Culture of political violence in West Bengal: How the Islamist challenge can turn an already very bad situation into much worse

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The outbreak of political violence in West Bengal shows no signs of abating. Political violence against opposition party workers in the state by goons of the ruling Trinamool Congress peaked right after trends on results day showed a comprehensive Trinamool victory and lasted for about a week.

Since then, the violence has continued on and off with more workers of the BJP reported dead in the state. Communal violence was also reported at Tiljala recently with the vandalisation of a Hindu Temple also being reported. It is not clear whether the communal violence is in any manner connected to the ongoing political violence in the state.

With murders reported left, right and center, and the exodus of BJP supporters from the state, the culture of political violence in the state has received greater focus. But it is not a phenomenon that has begun recently. It goes as far back as to the years right after independence.

The culture of political violence

The immediate years after independence witnessed the influx of a great number of Hindu refugees from then East Pakistan. The sudden influx of the huge number of Hindu refugees overwhelmed the state machinery and the then government was unable to provide them with basic ameneties.

The central government at the time under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was not particularly sympathetic to the incoming refugees from East Pakistan and that only served to exacerbate the already difficult situation.

Soon, the Left parties began to organise the Hindu refugees under their banner and mounted a challenge to the ‘Eviction of Persons in Unauthorized Occupation of Land Bill’ in 1951, popularly known as the Eviction Bill. The Bill was formulated to evict the refugees who had occupied public and private lands to settle down in Kolkata.

March 1951 onwards, rallies, meetings and public demonstrations became part and parcel of the everyday urban life which eventually culminated with the original bill being considerably amended. The refugees later protested against several other measures such as the policy to disperse them from Kolkata to less populated areas and the proposal to increase tram fare by 1 paise.

West Bengal’s complicated history with protests

West Bengal was hit with a near-famine situation after a failure in crops in 1959. The Price Increase and Famine Resistance Committee (PIFRC), a platform for Left political parties, organised protests calling for food.

Prafulla Chakrabarty wrote, ‘The united Left was now in a position to mobilize the encapsulated refugees and the petty bourgeoisie at a moment’s notice; it could also rely upon the majority of the working class to respond favourably to a strike call. But what was new in the autumn of 1959 was the presence in Calcutta and its immediate neighbourhood of thousand peasants who could be thrown into the struggle.’

The protests were met with police force and the number of dead was speculated to be between 39 and 80. Seven years later, in 1966, another round of food protests would hit the state. This was to be more violent with far reaching implications for Bengal politics.

It set the stage for the Naxalite movement which began in 1967. Led by charismatic figures such as Charu Mazumder, the rebels believed in ‘armed resistance’ as a means of revolution. The movement also saw the participation of students from numerous universities.

Ultimately, the Government would crush the protests with force but the movement continues to dominate pockets of the country to this day. Through these years, what became entrenched was the culture of political violence and the violence was intrinsically political in nature and not communal.

The culture of violence perpetuated by the Left Front

The Left Front rose to dominance on the back of violent tactics as mentioned earlier. One of the most ghastly incidents of violence came to be known as the Sainbari Massacre. The Sain family was a supporter of the Congress party and the Communists in the area wanted them to flip.

Upon their refusal, the Sain family was attacked brutally and murdered in open. The mother was fed rice soaked with the blood of her son. Years later, the surviving members of the family is yet to receive justice and the Congress party is in alliance with the Left Front in the state.

Apart from that, there was also the attack on the Ananda Margis when the monks were lynched in broad daylight. The Left Front, consequently, exercised complete dominance over the state machinery and the domination continued well into the first decade of the 21st century.

Trinamool Congress continues the legacy of the Left Front

Mamata Banerjee rose to power after combating the state sponsored violence of the Left Front. She herself suffered the brunt of it when she was dragged by her hair and beaten up by the Police when she led a rally to the erstwhile secretariat.

In 1990, she was hospitalised for a month after being hit on the head by a Youth CPI(M) leader. There were other occasions when she was attacked in a bloody turf war between the Trinamool Congress and the Left Front. Multiple Trinamool workers also lost their lives to the same.

Since coming to power, her party has only carried forward the legacy of the Left Front. Murders of political adversaries in the state are rampant. While there were those who genuinely hoped that she would bring the cycle of violence to a halt, it was not to be.

Unique features of political violence in West Bengal

The culture of political violence in the state in unique in many aspects. The violence is driven primarily by party association and not religion or caste or tribal loyalties as in certain other regions of India. This violence continues regardless of who is in power, only the party affiliations of those being attacked changes.

There are good reasons for this. The unique conditions of West Bengal a mentioned earlier led to a situation where party affiliation acquired greater prominence in the administration of the state than religious identity.

As is the characteristic of Communism dominated states, political persecution is the norm of the day rather than religious or caste. Targeted attacks based on religion does occur, for sure, but it is a consequence of perceived threats to political power.

In West Bengal, as a consequence of Communist politics, the party dominates the state machinery. And there exists vestiges of the hierarchy that operate outside the domain of the state machinery but exert great influence on administration.

Trade Unions, for example, are significant institutions which affect administration and policy. Political parties combat with each other for control of these unions. Simultaneously, the implementation of government policy and welfare initiatives also depend on individuals associated with the ruling party.

Thus, it is very easy for ruling parties to block citizens they perceive to be against party interests from receiving benefits of the welfare initiatives of the government. There also exists a ‘club culture’ in West Bengal where clubs in every locality are responsible for welfare work there.

Such clubs lean towards one party or the other and exercise significant control over the administration. Political parties contest for control over these clubs as well. On voting day, these clubs can often decide the fate of the party.

The political violence that occurs is often a consequence of political rivalries at the local level. And it would continue regardless of who is in power in the state. Leaders at the top would fail to curtail it even if they seriously desire to bring it to a halt. And there is no inclination as yet that Mamata Banerjee wants the cycle to end.

The Islamist challenge

There is a serious threat that the cycle of violence can be hijacked by Islamists to achieve their sinister ends. If Islamists succeed in capturing the unions and the clubs at the local level, they can already use the structure in place to pursue their objectives.

It does appear to have occurred in certain pockets but there is no clear evidence as yet that it is the case in overwhelming regions of the state. Since the BJP is effectively a party of Bengali Hindus in the state, the victims of political violence in the state have been primarily individuals who happen be Hindus.

But there is no evidence as yet that the current spate of violence is a targeted campaign against Hindus in the state. As evidence, there have been visuals of Hindu workers of the TMC looting a shop owned by a Muslim affiliated to the BJP as well.

Furthermore, Muslim workers of Peerzada Abbas Siddiqui have also reportedly been killed in the ensuing spree of violence. Thus, while the political violence is not yet a pogrom against Hindus specifically, the institutional capture of organisations by Islamists can very well happen in the near future with their increasing influence in Bengal politics.

Therefore, the already very bad situation in the state could turn infinitely worse. It is for this reason that it is imperative that reasonable heads prioritise the formulation of a solution to the menace that currently exists.

K Bhattacharjee: Black Coffee Enthusiast. Post Graduate in Psychology. Bengali.