Bengal may have shown India the way on a number of fields, but when it comes to politics, it has a bad name. That is because of political violence that has become a regular feature in the state. 

True to its dubious distinction, Bengal has already seen naked violence during the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. And today is only the second phase of the seven-phase elections in Bengal. 

On Thursday, the body of a BJP worker was found hanging from a tree in Purulia district. The vehicle of Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader and sitting Raiganj MP Mohammad Salim was damaged at Islampur. Salim had visited the area on receiving reports of booth-capturing. The CPI(M) leader alleged that the police were "mute spectators" during the attack.

At Chopra, which falls under the Darjeeling constituency, voters blocked the road, complaining of intimidation by the Trinamool-Congress-backed goons. They accused the state police to be partial and refused to vote unless the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was deployed at all booths. 

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A television channel claimed to have exposed rampant proxy voting in Raiganj in the second phase of the Lok Sabha polls on Thursday.

A few days ago, Asansol was in the grip of communal tension after an attack on Vishwa Hindu Parishad's Ram Navami procession. The Rappid Action Force (RAF) had to be mobilised to bring the riot-like situation under control. During the first phase of the polls on April 11, a viral video from the Sitalkuchi area of Cooch Behar showed alleged TMC workers intimidating a couple who had come to vote. 

BJP president Amit Shah, during a tour of Bengal in 2017, had described the state as politically the most charged and violent. Even as much as a cursory look at the history of politics in Bengal would reveal that Shah could not have been more accurate in his assessment. 

History of bloodbath

Right from the Tebhaga movement by the sharecroppers just before independence to the food movement in the late 1950s, to the infamous 'hoodlum years' in the 1970s marred by the Naxal agitation, and the brutal curbing of that agitation by the Congress, which had rigged the polls to win power in 1972, to indeed the oppression under Left rule and passing over of the baton to the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC government, political violence has come to define Bengal over the years. 

The Left era was one of the most violent, when rigged polls had become the order of the day. Supporters of rival parties (mainly the TMC and Congress) were threatened, killed, abducted and driven away from their villages before elections, so that the cadres of the ruling party could have their way. There have been bone-chilling stories of attacks and retaliatory attacks. 

At Sainbari in Burdwan in 1970, the Sain brothers, who had allegiance towards the Congress, were killed by CPI(M) cadre for turning down demands to switch sides. Their mother was allegedly made to eat rice stained with her sons' blood. It was said that the man who led the violence was Nirupam Sen, who later became minister in the Left Front government in the state.   

At Marichjhapi in 1979, around 1,000 Bangladeshi Hindu refugees were forcefully evicted and thousands perished to police brutalities, starvation and disease. 

In 1982, 16 monks and a nun belonging to the Ananda Marga sect were beaten to death and set on fire in Kolkata allegedly by CPI(M) workers. 

On July 21, 1993, 13 people died in police firing in Kolkata during a West Bengal Youth Congress rally called by Mamata. The TMC observes this as Shaheed Diwas every year.    

There were bloodbaths in places like Keshpur, Garbeta and Nanur at the turn of the millennium. But perhaps the most horrific incident was the Chhoto Angaria massacre which saw 11 TMC workers being allegedly burnt alive by CPI(M) goons on January 4, 2001. 

In 2011, after the TMC wrested power from the Left Front, alleged skeletal remains of five TMC men were dug up by the Crime Investigation Department (CID) from a place near the ancestral house of CPI(M) strongman Sushanta Ghosh. DNA tests on the skeletons confirmed the identities of Ajay Acharya and Swapan Singha — two of the TMC supporters who were allegedly murdered by CPI(M) mercenaries in September 2002. Ghosh, a former minister in the Left Front government, was accused to have been complicit in the murders and it was believed that he had personally supervised the burying of the corpses.       

As the CPI(M)'s power started to wane, especially after the Singur and Nandigram land movements (2006-07), and TMC became a viable alternative in the state, many CPI(M) activists and cadres allegedly started to switch sides, taking with them the tradition of violence into the new setting. This resulted in the cancer of political violence being inherited by the TMC. 

TMC borrowed Left's template

Once the TMC took over in 2011, there was a spate of sustained violence for two years when CPI(M) leaders and cadres were spotted and killed or charged a hefty sum for ‘settlement’. Many CPI(M) supporters were driven out of their houses and could not return for months, and often years, unless they decided to make a switch to the TMC. 

