The recent horrific violence where eight members of a family in Birbhum were burnt alive as a part of political vendetta sent shivers down the spine of almost all Indians who had seen videos and photos of the incident. If one is even a little aware of Bengal politics, he or she will know the nature of political violence that this state has seen from the time the Left regime started taking over control of this state in the 1960s and 1970s. This article takes a look at the recent past trying to analyse why politics turned so brutal in this state, once known for its leading role in the nationalist movement and its nationalist leaders.
While democracy, more often than not, is accompanied with political violence and no country across the globe has been able to escape this pitfall, in India in some states this seems to have turned endemic, with West Bengal topping the list. Here it is important to understand the term ‘political violence’ in the context of India’s diverse religious, social, cultural, and political factors that make it a fertile breeding ground for violent conflicts, often facilitated by the state.
The term political violence is a fluid idea that can be viewed from varying perspectives, and involves multiple factors such as the involved perpetrators and their invisible supporters/funders, the actual motives, the timing of the violence, and the various cross-thread activities prior to and during the violence. In India it is almost impossible to confine the term political violence within the narrow boundaries of a dictionary definition, as it has multiple dimensions, taking into account varying forms of violence, such as terrorism, communal riots, caste-related violence, cow smuggling killings, human trafficking, etc., which are often used by political parties to start a violence.
In West Bengal especially, political violence in almost all cases is inevitably found linked with the other aforementioned forms of violence, making it a more complex situation. West Bengal has been showing a high degree of political violence for many decades now, with the latest round of violence now taking place between the members of the ruling regime party (TMC) and the main Opposition party (BJP). The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data suggests 47 political killings have likely taken place after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, of which 38 are said to be reported from South Bengal (keeping in mind that it is a high probability many cases have gone unreported).
Congress and its role in destroying Bengal economy
Bengal’s political history has always shown a violent streak, and it was seen during the nationalist movement at the time of the 1905 first Bengal partition. In response to the British subjugation at that time various armed societies were formed, such as the Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar, which started the Bengal armed resistance against colonial rule. Later in 1946-47 the state saw horrific violence during communal riots (Great Calcutta Killings or Direct Action Day) where Hindus were butchered under indirect State support, and which led to the second Bengal Partition.
The Tebhaga Movement of 1946-47 was a case of farmers’ rebellion, which saw widespread and uncontrolled violence. After Independence, in the 1960s the extremist communists started the Naxalbari rebellion with an objective to forcibly remove the elected state government, which led to the mindless deaths of many innocents by the insurgents and subsequent brutal police actions.
Keeping in mind the rebellious violent streak always present in Bengal political scenario, it is also necessary to understand how political mechanisms failed West Bengal in the years following independence, especially at a time when it was still reeling under the violent Partition riots, and a helping hand was needed.
The book, The Agony of West Bengal (1971), by Ranajit Roy gives a detailed analysis of how the downward spiraling movement of Bengal’s economy was started by the Central (Congress) government between 1947 and 1966, when it was in control of both the state and the Centre. It started, as Roy tells us in his book, “on the very first day after Independence,” when Congress (Central government) “on the stroke of 12 o’clock the previous night, slashed the state’s share of the jute export duty,” which was the chief cash crop of West Bengal. The Congress was openly determined with its damaging policies to turn entire eastern India, and especially West Bengal, into a labour base, and destroy its prominence as an industrial hub.
These various destructive economic policies even forced the then Congress chief minister of West Bengal, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, a close friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, to raise objections. Even the refugees from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) were given a raw deal, when compared to the rehabilitation projects undertaken for the refugees from West Pakistan. In 1948 starting with cutting down West Bengal’s share of the income-tax receipts “from 20 percent to 12 percent” that were “distributed to other provinces,” to various other debilitating economic plans that destroyed the industrial backbone of Bengal, the results were evident in just around 10 years: “In 1947, West Bengal accounted for about 27 percent of the gross industrial output,” which slid down to 17.2 percent in 1960-61, and the per capita income of West Bengal started moving down from its previously held first position to the eighth by 1966.
