Why Bengal is caught in the web of violence and authoritarian style of politics and governance


Thousands of peaceful citizens are travelling to the capital for a protest. Their intended site of protest is the gleaming building that houses the head of government. In response, the authorities place the city in a veritable siege. Buses carrying the protesters are forcefully stopped and emptied out mid-journey. Those who make it to the city by other means will face unimaginable barriers at every entry point: concrete boulders and tree trunks stand lined up behind ordinary barricades and the roads are carpeted with barbed wire. When the protesters approach these barricades, thousands of policemen and a battery of water cannons will be unleashed on them.

That the above scene could just as well describe events in Islamabad as those in the capital of their great state should worry every resident of West Bengal. This is in fact exactly what transpired in Kolkata on 13 September when the BJP decided to take out the Nabanna Chalo Abhiyan to protest recent corruption scandals of which the Trinamool Congress-led state government stands accused. Crucially, there was no basis to believe that the protest was intended to be anything other than a peaceful demonstration. This was indeed not even the police’s contention.

The only problem, according to them, was the location of the protest: around a sky-scraper in Howrah called Nabanna that is partly a de facto secretariat and partly a monument to the state’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Yet, this was the entire point. Nabanna, more than any other physical site, symbolises the gulf between the imperious Trinamool regime and the ordinary, mostly powerless people of the state. It is a sign of how desperately the Trinamool government wants to suppress focus on this reality that it was prepared to have hundreds of peaceful women protesters brutally beaten by policemen (some of them wearing face covers and most without name tags) but not to let the protesters come within even viewing distance of Nabanna.

In fact, the brute force applied to crush Nabanna Abhiyan was surprising even by the Trinamool’s dismal standards. In the lead-up to the rally, over 550 BJP members — including the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, the state BJP president and countless MPs and MLAs — were kept in preventive detention despite an order from the High Court that no person was to be “unnecessarily detained in connection with the rally”. Evidence captured on video footage showed that at most checkpoints, BJP workers retreated in response to tear gas and water cannons but were nonetheless chased and attacked by the police.

At certain other places, including Burra Bazar (which attracted the greatest coverage), the face-off devolved into street fighting between the protesters and the police. The use of any kind of violent methods by protesters is condemnable, but cannot be judged without reference to the brutal and disproportionate response the government had carefully planned for. It is worth mentioning that in the absence of responsible leadership and upon being so ferociously attacked, even the most-spirited group of protesters is liable to approximate a mob. In the vengeance meted out by the Kolkata Police that day, nearly a thousand BJP workers sustained serious injuries. This included Meena Devi, a senior citizen and ex-Deputy Mayor, who had to be administered seven stitches after being brutally assaulted on the head. It is telling that the nephew and heir-apparent of the chief minister would later blithely declare that the protesters ought to consider themselves lucky for not having been shot in the head.

So commonplace is such authoritarianism in West Bengal that very few still remember that this was not the first protest aimed at Nabanna that ended with police brutality. A smaller Nabanna Abhiyan taken out by the Left Front on 11 February 2021 had been clamped down with a similar show of force. It is indeed exceptional for a state government to designate merely one building as a high-security zone and place it under what are effectively perpetual prohibitory orders. (Writers’ Building, the official secretariat, and other offices of the West Bengal government lie across the Hooghly in Kolkata.)

The events in Kolkata from the day of the BJP’s Nabanna Abhiyan present a mirror image of the violence that was perpetrated in the Bengal countryside in the aftermath of the Vidhan Sabha election results in May 2021. As part of a fact-finding team sent by a civil society organisation to the state to investigate allegations of post-poll violence against the victorious Trinamool Congress, I witnessed first-hand not just the tragic plight of workers that had been systematically targeted for campaigning for the BJP in the Assembly elections but also the apathy, if not tacit collusion, of ordinary policemen in the face of truly savage violence.

