History has a way of coming full circle; its long, see-sawing arc can make aggressors out of those who had once been victims of aggression. In 2001, as many as 11 supporters of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) were burnt alive by a mob belonging to West Bengal’s then-ruling party, the CPI(M), in a place called Chhoto Angaria in Midnapore district.
Twenty-one years later, on 21 March, at least eight persons, including six women and two children, were charred to death in Bogtui village in the Rampurhat area of Bengal’s Birbhum district after their house was set on fire. This time, the killer-arsonists were, allegedly, none other than TMC workers.
Another Day in Bengal's Culture of Political Violence
The grisly incident took place hours after Bhadu Sheikh, deputy pradhan of a TMC-run village panchayat in the area, was killed in a bomb blast. Sheikh’s supporters are believed to have immediately launched a retaliatory strike against a rival group of Trinamool workers who were supposedly behind his murder. Houses belonging to these men were torched. In one of them, eight women and children could not find their way out of the inferno and were burnt alive. The police failed to arrive in time to prevent the murders, even though the police station was not far away.
It was another day in hell, another day in Bengal’s long-standing and ever-burgeoning calendar of political violence. And it was another reminder that though TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee ousted the Left from its 34-year rule in 2011 on the promise of poriborton (change), as far as political vendetta and killings were concerned, nothing had changed on the ground.
But the carnage in Birbhum last week did not even have the barbaric logic of one political party unleashing terror and mayhem on another. It was the outcome of a gang war, a murderous, internecine battle within the TMC itself.
Bhadu Sheikh, a party toughie, had risen to become a local sand and stone mafia kingpin. Rival gangs, also belonging to the TMC, wanted him out of the way. And last week, their turf war boiled over into a blood-curdling display of the nexus between crime and politics within the TMC’s rank and file. In Birbhum, where the party is led by strongman Anubrata Mandal (who claimed that the fire had been sparked by a short circuit), its workers, fattened on the TMC’s untrammelled power in the area, are clearly turning their propensity for violence upon themselves.
Can Mamata Stem the Rot?
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee cannot fail to see this as a dangerous portend, a signal that her party cadres are not just out of line but entirely out of control. Though predictably, she and her party claimed that the Birbhum killings were a “conspiracy” to malign the state, she cannot fail to sense that it does no good to her political future in Bengal (and elsewhere) if the TMC is seen as a bunch of feral gangs cannibalising each other for the spoils of their extortion rackets.
The question is, will Mamata make a determined effort to rein in the corruption and criminality that has been allowed to blossom in her party? And more importantly, is it even possible for her to control this Frankenstein?
Bengal’s political history is, of course, replete with violence. The savage communal riots of 1946, the bloody Naxal movement of the 1960s and early 1970s and the even bloodier effort by the government to put it down, the massacre of hundreds of Dalit refugees in Marchjhanpi in the Sundarbans in 1979, the brutal killing of 16 Ananda Margi monks in 1982 (they were burnt alive in broad daylight on Bijan Setu, a flyover in south Kolkata), the murder of 11 landless labourers by CPI(M) operatives in Nanoor in Birbhum in 2000, the Chhoto Angaria murders in 2001, the killing of 14 people in police firing in Nandigram in 2007 — these are just a few instances of the state’s gory record of political and often state-sponsored violence.
The TMC seems to have gleefully segued into this brutal paradigm. Indeed, even before the party had defeated the mighty BJP and won its spectacular third term in power last year, it had begun to commit the same sort of violence that the CPI(M) had been known for. The Marxists terrorised their political opponents, especially in rural areas. The TMC, to which most of the Left party workers had gravitated, did the same.
For CPI(M), the Tipping Point Was Nandigram
In 2018, the TMC won the panchayat polls in Bengal with an astonishing 34 per cent of the seats going uncontested, because opposition candidates had been subjected to violent intimidation and forced to opt out. More than 50 people were killed in clashes between the TMC and its opponents at the time.
After the Assembly polls in 2021, another cycle of violence and vendetta was let loose. At least 11 people were killed in the immediate aftermath of the TMC’s win in the state elections. It is feared that the 2023 panchayat polls will be a reprise of 2018 — the party’s musclemen will once again make sure that a terrified opposition stays away from the electoral process.
Mamata herself is no stranger to violence. She has personally borne the brunt of it at the hands of the CPI(M)’s goons in the 1980s and 1990s when she was making her mark as a super spunky youth leader of the Congress. Hence, she ought to know that violence has an inflection point, after which it becomes counter-productive. For the CPI(M), that point came with Nandigram.
Could the Birbhum killings prove to be such a tipping point for the TMC? Certainly, it could be the end of the party’s newfound honeymoon with the middle class in Bengal. In the 2021 Assembly elections, voters had set aside their disenchantment with Mamata and overlooked the large-scale corruption and lawlessness that had marred her second term. They brought her back to power with a stunning majority mainly because they wanted the BJP to lose and take its politics of polarisation elsewhere.
Mamata's Usual Platitudes Won't Work
But all that is done and dusted now. The people of Bengal are unlikely to look at the Birbhum massacre as anything other than a horrific example of the TMC’s descent into anarchy. And the Chief Minister, her hefty mandate notwithstanding, would be wrong to presume that she can live it down by uttering the usual platitudes about bringing the guilty to book.
Can Mamata go in for a deep clean of her party? Can she tackle the TMC's powerful satraps on whose support the criminal elements in the party thrive? At this point, it does not look likely. When you are riding a tiger, often the only thing you can do is keep holding on as it continues on its deadly stride.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author. She tweets @ShumaRaha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)