The news of the Calcutta High Court handing over cases of “post-poll violence” in West Bengal to the Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, and the setting up of a special investigation team has gained much traction nationally. But where is the “post-poll” in “post-poll violence” in Bengal?
The judgement is said to have ruffled the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) government and may even have led to the resignation of the state’s Advocate General, Kishore Dutta, for failing to “save the day.”
As scholars interested in the politics of West Bengal and political violence, more generally, what was particularly striking to us, going through the minutiae of the high court judgment, is an exchange between the counsel representing the petitioners – and the bench, which ultimately sided with the petitioners – and the counsel on behalf of the state government – which also included Kapil Sibal, representing the Director General of West Bengal Police, and Abhishek Manu Singhvi, representing all Superintendents of the West Bengal Police, among others – on the definition of “post-poll violence.”
The exchange revolved around the use of the term “post-poll.” The government counsel argued that for “post-poll” to have any legal veracity, “it has to have some meaning and also some duration” (p. 24). However, the petitioners had put on record certain complaints that were related to offenses committed in the pre-election period or even a month or so after the election. Technically speaking, the counsel observed, only the period between 2 May – when election results were declared – and 5 May – when the newly elected government took over the reins of administration from the Election Commission – could be considered as “post-poll.” Consequently, any offenses committed during this period could not be blamed on the laxity of the state government in prosecuting crimes. Furthermore, cases of violence had dropped sharply after 5 May.
The bench dismissed these arguments. First, it observed that there were several instances of FIRs filed after 5 May (p. 56). Second, on the specific issue of fixing the period of the crime reported during which it can be considered as “post poll,” it argued that it did not “wish to enter into that area,” leaving it to the “investigating agency to find out from the facts of each case” (pp. 65-66). Elsewhere, using stronger words, the bench noted that the argument that the state should be absolved of responsibility for pre-election violence “deserved to be rejected outrightly” since “[C]ivil or police administration is under the control of the Election Commission during the process of elections only to ensure free and fair elections” and “does not mean that the police stop discharging its normal duties to control law and order” (pp. 66-67).
Defining the period of violence is difficult
Without getting into the merits of the arguments of the bench and the government counsel, it suffices to say that the question of defining the “post-poll” period is not a trivial one in the context of identifying and prosecuting election violence in West Bengal. To put it simply, it is difficult to establish, with any degree of accuracy, when bullets or ballots have supremacy in a state where politics is consistently in an agitational mode. As is well-documented, the roots of political violence in West Bengal run deep, with at least one strand going as far back as the 1920s when terror societies formed in the erstwhile province of Bengal as a violent alternative to the Gandhian anti-colonial movement. From those early beginnings, a clear path can be discerned connecting the violent Tebhaga movement after Independence, the ideologically motivated violence of the Left, and more recently, the cynical violence for elaka dokhol (literally, territory control) that has been in vogue since the last stages of Left rule and the rise of the TMC.
We note that the arrival of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has further complicated the labyrinthine nexus of politics and violence in West Bengal. As the TMC’s governance mechanisms became riddled with ponzi schemes and corruption, relatively fresh forms of violence emerged. For one, for the first time in decades, the TMC-BJP fight brought primordial identity issues back into mainstream politics. A shift from party to identity-based violence can be discerned from the steady occurrence of communally charged incidents since 2015, including low intensity riots in places like Kaliachak in Malda district in 2016, Basirhat and Baduria in North 24 Parganas district in 2017, Rejinagar in Murshidabad district in 2016-2017, Kankinara-Bhatpara in North 24 Parganas district from 2018-2020, Asansol-Raniganj in Paschim Bardhaman district in 2018, and Telinipara-Chandannagar in Hooghly district from 2020-2021.
Aamra Ek Sachatan Prayas Forum, a research organisation, has been closely following these riots and publishing fact-finding reports. Their findings, along with a few other scholarly works on the everydayness of identity consolidation and its continuities with past traditions of political violence, clearly attest to the embeddedness of this form of mobilisation. Our ethnographic research and archival analysis also point to several other domains of everyday violence. Violence related to the ‘invention of tradition,’ social media-led violence, spatial violence, and violence by professional perpetrators, if not unique, have been hitherto unreported.
At the time of writing this article, the West Bengal government has moved the Supreme Court challenging the high court-mandated CBI and SIT investigations. Based on our research, we see no end to this tussle since political violence is too intertwined with quotidian life to admit legal categorisations.
The way forward, in our view, lies through radical organisational reform within the TMC. The 2019 Lok Sabha election held out two lessons for the party. What clearly hurt the TMC in that election was the manner in which its cadres approached the 2018 panchayat elections with the express aim of intimidating opposition voters into submission. At the same time, what kept the party afloat was Mamata Banerjee’s, albeit increasingly leaky, welfare programmes. While the adoption of policies like Duare Sarkar in the run-up to the recent Vidhan Sabha election showed that the party had clearly internalised the second lesson, subsequent events suggest that the party is yet to internalise the first.
Subhasish Ray is an Associate Professor and Associate Dean at the Jindal School of Government & Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University, Haryana; and an editor for the Journal of Genocide Research. He tweets @subhasish_ray75. Views are personal.
Suman Nath is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Govt. College, West Bengal (affiliated to the West Bengal State University). Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)