Bloodiest of them all

Shreevatsa Nevatia | Updated on October 24, 2014

Behind the numbers: BJP camp office allegedly ransacked by Trinamool Congress workers during a bypoll campaign in North 24 Parganas district. Photo: PT

Behind the numbers: Saraswati Ghosh (sitting), wife of Sagar Ghosh, who was murdered after the panchayat polls. Photo: PTI

Behind the numbers: Polling booth in Jamalpara during the third phase of the panchayat polls on July 19, 2013. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

A potent mix of a violent history and current animosity makes West Bengal the state with the highest number of political murders in the country

The phone rang late that Friday night in Kulberia. Saroj Chowdhury is a familiar face in this village in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas. His son, he was told, was being dragged away by a band of goons. Hours later, a search party had returned without hope. The next morning, on July 5 this year, the body of 21-year-old Sourav was finally found. Nine pieces of a dismembered corpse lay strewn near the railway tracks. The neck showed signs of strangulation. Devastated by the morbidity of his son’s death, Chowdhury says, “If he were ill or had he died in an accident, I might have been able to console myself, but the manner in which he was murdered doesn’t allow me any comfort whatsoever. Even animals aren’t capable of violence that is this hideous.”

Police investigations and eyewitness reports both held Shyamal Karmakar responsible for Sourav’s brutal murder. Karmakar, an erstwhile Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) henchman, had switched his allegiance to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in recent years. A committed activist, Sourav had intensified a campaign against his illicit liquor dens in the area. Vengeance, however, may not have been Karmakar’s only motive. Sourav’s 24-year-old brother Sandip says, “My brother worked with the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the TMC. He was interested in social advancement, not politics. His activism was a factor, but I think my father’s work for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made him a real target.”

Saroj Chowdhury, 57, confesses that in an environment marked by vendetta, his support for the BJP may have taken his son’s life. “But how can I prove that my son died because I helped campaign for the BJP? How can I prove that this was a political murder?” he asks.

The distraught father’s question could well challenge the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) when it tries to verify the number of political murders recorded in West Bengal during 2014. For now, though, the NCRB has released its figures for 2013. With 26 political murders, West Bengal accounts for more than a quarter of the 101 such cases documented nationally. Having earned the ignoble distinction of topping the political killings chart, Bengal is fast leaving behind states that were once more notorious. Bihar, for instance, recorded ‘only’ 12 political murders last year.

Harish Dhawan, member of the People’s Union of Democratic Rights, believes that the figures released by NCRB help negate a utopian assumption. “We’d like to believe that parliamentary political parties abide by the Constitution. These murders tell a different story.” The human rights activist adds that killings by political parties often get disguised as private murders. He says, “this figure of 26 murders only represents the nature of investigations. A political killing might not always be viewed in that precise bracket. The extent of political violence may be far greater.” Dhawan’s deduction is endorsed by much of the state’s Opposition.

While Congress leaders insist that 26 should be multiplied three times over for the sake of accuracy, the CPM claims to have lost over 157 leaders, activists and supporters since Mamata Banerjee became chief minister in 2011. In June this year, the BJP said that West Bengal had witnessed more than 150 political killings since the TMC came to power. They have now revised their estimate to 300. Rahul Sinha, BJP’s state president, asserts that members of his party are now the main target for what he believes is a murderous ruling establishment. “The more insecure the TMC feels, the more killings take place. With the CPM and the Congress rendered insignificant, the ruling party has understood we are the real primary threat.”

Sinha refers to Sourav Chowdhury’s murder, and quickly adds the names of Sheikh Rahim and Sheikh Enamul to his list of political martyrs. Rahim was killed a few weeks after the Lok Sabha elections this summer. Enamul was found murdered in Birbhum on October 9. “The TMC is worried that the BJP is even taking away its Muslim vote base. Their men commit such crimes and roam freely, while our members are the ones who get implicated,” he says. Surprisingly, the BJP leader’s contention is corroborated by a Congressman. Omprakash Mishra, general secretary of West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee, details the advance of TMC’s dominance, “Misuse of the police and administration for partisan purposes has become so extensive that Trinamool domination is allowed to stamp itself in Bengal without resistance.”

Mishra contests NCRB’s figure of 26 political murders. The real number, he believes, is far higher. But he isn’t surprised to hear that 2013 proved to be a grisly year for West Bengal. “Panchayat elections were held here last year. That’s always a violent affair. Government patronage, contracts and access to funds — all are at stake. Political violence is never just about ideology. It is also a battle for economic supremacy.” Just before the fourth phase of the state’s panchayat polls commenced in July, two Congress workers, Nurmohhamad Sheikh and Ahad Ali were killed after being hit with crude bombs. Pairuddin Sheikh was shot dead and CPM cadre Phatik Sheikh died of a splinter injury. If the CPM’s figures are to be believed, bombings, arson and clashes cost them the lives of 24 workers. While no party can claim absolute innocence, the Opposition blames the TMC for making the election a no-holds-barred contest.

The enemy within

When it comes to advocating violence, Tapas Paul, actor turned TMC MP, leads the pack. Long before he threatened his opponents with rape, he had urged his followers to take the fight to the CPM during the panchayat elections. Addressing a rally last July, he thundered, “Beat sense into them with your shoes. Straighten them out with a thrashing.” Later that month, Manirul Islam, a TMC MLA, took the stage at yet another rally. “The opposition should remember that I, the MLA of Labhpur, have trampled three men to death. I can quash any opposition with a blink of an eye.” Islam, who is accused of being involved in a 2010 murder of three, also threatened a Congress leader: “Mend your ways or it’ll be far easier to behead you.”

