Kolkata: On 4 October, Manish Shukla, a senior leader of the BJP at Titagarh in North 24 Parganas and a local councillor, was shot dead while at a tea stall. Unnamed police officers have been quoted by the media as suggesting a possible personal angle to the murder. Three persons have been arrested in the case, with police allegedly having found a link with a years-old murder in which Shukla’s name had emerged. But the BJP insists it was politically motivated.
On 13 October, Rabindranath Mondal, a BJP worker, was allegedly attacked during a clash between members of his party and the Trinamool Congress at Hingalganj in North 24 Parganas. Six days later, he succumbed to his injuries at a Kolkata hospital.
Less than two weeks later, on 24 October, Kinkar Majhi, a member of the BJP’s booth committee at Bagnan in Howrah district was allegedly shot by a local Trinamool Congress worker who was also his neighbour. Four days later, he died in a Kolkata hospital. Again, police have been looking into a personal angle, but the BJP has claimed the motive is purely political.
On 26 October, Milan Haldar, a BJP worker, was allegedly clubbed to death at Jagatdal in North 24 Parganas. On the same day, Bachchu Bera, vice-president of the BJP’s Sialsai booth committee in West Midnapore district, was found hanging from a tree in a forest. He had been missing for two days. His family has dismissed speculation about his death being a suicide, saying a group of Trinamool Congress members had arrived at their home looking for him before he was found dead. The BJP has alleged Bera was a victim of political violence too.
When West Bengal holds its assembly elections in a few months from now, the issue of political violence — long considered a bitter truth of politics in the state — is expected to take centre stage. PM Narendra Modi made it clear when, addressing BJP workers in Bengal on 11 November, he said, “Maut Ke Khel Se Mat Nahi Mil Sakta (you don’t get votes from bloodshed).”
He didn’t name the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress or Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, but the implication was hard to miss. For months now, the BJP has accused the Trinamool Congress of waging a bloody campaign against the party as it aims to assume power in West Bengal — a state where the BJP has never been in office but has been making massive strides in recent years.
In July, the party released a booklet with 107 names of members that it claims have died in political violence in the state over the past five years.
The Trinamool Congress has denied all allegations, accusing the BJP of having a habit of making false claims. Over 1,000 of its own workers, it claims, have been victims of political violence since 1998.
As the battle for power in Bengal heats up, analysts in the state are worried. The 2021 West Bengal campaign, they fear, will not pass in peace.
Political violence in Bengal
Politics in West Bengal has for years been marred with allegations of violence, although the players have changed. It started with the Left and the Congress, then the Left and the Trinamool Congress, and now it’s the BJP versus the Trinamool Congress.
In some episodes of bloodshed, closure remains elusive decades later, including the 1970 Sainbari murders, when a mob of CPI (M) members allegedly attacked and killed two members of a family for supporting the Congress.
During different parties’ time in power, there have been allegations of violence waged through state machinery, like in the 1993 incident where police opened fire on a Youth Congress protest march to the state secretariat, killing 13 people.
The 2018 panchayat polls in state made the headlines for clashes that killed 29 people of different political stripes. The 2003 panchayat election had reportedly resulted in 76 deaths, with 39 deaths during the 2013 polls. Violence also erupted in the state during last year’s Lok Sabha elections.
A 2018 report in The Indian Express quoted a 2010 story from the Leftist weekly Mainstream as saying that 55,000 political murders were recorded in the state between 1977 and 2009.
According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data released in 2019, the state tops the country in political murder. Of the 18 recorded around the country in 2018, 12 were from Bengal.
Police records accessed by ThePrint show that West Bengal witnessed at least 43 political killings between January and October this year, a period that encompasses the entirety of the Covid lockdown. Of these 43, the BJP says, at least 20 were workers of their party.
Most of these cases were reported from North 24 Parganas, Hooghly, Birbhum, and Murshidabad districts in south Bengal, and Coochbehar in north Bengal.
A senior police officer said these districts are home to “heavy turf war”. “The reasons as analysed are mostly about area domination, political rivalry and local issues. But the numbers mentioned by the BJP are inflated,” the officer added.
BJP says Bengal a ‘killing field’, CPI(M) agrees
Speaking to ThePrint, BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijaywargiya described Bengal as a “killing field”.
“We have worked in so many opposition-ruled states. We have seen criminalisation of politics. But Bengal appears to be a killing field,” he said. “The state administration and police work like cadres, they do not take murder FIRs.”
“Earlier, we used to consider Kerala the worst in terms of political violence and brutality. Bengal has surpassed Kerala. But, as the PM said, we would stick to our stand and bring change here,” he added.
Although ideological rivals, members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) agreed with the BJP on the matter. “Bengal has become the most violent state in recent times. The Trinamool always takes a false alibi, saying thousands were killed during the Left rule,” said senior CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborti. “We always asked them to give a list of the victims and they always failed. We have a list of 250 comrades who were killed in the past nine years.”
Weighing in on the BJP’s allegations, he added, “Many disgruntled Trinamool workers joined the BJP, so the factional feud has now become Trinamool vs BJP.”
ThePrint sent detailed questionnaires through mails and texts to the director general of police, chief secretary and home secretary seeking the state government’s response on the allegations, but no response had been received till the time of publishing.
The Trinamool Congress, however, is dismissive of the accusations, saying the numbers being touted by the BJP are “fake” and its claims of political murders “false and motivated”.
“The BJP has a history of making false accusations without any proof. AITC (All India Trinamool Congress) shares condolences with the families of the dead,” said Trinamool Congress in a mailed reply to queries sent by ThePrint to the party’s ID.
“We have always firmly stood against political violence and strict action has always been taken. Moreover, any kind of attack — irrespective of the fact which political party the victim belongs to — is thoroughly investigated in West Bengal. The numbers claimed by the BJP are exaggerated and have no substantial proof. Most of these are the result of intra-party rivalry as there are multiple factions in the BJP,” the party added.
The AITC, the party said, has “documented the deaths of its workers who have been martyred across the state in political violence since 1998. “The figure stands at 1,067,” it added.
Trinamool MP Sougata Roy accused the BJP of projecting suicides as murders. “There are at least eight to 10 cases in which they have tried to make suicides look like murders. In these cases, police found suicide notes,” he said.
Talking about the current phase of violence, political analyst Professor Partha Pratim Biswas said the “ruling party wants to see an opposition-free state”.
“This explains the recent violence. Moreover, many Trinamool members have joined the BJP, so both the parties have rogue elements of a similar nature,” he added.
Fellow political analyst Prof Samir Das said the “party that controls the machinery of violence will win”.
“This is the common perception here. We had grown up hearing that Bengal was not Bihar,” he added. “Bihar witnessed a peaceful election, no shot was fired. We cannot expect that in Bengal.”