a total of 16 political workers were killed across India in poll-related violence. West Bengal had the highest share of these deaths as 44 per cent (i.e. seven deaths) of them were reported in the state.
When it comes to injuries, the Election Commission report shows that 2,008 political workers and 1,354 onlookers were injured in the violence during the 2014 general elections. Of the 2,008 political workers who were injured, 1,298 (i.e. 64 per cent) were in West Bengal.
The victims in these cases are mostly ordinary people: students, teachers, labourers, farmers, agricultural workers and small shopkeepers.
Besides this, all the 1,354 onlookers who were injured in poll-related violence were from West Bengal.
Reports of the National Crime Records Bureau reveal that in the 18 years between 1999 and 2016, on an average West Bengal witnessed 20 political murders every year.
The highest was in 2009 when 50 murders were motivated by political reasons. This was followed by 2000, 2010 and 2011, each of which saw 38 political murders.
In August 2009, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-CPI(M)-released a pamphlet in which it accused the Trinamool Congress of having murdered 62 of its supporters between March 2 and July 21 that year.
Such allegations have routinely been levelled by all major political parties in West Bengal against each other.
The history of political violence in Bengal stretches to an era far beyond the past one decade. With the emergence of Mamata Banerjee and more recently of the BJP, it may today appear that the violence in West Bengal is between workers/supporters of TMC and BJP, with occasional instances involving Left parties.
But back in the 1980s and 90s, when neither the TMC nor the BJP was anywhere in Bengal’s political spectrum, it was the Left and the Congress who were often at loggerheads.
In 1989, the then Communist chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu presented some figures in the state assembly. His figures, as reported in a May 1989 report of India Today magazine, revealed that at least 86 political workers were killed in inter-and-intra-party clashes in West Bengal in 1988-89.
“Of them, said Basu, 34 belonged to the CPI(M), 19 to the Congress(I), two to the Forward Bloc, seven to the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the rest to other political parties and organisations,” the 1989 report said.
Back then, Congress leaders from West Bengal had submitted a memorandum to the President to impose President’s Rule in the state owing to rampant political murders of its workers, allegedly at the behest of the CPI(M). Congress’s memorandum claimed that 26 political murders were carried out in West Bengal within the first 50 days of 1989.
The then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had reportedly declared that “life has become unsafe in Bengal”.
Data also shows that poll-related violence in West Bengal is not exclusively a product of Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress’s eight-year rule in the state. The state has weathered bouts of similar violence in the past too.
For instance, the 2009 Lok Sabha election was held at a time when West Bengal was ruled by a Communist government. In this election, a total of 5,315 poll-time offences were registered in the country. Of these, 18 per cent (i.e. 963) were registered in West Bengal.