West Bengal elections 2021: Vulnerable voters fear political violence, religious persecution

Devparna Acharya
·13-min read

Editor's Note: The history of political violence and bloodshed in West Bengal is an election tradition since the 40s, peaking during the 60s and 70s and enduring till date. This is part one of a multi-part series exploring the origins, process and consequences of politically- motivated violence in the state.

Kolkata: On 19th May, 2019, when voting for 17th Lok Sabha Elections had just concluded across the country, Roshan Ara and her neighbours from Kankinara Jute Mill Line No. 6 were negotiating for their lives with a gun-wielding mob.

"A group of young boys barged into our home and at gunpoint, told us to leave. They said they wanted to loot our homes. We refused and told them to loot it in front of us. If you guys don't leave, we will shoot you, they said. We said, do that. We are not leaving," Roshan said, recalling the fateful afternoon.

Soon after that, Roshan locked her home and with her four children ran to the nearest police station to get help. "When we came back, the locks were broken and our homes ransacked," said Roshan.

It's been two years since the 2019 riots in North 24 Parganas's Barrackpore district, and a few weeks ahead of the elections, the Muslims and Hindus in the area are living in anticipation of the worst. The locals in Kankinara and Bhatpara areas said they might have to relocate for a few days before the elections, which means that instead of paying the regular Rs 100 rent, they will now have to pay Rs 2,000 for a house in the city. The district votes on 22 April.

Residents of Tina Godown had abandoned their homes given the uncertainty of times. They came back during the day to check on their homes. Devparna Acharya/ Firstpost
Residents of Tina Godown had abandoned their homes given the uncertainty of times. They came back during the day to check on their homes. Devparna Acharya/ Firstpost

Residents of Tina Godown had abandoned their homes given the uncertainty of times. They came back during the day to check on their homes. Devparna Acharya/ Firstpost

Poll violence, as a random or organised threat to voters to influence election outcomes, is a perennial feature in West Bengal. Assembly elections are currently underway in this crucial state as we speak, and electors from five districts have already cast their votes on 27 March in the first phase. How politics in West Bengal entails violence, is well documented. However, it is relatively lesser known how violence is cultivated and rooted in people's everyday lives.

National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2018 shows that West Bengal sees the highest number of political murders. The number of murders due to "political reason" in West Bengal stood at 12, followed by nine in Bihar and seven in Maharashtra. In the years 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2013, the state had the highest number of political killings. Even in other years, it has consistently remained among the states with the highest number of political murders.

This state of affairs has persisted at least since Independence. Before 1977, it was the Congress (1971-77) that ushered in a period known as 'hoodlum years'. Then, the Left Front won the mandate against Congress because of the atrocious level of violence. As it turns out, the Left did no better. It was against Left's 'anarchic' model of governance that Mamata Bandopadhyay rose to power, ending their 34-year long rule.

Systemic violence in Bengal has been present since the Left rule, but it has become an integral characteristic of Bengal politics especially in the last 15 years, said Sabyasachi Roychowdhury, a professor of Political Science at the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata. According to Roychowdhury, Bengal was considered the hub of ideological politics. Gradually, this changed as the Left lost their ideological identity. When Mamata stormed to power, she tried to position TMC as a more leftist party than the CPM. The party won the mandate on the promises that the Left could not deliver in 34 years. Mamata replicated the welfare model of governance -- like many other states with strong regional parties such as Tamil Nadu -- and announced a slew of populist measures, trying to be more leftist than CPM.

"Mamata essentially became the "neo-Left" in the state, after the Left was overthrown. Trying to become the Left of Left, TMC created this ideological vacuum, and the Left -- by then -- had lost its ideological teeth. In 2014, when the BJP came to power in the Centre, they saw Bengal as an opportunity. With the growth of the TMC, rise in anti-incumbency factors and an ideological vacuum in the state, the saffron party started to make inroads in Bengal," said Roychowdhury. But the BJP model of "Hindutva" politics -- which was successful in the Hindi belt -- was not working in Bengal.

"The allure of Ram Temple and not eating beef was not working in Bengal. For the state -- just like Assam -- undocumented, cross-border migration from Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan was a bigger issue. Hence, the BJP adopted a different strategy. They decided to consolidate the Hindu votes in the state," said Roychowdhury. Hindus form at least 80 percent of Bengal's population and allegations that the TMC favoured the Muslim minorities laid a fertile ground for a strong Right ideology to flourish, right under her rule.

