By Niranjan Sahoo and Ambar Kumar Ghosh
The recent gruesome killings in Birbhum district of West Bengal is just another footnote to the eastern state’s long and ignominious history of political violence. Each violent incident is followed by usual uproars, intense press coverage and the rituals of institutional enquiries and reprimands until the next big killings dwarfs the present one. Of course, Bengal is not alone in this. There are other Indian states that routinely experience high volume political violence. Heartland states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are well known for bahubali and mafia syndicates that have sway over many districts, and which are used by politicians to eliminate rivals from other parties or even competitors from their own ranks. Caste and communal violence has also been prevalent in many states, especially in Rajasthan, Assam, Maharashtra among others. Even relatively better governed states like Gujarat and Kerala have witnessed major incidents of violence. Yet, none of them come close to what the Bengal has been witnessing for many decades.
According to most recent National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) report (2021), West Bengal accounted for highest number of political murders in the country. While Kerala has witnessed more than 200 political murders in the last three decades emanating largely out of the rivalry between the Left parties and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), it is nowhere closer to Bengal. As per NCRB data, Bengal has been recording on an average 20 political killings every year since 1999. Again, as per NCRB data as many as 47 political killings involving TMC and BJP workers have occurred since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. However, violence is not restricted to party workers alone. It has even touched the top leaders of both parties during the high-pitched 2021 assembly elections in the state. What is interesting is the fact that political violence in the state is not restricted to pre-election or post-election time violence. It is ‘everyday violence’ which make Bengal case very distinct and worrisome. But the real question is how the culture of political violence is persistent over such a long period of time in a politically stable society.
Maintaining party hegemony
Bengal’s unique culture of political violence has a long history stretching back to pre-independence period. Widespread violence during the Bengal partition in 1905 followed by revolutionary movements under the banners of Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar are well known. However, in the post-independence period the expediency of electoral politics brought political violence into the centre-stage. The history bears testimony to the fact that in the early decades, violence broke out between the ground-level cadres of then ruling Congress and the emergent political force the CPI(M). The Congress was accused of conducting the 1972 assembly elections by unleashing violent repression against the opposition and brutally crushing the violent Naxalite movement in the state led by the radical factions of the Left. After the CPI (M) led Left Front government captured power in 1977, it continued with the culture of political violence with greater ferocity than its predecessor. While the Left Front government unveiled a series of big ticket rural reforms including land redistribution (Operation Barga) to cement its his grip over the rural population, it simultaneously used every other instrument including the police and other state institutions to stifle the voice of opposition and maintain an iron grip on power. Workers and supporters of opposition parties were routinely harassed, had their houses burnt down, or else were killed, allegedly by the ruling party cadres. To maintain its complete supremacy, it did not spare junior coalition partners like the RSP.
After TMC dislodged the Left in 2011, much against what the party had promised (stop politics of retribution), it has followed Left’s playbook of violence with even greater ferocity. There is little or no check on such violent activities given the all-powerful party has been able to subsume all other institutions of rural life. Such all-pervasive domination of the party over all other spheres of rural life prompted scholar Dwaipayan Bhattacharya to call it the ‘party-society’, a culture which has continued with far greater intensity since the TMC won the elections in 2011.
Panchayats as key battleground
In rural Bengal, the panchayats have emerged as the epicentres of political violence. Knowing its political potentials, the Left Front government heavily invested in strengthening the Panchayati Raj institutions both in terms of providing greater political clout and financial resources. It soon became crucial instrument of patronage-based resource distribution for the local CPI(M) leaders amongst the rural poor. With more power and resources flowing to panchayats in the 1990s after the enactment of 73rd Constitutional Amendment, they have emerged as key battlegrounds for political parties. Panchayats provided critical opening for the parties to strengthen their hold over nearly every aspect of rural society. This apart, dominance at the panchayat level enables parties to take their political influence to the grassroots.
Therefore, preserving party’s unfettered dominance over the panchayats led CPI(M) cadres to unleash violence over the opposition party workers and also engineer what analyst called “scientific rigging” by deploying threats of intimidation and violence to instil fear amongst rival party supporters during mainly panchayat-level elections. Also, for a long time whenever a party in Bengal wins elections, it unleashes retributive violence of ‘revenge’ on the workers of the vanquished or weaker party. As TMC grew as the main opposition party in the state in early 2000s, clashes between ruling CPI(M) and TMC workers increased and some major political killing against TMC supporters happened at that time. After TMC wrested power from the Left, its workers unleashed violence on CPM workers as part of retribution. As the BJP made deep political inroads in the state challenging incumbent TMC’s political domination, clashes are now visible between ruling TMC and opposition BJP workers. The highpoint was intense levels of political violence during the panchayat elections in 2018.
Competing for scarce resources
Another major driver that fuels political violence is the zero-sum fight over the scarce economic resources. Since the CPI(M) rule, local party leaders led syndicates generally control the economic activities like coal, sand and stone mining that created a lucrative rent-seeking culture of corruption for local party leaders who in turn distributes some spoils to the local party workers and supporters languishing in unemployment and poverty. Though such local nexus between politics, economic activities and criminal offences exists in many states, this culture has flourished under successive regimes in Bengal. As access to such resources especially in poverty-stricken rural Bengal has been vital for the political and economic domination of the local party leaders, violent conflict over controlling these resources becomes a bone of contention not only between rival parties but also within factions of the same party. During the CPI(M) rule, its workers used to have bitter clashes with its ally RSP was common. The recent killings in Bogtui village is being apprehended as an outcome of such intra-party factionalism within ruling TMC over economic and political domination in the area.
Politics of fear
In politically polarised Bengal, cadres of each party perceive their counterparts in rival parties as the ‘other’. There is palpable fear in each party’s ranks that if the rival party captures the power, it will unleash violence and likely to capture the rent-seeking benefits they enjoyed. Moreover, unemployed young men are mostly deployed as foot soldiers by the political parties, to attack and intimidate rival party workers. For their own security and material advancement, rural party workers need to put down rival party workers, at times violently.
Finally, seeking retribution or ‘revenge’ has become a dominant sub-culture of ‘politics of fear and anger’ in the state. For instance, targeted killings especially after elections are meant to teach the vanquished party’s workers ‘a lesson’. Sometimes, even family rivalry and associated violence are expressed in terms of political affiliation and polarisation. The ubiquitous presence of the party, especially at rural Bengal, makes the issue of political dominance extremely important not only for the political parties for also for ordinary party supporters, whose physical security and livelihood opportunities are intimately linked to the dominance of the party they support.
To conclude, the structural imperatives of political and economic control over Bengal’s vast rural area where the strong roots of the levers of state power originates, continues to reinforce the state’s culture of political violence for decades. Unless these structural factors are altered with rule of law and vision of good governance, it is highly unlikely to see the end of such wanton culture political violence irrespective of who is in power.
This article originally appeared in India Today.