West Bengal local polls | Bombs and ballot boxes

The month-long panchayat poll-related violence in West Bengal claimed 40 lives and left hundreds injured. Shiv Sahay Singh reports on how political opponents were threatened and murdered in a mismanaged and lawless election, which the Trinamool Congress won

July 15, 2023 03:15 am | Updated 10:30 am IST

The grieving family members of Liaqat Sheikh, who was killed on the day of polling at Gangadhari village in Nowda block of Murshidabad district, West Bengal.

The grieving family members of Liaqat Sheikh, who was killed on the day of polling at Gangadhari village in Nowda block of Murshidabad district, West Bengal. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Liaqat Sheikh followed a simple morning routine. Every day, he would wake up early and walk to the tea shop located just 20 metres from his house at Gangadhari village in Nowda block of Murshidabad district, West Bengal. On the morning of July 8, Liaqat, 62, sat on a bench at the shop in peace, sipping his milky tea from an earthen cup.

Suddenly, a group of men appeared, their faces covered. They threw a series of crude bombs on the road. People screamed and ran helter-skelter. As Liaqat rushed towards his house, a crude bomb came hurtling towards him. Once the smoke dissipated, Ainul Sheikh ran to check on his older brother. Liaqat Sheikh was dead. It was 6.43 a.m., exactly 17 minutes before polling began for the West Bengal panchayat elections.

The family members of Liaqat Sheikh who was killed by a crude bomb.

The family members of Liaqat Sheikh who was killed by a crude bomb. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

From June 8, when the notification for the panchayat polls was issued, to the night of July 8, when polling ended, 40 people were killed in the State in poll-related violence.

There had been apprehensions about this, especially since killings had marred the 2021 Assembly elections in the State. Yet, the West Bengal State Election Commission (WBSEC) decided to hold elections in 61,636 polling booths on a single day and not in phases. It was not keen to requisition Central forces, but was ordered to do so by the Calcutta High Court. When the Central forces did arrive, they were late and were deployed in a haphazard manner.

Compared to the 2018 panchayat polls when the ruling Trinamool Congress won 34% of seats without any contest, the share of uncontested seats this time was only 12%.

Mayhem in Murshidabad

Blood stains and the residue of crude bombs remained on the road when State Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury visited Liaqat’s home the next day. “He was a true Muslim, a pious man. I make a promise that Liaqat Saheb’s death will not go in vain,” declared the Congress MP from Behrampore in Murshidabad. After Chowdhury left, the cries of grieving women once again rang through the street. “The violence was unprovoked,” said Salim, 32, Liaqat’s son who works in Indore as a migrant worker.

Editorial | Alarm bells: On the violence in the West Bengal panchayat elections

“This is a fight between one faction of the Trinamool Congress, which is close to the Left, and another faction, which is close to the Congress,” Ainul alleged, as people tried to hush him up.

He explained that their nephew, Nasidul Sheikh, was contesting the zilla parishad election from seat number 72 on a Congress ticket. The boundary wall of Liaqat’s house had the newly painted symbol of the Congress and the name of Nasidul. Ainul alleged that the violence was perpetrated by supporters of Safiur Zaman, the Trinamool candidate who was fighting the same seat. Both Nasidul and Safiur wanted a ticket from the ruling party in the polls, but when Nasidul was denied a ticket, he turned to the Congress, the party that the family had supported until a few years ago, said Ainul.

Liaqat was the first and oldest person to fall victim to violence on polling day. Voters alleged that large-scale rigging had taken place at the five polling booths near his house. By the night of July 8, fights had broken out across all the districts of the State, and the poll-related death toll had climbed to 17. Later, one policeman died of cardiac arrest, taking the toll to 18.

Five of these deaths occurred in Murshidabad alone. A few hours after Chowdhury visited Liaqat’s house, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Politburo member Ram Chanda Dome visited the home of Roshan Ali, a CPI(M) supporter, at Chayatoni village of Murshidabad district. Like Liaqat, Roshan, 40, a migrant worker who had just returned from Kerala, was killed near his house. He had been beaten to death in front of his wife Taslima Nasrin at about 9.30 a.m. inside a polling booth.