A Hindu dominated colony in Kankinara Jute Mill area. Devparna Acharya/ Firstpost
A Hindu dominated colony in Kankinara Jute Mill area. Devparna Acharya/ Firstpost

A Hindu dominated colony in Kankinara Jute Mill area. Devparna Acharya/ Firstpost

Factors that make voters vulnerable in Bengal:

Religious Polarisation

Violence has always been an integral part of Bengal politics. While there are various tools used to manifest this violence, one of the more direct forms is through the intentional use of hate-speech, the threat of violence and physical violence. The hate speeches are context-specific, targeted, designed, and used repeatedly to propagate political and religious polarisation.

According to the residents of Bhatpara's Darma Line, Tine Godown, 4 number line, 6 number line, and 5 number Railway Siding, they bore heavy losses. "They left nothing, not a piece of cloth to wear or a utensil to cook. Our livelihood is tailoring, all our sewing machines, worth at least Rs 25,000 were looted. We lost everything," said Roshan.

Labour lines, or the workers colony of Kankinara Jute Mill, mostly comprises migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. They have settled here before Independence and worked in the jute mills since. About 7,000 people lived in these labour lines, which are made up of 1400 quarters. Among them, about 20 percent are no longer connected to the jute mills, but have stayed back for generations. The population consists of roughly 85 percent Hindus and 15 percent Muslims. The 2019 riots displaced 670 people from 134 households and among them, at least 90 percent are Muslims, according to local studies. The displaced belong to Darma Line, Tine Godown, 4 number line, 6 number line, and 5 number Railway Siding. There is no state- or national-level data available for these riots. The residents say getting compensation for their losses was a bigger struggle.

Activists working with the riot victims said that the polarisation was evident in the way compensation was being distributed in the area. Appeasement politics by both, the ruling TMC and BJP, laid their intentions with the state bare, say the local activists.

Residents of Bhatpara alleged that distribution of compensation was selective based on which religion they belong to. Devparna Acharya/ Firstpost
Residents of Bhatpara alleged that distribution of compensation was selective based on which religion they belong to. Devparna Acharya/ Firstpost

Residents of Bhatpara alleged that distribution of compensation was selective based on which religion they belong to. Devparna Acharya/ Firstpost

Forty-year-old Prabhu Sau, who works as a plumber in Uttar Pradesh, was visiting Bhatpara during his girl's summer vacation. He died in police firing. His wife Shyamali was given a job as a casual labourer by the BJP. But Shyamali was dismissed by the Bhatpara municipality soon after the Trinamool Congress won the panchayat polls. "They benched me and withheld my salary for four months. We did not get any compensation. I have two daughters," said Shyamali.

Dharambir Sau, a 44-year-old panipuri vendor, died in police firing in 2019. He is survived by his wife and two children. The family received Rs 4.5 lakh from the BJP, but nothing from Mamata's TMC government. Lallan Chowdhury, another vendor from Naihati, was beheaded during the riots. His head was found a couple of days later, 23 kilometres away at Barasat station. His father was given Rs 4.5 lakh by the BJP; Nothing from the TMC. Two elderly Muslim men €" Mohammad Mushtaq and Mohammad Haleem €" who happened to be friends, were sitting outside their homes after dinner when locally-made bombs were hurled at them. While Mushtaq died instantly after an injury to his head, Haleem died of his injuries on the way to the hospital. The State government compensated each family with Rs 2.5 lakh and jobs for their sons.

"At that moment, the ruling party divided the people of this area into two religious groups, who have always co-existed peacefully. It has not been the same since," says Sandip Sinha Roy, vice-president of the Naihati-Bhatpara-Jagatdal branch for Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), a civil rights organisation.

The majority of Muslims in North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Barrackpore, Basirhat sub-division seemed content with Didi because "she looked after them." Migrant Hindu voters, however, just said "Khela hobe", with a smile.

Architecture of Hate

The 2019 Kankinara Jute Mill riots were a fallout of a communal riot that broke out in 2018, after a Ramnavami procession organised by the ruling Trinamool Congress. According to social activists working with the riot-hit victims of the area, the procession was provocative. Many who were part of the rally wielded swords and other weapons and to make matters worse, the group shouted communal slogans inciting the minorities in the area.

In Hajinagar, which falls in the industrial belt north of Naihati station in Bengal's North 24 Paraganas district, residents were stunned when bombs were hurled at their homes in the middle of the night a few days later, in November 2016. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had called it "communal terrorism". The violence was triggered when people in a procession heading for the immersion of Durga idols (also called Vijayadasami) allegedly hurled stones at the local Manik Peer's mazar (shrine). That night, a Muharram procession was scheduled. Before it took off, a bomb was reportedly hurled near the residence of Mohammad Jiaul Haque, a Trinamool Congress leader and the then municipality chairman. Within hours, in the three-kilometre stretch between Garur Phari (north of Naihati station) and Marwarical €" which lies further north €" houses were ransacked, residents beaten up, and bombs hurled randomly, forcing thousands to flee.

