At least 12 persons were killed as large-scale violence erupted during polling for the panchayat polls in West Bengal on July 8. This is the highest single day toll of poll-related violence in West Bengal in recent times.
Among those killed were seven supporters of the Trinamool Congress, two each were from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and one from the Congress.
There were reports of electoral malpractices and violence from several districts of the State. Four deaths were reported in Murshidabad district from areas such as Rejinagar, Lalgola, Nowda and Khargram, two from Cooch Behar and Purba Bardhaman districts and one each from Nadia, Uttar Dinajpur and South 24 Parganas districts.
A Trinamool Congress candidate was killed at Chakulia in Uttar Dinajpur district when he visited a polling booth while a polling agent of the BJP was killed at Cooch Behar district. Another Trinamool Congress supporter was killed at Basanti in South 24 Parganas allegedly by another faction of his own party when he had queued up to cast his vote. CPI(M) supporters were killed at Ausgram in Purba Bardhaman district and at Lalgola in Murshidabad.
Reports of violence and snatching of ballot papers started coming in as soon as polling began at 7 a.m. There were reports of violence and killings from all across the State. At least 92 people were injured in poll-related violence.
In the run-up to the polls, there were apprehensions of large-scale violence, and political groups and activists had raised the issue. The Calcutta High Court had intervened and asked the State Election Commission to deploy Central forces, insisting that the number should not be less than that deployed in the 2013 panchayat polls. .
Despite the orders of the Calcutta High Court that Central forces be deployed outside every polling booth, at several places in the State, there was no deployment of Central forces.
Central forces not everywhere
The State Election Commission (SEC), following the Calcutta High Court order, had sought 822 companies of Central forces but by Saturday morning only 649 companies of forces had arrived in the State.
Sources said that the remaining forces could not reach the State on time because of the delay on the part of the SEC to requisition the forces and non-availability of adequate transport facilities. The remaining forces are likely to reach the State after voting ends. Senior officials in charge of deployment of Central forces said that they were not even provided with details of sensitive polling stations. State Election Commissioner Rajiva Sinha said that the maintenance of law and order was the responsibility of district officials whereas the Commission was responsible for making arrangements for the polls.
Mr. Sinha said that the Commission could deploy Central forces in only 15,000 polling booths which is one fourth of the booths that went to the polls. Polling was scheduled at 61,636 polling booths in the State but at various places, it had to be suspended because of violence or attacks on polling personnel and snatching of ballot boxes.
Governor C.V. Ananda Bose who has been visiting violence-hit areas of the State over the past few days visited North 24 Parganas today. “This is the most sacred day for a democracy... Election must be through ballots and not bullets,” Dr. Bose said.
The political parties in the Opposition including the BJP, CPI(M) and the Congress alleged widespread electoral malpractices claiming that polling was far from being free and fair. The Trinamool Congress leadership insisted that major and minor incidents of violence were reported from only 60 polling booths.
Ballot boxes set on fire, thrown in pond
Incidents of rigging, snatching of ballot papers and ballot boxes being drenched were also reported at various places in the State. Ballot boxes were set on fire at a polling booth at Dinhata in Cooch Behar district. Chaos and pandemonium outside polling booths was reported in different parts of the State and polling agents were also not spared. At one place in Cooch Behar a man was seen running with a ballot box whereas at Suri in Birbhum people were seen kicking ballot boxes and tearing ballot paper. Ballot boxes were thrown inside a pond at Domjur in Howrah. At certain places the polling agents ran out of polling stations alleging attacks by miscreants.
Incidents of isolating and confining supporters of the Opposition came from Bhangar in South 24 Parganas where Indian Secular Front candidates were confined in their houses. Miscreants with batons and firearms were seen on the streets in different rural habitations that went to the polls. Incidents of crude bomb attacks were also reported from various parts of the State.
Earlier in the morning, long queues outside polling booths were seen as early as 6 a.m. with people turning out early amid the intermittent rains.
About 5.67 crore electors are eligible to exercise their franchise in the elections for 63,239 seats at the gram panchayats, 9,730 panchayat samiti seats and 928 zilla parishad seats.
About 2.06 lakh candidates are in the election fray across the State. Trinamool Congress has put up candidates on 71, 938 seats, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) put up candidates on 46,404 seats and the Communist Party of India ( Marxist) has fielded candidates on 42, 910 seats. The notification for panchayat polls was issued on June 8 and 18 people had lost their lives during the run-up to polling day on July 8.