Why is politics in Bengal so violent?

Why is politics in Bengal so violent?After independence, Indian National Congress ruled in West Bengal. But its dominance faltered in the 1960s.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

/ by Avishek Bera


The News Cover: After independence, Indian National Congress ruled in West Bengal. But its dominance faltered in the 1960s. Dipankar Basu suggests that Bengal’s politics changed immensely in the 1960s. During this time period, Bengal witnessed peasant movements, led by peasants who lacked land, against the landlords. The motivation behind this movement was the domination of the landlords in the villages of Bengal even though India had gained independence. 

According to the Revenue Ministry of Bengal, in 1953, the landlords owned 93% of the 10 million acres of land. On March 25, 1967, a new movement started, when a sharecropper was brutally beaten by the landlord. His belongings were taken away when he tried tilling the land. Exasperated by the landlord’s misconduct, the peasants started a rebellion (movement). What was the name of the village where the rebellion originated? Naxalbari The ‘Naxal’ movement takes its name from this place. 

The Naxal movement was led by Charu Mazumdar, who believed that India needed a revolution. The rebellion gave rise to a class-based political movement in Bengal. For example, Congress became the party for upper-caste landlords and peasants. Similarly, CPI(M) became a party for middle-caste peasants and CPI(ML) for SC/ST peasants who lacked land. In 1972, even after Charu Mazmudar’s death (the founder of the movement), the movement continued to influence Bengal’s politics. Research has shown that during 1967-71, guns and bombs became a crucial part of state politics; not only in rural areas but in the towns as well. 

Political killings became commonplace in Calcutta. Several areas of Calcutta witnessed the dominance of the Naxal movement. For example, Shyambazar, Dumdum, College Street, Jadavpur, and Tollugunj. Naxal students vandalized statues, halted examinations, and killed police and government officials. Police responded by killing many Naxal activists and supporters in fake encounters. This violence wasn’t limited to the Naxals. The political violence began between Congress and CPI(M) too. 

The situation had worsened to an extent where every political party had hired their own hoodlums. During the 1971 Lok Sabha elections, not only the voters were scared to cast a vote but the booth officials too were scared to do their job. Hence, the government offered a cash bonus, free transportation and also promised to pay the medical expenses to encourage them to show up to work. Congress resorted to violence during the 1972 state elections. The party used muscle power to win the elections. Despite the use of muscle power, the Left-movement gained popularity in Bengal. 

Thus the Left parties won the 1977 state elections and formed a government. After securing leadership, the left government relied on two things to increase its dominance – Land reforms and Panchayati Raj institutions. In the 1980s, the left government launched Operation Barga to bring land reforms. For this, the government confiscated land from the landlords and redistributed it to peasants who owned little or no land at all. During the same time period, Bengal’s Panchayati Raj institutions had been developing too. As these institutions started receiving more funds from the central government, the significance of their elections increased too. 

CPM saw the panchayats as means to strengthen the support from SC, ST, and other minorities. Violence might have reduced due to the dominance of the Left government in the panchayats, but it changed Bengal’s politics dramatically. To cement its domination, the Left government deployed the same method that Congress had used for years – to destroy the democracy and give little or no space to the opposition. First, CPI(M) shut off several newspapers that criticized it. 

Secondly, in the process of winning the Panchayat elections, CPI(M) created a new political system, which is referred to by the political scientists as ‘Party-Society’. This is the system where the difference between society and politics diminishes and your identity depends on the political party you support. Researcher Partha Chatterjee told that the most important institution in West Bengal isn’t family, kinship, caste, or religion, but the political party that you support. How did the party-society system develop? 

Operation Barga could be the main influence for it. Before the operation, the disputes in villages were settled by the landlords. But the seizing of landlords’ power created a gap. The gap was filled by Left party workers. Party workers were not only responsible for the governance of the village but they also solved social, personal, and familial issues. Hence, the politics and society in Bengal merged into one. Apart from this, the Left parties were aware that solving the disputes in villages won’t secure them electoral votes. 

They needed to do something else. Hence, they launched several schemes which were actually funded by the government. But they were advertised as if the party initiated them. Initially, each and every villager benefited from these schemes. But over time, the funds and government’s efficiency reduced. This created discrimination. Who should benefit from the schemes and who shouldn’t? Those who benefited from the schemes supported the Left while those who didn’t start opposing them. This was the condition of the villages in Bengal for around 30 years. 

Due to this, the areas are divided into party lines. Party didn’t just want support in rural Bengal for elections. Its loyalty became crucial for survival too. Many houses were burnt and people were evicted because they supported different political parties. Marichjhapi refugee massacre is one such example. Where Dalit refugees or those belonging to lower-caste, migrated from East-Pakistan to Bengal, were either murdered by the Left government or died due to starvation. 

Because the refugees refused to relocate to the place of the government’s wish. They refused to become part of the United Central Refugee Council, an organization of CPI(M). They didn’t want to become part of a certain political party. Bengal’s politics witnessed a sharp turn when TMC was formed. Due to this, political violence spread in rural areas like wildfire. This was the first time when someone was challenging the Left government’s dominance. 

The left government was up against a coalition – between TMC and BJP. Partha Chatterjee wrote that even relatives were burning each other’s houses if one side supported the Left government and the other supported the TMC-BJP alliance. The political violence flipped completely in 2006 and 2007. The Left parties had maintained their dominance by addressing the issues of the poor. Now TMC played this role against Left parties. This was witnessed during Singur and Nandigram movements. The protest sparked violence and 14 were killed. This protest soared Mamta Banerjee’s popularity in Bengal. Due to this, Trinamool Congress (TMC) won the 2011 assembly elections. But this didn’t stop political violence. 

Violence in Bengal is not ordinary as in other regions of India, violence is associated with caste or religion. But that’s not the case with Bengal. Researches have shown that caste, religion, and other social divisions received little attention. Mostly, the social divisions lay on the party lines. It could be because of the ‘party-society’ political system created by the Left government. This trend has been changing with the rise of the BJP. You can see in this graph that there has been an upsurge in the number of communal riots in Bengal in 10 years. Researcher Suman Nath and Subhoprotim Roy Chowdhury wrote how religious polarization increased in Bengal since 2013. 

On the other hand, TMC is being accused of playing ‘politics of appeasement’ because many of its schemes are targeting Muslim religious leaders. Many villagers assert that TMC has brought social development but they also suggest that the development favors Muslims. For a Scroll news report, a villager stated that Mamta Didi has given them a lot but it’s lost in corruption among the party men. 

He added that Muslim villages are receiving more funds to build mosques. In politics, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not? What matters the most is the perception of any political party. BJP is designing its political campaign based on this perception. Due to religious polarisation, we witnessed instances of political violence during the 2019 and 2021 elections. 

When you consider all these you might say that the story behind the violence hasn’t changed much. Political violence starts when the domination of a certain political party falters. The political party then uses violence to maintain its dominance. That’s why for the citizens of Bengal, politics and violence have been the two sides of the coin for years. This coin remains the same. Only the political actors change.

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