The interviewees we met at different relief camps spoke of the sort of retributive psychological violence that is normally considered the province of totalitarian states alone. Numerous female relatives of BJP activists spoke of having suffered sexual assault at the hands of Trinamool cadres drunk on triumphalism; in one particular case from Midnapore, an elderly victim was raped in the presence of her grandson. A bridge in North 24 Parganas that connected the outside world to a small village — where results from the local polling booth showed that nearly all villagers had voted against the Trinamool — was mowed down with a JCB; the residents of another remote village, similarly set apart for collective punishment, woke up to find the sole chapakal in the village uprooted.

Victims from almost every district reported that local Trinamool cadres were rounding up male members of families suspected of having plumped for the BJP — after being subjected to almost ritualistic tonsuring, they were each given a trefoiled Trinamool flag and instructed to put it up at the entrance of their house. After a week of interacting with victims across the state, none of us could in good faith deny that the scale and severity of the month-long retribution carried out in West Bengal in 2021 was simply without parallel in India’s democratic history.

The fearlessness with which these atrocities were committed gives some indication of the extent to which a half-century of Communist- and Trinamool-rule has distorted the culture of a state once regarded as a beacon of enlightenment and humanism. The Trinamool Congress may dismiss visitors and commentators from outside the state as “political tourists”, but it is they who have forgotten the true ethos of Bengal.

What made itself visible at all times during our fact-finding mission (but did not directly concern it) was that the patronage system run by the Trinamool governed not only political life but every other aspect of social life as well. Interviewees described how the simplest economic activity could not be undertaken in rural areas without the say-so of the local party boss. A person running a small rice mill (who had been dispossessed of both his house and the mill in the aftermath of the Trinamool’s victory) related that local cadres dictated from whom, where, and at what price paddy was to be purchased and to whom, where and at what price processed rice could be sold; as he and others described it, in exchange for rent on a given economic activity, the party boss holds out protection and favours.

There are various factors to which the enduring and uniquely strong nature of this cadre system can be attributed. Research on the rise and fall of so-called “political machines” in the United States posits that the success of party patronage is directly correlated with the heterogeneity and geographical fragmentation of a given electorate. It is only where the needs of various voting groups can be conveniently differentiated from each other that selective disbursal of political assistance is efficient; if the electorate is sufficiently homogenous, general political assistance (i.e., that is universal in nature and does not rely on direct relationships between a party boss and a voter) is rationally a better way to engineer favourable political outcomes, i.e., electoral victory.

Viewed from this perspective, the power of the party cadre in West Bengal could be said to derive from the fact that large parts of the state are not easily accessible or well-connected to the wider world. This means that the party worker is essential to gathering information about, and providing remedies to, local and community-specific issues as well as monitoring votes for the party during elections. The caste-, religious-, linguistic- and class-based faultlines of the state undoubtedly increase his value in targeting discrete segments of voters. The marked absence of civil society in the state reinforces a system where political communication with voters must take place through him. Moreover, the normalisation of political violence, brought about over the course of many decades, allows the cadre to take extraordinary liberties in keeping his constituents in check.

This organisationally connected web of intimidation, favours and payoffs was not invented by the Trinamool, nor are the circumstances conducive to it unique to West Bengal. Its exceptional role in the politics and society of the state, relative to other states, can only be explained by the legacy of nearly four decades of uninterrupted Communist rule. The inherently hierarchical arrangement of the Left parties as well as their ideological glorification of rupture and violence continue to shape the politics of the state in an important way. It is indeed a tragic irony that the person who has suffered the most at the hands of this systemic violence has made it the cornerstone of her rule as chief minister.

For the state to leave behind this culture of patronage and violence and for it to recommit to a vision of progress, it would need a powerful ideology around which cohesion, unity and a fundamentally new political order can be built. The people of Bengal, however, need only look to their own history for inspiration: the state that infused nationalism in Indians ought to reawaken to its virtue.

The author is a retired IPS officer of 1983-batch. Kaur retired as DGP in Jharkhand. She was in BPRD, MHA till 2016. Views expressed are personal.

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Why Bengal is caught in the web of violence and authoritarian style of politics and governance
Why Bengal is caught in the web of violence and authoritarian style of politics and governance
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