In Bengal Politics, Violence Begets Violence. But Does it Always Deliver the Goods?

The death of a BJP MLA in Uttar Dinajpur has brought into focus the inevitability of violence when elections near.

Violence begets violence. The opposite is not axiomatic. 

On July 13, 2020, West Bengal state legislative assembly member from Hemtabad in Uttar Dinajpur in West Bengal, Debendra Nath Roy died. Was it suicide or homicide is a matter of investigation and will be, hopefully, a factual conclusion. The Bharatiya Janata Party has accused the Trinamool Congress for the killing, even though the police found a suicide note.

In linking the Trinamool Congress to Roy’s suicide-homicide, the BJP has conveniently bypassed the MLA’s metamorphosis. He was elected in 2016 on a Communist Party of India (Marxist) ticket and later jumped the ideological divide to join the religious right. The BJP’s accusation, confirmed by Roy’s wife, is deliberate; it is using the unfortunate death to reinforce public perception that the Trinamool Congress is ruthless and violent.

Also read: North Bengal Shuts Down Partially as BJP Raises Pitch Against Mamata Govt Over MLA’s Death

This is not the first high profile political death in the state. It is the second death of a legislator. Krishnaganj MLA Satyajit Biswas was killed at a Saraswati Puja celebration in February 2019. He was pumped full of bullets by four people. The police case included the name of BJP leader Mukul Roy, who once upon a time was Mamata Banerjee’s closest side. 

Before and between the two deaths, there have been many political killings in West Bengal. Some have been murders others have been a fall out of vicious clashes between rival political parties. Every political party has a list of its local, mostly rural leaders and activists, has its list of victims. 

The cumulative killings certainly erode the Trinamool Congress’s depleted capital as a party with strong democratic credentials. West Bengal politics has not been peaceful for decades. Every transition of power is marked by higher and higher levels of violence, including the unprecedentedly violent panchayat elections of 2018, when the Trinamool Congress resisted its ouster in rural Bengal by stealing ballot boxes, stamping ballot papers and winning over 34 per cent seats without competition, which is the same as area capture.

Also read: Two More Held in TMC MLA Satyajit Biswas Murder Case

Not all these deaths put together adds up to a climax. Neither the death of Satyajit Biswas nor the suicide-homicide of Debendra Nath Roy is a turning point. Neither will snatch away the Trinamool Congress’s chances of winning in 2021 nor will the deaths deliver certain victory to the BJP, which has set its heart on winning West Bengal.

Hemanta Basu. Photo: www.forwardbloc.org

None of the deaths add up to the impact of the murder of Hemanta Basu, a respected Forward Bloc leader, in 1971. He was a candidate in the elections. On his death, Ajit Kumar Biswas was nominated and also killed. It was the most sensational murder in the 1970s. The Left coalition led by the CPI(M), which has hoped to win and take over power, failed. The CPI(M) was blamed for Basu’s death and the slur and the mystery of who killed him resurfaces every so often. 

The accretion of charges of violence against the Trinamool Congress, however subtract from the party and its leader Mamata Banerjee an already depleted credibility. The party and the chief minister are perceived as tolerant of the use of violence in all its shades as a means of resisting the efforts of the opposition to oust it from power in the state. 

Elections in West Bengal are notoriously violent. History repeats itself every time.

If 1971 was a peak, first with the killing of Hemanta Basu, followed by that of Ajit Biswas, the 1972 elections were so openly rigged that the CPI(M) boycotted the state assembly. The party crashed to 14 seats after wining in 115 seats in 1971. Till 1977, the turbulence in state politics benchmark in Indian politics as violence escalated with the growth of the Naxalite movement and its call for armed revolution, the creation of local gangs funded by the Congress and the CPI(M)’s organised fight back. 

Elections, instead of a war waged by other and peaceful means, became a violent confrontation after 1971 in West Bengal. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was an ideological battle and elections were the means through which the contest was waged. 

Also read: The Unique Identity of Bengal Violence

Till 1978, there were only three sorts of elections – Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and municipal elections. After 1978, panchayat elections were added to the routines through which power shifted away from the incumbent or power was retained by the incumbent. Almost, every election in the state has been more violent than the previous one. 

