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Birbhum killings: Bhadu Sheikh's murder and the history of political violence in West Bengal

Political violence has been almost a part of daily life in West Bengal since the mid-1960s.

March 27, 2022 / 05:41 PM IST
For those who are astonished at what is happening in the land of Tagore, Bogtui is only 62 km from Shantiniketan. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

For those who are astonished at what is happening in the land of Tagore, Bogtui is only 62 km from Shantiniketan. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

Last Monday, a minor Trinamool Congress politician (TMC) Bhadu Sheikh was murdered in broad daylight in his village Bogtui in Birbhum district in West Bengal. Within hours, a mob attacked the families of the suspected killers, set fire to their houses and burnt them alive. At least eight people died—six women and two children.

Among the people aghast at the incident and posting their views on social media were some who wondered how this could happen in Bengal, the land of Tagore and Ray, etc., etc. This reaction is laughable. For the past six decades, West Bengal has been one of the most politically violent states in the country, to the extent that a political murder here and there hardly makes news. It is only when women and children are burnt alive that an incident finds it way into the national media.

I spent my childhood in Calcutta (now Kolkata) at the peak of the Naxalite movement, when families hardly dared to venture out after dark. Some 30 years later, I met Kanu Sanyal, one of the biggest leaders of the movement. He admitted that he had been terribly wrong, that revolution could not come through killing random traffic policemen, who were victims of the capitalist system as much as a daily-wage labourer.

Naxalism was crushed with ferocious state violence after the Congress won the state elections in 1972. We will never know how many thousands of young men and women were killed and dumped into the Hooghly river or mass graves on the mere suspicion of being Naxal sympathizers.

The Left Front came to power in West Bengal in 1977. In 1979, the government forcibly evicted Partition refugees who had settled in Marichjhapi in the Sunderbans in what is perhaps the most horrific police action in post-Independence India. The refugees had been promised rehabilitation by the Left Front in its election campaign, but once it formed the government, it saw these hapless people as vermin. Again, we will never know the actual death toll. The official figure is a ridiculously unbelievable two. The actual number could be a thousand, perhaps more.

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In his 23 years as chief minister, Jyoti Basu possibly ordered more police firings on unarmed agitators than any other Indian politician. The biggest such incident was on July 21, 1993, when Mamata Banerjee, then president of the state’s Youth Congress, led a protest march demanding that photo voter identity cards be made mandatory to ensure fair elections. Thirteen people were killed.

But all this is government brutality. The 1970 Sainbari killings still haunt Bengal. Three men of the Sain family in Bardhaman were murdered by CPI(M) thugs and their mother was forced to eat rice smeared with the blood of her sons. The crime: the family actively supported the Congress. The perpetrators were never punished. One of the alleged instigators, Nirupam Sen, went on to become the state’s industry and commerce minister.

In 2000, 11 agricultural wage labourers, supporters of TMC, were killed at Nanoor. Somnath Chatterjee, then the speaker of the Lok Sabha, in whose parliamentary constituency Nanoor was, described the victims as “hired goons, dacoits and dreaded anti-socials”. When that story did not wash, chief minister Jyoti Basu said that at least 800 Left Front workers, mostly belonging to the CPI(M), had been killed in clashes with TMC supporters. He did not mention the time period over which these deaths may have occurred—TMC came into being only in 1998. Basu also averred that everybody, including Left party workers, had the right of self-defence, but appealed to them to restrain themselves even in the face of atrocities.

In 2001, 11 TMC supporters were burnt alive in their home in Chhoto Angaria village by CPI(M) goons. In 2007, 14 people were shot dead by the police at Nandigram, where the Left Front government was planning to set up a chemical industry hub. Violent clashes in the area between Left Front and TMC cadre over two years may have caused more than 50 deaths.

In 2011, nine people, including four women, were shot dead by CPI(M) cadre in Netai village. In 2014, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who had been chief minister at the time of the carnage, admitted that “it was very wrong… our boys made a mistake, a very bad mistake”.

These are merely incidents that caught the eye of the media. The truth is that political violence has been almost a part of daily life in West Bengal since the mid-1960s.

A few months after the Netai incident, TMC ousted the Left Front from power. The violent CPI(M) cadre who were in the business of terrorizing citizens switched sides overnight to work for TMC. And Mamata Banerjee, who exhibited tremendous physical courage against CPI(M) thugs and police firings when she was leading the opposition against the Left Front—literally facing death several times—has employed the same methods as her Communist predecessors to stay in power and rule through fear.

Every election—from panchayat to municipal bodies to state assembly—is marred by violence. In the 2018 panchayat elections, TMC won one-third of the seats unopposed. The only explanation for this is that many potential aspirants did not have the courage to even file their nominations.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims that more than 100 of its cadre were killed in the aftermath of last year’s state elections, which the TMC swept. Once more, we will never know the exact numbers, but it is certainly a fact that thousands of people had to flee their homes and stay in hiding, faced serious physical intimidation, lost their livelihoods and were even denied their quota in ration shops.

The recent tragedy in Bogtui seems to have been an intra-TMC clash over the loot from the illegal stone and sand trade. Perhaps, as the Swiss-French journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan wrote, every revolution eats its own children. That was certainly true of the Left in West Bengal.

As for those who are astonished at what is happening in the land of Tagore, Bogtui is only 62 km from Shantiniketan, the abode of peace that Rabindranath Tagore built. Nanoor, where 11 landless peasants were killed in 2000, is even closer—just 20 km. The façade of Bengalis being a race of intellectuals and creative spirits is merely that—a façade. Most Bengalis know that in their heart of hearts.



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Sandipan Deb is an independent writer. Views are personal.
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