The Trinamool Congress’ landslide victory in the West Bengal assembly election was quickly followed by images of arson and political violence on social media. While the Bharatiya Janata Party was the first to allege vengeance by Trinamool cadres, the TMC argued the reverse, and blamed the violence on intra-BJP faction-fighting. Eventually, both claimed casualties among their ranks. Even the Indian Secular Front – which had joined hands with the Congress and the Left Front – claimed the death of one of their activists in the post-poll violence.
The exact number of casualties and the extent of damage to property remain unknown. But criticism of the violence has revolved around two major arguments. First, there is a claim being made, across party lines as well as by independent observers, that political violence is a misfit in Bengal’s political culture. In recent years, they point out, political violence has escalated to unprecedented levels as a direct outcome of lumpenisation of public life under TMC rule. Second, the BJP, its supporters, and other Sangh Parivar affiliates claim that post-poll violence signifies a complete breakdown of law and order that is beyond the tackling capacity (and political will) of the Mamata Banerjee government. The situation, therefore, requires a declaration of President’s rule in the state and deployment of central forces to control ‘communal violence’. While the second claim is clearly a politically motivated exaggeration, the first is a complex argument that we need to break down.
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Political violence at birth
The first claim is complex in that it takes the form of two kinds of assertions. Sometimes it is claimed that politics in Bengal – led by its ‘cultured’ caste-elite (the bhadralok) for the most part of its history – had an intrinsic air of sophistication about it that made political violence an anathema. On other occasions, it is argued that the TMC rule has seen political violence at a scale unthinkable under the previous government– the 34-year-long Left Front era. The contrast, in this case, is not with the whole tradition of Bengal’s political culture, but with the specific character of the dispensation that the TMC displaced in 2011. But history can easily dispel these two arguments.
Anyone familiar with the history of the region will know that the first assertion is unsustainable. Bhadralok politics, since its formative years, had embraced violence as a perfectly legitimate mode of political expression. The swadeshi movement of 1905 – seen by many as one of the inaugural moments of nationalist agitational politics in India – had no moral objection to violent methods. In fact, the mass phase of the movement quickly gave way to a politics of revolutionary terrorism. Bengal had the most extensive network of secret societies that extolled the virtues of fearless political action, involving both sacrificing one’s own and taking others’ lives. Mahatma Gandhi’s creed of non-violence had few takers in Bengal. Its counter-hero, Subhas Chandra Bose, carefully cultivated his support among both Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar activists – two of the oldest, largest and most prestigious revolutionary organisations – and frequently deployed them in intra-party disputes and his fight with the Congress high command.
The importance of revolutionary organisations in the history of politics in the region far outstrips their political success. They supplied both leaders and cadres to almost all parties that acquired prominence in later years, both to the Right and the Left. They added their weight to both the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha, the latter being the predecessor of the Jana Sangh, which, in turn, gave way to the BJP in later years. They added equally to the left of the political spectrum: the Revolutionary Socialist Party (India) – one of the key partners of the Left Front – was largely Anushilan Samiti in a new avatar.
Bengal was also a hotbed of communal politics. Bengali Hindu leaders were prominent in the Hindu Mahasabha since its early days. The Muslim League was founded in undivided Bengal in 1906. By the early decades of the 20th century, communal violence was no longer uncommon; and it became a regular phenomenon by the 1940s. The Congress, the Mahasabha and the Muslim League all contributed to the communal polarisation of the decade. The ‘honour’ of inaugurating Partition violence can legitimately be claimed by Bengal too. The chain of inter-connected riots that eventually engulfed the whole of eastern and northern India, and eventually led to Partition, started with the Great Calcutta Killing. While the Muslim League is (justifiably) blamed for precipitating the violence on Direct Action Day (16 August 1946), it is often forgotten that the casualties were almost evenly distributed among Hindus and Muslims, proving that Hindus were not just hapless victims of Muslim violence.
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Naxalbari to Nandigram
Even after Independence, West Bengal has seldom known political peace. Breakdown of its economy and infrastructure following Partition, and the influx of refugees, elicited little support from the Jawaharlal Nehru administration. A faction-ridden, inefficient Congress state government, with Bidhan Chandra Roy as the chief minister and Atulya Ghosh as the party president (and fixer), survived two decades by stoking ‘son-of-the-soil’ sentiments against refugees; clashes between the police and the refugee population were regular features of life till the United Front government took over power in 1967. The Communists who formed part of the Front rose to political power by championing refugee causes. But the change in government did not lead to political peace. In fact, the most violent phase of politics in West Bengal’s history was yet to come, and it came soon enough in the form of the Naxalbari movement.