There is a production cost in changing a regime. For a fast paced change the initial investment is high. Organising public outrage with the near certainty of violence needs resources. Collective reaction to a perceived grievance has a short shelf life; there is emotional steam, it rushes out as agitation and then it dissipates. 

While short lived agitation is a form of violence, it is not the sort of violence that ends with death or hospitalisation for serious injuries. The normalisation of political violence in West Bengal is like a fixed cost, where the amount may vary, but it will have to be paid.  

Between the last elections in the state in 2016 and the next one in 2021, many have died for their politics. Local leaders and party functionaries from every political party have died. So too, have elected functionaries of the local panchayats. These deaths have created local stirs, short lived protests. 

Large-scale violence was seen in the panchayat elections in Bengal. At least 19 people had died in poll-related violence. Photo: PTI

The deaths are part of the normal murderous violence in West Bengal. The death of an MLA, that too from the BJP, which has emerged and staked its claim to oust the Trinamool Congress regime from power, is in a different category altogether. Roy’s death will not be regarded as normal and the BJP, focused on winning the 2021 elections, will certainly work on capitalising it. 

Linking cause to consequence, the BJP has repeated its call for the ouster of Mamata Banerjee as chief minister. In the process, it has dredged up every act of violence that fits its narrative against the chief minister and her failures to deliver welfare, relief and reconstruction funds allocated by the BJP regime in New Delhi as part of its federal responsibility of running the union government.   

Also read: Memories of 1946 Great Calcutta Killings Can Help Us Understand Violence in Today’s Bengal

The ‘routine’ and ‘normal’ eruptions of violence and homicide as part of the political process of confrontation between the ruling regime and the political opposition, is an essential part of the trope of state elections in West Bengal. It is also normal when locals are upset with the government or rather the ruling regime, which is Trinamool Congress activists operating as mediators between the government as distributor or buyer and the people as recipient or seller. 

Every time the chief minister brushes aside incidents of violence, as a result of angry people protesting corruption in the distribution of benefits or welfare, through manipulation of lists of recipients or the amounts distributed, she does two things simultaneously. She normalises violence as “nothing of consequence” and she shields the wrong doers. 

This was the strategy used by the CPI(M) in its last years in power, when it deliberately refused to act against corruption within its ranks, even when there was credible evidence to the contrary. It was afraid of upsetting the internal dynamics of the organisation because the local satraps had been effective in delivering election wins when necessary. Violence and corruption became embedded within the machinery of the ruling regime.

Locals participate in the funeral procession of the two people who were killed in the June 21 violence at Bengal’s Bhatpara where clashes broke out between two groups. Photo: PTI

When it came to power in 2011, the Trinamool Congress promised poriborton or change. Having inducted large numbers of local political workers from the CPI(M), the new regime quickly settled into the old patterns of control and commandeer.  

The BJP, as the challenger to the Trinamool Congress is recycling the strategy of accusing the ruling regime of taking “cut money,” of manipulating lists of beneficiaries to divert funds to local ruling party families, using the police as part of a protection network and a tool for intimidation of critics and the opposition. 

The “cut money” scandal that was used with effect in the 2018 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal involved violent protests and unprecedented actions, with wrong doers admitting their corruption under duress and then “returning” the money they had skimmed. The violent protests against Trinamool Congress panchayat functionaries, district level government officials, over distribution of relief and reconstruction funds after Cyclone Amphan  organised by the BJP and in a few places by the CPI(M) cements strongly negative public perception about the modus operandi of the ruling regime. 

It is a formula that has worked in West Bengal in the past and the BJP expects that it will work in its favour in 2021. In its aggressive phase of challenging the Trinamool Congress from 2017, the BJP declared that it will resist and counter violence with violence.

Transition of power in West Bengal, regardless of elections as a peaceful means of regime change, is therefore perpetually set to happen through violence.

The casualty will be electoral democracy as a means of freely making a choice about representation and changing the embedded processes of governance.

Shikha Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based commentator.