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Explained: Bengal & TMC's capacity for political violence

Garga Chatterjee | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:38 IST

The news

  • Student killed last week in Paschim Medinipur College
  • SFI activist died in police custody in 2013
  • Numerous incidents of violence reported across state
  • Incidents of clashes more in news after Mamata\'s fallout with media

The reality

  • Trinamool\'s failure to manage musclemen shows
  • In Bengal, violence has almost come to be a sign of political robustness
  • CPI(M) could keep bhadralok image intact despite violence
  • No significant spike in crime data

The record

  • History of bloodshed dates back to Congress era in \'70s
  • CPI(M) fine-tuned that; TMC has appropriated baton
  • Democratic co-existence has become a thing of the past
  • If there is a slowdown in inter-party violence, it signals there\'s a crumbling opposition

On 8 August, Krishnapada Jana, a student of Sabang Sajanikanto Mahavidyalaya in West Bengal's Paschim Medinipur, was killed inside the college, allegedly by members of the Trinamool Chhatra Parishad.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, however, was quick to give a clean chit to the students' wing of her party.

The incident, which happened while the principal was present on campus, shocked West Bengal's socio-economic elite, many of whom subscribe to a romantic notion of academic institutions lying outside the general social milieu.

This was not the first such instance since Banerjee assumed office in 2011.

Sudipto Gupta, a Students' Federation of India activist, was killed in police custody in 2013. There have been numerous other instances of campus violence across the state. In almost all such cases, members of the ruling party have been blamed.

Bloodshed has not been limited to educational institutions. The state, in general, has been in the news for violence.

The Trinamool Congress (TMC) has not taken the media spotlight kindly, often venting its ire against the Fourth Estate. There have also been attempts at setting up pro-TMC media houses, funded by money channelled from chit funds.

A large section of the media, which backed Mamata, started opposing her sharply after she refused to budge from her stand on land acquisition. Subsequently, political clashes have been more in the news. The state, however, is not new to violence.

Trinamool vs CPI(M)

Political clashes were widespread during the Left Front's rule, culminating in the Singur protest, the Nandigram episode and the Netai massacre.

But the CPI (M) leadership could keep its musclemen separate from the party's 'bhadralok' image. They managed to keep a check on the political aspirations of ruffians who were an important part of the Left's legendary poll machinery.

That distinction between the goons and political activists is much less in the TMC. A typical middle-rung leader in Banerjee's party has much less social capital than a CPI(M) leader in a similar position would have had in the previous regime.

This lack of sophistication shows: The situation on the ground hasn't changed much as data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows there has been no particular spike in the rate of violent crimes. West Bengal's crime rate is actually a little lower than the all-India average.

It wasn't always this bleak; academics held influential positions despite not kowtowing to the ruling party

That doesn't make the actions of TMC-backed goons any less criminal. But here we must remember that however condemnable it may be, political violence is also a kind of political action, employed regularly for political gains.

The state's law-and-order machinery acts only when violence is used explicitly in the name of secession, class struggle and minority religions. Other than these, violence in the name of politics has been an integral part of the establishment.

Violence by the ruling party is typically the most direct proof of an organised political opposition.

In fact, a relative slowdown in inter-party clashes in the state has been read as a sign of a crumbling opposition.

Also, it is said the TMC has been coopting sections of those who earlier helped the CPI(M) gain ground by dismantling political rivals. The Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, a human rights group, has listed more than 7,000 political killings during the Left Front years.

Neighbouring Bangladesh has a similar culture of endemic political violence, including clashes involving students.

The cycle of violence

The primacy of violence, in fact, goes back to the Congress era of the mid-'70s, a period when Banerjee started her political career.

Old timers still remember the lumpen tactics of the Chhatra Parishad (the state counterpart of Congress's NSUI) and the Youth Congress during the Emergency. They had snuffed out almost all opposition in colleges and universities, where students were terrified of union elections.

When the CPI(M) assumed power, the SFI quickly learnt the trick of keeping rival candidates at bay either by coercion or by getting their nominations cancelled.

Thus it ensured decades of 'unchallenged victories' and the space to develop a culture of non-violent democratic political contestation was severely eroded.

The situation was not this bleak always.

Until the suppression of the Naxalbari uprising, left-wing students' organisations dominated democratically contested elections. Congress unions, too, won a significant number of polls. Several teachers, professors and principals held influential positions despite not kowtowing to the ruling party.

That image of a progressive West Bengal now seems a thing of the past.

The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.

First published: 12 August 2015, 1:18 IST
Garga Chatterjee @GargaC

Garga Chatterjee writes on the politics and culture of South Asia. His columns, in Bangla and English, have appeared in several dailies in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. He did his PhD from Harvard, followed it up with a post-doctoral fellowship at the MIT, and is now based out of Kolkata. A collection of his writings can be found at www.hajarduari.wordpress.com