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West Bengal’s arc of violence continues unabated

Raking up communal passions in West Bengal tends to accentuate social and political fault lines — a phenomenon that unfortunately suits the BJP’s electoral and ideological plan. The recent unravelling in Sandeshkhali affirms such apprehensions.
Last Updated 27 February 2024, 09:24 IST

After 13 years in power in West Bengal, if there is one failure staring the thrice-elected Trinamool Congress (TMC)-led government in the face, it is its failure to break the structures of violence inherited from the Left Front government. The failure may be explained as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s unwillingness to do the work of uprooting the networks of criminality entrenched across the state and patronised by the ruling party of the day. Though a daunting challenge, such an attempt to truly transform West Bengal would have set the TMC apart from its predecessors and current adversaries.

Before 2011, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M))-led Left Front government used its expansive administrative machinery, local heft and muscle power to facilitate a culture of structured violence. It uninterruptedly ruled West Bengal for 34 years.

The state’s long association with political violence mired its reputation as a stable and peaceful state. In this context, removing the networks of political violence, however difficult, was an essential prerequisite to organically transforming West Bengal.

By choosing to ignore this imperative, Banerjee allowed her party and government to remain wedded to everyday violence as a way of browbeating political opponents, and controlling and expanding the TMC’s turf. Rather than undo the culture of bullying, intimidation, and terror, the TMC Chief Minister took over the CPI(M)’s extra-legal apparatus and made it her own. Once at the CPI(M)’s beck and call, a politicised administration and police force became the TMC’s preserve.

Leveraging violence

Given the political dynamic in the state, West Bengal is tragically not slated for respite from the cycle of violence. At least not anytime soon. None of the political stakeholders have shown any inclination to move beyond the terror tactics. Far from being averse to the template of violence, the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has readily, if not enthusiastically, added another layer to the volatility — that of communal polarisation. The BJP has routinely leveraged violence to further its core agenda of promoting Hindutva.

Raking up communal passions in West Bengal, which, along with Punjab, witnessed the worst horrors of Partition violence, tends to accentuate social and political fault lines — a phenomenon that unfortunately suits the BJP’s electoral and ideological plan. The recent unravelling in Sandeshkhali affirms such apprehensions.

Sandeshkhali — a microcosm

The chain of events began in January when an Enforcement Directorate (ED) team landed in Sandeshkhali to raid the home of local TMC strongman, Sheikh Shahajahan. The ED was investigating alleged irregularities in the state’s public distribution system. Shahjahan’s supporters attacked the ED team and helped the TMC leader flee the scene.

The events sparked militant protests among local women who accused Shahjahan and his two aides, Shiba Prasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar of sexual abuse and harassment. The protesters set fire to Hazra’s poultry farm, alleging that the farm was built on illegally grabbed land. Shahjahan and his men were accused of forcible acquisition of agricultural land, turning them into lucrative fish farms.

For some time now, Sandeshkhali, an island in the Sundarbans delta, has been at the centre of a tussle between the TMC and the BJP. In more than one way, the village represents a microcosm of the larger political convulsions in West Bengal. A site affirming the disturbing willingness of all political parties in play to continue with strategies of violence to outflank each other. 

Cavalier attitude towards sexual harassment

Sandeshkhali also shows the complicity of all political parties — the CPI(M) no exception — in allowing a gender-based political culture of violence to flourish. Let’s not forget that the BJP, which is lambasting the TMC for its cavalier attitude towards sexual harassment in Sandeshkhali, is the same party’s top leadership that has kept mum against the release of Bilkis Bano’s rapists, the sexual harassment of women wrestlers, and allegations of sexual assault of a student at Banaras Hindu University.

On the other hand, to cite just one instance, recall the role of the then ruling CPI(M) in trying to cover up the rape and murder of 17-year-old Tapasi Malik, an activist campaigning against the acquisition of agricultural land for Tata’s Nano factory in Singur. Almost two years later, in 2008, Singur CPI(M) zonal committee secretary Suhrid Datta was found guilty of plotting Tapasi Malik’s murder. While Debu Malik, another local party leader was convicted of murder.

Arc of violence

West Bengal watchers know the only marker of difference in this enduring genealogy of violence has been the degree to which a political party has relied on violence. Or, put another way, the trajectory of violence has depended on the ruling party’s organisational efficiency in managing such incidents of brutality. With its huge political and administrative machinery and massive organisational sway, in its time the CPI(M) was, no doubt, far more adept than the clumsy and less organised TMC in managing the arc of violence.

Replacing the CPI(M) as the main opposition party in 2019, the BJP, has even less organisational glue in West Bengal than the TMC. Unencumbered by principles of party discipline or censorship, BJP-sponsored violence now threatens to reach a new state of unruliness.

Then there is the question of organisational fluidity and the lack of commitment to any political ideology. Following the defeat of the Left Front government in 2011, like many states in the Hindi heartland, West Bengal politics has been marked by a degree of fluidity. Large chunks of CPI(M) supporters and workers who moved to the TMC with the party’s successive electoral triumphs, are now flocking to the BJP. The ruling TMC, too, is not immune from this trend.

Once considered an ideological state inured from political opportunism, West Bengal now resembles the rest of India, especially when it comes to party hopping. For instance, the TMC’s third consecutive assembly victory in 2021, triggered defections of BJP leaders from the BJP to the TMC. Former Union Minister of State and BJP MP, Babul Supriyo, dropped from the Cabinet after a reshuffle, joined TMC a couple of months after the West Bengal assembly election results. And former BJP vice-president and TMC renegade, Mukul Roy, too, returned to the TMC along with his son.

Equations may still change after the impending Parliament elections, depending on how successful the TMC and the BJP are. Whatever the numbers, however, it is unlikely that the outcome will lead to a reining in of the state’s culture of political violence. Not as long as violence paves the way to power in West Bengal.

Monobina Gupta is a Delhi-based journalist.


(Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.)

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(Published 27 February 2024, 09:24 IST)

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