Politics, Power and Elections: Uncovering Electoral Violence in West Bengal

Note: The original version of the article was published on March 31st in “The Daily Guardian”

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During the start of campaigning for the West Bengal assembly elections in November last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said to Bharatiya Janata Party workers, “Maut Ke Khel Se Mat Nahi Mil Sakta (you don’t get votes from bloodshed).” While Modi did not name the state’s ruling party, the Trinamool Congress or Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the BJP has been blaming the TMC for engaging in a violent campaign. In July last year, the party released a list of 107 members all of whom they claimed had died due to political violence. While the TMC refuted all claims, it is undeniable that the state of West Bengal is rife with both political and electoral violence. The Election Commission has announced voting in eight phases to improve the presence of military forces while voting takes place and has also announced additional numbers in critical hamlets. Despite this, in the past month, accusations of the death of a TMC worker and vandalization of a BJP office have already come to light. Understanding the complicated relationship between politics, power and elections in West Bengal is critical to understanding why the state is so rampant with electoral violence, making voters and constituents scared to go out and vote.

Tracing the History of Electoral Violence in West Bengal

The state of West Bengal has had a long and complicated relationship with electoral violence. While elections are simultaneously being held in 5 states and Union Territories, if you scan media coverage, it would appear as if elections are only being held in West Bengal. Why is that so? Why are all eyes on West Bengal? Since before the BJP’s rise to power during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the rivalry between the TMC and BJP has led to significant poll-related violence across the state. Even before this, the TMC shared a similar rivalry with the Left Front and before that the Left shared one with the Indian National Congress (INC).

The history of political and electoral violence in West Bengal has been longstanding. The violence has a trend of peaking during election season, with the major players changing over the years. During the 1960s and 70s, the violence was mostly between the Indian National Congress (INC), the Left Front (an alliance of Left parties that was in power in the state for over three decades) and Naxalites. However, after the TMC’s rise to power, the strife shifted to TMC and CPI(M). In recent years, the fight has been between the BJP and TMC.

Undoubtedly, one of the most infamous elections in the history of West Bengal was the 2018 panchayat elections. The ruling TMC won the election with a comfortable margin, however, they were accused of stealing ballot boxes, stamping ballot papers and winning over 34% of the seats without any competition, which is also the same as area capture. The highest number of uncontested seats were in Murshidabad, South 24 Parganas, Hooghly, Bankura, Purba Bardhaman, Paschim Bardhaman and Birbhum districts. More than half of all election-related violent events during the time also took place in these districts.

Different phases of the panchayat elections were marred with high levels of violence. Even before voting started for the elections, during the filing of nominations, 10 times as many events of violence and twice as many fatalities were reported as compared to prior weeks. Due to ongoing reports of violence, threats and intimidation against opposition parties and their supporters, the deadline was extended to April 23rd.

The second phase of elections was also marred with violence and riots. Of all the violent events, most were instances of violent attacks on civilians (including assault and murder), rioting and armed battles between party members. What is also important to note is that despite such high levels of violence, only 4% of all reported instances had any form of police intervention.

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As per National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data on past Lok Sabha and state elections and annual records, poll-violence and elections in West Bengal go hand in hand. During the 2003 panchayat elections, 76 people died (across political parties). Similarly, the 2013 panchayat elections also led to the death of 39 people, while in the 2018 elections, 29 political party members were killed. Even in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, out of the total 5,315 poll-time offences registered in India, 18% were registered in West Bengal. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, out of the total 16 political workers killed across India in poll-related violence, 44% of them were in West Bengal. In a similar manner, data for 2019 also shows that out of the 2,008 political workers who were injured, 1,298 (that is 64 per cent) were in West Bengal.

Another factor that is interesting to note is that while in most states across the country, electoral violence is recorded mostly before and on the day of polling, in West Bengal more instances of violence are observed in the period after polls are held. All-India data shows that during the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections 65% and 74% of violent events respectively were recorded in the pre-poll period. However, for West Bengal, the election period offences recorded after voting was over were 61% during the 2009 elections and 44.68% for 2014 elections.

Why is West Bengal prone to electoral violence?

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Electoral and political violence is by no means a new phenomenon in West Bengal. Political analysts and historians have argued that the long-running history of violent territorial control and the exclusion of political rivals have fostered this culture of violence in the state. Even dating back to 1972, the Congress won the elections and was accused of rigging the elections through the use of muscle power. Many argue that the “Hoodlum Years” that ushered into West Bengal following the 1972 elections marked the start of a culture of competitive political violence which has now become a well-known part of West Bengal politics. In 1977, riding on the tide of Congress resettlement, CPI(M) came to power and began the same exercise of eliminating all opposition and building a one-party state at the expense of erosion of all opposition. Similarly, the rise of the TMC in 2009 was also marked by an increase in violence and battles.

As per historian Partha Chatterjee, the reason for this could be linked to the structure of rural politics in West Bengal. Chatterjee attributes the “party-society” structure of politics in the state, whereby political parties dominate every aspect of life to this violence. “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. Rural life is literally inconceivable without the party,” she adds.

What is being done to control poll-related violence?

As per Election Commission data, any polling station can be declared as “critical” for various reasons including, if more than 75% of votes are being polled in favour of one candidate; it witnessed electoral violence in past elections; has a large number of missing voters; or if people are vulnerable to intimidation, among others. In 2014, West Bengal had the highest number of polling stations that were classified as ‘critical’ by the Election Commission (nearly half). This was the second-highest number of vulnerable hamlets across the country. The state also recorded the highest number of violations of the Mode Code of Conduct (MCC) in 2014.

Photograph by Jhelumchowdhury

In an attempt to combat the same, for the upcoming assembly elections, the Election Commission has identified additional pockets that are vulnerable to electoral violence. They are called sensitive or critical polling stations and are being identified in an effort to ensure free and fair elections. While the 2016 assembly elections were held in six phases, this year the elections will be carried out in eight phases. The major reason for having such a long drawn electoral process in the state is to help combat any possible political violence in different districts at the time of elections and also to allow the movement of paramilitary forces.

As per the announcement by the home ministry, paramilitary forces will reach a district three to four days before elections are over. This is being done in an attempt to help forces understand the locations of polling booths and residential areas from where the voters will come. This will help generate confidence amongst voters in areas that could be considered vulnerable to political violence.

-Shiv Sehgal & Shreya Maskara /New Delhi

Contributing reports by Damini Mehta, Sehal Jain, Oshin Anna Shaji, Raunaq Sharma and Ishita Sehgal.

From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.

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Polstrat is a political consultancy aiming to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.