Taslima Nasrin, the wife of Roshan Ali who was killed at Chayatoni village in Murshidabad district.

Taslima Nasrin, the wife of Roshan Ali who was killed at Chayatoni village in Murshidabad district. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

The First Information Report filed by Roshan’s brother, Rabiul Islam, mentioned Iqbal Hossain, the local booth president of the Congress, as the first accused and Moidul Islam, the Trinamool candidate, as the fourth accused. “The Trinamool in alliance with the Congress killed our brother,” alleged Abujar Gaffar, Roshan’s relative.

“While the CPI(M)-led Left Front and the Congress were in alliance for these polls, the ground realities at Chayatoni are different. Political affiliations are crucial to the three-tier panchayat elections, but sometimes these identities get blurred,” said Biswanath Chakraborty, who teaches political science at Rabindra Bharati University. He pointed out that the desperation of political groups or individuals to hold on to the rural economy through local panchayats becomes evident every time panchayat polls are held. “These elections were held under the most lawless circumstances and have been the most violent. This was the most mismanaged election by the WBSEC in its history,” he said.

The Director General of Police, Manoj Malaviya, spoke to journalists only once on the violence. On July 4, he insisted that the situation was under control. The few incidents that had occurred would have taken place whether or not elections were being held, he said.

Targeted killings

While expressing regret over the violence, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said that the people who had been killed were “victims of circumstance”. She declared that the death toll was 19 and added that most of those who were killed were supporters of the Trinamool. The party claimed that with 2.06 lakh nominations for 73,897 seats, the polls have been free and fair.

But not all those who died were “victims of circumstance”; many of the killings were targeted, and were followed by retaliatory killings. Sattarul Sheikh, 60, a Trinamool worker who was killed on the eve of polling day, was dragged out of his house and hacked to death at Ratanpur village in Khargram block of Murshidabad.

“They knocked on the door at night and said they were from the police station,” said Rofiya Bibi, his wife. Since her son, Abdur Rahman, is an accused in the murder of their neighbour Fulchand Sheikh, she opened the door. She found her husband lying dead about 100 metres away.

Ratanpur is located amid lush paddy fields and ponds. Sattarul, who reared livestock, and Fulchand, a farmer, were neighbours. Fulchand was killed on June 8, soon after the notification was issued for the rural polls. After Sattarul was killed, Fulchand’s family fled their home, leaving two Congress flags hanging from the balcony.

It is not only Murshidabad that has seen retaliatory killings. The elections precipitated a factional feud within the Trinamool at Basanti in South 24 Parganas district. On July 2, Jiyarul Molla, the father of a Trinamool candidate, was killed at Phulmalancha village in Basanti.

“My father was associated with Yuva (the youth faction of Trinamool). Those from the ‘mother’ faction (leaders associated with the party since its inception) had threatened me saying I should withdraw my candidature,” said Manoara Piyada, the Trinamool nominee. “I told my husband that my father is receiving threats but he said if we have to take up politics, we should ignore these threats,” she said. Later, when Governor C.V. Ananda Bose visited Basanti, Manoara met him, sought an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation into her father’s murder, and said that she wanted to quit politics.

On July 8, violence struck again at Phulmalancha village when Trinamool worker Anisur Ostagir, who had stood in queue to cast his vote, was killed at a polling booth. His family alleged that leaders of the Yuva faction had killed Anisur, as retaliation for the murder of Jiyarul.

Seeking shelter

Bhangar in South 24 Parganas was another epicentre of poll violence. Six people were killed in the block, about 20 km from Kolkata, during the elections. While the Trinamool faced challenges from the Congress and the Left in Murshidabad, it was the Indian Secular Front (ISF) that posed a challenge to the Trinamool in Bhangar.

Bhangar turned into a battle zone on June 15, the last day of filing nomination papers. Hundreds of armed men stood outside the Block Development Officer (BDO)’s office to prevent Opposition candidates from filing nomination. Bombs were hurled outside the administrative complex, people ran around with batons and bamboo sticks, and the police were forced to beat a hasty retreat. Three people — two supporters of the Trinamool and one ISF worker — were killed.

