Between 1999 and 2016, on an average West Bengal witnessed 20 political murders every year. (Photo: Reuters)
It is an election season and West Bengal is in the news for all the wrong reasons. There is violence. And more violence. Phase after phase, rally after rally, week after week. The state sends 42 MPs to the Lok Sabha and this time, election to these is being held in seven phases.
Every phase has had its own share of headlines for violence that was unleashed on and around the polling day. Murders, clashes, stonepelting, lathicharge, firing, arson, you name it and some corner of West Bengal witnessed it in this election season.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Trinamool Congress and the Left parties have been accusing each other of attacking and murdering their workers and supporters. This cycle of accusations and counter-accusations did not come up all of a sudden. But in the immediate context, it started in the run-up to the panchayat elections that were held in West Bengal last year. Media reports suggest that nearly 50 people died during these elections.
When the Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal was accused of having failed to curb election-time violence last year, TMC's Rajya Sabha MP Derek O'Brien in a tweet said: "To all 'newborn' experts on Bengal #PanchayatElections in State have a history. 400 killed in poll violence in 1990s in CPI(M) rule. 2003: 40 dead. Every death is a tragedy. Now closer to normal than earlier times. Yes, few dozen incidents. Say, 40 out of 58,000 booths. What's %age? (sic)."
On Tuesday, BJP president Amit Shah's rally in Kolkata was marred by violence as out between TMC and BJP workers. What worsened the situation (by hurting cultural sentiments) was that a bust of Bengal icon Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was vandalised in the mayhem.
But this election season has seen graver violence.
On February 10, sitting TMC MLA from Krishnaganj, from point-blank range in West Bengal's Nadia district. The TMC held BJP responsible for this murder, while the BJP rubbished it saying Biswas was probably killed due to infighting in TMC.
On March 28, a BJP leader's brother was in Malda district. The BJP accused the TMC for this.
The past one year was witness to such political violence where workers/supporters of TMC, BJP, Congress and the Left were attacked or killed in the state. The victims in these cases were mostly ground-level workers who were students, teachers, labourers, farmers, agricultural workers and small shopkeepers.
But is election-time violence new to the political fabric of West Bengal?
WHAT DATA SHOW
Election Commission of India's reports on past Lok Sabha elections and annual reports of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that West Bengal and poll-related violence go hand in hand.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, a total of 16 political workers were killed across India in poll-related violence. West Bengal had the highest share of these deaths as 44 per cent (i.e. seven deaths) of them were reported in the state.
When it comes to injuries, the Election Commission report shows that 2,008 political workers and 1,354 onlookers were injured in the violence during the 2014 general elections. Of the 2,008 political workers who were injured, 1,298 (i.e. 64 per cent) were in West Bengal.
The victims in these cases are mostly ordinary people: students, teachers, labourers, farmers, agricultural workers and small shopkeepers.
Besides this, all the 1,354 onlookers who were injured in poll-related violence were from West Bengal.
Reports of the National Crime Records Bureau reveal that in the 18 years between 1999 and 2016, on an average West Bengal witnessed 20 political murders every year.
The highest was in 2009 when 50 murders were motivated by political reasons. This was followed by 2000, 2010 and 2011, each of which saw 38 political murders.
2009 LEFT GOVT, 2014 TMC GOVT: DID BENGAL CHANGE DURING POLLS?
Data also shows that poll-related violence in West Bengal is not exclusively a product of Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress's eight-year rule in the state. The state has weathered bouts of similar violence in the past too.
For instance, the 2009 Lok Sabha election was held at a time when West Bengal was ruled by a Communist government. In this election, a total of 5,315 poll-time offences were registered in the country. Of these, 18 per cent (i.e. 963) were registered in West Bengal.
In 2014, when Mamata Banerjee was the state chief minister, 931 election-time offences were registered in the state. The overall number of such offences in the country was 7,787.
Thus, while there wasn't a major change in the number of registered offences in West Bengal between the two regimes, the state's share in the national figure declined.
The Election Commission report does not categorise violent and non-violent offences separately.
PECULIAR FEATURE OF BENGAL
A feature that is peculiar to poll-time violence in West Bengal in the past two Lok Sabha elections (2014 and 2009) is that while most states primarily witness violence before and on the polling day, in the case of West Bengal it seems violence increased in the post-poll period.