Beginning as a peasant uprising in north Bengal in 1967, the Naxalbari movement soon swept the region (and, eventually, large parts of India) under the leadership of a break-away Communist faction. It denounced ‘bourgeois constitutionalism’ and embraced the Chinese path to revolution. It glorified political violence and campaigned for annihilating ‘class enemies’. Projected as the only path towards the birth of a death-defying ‘new Man’, its programme attracted the adventurous youth, disillusioned by the failed promises made to citizens two decades ago in that midnight hour when India supposedly woke up to life and freedom. This, of course, precipitated a cycle of violence; but to stop it, the whole might of the State – armed with special laws and repeated President’s rule – was mercilessly unleashed. Some of the best and the brightest young men and women lost their lives, while many others faced inhuman torture. Luckier ones escaped with only a promising career destroyed. What did so much violence achieve? A generational setback. And yes, law and order; except that a section of the movement dispersed across the country, went underground, and then periodically emerged to plague India’s body politic. And controlling it required unleashing fresh rounds of brute force.
The legacy of Naxalbari is relevant to the TMC’s rise to State power. Mamata Banerjee had allegedly elicited some support from the Maoist leadership who were involved in resisting land-acquisition in Nandigram and Lalgarh, a fact that had bolstered the claim of opponents that the TMC was essentially a party of hardened political criminals.
It is clear, therefore, that the argument that Bengal’s sophisticated political culture did not permit political violence is indefensible. But the second assertion – that TMC rule has unleashed unprecedented political violence – is more important.
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The Left withers
After a decade of political turmoil, the Left Front – led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) – formed a stable government in West Bengal in 1977. It promptly undertook some far-reaching reforms – land ceiling, excess land redistribution, strengthening institutions of local self-government – that put the new government on a sound footing. On the surface at least, it seemed that West Bengal was at last on its way to social peace. But this apparent social peace was achieved by a peculiar form of authoritarian social control. A highly centralised party structure slowly spread out its tentacles throughout the state, starting from its headquarters in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and penetrating deep into the remotest of villages. At the grassroots, it exercised control by capturing village panchayats, which were transformed into pretty much the only interface between the State and rural society, looking after local needs and mediating in conflicts not only in public matters but also in the most intimate spheres of community and familial life. Political scientist Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya called this the emergence of a “party-society”.
Did political violence end with Left Front rule? Of course, it didn’t. Despite the tight social control it engineered, whenever there was a challenge to its dominance, the government unleashed spectacular violence.
Today, the violence at Marichjhapi in 1979 is well known. The same party that came to power by cultivating its refugee constituency, had no qualms about killing unarmed, destitute oppressed caste refugees in cold blood less than two years after it tasted State power. Their only fault was that they had deserted government resettlement efforts in inhospitable terrain and had come to the fertile Sundarban delta to clear forest land and settle down in familiar climes. Then there was the curious case of the Ananda Marga monks and nun hacked to death, their bodies burnt in full public view, in Calcutta on 30 April 1982. Even if for argument’s sake it is conceded that Left supporters were not involved, it remains a fact that not a single arrest was ever made in the case and the Jyoti Basu-appointed commission didn’t have a single hearing. A single-member judicial commission to investigate the incident could only be appointed in 2012, after the Left Front was voted out of power.
But the most significant incident of political violence was the attack by CPI(M) goons on Mamata Banerjee herself, then a young Congress activist, in broad daylight in 1990. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had to personally intervene and ensure that she was shifted to a private hospital; the state government-run hospital to which she was initially admitted could not be trusted with her treatment. The second time Banerjee was targeted was in 1993, when 13 Youth Congress activists were shot dead in the heart of the city by the Calcutta Police. The state government regretted the firing but did not investigate the matter.
It is possible to argue that these were isolated incidents. However, the very form of institutional control that the Left Front championed, coupled with its desperation to eliminate all opposition, eventually endangered not only its own survival but also the limited social peace it had been able to foster.
Agrarian productivity declined over time, and small peasant cultivation became unsustainable. The Left Front government did nothing, which slowly eroded the support of the rural masses it had so carefully cultivated through its earlier land redistribution programme.
Total capture of every institution also alienated support from intellectuals – another important constituency for the Left. By the early 2000s, one had to be a supporter of the government to survive in the state government-run institutions. Any trace of intellectual independence that deviated from the “party line” was met with unmitigated hostility. Doors to professional opportunities could be closed off if one was not found malleable enough to toe its line. This not only fuelled discontent, but made the party a natural home of gross mediocrity. Any intellectual with a spine wanted to distance themselves from the party and its government. Those without one flocked to take shelter under its wings. Again, an interesting survey in 2004 – when the Left Front was at the height of its national influence – found that in West Bengal, the government has undergone a peculiar mainstreaming. A significant number of surveyed Left Front voters, for example, felt that a Ram temple had to be built in Ayodhya; many held fairly conservative notions about women’s education and employment. In all these years, it turned out, the Left Front had done precious little to encourage a progressive social outlook. This meant that a significant section of Left voters had no ideological investment in the Left rule. They treated the government like any other, and voted for them because it got their job done. It followed, therefore, that if some other party could deliver the goods, such voters could very well move their loyalty to it.