About 48% of the seats in the State panchayat polls are reserved for women, who also face stiff challenges. During the nominations at Bhangar, Asma Khatoon, an ISF candidate, was holed up in the BDO’s office for several hours as a crowd, which had threatened her with dire consequences if she dared to contest, waited outside.

On the night of July 11, violence again erupted during counting. ISF supporters gathered in large numbers outside Kanthalia High School alleging that their candidate, Jahanara Khatton, was defeated using unfair means. The situation worsened at night and two ISF supporters and a villager died of bullet injuries. Jahanara’s family members said that she and her husband had gone missing since the night of July 11.

Novel methods were used during the polls to threaten political opponents. In some places, a garland of tuberoses, a packet of sweets, and white clothes were placed outside the houses of political opponents — a not-so-subtle death threat. During counting, a contestant who realised that his opponent was leading by a few votes ate a few ballot papers which he thought were in support of his rival.

After filing nomination to contest the polls, in certain places, candidates of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), CPI(M), and ISF were forced to seek shelter, often in party offices. “We will have to go into hiding whether we lose or win the elections,” said Suvankar Giri, a BJP candidate who had filed nomination from Nazat 2 gram panchayat in Sandeshkhali block of North 24 Parganas.

Between June 14 and June 20, Suvankar and dozens of BJP supporters sought refuge in Maheshwari Sadan outside the BJP State headquarters in Kolkata. BJP candidates from Sandeshkhali left their homes after the results of the polls were declared. Sandeshkhali was the first stop for the fact-finding team of the BJP, led by former Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

Apart from Murshidabad and Bhangar, Cooch Behar in north Bengal, particularly Dinhata block, also became a flashpoint of political violence between the BJP and the Trinamool, with five people dying in the district.

‘A party society’

On the day of polling, men with firearms, bombs, and batons attacked rival factions. Ballot boxes were snatched, set on fire, or thrown into ponds. At several places, polling agents alleged that they were threatened and beaten up. On that day alone, 130 people with injuries were admitted to the Murshidabad Medical College and Hospital.

Days after the polling, the male surgical ward of the hospital was filled with victims of political violence. Most of them had suffered injuries on their head, face, and hands. Abdul Lateef’s face had turned black with burn injuries. Both his hands were bandaged. The cause, Abdul muttered, was a “bomb”. A trainee nurse said that Abdul, who was from Farakka town, has been referred to a hospital in Kolkata and may have lost his vision. Other patients whispered that he suffered the injuries while assembling crude bombs.

Abdul Lateef, from Farraka, at Murshidabad Medical College and Hospital. Lateef sustained injuries on his face and hands in a crude bomb explosion.

Abdul Lateef, from Farraka, at Murshidabad Medical College and Hospital. Lateef sustained injuries on his face and hands in a crude bomb explosion. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

While many have fallen victims to crude bomb attacks, a large number of people have also lost their lives while manufacturing bombs, especially in Birbhum, North 24 Parganas, and South 24 Parganas. Those who have been killed and injured in the violence are mostly impoverished. A majority of them are minorities or from so-called backward castes and cannot afford treatment.

Sociologist Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay said that the desperation of the people to secure victory in the rural polls is the result of an economic crisis, rather than a political phenomenon. “Panchayats are central to the lives of the people in rural areas. People are left with little choice: either they become beneficiaries of panchayat schemes or migrate for work,” he said.

According to Chakraborty from Rabindra Bharati University, violence could continue even after the panchayat elections. “There has been a normalisation of electoral violence. One major reason is that West Bengal society has become a party society, and politics is a major diver of the economy,” he said.

On July 12, the Calcutta High Court took note of the report by the force coordinator Inspector General of the Border Security Force who said that there was “conscious non-cooperation” by the WBSEC on the deployment of Central forces during the polls.

Meanwhile, parties are blaming one another. Janarul Sheikh and Titul Halder, both with bandages on their heads, shared a bed at Murshidabad Medical College. Titu said that he was attacked by Trinamool supporters, while Janarul said he was attacked by Congress supporters. When asked which party had resorted to more violence in the elections, Titu was quick to taunt Janarul. “They (Trinamool) have more support on the ground. Ask them why they were resorting to violence,” he said.

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