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Why Politics In Bengal Is So Violent

Author: Jaideep Mazumdar
Publication: Swarajyamag.com
Date: May 21, 2018
URL:      https://swarajyamag.com/politics/why-politics-in-bengal-is-so-violent


- The reality of politics in Bengal is diagonally opposite to the image of the archetype ‘bhadralok’ which many outside Bengal have in their minds.

What drives politics in Bengal to such levels of violence?

The just-concluded panchayat polls in Bengal may have been the bloodiest ever with the total death toll (including in the pre-poll phase) crossing 50, but politics has always been marked by violence in Bengal. The reason is not that Bengalis are given to violence--actually, far from it--but the acute poverty and crippling lack of employment and business opportunities in the state.

Bengal’s economy -- the state was one of the richest at the time of Independence and home to a large number of profitable industries -- suffered many debilitating blows over the next few decades that left it in ruins. The first was the huge influx of Hindu Bengali refugees from the then East Bengal (and East Pakistan) that Bengal was left to handle on its own without any help from New Delhi. The then prime minister Nehru refused to help Bengali Hindu refugees. Bengal just couldn’t handle and provide for such a large number of them.

An estimated three million Bengali Hindus took refuge in Bengal immediately after partition and another one million after anti-Hindu riots in East Pakistan in 1950. The 1951 census recorded that Hindu refugees made up as much as 27 per cent of Kolkata’s population. Providing them even the basic minimum needs completely drained the state’s resources. Nehru’s discriminatory and ill-advised freight equalization policy introduced in 1952 dealt a disastrous blow to industries in eastern India, and militant trade unionism and the rise of Naxalism from the early 1960s sounded the death-knell for industries in the state. The 1971 Bangladesh War triggered another massive influx for a few million Hindu refugees into Bengal.

The industrial decline of Bengal, coupled with the burden of hosting such a large number of refugees, and the massive political turmoil that rocked Bengal from the mid 1960s to the late 1970s destroyed the state’s economy and brought it to its knees. After the communists came to power in 1977, and thanks to their anti-capital stance, the situation only worsened and tens of lakhs of people were left without jobs and any means of employment. Business opportunities shrunk and Bengal became one of the most backward states of the country.

Bengal’s millions of unemployed, and they very soon became unemployable too because of the toxic communist philosophy that they imbibed, had only the ruling dispensation to turn to for the crumbs that the state’s cynical politicians threw to them. “The Congress under Siddhartha Shankar Ray started the practice of harnessing the services of the lakhs of unemployed youths in the state to take on political rivals (the communists at that time) for a pittance. These unemployed turned into lumpen elements and in return for the ‘services’ they rendered to the Congress, they were allowed to indulge in petty crimes, extortions and subsistence trades like setting up small tea stalls, operating rickshaws and vending petty merchandise,” said Prakash Chandra Majumdar, a political scientist who used to teach at Calcutta University.

The CPI(M)-led Left Front which (mis)ruled Bengal for 34 years since 1977 adopted and perfected the tactic employed by Ray. The communists found it convenient and politically wise to keep a vast part of the state’s population on the margins of poverty and at barely subsistence levels. “This ensured that the masses would remain loyal to the communists for the few crumbs they would throw their way. The philosophy was as simple as it was sinister: the well-off don’t obey the diktats of politicians, it is the poor who do in order to remain in the politicians’ good books and obtain the small favours that the latter can bestow on them. Hence, keep a majority of the people poor and, thus, loyal. This worked. And as a result, the communists found a large mass of unemployed and poor people ready to do their political bidding--intimidation of political rivals, attacks on them and their families and political murders as well,” said Majumdar.

Ray had also introduced a nasty element to Bengal’s politics: intolerance bordering on hatred of political rivals and the propensity to use any means, even physical elimination, to destroy the opposition. The communists readily adopted this and found it in sync with their ‘annihilation of class enemies’ philosophy. This led to more political violence in Bengal and the communists succeeded in nearly decimating the Congress in the state. Political violence was more pronounced, intense and blatant in the rural areas. “The communists always believed that rural Bengal, where a vast majority of the state’s population dwelt, should be under their firm control. And it was, thus, that rural (or panchayat) polls have been violent and bloody in Bengal ever since the communists came to power,” Majumdar added.

The vast masses of unemployed men, and women too, formed the standing army for the communists, ready to be mobilised and deployed to intimidate, attack and kill political opponents and supporters. Since the political philosophy of the communists justified violence against political opponents who were conveniently and variously labeled as ‘reactionaries’, ‘bourgeois’ and ‘class enemies’, politics in Bengal continued to be bloody. Given the lack of gainful employment and business opportunities, competition for getting small crumbs of the small and diminishing pie that was available became intense and cut-throat.

“There was, and is, a fierce competition among cadres to prove their loyalty to their political masters and very often, loyalty is proved and asked to be proved by bloodshed. In Bengal’s political battles, the ‘take no prisoner’ norm is followed. The foot soldiers of the parties—the army of goons actually—compete with each other to prove their loyalty to their political master by being more and more violent. The politicians also encourage this violence because, for them too, the stakes are very high. They can keep the money flowing into their party and personal coffers through extortions, syndicates and protection money from the many petty businesses they allow in their respective fiefs,” said Majumdar, who has studied this phenomenon in depth.

The petty businesses that Bengal’s politicians allow, and get a slice of the earnings from, range from roadside tea stalls to pavement vendors, rickshaw and auto rickshaws and other such trades. Since regular employment opportunities are extremely limited, the millions of unemployed men and women become foot soldiers of the ruling party, doing the bidding of the local ‘neta’, to get small favours like permission to set up a tea stall in government land, operate an auto-rickshaw without license (60% of auto-rickshaws in Kolkata don’t have any license), form extortion rings or run other illegal rackets.

The local petty ‘neta’ also has to keep his political masters happy and prove his loyalty to them, and the best way for him (or her) to do so is to intimidate or decimate political opposition.

Bengal’s top politicians are happiest when they see themselves as undisputed masters of the state. This characteristic has got firmly embedded in the DNA of Bengal’s body politic. It started with Siddhartha Shankar Ray nearly half a century ago. He was, after all, the man who strongly recommended imposition of Emergency to Indira Gandhi. Ray was an unabashed autocrat, and the communists who came to power after him more so. What made politics in Bengal bloodier under the communists was that violence (against political opponents) was sanctioned in their revered ‘red’ book.

It is quite telling that Mamata Banerjee considers Ray as her role model. But it must be mentioned that political violence under her watch over the past seven years has far surpassed the communists’ murky track record. That is because while the communist apparatchik exercised firm control over their cadres, and the CPI(M) and its allies in the Left Front were a disciplined lot with well-defined hierarchies and a clear chain of command, the Trinamool is an unstructured party made up of deserters from the ranks of the communists and a wholly undisciplined, ragtag bunch of hooligans who run amok at the first opportunity accorded to them (like in the recent panchayat polls).

Trinamool Congress leaders have little control over their murderous cadres and the lack of a clear organisational structure, a firm chain of command and Mamata Banerjee’s whimsical style of functioning, as well as her penchant to play off one party leader against another (to maintain her supremacy and forestall emergence of a rival power center) has led to such a chaotic state of affairs and an incremental rise in political violence in the state. Fierce inner-party clashes, and intense rivalry among even senior Trinamool leaders, to exercise control over illegal businesses and extortion rackets, has contributed to the rise in political violence.

Worse still, this political violence will only intensify in the coming months and years as the Trinamool Congress faces an emerging challenge from the BJP. The panchayat polls were just the curtain raiser for the gore to follow.

- Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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