The all-India data on offences recorded during election period in 2009 and 2014 show that most of the offences (65 per cent in 2009 and 74 per cent in 2014) were recorded in the pre-poll period. This was followed by offences on polling day and the least number of offences recorded were in the post-poll period.
But in the case of West Bengal, at least 61 per cent election-period offences were recorded in the post-poll period (i.e. once voting was over) in the 2009 Lok Sabha election.
In 2014 Lok Sabha election, the figure was 44.68 per cent for post-poll and 40 per cent for pre-poll offences that were recorded.
In 2014, West Bengal had the highest number of polling stations that were classified as 'critical' by the Election Commission. The state had 77,252 polling stations, and nearly half of them (37,553) were termed critical.
WHAT HAPPENED IN LS POLLS 5 YRS AGO
Vulnerability of voters in West Bengal can be understood from the fact that in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the state had the second highest number of hamlets that were vulnerable to intimidation and use of muscle power during election.
Bihar topped this list with 20,179 vulnerable hamlets, followed by West Bengal where the figure was 18,810. Election Commission data show that in West Bengal, for every four vulnerable electors, there was one possible intimidator. This ratio of vulnerable electors to possible intimidators was among the highest in large states.
West Bengal had the highest number of polling stations that were classified as 'critical' by the Election Commission. The state had 77,252 polling stations, and nearly half of them (37,553) were termed critical.
A polling station can be classified as 'critical' for a number of reasons like: more than 75 per cent votes being polled in favour of one candidate; it witnessed electoral violence in past elections; has a large number of missing voters; people are vulnerable to intimidation, among others.
This apart, West Bengal was also the state that had the highest number of violations of Mode Code of Conduct (MCC) in 2014.
In fact, 43 per cent of all MCC violations in 2014 were committed in the fertile and volatile political plains of West Bengal. Authorities registered 3,742 FIRs in West Bengal for MCC violations, which was second only to Andhra Pradesh (4,237).
ANY END TO THE CHAOS?
Nine Lok Sabha seats will go to poll in the last phase of 2019 Lok Sbaha election on May 19. Taking note of reports of election-time violence in West Bengal, the Election Commission on Wednesday for the last phase of election by 20 hours.
TMC supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee termed the Commission's decision as "biased". She said it [curtailing campaign time] is a "gift" from the Election Commission to the BJP.
"EC's biased actions under the directions of the #BJP are a direct attack on democracy. People will give a befitting reply," she said in a tweet.
She was not the only one to attack the Election Commission. CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury too attacked it saying the first thing that the Commission should have done was to act against the "lumpen elements of the BJP and TMC". He said its action stands out to benefit the ruling governments in Bengal and the Centre (TMC and BJP respectively).
On the other hand, BJP too is in an all-out aggressive mode. Attacking Mamata Banerjee, BJP president Amit Shah said, "If Mamata Didi thinks she can win the election by creating a quagmire of violence, then I want to tell her that bigger the quagmire you create, better will lotus [BJP's symbol] bloom."
PAST ADVISES CAUTION
While Lok Sabha election will end on May 19 with the last phase of voting, what remains a concern is if political violence continues in the pattern followed in past elections, West Bengal may continue to make headlines featuring words like murder, abduction, clashes, scuffle, vandalised, attacked, among others, even after election results are known on May 23.
For sample: In an editorial in September 2009 (few months after the 2009 Lok Sabha election), the noted journal Political and Economic Weekly (EPW) said:
"No clear estimates are available but credible accounts suggest that the number of political activists killed after May 16--when the results of the Lok Sabha elections were announced--could well cross the 150 mark. Apart from the fact that this is a very large number in any context, there appears to be a pattern in these killings, which strongly suggests that these are not random acts of political violence but are, most likely, an outcome of a well-planned political strategy."
Referring to the murder of a schoolteacher who was shot dead at point-blank while taking a class in Salboni, near Lalgarh, the EPW editorial said, "The point here seems to have been not only to eliminate an activist of a rival party but to spread terror among the people by executing the killing in such horrific manner in front of small children."
It would be prudent if political parties can spare the state with a repeat of such violence in the post-poll period starting May 20.