A playing field for political violence

Why Bengal witnesses large-scale political violence is a question that is often asked. The answer is complex and multi-layered. The people in Bengal, mainly the poor, developed a sense of entitlement, largely as a result of the Left’s long rule. Many argue that such entitlement is what shaped people to express their opinion vociferously.

For example, Amala Naiya, 65, a domestic worker in a south Kolkata neighbourhood, said that she felt “hugely empowered” after the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) came to power. She said, “They told us to report to [the] party office on [an] employer’s [act of[ misconduct. It was a relief.” This “relief” that the working class experienced taught people to dissent; this is perhaps why Bengal witnessed protests recently when a doctor was manhandled in comparison to the silence that has greeted the killing of tribals in Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh.

Bengal’s protests, which have often been violent, go back in its history, where as tribals to Nawabs, peasants, ascetics, fakirs (musician mendicants) to underground revolutionaries often challenged the British in what was its largest Presidency. When the Congress was dislodged in 1967 and 1977, the State witnessed intense violence. The quelling of the Naxalbari uprising witnessed unprecedented State repression, while an unknown number of citizens were killed when the Left was dislodged by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 2011. Thus, the thread of violence compounded by British policies ended up damaging the economy.

Economy and violence

Undivided Bengal — the Bengal Subah — flourished under the Nawabs as Hooghly and Murshidabad attracted investors from overseas centuries ago. Problems began under British rule as a result of multiple factors. British revenue collection was “higher” in the year of the famine (1769-73) than in previous years, if one is to go by Prasannan Parthasarathi’s book, Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not. In addition, anti-peasant regulations and Winston Churchill’s policy to block food import in the 1940s triggered another famine, crippling the economy even further. Partition sounded the death knell. After Independence, big capital did not engage in the region like it had done in west India to pull the State out of its crisis. This is partly owing to the State’s reduced size and population growth due to in-migration. Till 2001, the Census recorded the State as having had the highest population density among the big States. This increased pressure on land accentuated by small holdings making it difficult for industry to acquire land. In addition, the post-Independence policies of the Congress government debilitated the economy. Thus growth of capital, other than in trading was stunted, resulting in peoples’ extreme dependence on political parties and their local ‘satraps’.

As Amitava Gupta, a columnist, has argued in a recent article, “The biggest industry in West Bengal is politics and [the] biggest employer is [the] Trinamool Congress.” Such dependence turned realpolitik violent as people are often required to defend their employer (the political party of the day), in turn boosting polarisation. However, physical violence, a factor to reckon with even today, is deeply political in Bengal rather than being driven by caste violence. Religious communalism has had a different story behind it.

Communal riots were common especially in the areas north of Kolkata from the late 19th century due to a rise in settlements of “up country men... the Hindi or Urdu speaking migrant workers”, as Dipesh Chakravarty says in his paper, Communal Riots and Labour: Bengal’s Jute Mill-Hands in the 1890s. Communal violence escalated during Partition but ebbed during Left rule; there has been a revival recently. The key explanation of recent episodes of communal violence is not difficult to understand.

‘A sense of power’

Almost always, the depressed castes such as homegrown Dalits or Dalit refugees from Bangladesh, and unemployed youth from other States (who continue to live in extreme poverty) are engaged in violent fights against equally poor Muslims. Till recently these communities were solidly with the TMC. Bhagnu, a retrenched jute mill worker turned rickshaw puller in Kakinara, an area witnessing communal violence, argued succintly why he shifted allegiance from the TMC to the Bharatiya Janata Party: “What has secularism given me?”

He did not deny that he participated in orchestrating attacks against the minorities and made it clear that protecting Bengal’s secular fabric or the Constitution was not his priority given his tough life. While secularism or the Constitution failed him, Hindutva, he admitted, gave him “a sense of power”.

“Having a gun,” as political philosopher Frantz Fannon observed, is often “the only chance… of giving a meaning to your death.” The story of the rickshaw puller who lives without any social security, underscores why a set of the poor is attacking another set of the poor in the name of political or religious ideology in Bengal.

From Amala Naiya’s “relief” during Left rule to Bhagnu’s “sense of power” during the Right’s rise, Bengal’s politics has always had one narrative: empower the poor (rather than the rich) politically and rule. The BJP has realised that poverty, which is real, combined with religion is the ideal formula to have the TMC on the defensive. The West Bengal Chief Minister was expected to imbibe this well, combating the Left with “a pro-peasant narrative... borrowed from the Left”. But she could not drive a fresh political narrative against the Right and instead focused more on soft Hindutva. It worked till the 2016 Assembly election, but the script has changed since 2019.

The faster the Chief Minister invents a political narrative that promises to empower people the better her chances of a fightback. But can a party invent a new narrative out of the blue? Whatever happens, the violence will not reduce. But the bottomline is this: whether the TMC gains ground or the BJP, political violence is entrenched in the history of Bengalis — in Bangladesh and in West Bengal.


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Printable version | Mar 3, 2021 2:26:47 AM |

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