Running the gauntlet of a hostile mob brandishing sticks, stones and bricks is a nervous experience. Yet, there were three reasons why the three passengers and the driver of a hired taxi travelling with the convoy of BJP president J P Nadda last Thursday to Diamond Harbour, a coastal town of South 24 Parganas in West Bengal, escaped injury — the car suffered a few ugly dents.
First, it was fortuitous that the three of us had no security guards attached to us. This made us inconsequential in comparison to the politicians who move around with uniformed bodyguards. Secondly, we had taken good care to lock the doors — a precaution many others had overlooked. Finally, it was a near-miracle that none in the mob recognised Samik Bhattacharya, the official state BJP spokesman and among the known faces on Bangla TV channels. Maybe, it was because we were all Covid-masked. But more likely it was because the people in the ugly mob, carrying flags of the ruling party of the state and chanting zindabad of the chief minister and the local MLA — one Shaukat Molla — aren’t people that usually engage in political discussions. Their motivations for being political foot soldiers were, alas, different.
Many others — including women — in the convoy heading for the innocuous political function in a parliamentary constituency where free voting is an aspiration, weren’t so lucky. Apart from the smashed glass windows of a score of cars, including media vehicles, at least eight people had to be hospitalised. The worst affected were the bikers and an estimated 20 to 30 motorbikes were stolen by the mob after their riders had been roundly thrashed.
Political violence has been a feature of West Bengal politics for the past 50 years. The Naxalites may well have been misguided idealists but they specialised in individual killings of class enemies that included traffic policemen and venerable vice chancellors. Their sense of rigorous politics comprised passionate debates over whether the knife or the gun was more appropriate in combining murder with undiluted class hatred.
The other Reds didn’t lag behind. In 1970, a CPI(M) mob in Bardhaman killed two brothers who were Congress activists and forced their mother to eat rice smeared in their blood. The list of the victims of Red terror is long and hardly factors those tens of thousands who were forced to flee their homes as a result of political conflict. Trinamool Congress supporters were undeniably the worst sufferers during the three decades of Left Front rule. July 21 remains a special day in its calendar to commemorate 13 Congress workers who died in police firing during a demonstration in Kolkata in 1993.
Today, as Mamata Banerjee approaches 10 years of being chief minister, the same story has resurfaced. In large parts of the state, the battle to win the hearts and minds of voters has become a bloody conflict to secure area domination. In plain language it means making a locality completely inhospitable for opposition parties. The methods range from simple dadagiri and intimidation and extend to outright elimination. During the panchayat elections of 2018, the ruling party prevented opponents from even filing their nominations in nearly 35% of seats and election day was marred by violence and the complete takeover of polling booths. Nearly 130 BJP workers have been killed in the orgy of violence that has gripped the state in the past two years. These include political workers — and even an MLA — who have been hanged to death. Political killings have become the new normal.
What was witnessed in Diamond Harbour last week grabbed national attention because the target was Nadda. Other incidents hardly merit a footnote. But the cumulative impact of this unending culture of politics has been catastrophic for the state that began its innings in 1947 contributing some 25% of India’s GDP. In seven decades, the GDP has grown exponentially but Bengal’s contribution has shrunk to 3%. From being the ‘second city’ of the Empire, Kolkata has been reduced to a retirement home for ageing parents whose sons and daughters have bought one-way tickets to lands of opportunities. Bengal has become a case study in ‘declinology’.
Since the early 1970s, good Samaritans and others have drawn blueprints of Bengal’s recovery and delineated ways to recreate Sonar Bangla. The ideas are noble. Yet, they invariably flounder on one count: the fear that stems from recurring political violence. The recovery of Bengal calls for the shortest election manifesto: restore order and the rule of law. The rest will follow naturally.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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