Bengal Polls: Will Violence ‘Help’ Mamata Regime Retain Power?

The idea of dokhol (capture) and purna-dokhol (re-capture) has always played a significant role in Bengal politics.

6 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

After the recent attack on the convoy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief Jay Prakash Nadda near Diamond Harbour in West Bengal, concerns over the state’s law and order situation are back on prime time TV. This, while the BJP and Bengal’s Governor Jagdeep Dhankar ‘targeted’ Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee that sparked a debate over a potential President’s Rule, the latter suggesting that the attack was ‘staged’ by BJP to grab media attention.

It is worth asking, whether the CM and her party Trinamool Congress (TMC) have anything to lose (with these episodes of violence) in the upcoming elections.

Or why the Bengal state machinery under successive governments has been accused in a similar fashion of political violence. Recently, the BJP attacked Mamata on the issue of political killings in the state. Refuting the allegations, she, in a political rally organised against the controversial farm bills, cited the National Crime Bureau records, to claim that her state had better law and order than BJP-ruled ones like Uttar Pradesh, and the previous avatar of Bengal under the Left Front regimes (2001-2011).

Bengal Politics & History Of Violence

The history of political violence in West Bengal goes back to the Congress era, who ruled the state since Independence till the 1977 elections when the Jyoti Basu-led Left Front took over. People especially see the period between 1971 to 1977, when Siddhartha Shankar Ray was the chief minister, as a time when political violence against opponents was the strategy of the ruling party of the day. Ray was accused of leading the ‘Hoodlum Years’, as Communists and Naxals were killed on his watch, at the hands of the police and the Congress youth wing.

The Left Front came to power with the promise to end the reign of terror prevalent in the previous regime but ended up ushering in a new era of violence.

The senior partner in the front, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, was often accused of total party dominance in the rural areas, by systematically eliminating political opponents. Not only opposition parties, but members of the left front itself – such as the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), Forward Bloc and Communist Party of India (CPI) – also alleged similar violence against their party cadres.

A cabinet minister from RSP in the Buddhadeb Bhattacharya government said to a magazine in 2009: “The CPM has always been hegemonic, trying to capture all political space. At least 200 of our workers have been killed in the last 32 years.”

Enter Mamata Banerjee in 2011, who assumed the charge of the government by denouncing CPM’s violent tactics during the land struggle in Singur and Nandigram. However, her party workers soon began to face charges of ‘murdering’ CPM workers and ‘capturing’ their party offices in various parts of the state. Some commenters contended that Didi followed the same line of violent control of territory and exclusion of party opponents in the same vein as had been adopted by previous CPM rulers.


‘Dokhol’, ‘Punordokhol’ & The Notion Of ‘Party Society’

The idea of dokhol (capture) and purna-dokhol (re-capture) has always played a significant role in Bengal politics, something that peaked during the Nandigram anti-land acquisition struggle in 2007. The then Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi slammed the Left government for allowing the “recapturing of Nandigram villages” by CPM cadres, but the former CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya defended it.

Earlier in the years just after Mamata Banerjee left Congress to form TMC, several violent clashes between her party members and CPM cadres had hogged national headlines. Be it Keshpur in Midnapore or Nanoor in Birbhum, the spectre of killings in 2000 – to capture villages and drive out opposition supporters – made people question the complete absence of police machinery.

It has been argued that the continuation of violence as a political strategy exists because of the presence of a ‘party-society’ in West Bengal.

Noted academic Partha Chatterjee writes: “In [West] Bengal, the key term is ‘party’. It is indeed the elementary institution of rural life in the state – not family, not kinship, not caste, not religion, not market, but party.”

So, this capture and recapture of villages work around the logic of this party society.

Local networks of privileges and patronage depend on complete political domination of a defined territory. Therefore, violence works quite well as a strategy when one party challenges the authority of the other party with the Police as a mute spectator.


How BJP Juggled Hindutva & ‘Party Society’ Culture In Bengal

Since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when the Modi era in Indian politics began, BJP started to flex its muscle in Bengal politics and vied with other parties to become the principal opponent in the state. Along with Hindutva-based campaigning, BJP also aimed to place itself within the ramparts of this ‘party society’.

To support its members and to showcase their capabilities to the TMC-ruled State apparatus, the party decided to send central leaders and union ministers wherever they got ‘attacked’.

This tactic however did not lessen the violence but rather, made these BJP workers’s voices heard at the national level, unlike their counterparts in the Left Front and Congress.

In June 2014, when a Muslim party worker Sheikh Rahim was killed in Birbhum district, BJP sent a central team that irked the Bengal CM so much that she announced that she would send such delegations to BJP-ruled states if anything untoward happened there. Such political visits helped BJP draw Left members to its folds, in search of security. So much so that though it battled an ‘anti-Muslim’ image nationally, in Bengal, many Muslims from other parties joined the BJP.


Is Bengal’s ‘Party Society’ Ethos On The Decline, With Hindutva On The Rise?

However, since 2019 – when the Modi government staged a comeback with an unprecedented performance by the BJP in West Bengal – winning 18 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats – party cadres have only grown more and more restless. They not only want to be heard but also desire to control the state machinery to exact revenge (on the TMC workers). West Bengal BJP Chief Dilip Ghosh’s recent warning to “Didi’s brothers” – ‘to mend their ways else their limbs would be broken, or they would be sent to the crematorium’ – has only added fuel to the fire.

It is pertinent to question here, whether this ‘party society’ is on the decline with the rise of Hindutva?

The latter propagates cultural nationalism based on the supremacy of the Hindu religious identity, to the exclusion of minorities like Muslims. US-based academic Thomas Blom Hansen argues that violence against minorities as an act of self-defence is an integral part of the Hindutva rhetoric. This sets it apart from the natural violence in a party society. In the last few years, we have seen the rise of communal incidences in various parts of Bengal, which have resulted in Hindu consolidation behind BJP.


Why Violence – As A Political Strategy – May Continue In Bengal

Is ‘party society’ still relevant in West Bengal? Yes, some parts of it are. As one can see, controlling the means of violence ensures the credibility of a party to draw its supporters in West Bengal. Though BJP has emerged as a key player, they have not been able to stop cases of political violence despite all the visits by Union Ministers and the central leadership.

The attack on JP Nadda’s convoy can be seen from this perspective. If the BJP leadership appears helpless in dealing with such attacks, then it can only hurt their main USP of providing safety and security to their party workers. And if the Modi government imposes President’s Rule to please the local state unit, then TMC would get the chance to claim the moral high ground. They would declare BJP unfit to fight Didi democratically, and it may seriously hurt their prospects in the upcoming elections.

Therefore, it is easy to guess why violence may continue unabated in the state in the coming months.

It is a political gamble for the TMC, where they are not on the losing side. Also, when the Modi 2.0 has replaced governance with emotive issues like Ram Temple and CAA to accrue political benefits – BJP’s attack on Didi on issues of unemployment and industrial development is bound to take a backseat.

Against this backdrop, violence provides an important political field which is yet to lose currency in Bengal politics.

(Adil Hossain, D.Phil (University of Oxford), is Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Khurpi. He is also a Commonwealth Scholar. He tweets @adilhossain. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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