By Soroor Ahmed
The prevailing culture of violence in West Bengal – or any other state – should not be used as an excuse to overlook the other equally dangerous trend, that is intra-Muslim contradictions in places where the community forms an overwhelming or sizeable percentage of population. The barbaric killing of 10 women and children in Birbhum district of West Bengal on March 21 at the hands of fellow Muslims deserves a dispassionate study.
No doubt there is a culture of political violence in West Bengal. But why blame this state alone. There is increasing tendency of such incidents in other states. After all Uttar Pradesh witnessed a spate of clashes following the panchayat election in April 2021 and that too at the height of coronavirus which was already taking a huge toll of lives.
After the recently concluded Assembly election in that state, farmers’ leader Rakesh Tikait had publicly complained that he had been receiving threatening phone calls from supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Who can forget the killing of eight policemen, including an officer, at the hands of Vikas Dubey gang in Kanpur district on the intervening night of July 2-3, 2020, that is during the first wave of coronavirus. Vikas was later killed in mysterious circumstances.
Violence, political or not so political, is quite common in neighbouring Bihar too. It is another thing that the media usually turns a blind eye to these incidents.
One example is suffice to understand the situation. On March 14 this year Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar had a verbal duel with none else but the Speaker of the Assembly, Vijay Kumar Sinha, over the deteriorating law and order situation. The chief minister was furious as the Speaker, who comes from the alliance partner, the BJP, supposedly favoured the saffron party legislators who have been raising the issue related to the killing of nine people in Lakhisarai in 50 days. Lakhisarai Assembly seat is represented in Bihar Assembly by the Speaker. Such violence is quite common in all the districts of Bihar, especially during the harvesting season. It is another thing that chief minister Nitish Kumar had till sometimes back been dubbed ‘Susashan Babu’.
Political violence has become the order of the day even in Kerala, where the supporters of Left Democratic Front, Congress and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are locked in a grim battle over supremacy at the local level. Yet it is a fact that its nature in West Bengal is somewhat different. And for this Trinamool Congress alone cannot be blamed.
It is not very easy to trace the exact origin of such bloodletting in West Bengal as they started taking place a few years after Independence. By mid-1960s it acquired a new dimension. The Naxalite uprising and its subsequent suppression in late 1960s and early 1970s took a heavy toll of lives. During the chief ministership of Siddhartha Shankar Ray between 1972 and 1977 – this included about two years period of Emergency – the government tried to tighten its noose on the political opponents.
The coming to power of the Left Front in the summer of 1977 further aggravated the ground situation. Their ouster from power after 34 long years did not change the situation. Even most of the actors involved in this bloody drama remained the same – they only crossed over to the new ruling party.
A further examination of the Bengali society would reveal something else. Before Independence the then undivided Bengal produced several revolutionaries, who did not agree with the non-violent struggle of Mahatma Gandhi. The foremost among them was Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.
But the recent killing in Birbhum district was rather unusual as the perpetrators of the crime and victims belonged to the same community and have the same political affiliation – they were both supporters of the Trinamool Congress. However, this is not an isolated development. During the 34 years of the Left Front rule clashes among its constituents – CPI (M), CPI, RSP, Forward Bloc, etc. – were usual, particularly at the time of local bodies’ election.
Violence was not confined to the rural hinterland, but spilled over to the playground. At least 16 spectators were killed in clashes between supporters of Mohan Bagan and East Bengal during a football match in Kolkata on August 16, 1980. The 1996 World Cup Cricket match in Kolkata was disrupted by fans after Indian batsmen performed poorly against Sri Lanka at Eden Garden. The match had to be abandoned and Sri Lanka declared winner after the violence. Eden Garden was suspended as a match venue for quite some time.
Riots broke out in Kolkata on January 1, 1967 during the India-West Indies Test match at Eden Garden. The 80,000 strong cricketing zealots indulged in arson and looting not only in the stadium, but also in the city. Several West Indian players had to run for safety and had to be rescued by police.
However, the Birbhum tragedy needs to be examined in a different perspective too; that is the behavioural pattern of the Muslims in the minority-dominated districts/pockets such as Kishanganj in Bihar, Malda, Murshidabad or parts of Birbhum in West Bengal, Hyderabad in Telangana , Rampur, Moradabad, etc. in Uttar Pradesh, Kashmir Valley or the campus area of Aligarh and Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and several other places.
The sad aspect is that the so-called parties who make tall claims about fighting for the empowerment and rights of the community turn a blind eye to the reality on the ground. In fact they exploit the minority sentiment to achieve their own political goals. This is better possible in Muslim-dominated areas, so they try to paper over the contradictions within the community.
The religious organisations are clueless as they are unable to appreciate the gravity of the situation. At best, some of them remain confined to sectarian issues.
The ramifications of local bodies’ elections, especially of panchayat, need to be understood. Whether they have really made the grassroots democracy strong or not is debateable, yet at many places these elections have caused a lot of social strife and have sharpened the intra-family feud.
It cannot surely be said whether the women have really got empowered or not, but the struggle for power at the bottom level has given a big fillip to corruption and have dragged the fairer gender too into this chaos.
As security is not a big issue in the Muslim-majority pockets, the community members are getting drawn in the same cesspool of corruption. The violence in Birbhum may be its by-product. Take the example of the panchayat election in Bihar held late last year. Thousands of candidates spent money lavishly. In one such case a candidate fell ill and had to be rushed to the Intensive Care Unit because he had lost the election after spending Rs. three crore. It needs to be noted that this gentleman is a Muslim from Kishanganj.
Who will stem the rot?