The TMC imported a new element of violence too in the form of 'syndicate raj'. The notorious syndicates of Bengal under Mamata Banerjee's rule are essentially organised extortion rackets that feed off the construction boom in the state and force promoters to buy building materials of inferior quality. They have the backing of the ruling party, which use them to terrorise voters and rival party workers. These syndicates arrange money for the 'party fund'.

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The decline of the Left in Bengal allowed the BJP to slowly move into the position of the main opposition, leading to clashes against the ruling TMC and the BJP workers. There were clashes between the TMC and BJP in Panrui in Birbhum district in 2014. 

NCRB paints a grim picture

The number of political murders in Bengal since the start of the millennium provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), and a comparison with the rest of the country, would show the extent of violence that has become so commonplace in the state. Here are the highlights.

1. In 2000, there were 38 political murders in Bengal out of a national tally of 111. The state topped the list by a long margin, with Kerala being a distant second with 18 murders. 

2. 2001 was year of the Chhoto Angaria massacre. There were 21 political murders in Bengal that year. Bihar with 47 and Andhra Pradesh with 39 were far ahead, but West Bengal's tally was a cause of concern nevertheless.  

3. There was a spike in political killings in Bengal again in 2007, when the state topped the country with 20 cases, while Andhra Pradesh stood second with 19 and Bihar followed with 18.

4. In 2009, which was the year of general elections in the country, Bengal reported a massive 50 political murders. Andhra Pradesh's tally was marginally high at 59.

5. In 2010 — the year before the Assembly elections in Bengal — there were 38 political murders in the state, as clashes between a CPI(M) desperate to cling on to power and a fast-advancing TMC became more acute. The number of cases in Bengal that year would seem particularly high when compared with the rest of India. Bihar registered 24 and Madhya Pradesh 19 cases. All the other states had single-digit figures. 

6. The year 2011 was when the 34-year-long Left rule in Bengal finally came to an end. As was perhaps expected, the number of political killings was quite high in the state that year. Bengal reported 38 cases. Andhra Pradesh and Bihar came close behind with 33 and 32 cases respectively.

7. In 2013, the NCRB listed Bengal as No 1 in political murders with 26 cases out of 101 in the country overall. 

8. 2014 was the year of Lok Sabha polls. Mamata had to protect her home turf from the nationwide Narendra Modi wave. There were as many as 1,166 incidents of political violence in the state, though the number of political murders dropped to 10. 

9. There was a single case of political murder in Bengal, according to the NCRB, in both 2015 and 2016, which is a big surprise given the state's dubious record in this regard over the years. 

Whatever optimism would have arisen from the 2015 and 2016 figures would not have taken long to evaporate after the panchayat polls last month. There were reports of open violence from the countryside. Around 50 people lost their lives and there was rampant booth-capturing and rigging. A number of opposition candidates were not even allowed to file nomination papers and the TMC won uncontested in more than one-third of the 58,792 seats. 

New trend: Religious conflict

This violence aimed at stamping out political competition has characterised Bengal for a long time. However, what is slowly emerging as a new trend is conflict on the lines of religion. 

Muslims comprise nearly 30% of the population of Bengal and even outnumber the Hindus in districts like Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur. This combined with infiltration from neighbouring Bangladesh and Mamata's brazen Muslim-appeasement has meant that the state is sitting on a powder keg. There has been a sharp rise in communal clashes since 2016 and Hindus and Muslims have been at loggerheads often over the celebration of their respective festivals. Districts like Murshidabad, Howrah, Hooghly, East and West Midnapore, Burdwan and North and South 24 Parganas have been rocked by communal violence in recent years.  

Add to this killings as a result of cow vigilantism and the situation gets murkier. Cow vigilantism has always been a north Indian phenomenon. However, according to IndiaSpend, in 2017 there were 11 deaths due to cow vigilantism in the country, and five out of those were from Bengal.   

So politics and violence have always gone hand-in-hand in Bengal. Even student politics in the state has had its share of violence. Each election tends to fuel the belief that Bengal is the most politically violent state in the country, though it has had stiff competition from Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. The panchayat polls of 2018 and the ongoing Lok Sabha elections have been a mere continuation of the tradition of political violence in Bengal.

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