As the famous industrialist, BM Birla, said at the Delhi Press Club (July 1970), it was the Central Government that was “mainly responsible for the lack of growth of industries in West Bengal.” This continuous draining out of resources from West Bengal, first by the British and then by the Congress at the Centre, had a severe negative impact on Bengal politics.
In fact, it is surprising that while the BJP always speaks of the “flight of capital” in context of the Naxals, Left-Front rule, and the TMC, it forgets to discuss the huge role of Congress under Nehru in completely destroying the state’s once thriving economy. If the BJP makes an effort to study Bengal history, it will find that despite the Congress being in control of West Bengal post-Independence, the relationship between the state and the party was never cordial. Bengal luminaries such as Sarat Chandra Bose, Netaji Subhas Bose, etc, were always staunchly against the Gandhi-Nehru controlled Congress, and Calcutta never really accepted the Delhi control.
This dislike and distrust stemmed from many incidents, one being the fact that despite Subhas Bose having been rightfully elected as the Congress president for the second time in 1939, Gandhi interfered illegitimately and forced 13 of the 15 members of the Congress committee to refuse working under Bose. Such workings widened the rift between Bengal and Congress, and post-Independence when Nehru became the PM, he took up the job of acting against Bengal, which not only destroyed the state’s economy but also changed its future political discourse.
The Left Front was no better than the Congress
The Left that replaced the Congress fared even worse, and ‘capital flight’ from West Bengal continued. This caused widespread joblessness and general unrest that was further worsened by the violent trade union politics of the left regime which took a staunch anti-industry stand, particularly attacking the medium and small industries operating in the state.
Ajoy Mukherjee, the first non-congress chief minister of West Bengal, who resigned after a few months in office, in his statement (2 October 1967), said “owing to Communists' role, 60-70 thousand people are jobless. An uncountable number of small and medium industries are about to disappear.” He said the state Left regime had initiated two types of political violence- of doing ‘gherao’ with huge charged up mobs to pressurize the factories, and the other of applying direct violence that would end West Bengal’s industrial base under the garb of solving “industrial disputes.”
Political Violence is a daily routine affair
Both the Congress and Left, as they systematically destroyed West Bengal’s economy, also institutionalised the daily political violence. The stage for brewing unrest and growing anger was already set by the Congress government at Centre with its deliberate devastating economic policies for West Bengal and other North-East states. In the 1960s, the Left Front (an alliance of leftist parties headed by the CPM), that came into political prominence, simply poured fuel into the already simmering situation in the state. As the Left Front became the more dominant political player, violent clashes started between the Congress and CPM workers and soon that became a part of daily life and an accepted norm.
At this time, West Bengal saw the horrific Sainbari murder (17 March 1970) where two brothers (both Congress workers) in East Bardhaman were killed and their mother made to eat rice soaked in the blood of her two slain sons. On 27 March 1971, Hemanta Basu, the popular Chairman of the All India Forward Bloc, was killed in broad daylight. These and many other murders soon institutionalised the culture of political violence that was used by the Left Front as a mass weapon to keep the common people under complete control by instilling fear.
The Left Front by taking complete control of the rural societies in Bengal through some initial good reforms soon showed their real fascist face, and became the sole authority with no voice from the Opposition. The political silence from Opposition parties was achieved by unleashing a horrific reign of terror in the everyday lives of people through various forms of violence, such as direct threats, routine harassment of party members from opposition parties, houses and party offices regularly burned down, popular workers from opposition brazenly murdered, etc.
When the TMC, led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, came to power in 2011, nothing changed. What happened was that the same brute force in the CPI-M now changed colours, and kept up with the horrific political violence and brutal killings of the opposition party workers, first with the murders of CPM members and now with the BJP workers.
However recently, what is looking even more dangerous is the addition of religious killings under the garb of political violence that has been taking place in West Bengal, owing to the huge demographic changes (mostly through illegal immigrants), especially in the border areas that have taken place in West Bengal in the last one or two decades.
The author is a well-known travel and heritage writer. Views expressed are personal.