All this did not augur well for Left Front’s continued electoral survival. As discontent with its rule intensified, the parties acquired an even more adamant disposition. Gone were the days when bright young people, ideologically committed to a Left-wing worldview, joined the party to work for it. Various mass fronts as well as party offices emerged as shelters for lumpen elements instead. Association with the party gave them power, influence and access to government resources. By now only lightly controlled by a poor quality, mediocre leadership, they were given a free hand to do what they wanted to enforce the party and government programmes. Political violence and petty corruption became rampant. This came to the fore in a spectacular way when the Left Front launched its land acquisition drive in Singur and Nandigram in a bid to bring industries to the state. It was widely believed, for valid reasons, that the police were hand-in-glove with political goons of the parties in power – the dreaded ‘Harmad Bahini’ – in evicting unwilling peasants from their land.
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A power inherited by the TMC
Meanwhile, a robust opposition had emerged under Mamata Banerjee’s leadership, with substantial support in the countryside as well as among an influential section of urban intellectuals. And when the TMC came to power in 2011, a large section of the lumpen cadre-base of the Left parties seamlessly switched over to the TMC. And it turned out to be a profitable move. On the one hand, the new government was keen on expanding resource distribution. Elaborate welfare schemes were drawn up. Money was flowing from the state coffers to a variety of local community initiatives such as local youth clubs. On the other hand, the strong centralisation of all power in the chief minister ensured that control over its cadres on the ground was not half as strong as it was even in the bad days of the Left Front.
The hierarchically arranged multiple tiers of leadership, the hallmark of Left-wing party organisations, was no longer there under TMC rule. No wonder, therefore, that the effects of lumpenisation among TMC cadres would be felt more acutely. In fact, the only way in which the TMC could hope to retain loyalty of its cadres was to ensure that channels were kept open for part of the resources to be cornered by them – a phenomenon popularised as ‘cut money’.
Loyalty to the ruling party also meant freedom to flex muscles and settle local scores with impunity. No doubt, the structural configurations of power under TMC rule encouraged escalation of political violence by its cadre base. Therefore, the claim that TMC rule saw an unprecedented escalation of political violence has substance to it. But, it must be remembered that the TMC did not create the cadre base whose depredations have made violence an everyday feature of political life in West Bengal today. It mostly inherited it from the Left Front. It only loosened control over it further and fortified it with more autonomy and impunity.
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A communal twist by BJP
This leaves us with the question of characterising the post-poll violence. The claim that it was communal in nature is spurious and calculated for mischief. There is no evidence to show that the violence that unfolded was perpetrated by Muslims on Hindus and for the sake of religion, as claimed by the BJP leaders and their supporters, and amplified by their IT cells.
Muslims in today’s India is a beleaguered community – threatened, marginalised and living in fear of being disenfranchised. Given the tenor of the BJP’s election propaganda, there was massive consolidation of Muslim votes behind the TMC. No one, not even the BJP leadership in the state, can seriously believe that the violence was anything other than political vendetta. Yet, the BJP is relentless in its propaganda to the contrary. What does the BJP want to achieve by this? To polarise Hindu-Muslim relations in other parts of the country? Is it meant to distract public attention from the disaster that its Covid pandemic management has turned out to be? Even the foot-soldiers of Hindu Rashtra are gasping for oxygen. BJP governments – both at the Centre and the states – will do well not to try such distracting tactics for their own good.
So far as the collapse of law and order is concerned, the attempt to destabilise the government with such a huge popular mandate by pushing for President’s rule has already shown some evidence of backfiring. Mamata Banerjee is a resourceful propagandist. She was prompt to point out that for the last two months, all responsibility for maintaining law and order squarely lay with the Election Commission (EC). In fact, immediately after assuming office, she made multiple transfers of key personnel, bringing back her trusted officers who were removed from their positions by the EC. It has been a move of some political sagacity, implying through action that the violence was the result of the EC’s actions.
The violence unleashed by central forces on villagers during the election at Sitalkuchi is an eye-opener. The basic instinct for any civilised government or political party is to at least regret police violence when it leads to loss of life. The leaders of the BJP, the party that rules the Centre, were in no mood for such decency. They asserted that the central forces should have killed more, and that they would do so again if the “bad boys” of TMC tried to interfere with elections. Whether the allegation was true is one matter; to extol police brutality is quite another, and justifiably inspires no confidence in the BJP-controlled central government to maintain order. To make matters worse, the elected BJP MLAs seem to have already outdone their colleagues from every other party in the state by having among them the highest proportion candidates implicated in serious crimes – charges ranging from murder, attempt to murder and rape.
It is difficult to believe that BJP rule in the state, directed from the Centre in case President’s rule is declared, would usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity. The only hope of the people of West Bengal is that Mamata Banerjee would now make a serious attempt to curb violence and put her house in order. She must, if she is to survive. BJP governments, especially at the Centre, should meanwhile focus on the job they have been elected to perform – make some sincere effort to control the national catastrophe that is unfolding before our eyes, and getting from bad to worse every passing day – instead of precipitating new political crises. This is the only way they can escape the scorn of history.
Ishan Mukherjee teaches history and politics at O.P. Jindal Global University. He tweets @ishan_muk. Views are personal
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)