Eyewitnesses that Firstpost spoke to confirmed that angry mobs of both communities were out for blood. "It has never happened before. We drink tea together. We share our food. We never thought this would happen," said Lucy Chowdhury who lives with her husband and her daughter on Banak Para Road in Hajinagar. "We lost everything, they did not even leave the ceiling fans." Lucy was among the hundreds who had to climb over walls barefoot to escape the virulent hate campaign that was unleashed on the residents of Hajinagar in 2016.

According to Sajid Kamaal, an English teacher in the neighbourhood who also doubles up as a local activist, the 2016 riot did not happen overnight. The process was slow and sustained over a long period of time. "You would hear stray rumours of a temple or a Hindu deity being defaced, or a Muslim boy who was beaten up because he entered a temple because he was thirsty. The political parties fan these sentiments by show-of-strength religious rallies on festivals like Muharram and Ramnavami. And before you know it, these festivals become breeding grounds for sowing seeds of discord," said Sajid. His students mainly come from the neighbourhood, and from both communities. "It is pitiful that I have to mention it separately but yes, I teach both Hindu and Muslim children. This is what the BJP and TMC have done to us," Sajid added.

Cadre wars

Political observers in the state unanimously agreed that religious polarisation was the fallout of the vendetta politics that ensued after 2011, when the Left Front government was overthrown after 34 long years. Violence between Trinamool and Left members crippled towns and villages with fear. That fear is still palpable in the villages of Sandeshkhali in North 24-Parganas district of West Bengal which is part of Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency. The district will vote on 27 April in the penultimate phase of the state Assembly elections.

"No one will tell you which party has done good work. Even if they do, you shouldn't believe them," a local shopkeeper at Dhamakhali, one of the villages in Sandeshkhali, told this reporter. Villagers from Dhamakhali, Dhuchnikhali, Bholakhali, Joygopalpur and Hatgachcha were completely silent when asked anything "political".

According to local CPM leader Santosh Biswas, the local politics is vicious now. "It's not democratic anymore. Violence has been part of Bengal politics for a while, it is a known fact. But the current situation is unprecedented," said Biswas.

The murders of TMC and BJP leaders in 2019 in Bangipara village under Sandeshkhali I block, and the violent 2018 Panchayat elections are still fresh in the memories of the villagers. According to the local residents, it's not just ahead of the 2021 elections, the area and neighbouring villages have been tense since the Lok Sabha results were announced.

Many villages in Sandeshkhali had given the BJP a lead in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Locals from four adjoining villages confirmed that since then, the two parties have been targeting not only the workers but also vociferous supporters. Local auto drivers and vendors said the area earlier supported the TMC because they wanted "poriborton" (change). But many have now shifted their allegiance to the BJP, which reflected in the 2019 poll results. "The local TMC leaders are looking for opportunities to target us. They force us to hang the TMC flag on our autos. We are all educated and we can make our own decisions, but because of this fear we cannot speak our mind openly," said an auto driver, requesting anonymity.

Mahadev (name changed), a BJP supporter from Dhamakhali who earns his living by plying passengers from the Dhamakhali ferry stand to the interior villages, said he was attacked by local TMC leaders and supporters because he participated in a local BJP rally. Mahadev's younger brother was picked up by local TMC leaders after his house was attacked and burned. "We have a small house. My old parents were home. We were scared, we did not have any weapons with us for even self-defence. We got in touch with my brother early the next day he was safe, but he could not return home for the next 3-4 months. What if they killed one of us?"

Residents of Joygopalpur were equally hesitant and tight-lipped about the upcoming elections. Local villagers said violence was extremely normal, and it was usually instigated by the dominant party of the area.

A teacher in the village, requesting anonymity, took this reporter to a quiet corner in a local tea shop and said that since the 2018 Panchayat elections, villagers are petrified to speak to each other, let alone the media. "Information in such small villages travels faster than wildfire. TMC and BJP members have been randomly slaughtered in the middle of the day, and the locals who express their views have gone missing. Who would dare to speak in such a fearful environment?"

Violence incited along religious, caste and identity lines has left the voters of Bengal vulnerable to active and random acts of brutality. Villagers in districts like Barrackpore, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Hooghly and Basirhat have lost their lives, means to livelihood and are riddled with constant fear and uncertainty. Thousands have been displaced. "We will vote for the party which brings in peace - whether it is Ram or Allah," said Montu Sarkar, a tea-seller in the village of Dhuchnikhali.

Also See: West Bengal Assembly election 2021, Dantan profile: TMC won in 2016 by over 29,000 votes

West Bengal Assembly election 2021, Palashipara profile: TMC won seat for the first time in 2016

West Bengal Assembly election 2021, Purulia profile: Sudip Mukherjee won seat in 2016, switched to BJP

Read more on Politics by Firstpost.