It might have been simpler to dismiss these threats as bluster if the efficacy of democratic processes remained unaffected. Evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Anubrata Mondal, TMC chief of the state’s Birbhum district, was taken seriously when he reportedly asked for the houses of independent candidates to be burnt down. Four days after Mondal made his provocative speech, Sagar Ghosh was shot at on July 21. He died two days later. Ghosh’s son Hriday had quit the TMC to contest the panchayat elections as an independent candidate from the village of Kasba, a seat he eventually won. Named in the FIR and plagued by the possibility of a CBI investigation, Mondal appears unfazed. Seeking absolution in deflection, a source close to the TMC leadership said, “We aren’t in the business of giving clean chits, but the media is greedy for headlines. When they’ve nothing else, they’ve invention.”

Sagar Ghosh isn’t the only reason why Anubrata Mondal has been making headlines. On October 12 this year, four contract killers were arrested for the murder of Mondal’s aide Ashok Mukherjee. Mukherjee’s killing in August was intended as retaliation for the 2013 assassination of Ashok Ghosh, leader of a rival TMC faction. According to human rights activist Sujato Bhadra, “If you are to take the NCRB figure of 26 murders in 2013, you can say that six to seven resulted from inter-party conflicts. The rest are all intra-party killings.” Bhadra, who has co-authored the book Political Killings in West Bengal (1977-2010), believes that the TMC is divided into two distinct halves — the old and the new. “Some of those who operated on behalf of the CPM came to join the TMC. That’s your new TMC. The old TMC accepted them with their weapons, their old tendencies and their vested interests, but this created a clash. Now both sides wanted to work in the real estate, construction and syndicate businesses. There just isn’t enough room.”

An eye for an eye

Diptiman Basu also questions the intent of those who switch sides from the CPM to the TMC, but he emphatically defends the TMC and its leader. “When Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011, she did so with the slogan — ‘Badla noy, badal chai’. (We want change, not revenge.) Had she not contained the resentment that had built up against the CPM, we would have seen a river of blood flow through the state. Three years isn’t enough time. We have 34 years of CPM misrule to fight against,” says Basu, the president of Jatiyotabadi Juba Parishad, a youth organisation.

Largely nonviolent a few posters rendered Jadavpur University (JU) agitations sinister last month. Frustrated by their vice chancellor’s apathy towards a student’s complaint of molestation, some students started demanding his death. Education Minister Partha Chatterjee chose this moment to intervene. “People of Bengal will fight tooth and nail to foil the evil designs of those who want to bring back the politics of murder,” he warned. Ritabrata Banerjee, all-India general secretary of the Students Federation of India, says that while he welcomes Chatterjee’s rhetoric, TMC’s heavy-handedness tells another reality.

Making the case that TMC hoodlums were allowed to enter the JU campus in September, Banerjee compares the West Bengal chief minister to Hitler. “He had his Gestapo in Germany. She has her own Schutzstaffel (SS) in Bengal. The TMC is trying to control every aspect of the political sphere. Political murders are only a manifestation.” Banerjee, a CPM Rajya Sabha member, might be doing more than borrowing an analogy from history. He is also revising it.

Punctuated by the bloodstained tragedies of Singur and Nandigram, CPM’s rise and fall in the state are both bracketed by violent episodes. In 1970, CPM miscreants are believed to have hacked members of the Congress-supporting Sain family to pieces. They were then accused of soaking rice in the blood of their victims and feeding it to the women they had spared. Again in 2009, 100 CPM cadres reportedly attacked Yudhistir Doloi in the state’s Jangri village. They burnt the TMC block president’s house, forcing his family to then witness his dismemberment.

The iniquity of political violence is seemingly a legacy of successive regimes in Bengal. During a crackdown necessitated by the escalation of Naxalite revolt in the 1970s, Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s Congress government is said to have killed more than 1,000 CPM workers. Assumed sympathy for the Naxal cause was reason enough for the state to gun down rivals in broad daylight, but three decades later, Bengal remained as bloody.

On January 7, 2011, nine residents of the state’s Netai village were killed by mercenaries who allegedly worked with the sanction of CPM’s leadership. While the Left blamed Maoists, Mamata Banerjee insists that the villagers had been massacred by CPM’s harmad vahini (hired killers).

Debabrata Bandyopadhyay, Trinamool Rajya Sabha MP, believes that West Bengal had witnessed 55,408 political murders between the years 1977 and 2009. He says, “This state has had a tradition of violence. Take the example of Khudiram Bose. He smilingly went to the gallows for having mistakenly murdered the wife and daughter of a barrister. Gandhiji applied an ointment, yes, but the Left then returned with its long-standing commitment to cruelty. We have always lived under the shadow of terror.” Why then had the overthrow of the Left not impacted the trend of political murders in Bengal? The retired IAS officer was quick to answer — “Power may change hands in a state. That doesn’t always mean a state will change its mindset.”

(Shreevatsa Nevatia is a Kolkata-based writer)

Published on October 24, 2014

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