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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 22 New Delhi May 19, 2018

Widespread Violence in Panchayat Polls in West Bengal

Sunday 20 May 2018, by Barun Das Gupta

Panchayat elections were held in West Bengal on May 14. The polls saw widespread violence and hooliganism which has took a toll of over two dozen lives. The victims belonged to all the political parties—Trinamul Congress, CPI-M, Congress, BJP and even Independent candidates. Two CPI-M workers were shot dead and a CPI-M worker and his wife were burnt alive after they were locked up in their house and it was then set on fire.

Given the prevailing situation, the violence was very much anticipated but, strangely, neither the administration nor the police took measures to prevent it, or at least to minimise it. In most cases, the needle of accusation pointed to the supporters of the ruling TMC. At some places, the Opposition parties retaliated, though generally they were at the receiving end.

TV channels showed video clips of mass stamping of ballot papers, looting, burning and breaking open of ballot boxes. Ballot papers were prised out of ballot boxes, burnt and thrown into canals. Bombs were hurled by the score. Miscreants were seen brandishing firearms within the polling booths, with the presiding officers and their staff scared stiff. A senior Minister who claimed he was in his mid-sixties slapped the activist of a rival party in full public view and before the video cameras. When the footage was shown by the TV channels, the Minister had the cheek to say that what the televiewers were seeing in their TV screen was ‘wrong’—he had not slapped anyone. In all such cases, the police assumed the role of silent and passive spectators while the miscreants had a field day. In at least one case, the policemen were beaten up and chased. They ran to save their lives and hid themselves wherever they could. If this is the extent of helplessness of the police, the panic of the ordinary voters can be better imagined than described.

The State Election Commission (SEC) identified 572 booths where re-poll was ordered on May 16.

As Mamata Banerjee is the Chief Minister as well as Home Minister and the sole leader of the ruling Trinamul Congress, she cannot disown the political and moral responsibility of the violence and deaths. Very recently, on her orders, the police arrested a TMC leader, Arabul Islam, known to be the uncrowned king of Bhangar, a highly volatile locality in North 24-Parganas, for his involvement in violent activities. What the people are asking is: could she not have similarly ordered the police to arrest known criminals and hooligans before the polling day? Could she not have asked the police to raid and seize the bagfuls of bombs that had been kept ready for use on the polling day? The police knew full well who were the bomb-makers, where the dens were and where the bombs had been kept stored.

The violence, the blood-letting and the deaths have undoubtedly lowered the stature of Mamata Banerjee. These incidents have sullied the fair name of West Bengal and the Bengalis. The people are questioning whether Mamata has lost control over her lower level workers and failed to discipline them. Those less charitably inclined, claim that what the TMC activists did was under her instruction.

It is inexplicable why she took an adamant attitude against the deployment of Central forces to maintain law and order on the polling day. She seems to have totally forgotten that way back in 2008, during panchayat polls under the Left Front rule, it was DIG, CRPF Alok Raj, who stayed the hands of Lakshman Seth, the CPI-M satrap of the port town of Haldia, whose name was a terror and who was making a mockery of the elections in his area by turning those into one-sided polling. Mamata was all praise for Alok Raj then. (That the same Lakshman Seth lost no time in joining the BJP after the CPI-M was routed in the Assembly elections is another story.)

There is no doubt that the BJP has made inroads in Bengal, especially in the rural areas. Its strength is growing. This party will be the main beneficiary of the hooliganism and violence indulged in by the lumpens of the TMC on the polling day. The incidents of violence have given a handle to the saffron camp to demand Central intervention in West Bengal.

Mamata has also alienated a large number of people including intellectuals, academicians and cultural activists who had stood by her all through the days of her struggle against the oppressive rule of the CPI-M. She has already squandered much of the political goodwill she had started with when she became the Chief Minister of West Bengal in 2011. If she doesn’t retrace her steps and discipline her party workers, public anger will turn against her, paving the way for power for the BJP in West Bengal, a State which was once known as the ‘impregnable bastion of the Left’.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

“....It is high time to raise our voice against those throttling democracy and turning the largest festival of democracy into a ribald show. We are noting with concern that some leaders are speaking of building an Opposition-free State and Opposition-free country. This goes against the spirit of democracy and gives birth to autocratic outlook. How far the actions of these hooligans/criminals in the formative stage of the panchayat elections are aided by political parties and enjoy administrative patronage the people would realise from their own experience. We are afraid that this terrible situation on the eve of filing nomination papers would become far more horrific at the time of the elections. It is possible to change this situation only if alongwith public intervention the state administration and Election Commission play their proper role

“We appeal to the democracy-conscious enlightened people to protest against those who are trying to turn these elections into a farce.“

[Excerpts from a statement by artistes, cultural activists and intellectuals issued at the formative stage of the panchayat elections in West Bengal]

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