Bengal's cycle of violence

Competition among states in India is usually fierce but there is one metric on which Left-ruled Kerala will be happy to cede its leadership to West Bengal and that is in the incidence of political violence. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data released in 2019, West Bengal now tops the country in political murder; of the 18 recorded around the country in 2018, 12 were from Bengal. The numbers reflect only a fraction of the general law and order problems caused by frequent clashes between goons of rival political parties, especially in rural and moffusil areas, where the police presence is thin. Political violence has been a characteristic of political life in West Bengal since the sixties and seventies, famously prompting a precipitous flight of industry from the former capital of the Raj and playing a leading role in West Bengal’s decline. It was institutionalised by the Left Front government during its 34 years in power.

Its land redistribution policies guaranteed it rural votes but they also created the template for violence as newly dispossessed but powerful landowners mobilised against the state and the ruling party relied on anti-social elements to counter them and capture state funds spent for local development even as unemployed youth swelled the cadres of party goons. Mamata Banerjee, who ousted the Left Front in 2011, has not only improved on that legacy of violence but has taken it to a whole new level. When Ms Banerjee was championing the cause of land losers in the Tata Nano project in Singur, many lumpen elements switched allegiance to her party, the Trinamool Congress, as a means of ensuring protection from the police in the new dispensation. Despite an overwhelming majority of seats in the Assembly elections, Ms Banerjee has done nothing to check the violence, turning her squads on the Congress and Left Front party workers instead.

This cycle of violence was magnified once Ms Banerjee’s ill-judged policy of appeasing the state’s Muslim voters brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), till recently a negligible presence in the state, into the political equation. The BJP’s growing power in the state encouraged many party workers and goons from the Congress and the Left Front to migrate to it, setting the stage for an escalating cycle of violence but now with a communal tinge, not seen since the 1940s. In a way this is a magnification of the communist-RSS battles in the Malabar area of Kerala, where, too, the game is essentially violence. Having bagged almost half of West Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 elections, the BJP has sensed an opportunity in the Assembly election early next year and leverages its formidable propaganda machinery to publicise the death of every BJP worker from political clashes. The data collated by The Print website shows that there were at least 43 political killings between January and October this year. Of those, the BJP says at least 20 were its workers. The claim may well be overstated, but it is notable that the atheist Left parties have publicly agreed with their Hindutva ideological rivals in claiming a sharp escalation in violence under Ms Banerjee. This legacy of violence must change so that peaceful elections can be ensured. But that won’t be easy, and neither the Trinamool nor the BJP is a slouch when it comes to street battles.


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