Is there a level of political violence that a state must reach before it becomes national news? If not, what explains the country’s stony silence to the savagery in West Bengal?
The state has been plunging deeper and deeper into the abyss of political violence, while the ruling deity of the cult moves around the country with tolerance, peace and democracy on her lips. It is nearing that point from where there may be no return. And yet all it elicits is unconcern.
What happened to Dhiren Let, a former four-time MLA of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in Mayureshwar in Bibhum district on Saturday should have been on the front page of all the national dailies. It, however, found place in only The Telegraph.
The only way to describe the sadism is in Dhiren Let’s own words:
“I joined active politics in 1962 and have been a CPM member since 1968. I have seen a lot but nothing can match today’s experience.
I was pleading – not for my life but for my dignity – as the attackers wanted to take off my clothes in what would have been a very public humiliation.
I had to hold my ears and squat in public, and promise to dissociate myself from the CPM. I did it to spare myself further indignity.
Nothing can be more humiliating than a (former) four-time MLA being stripped in his (erstwhile) constituency in public. I feared that could happen and pleaded with them. In the process, tears rolled down my cheeks.
We were 250-odd and had begun our march from Gargaria in Mayureshwar (about 190km from Calcutta) at 10am and reached the village of Satpalsa half an hour later.
Around 10.35, while passing through Satpalsa’s marketplace, the rally was attacked from behind by 50-odd people who carried rods and sticks. We identified some of them as Trinamul activists. Eight to 10 cops had been deployed for our rally but they disappeared.
Most of us started running but I came back when I saw from a distance that my colleagues Ray (the MLA), Dom (a party central committee member and former Bolpur MP), Arup Bag and Faridar Rahman (local politicians) were being mercilessly thrashed. That’s when some among the attackers got hold of me.
There were 15, or perhaps a few more. I knew many of them by face as active Trinamul workers.
While some of them started beating me, others – and this was unforgivable – tried to strip me. They kept saying, ‘we’ll finish you here today”, and (among themselves) “bring out the bombs and wipe them out’.
They were hurling expletives. Some of them reeked of alcohol. Most were young enough to be my son or grandson. It was all happening in front of hundreds of local people in and around the marketplace. Not one protested.
At one point, with my bloodstained clothes half torn, I stood up and tried to scamper away, limping in excruciating pain. But they caught me. That’s when that video was taken.
At least 10 times they made me hold my ears and squat while barking out an oath for me to repeat – an oath to detach myself from the party.
It was extremely insulting. But I was by then determined to live to fight another day. So I went through the motions and they let me off.
Normality of violence
This wasn’t the first such episode. Violence exploded in Bengal soon after the defeat of the CPM at the hands of the Trinamool Congress in the 2011 assembly elections. Many party offices of the CPM were attacked and torched. Terror was let loose on those members and supporters who did not give in to the threat to disown their party.
Since then, there have been numerous attacks, big and small, on political opponents by the goons of the ruling Trinamool Congress. Even the leader of opposition in the state legislative assembly, Surya Kant Mishra, has not been spared.
It’s not only the CPM that is bearing the brunt. Last year, Bishnu Chaudhary from Bansberia in Hooghly district was dragged out of his house to a local club, battered andburnt with cigarette butts for the crime of attending a rally of the national president of the Bharatiya Janata Party. News of vehicles being waylaid on the way to BJP rallies did not shock the people of Bengal.
Of course, it can be argued that the culture of political violence in Bengal is not new. The CPM had practiced it for so long and with such impunity that it assumed a veneer of normality and became an accepted democratic method. It was, after all, under the Left that Bengal turned into a party state with no dividing line between the party and the government. It was also the CPM-led Left Front government that responded with an iron hand when peasants protested against it. One cannot forget that Medha Patkar, a greatly respected activist, was accosted and slapped by CPM members while she was on her way to Nandigram, where farmers were agitating against the usurpation of their land.
In his heyday, senior CPM leader Prakash Karat had declared that violence was part of the everyday political culture of Bengal – whatever his party did, therefore, was normal. This was the way political opponents should be treated, he seemed to suggest.
Still, during the days of the CPM hegemony, local party committees had some degree of control over the violence. Now there are no constraints, nobody to curb the violence. The Trinamool Congress has replaced the CPM in all spheres and delegated violence to local goons.
Besides, it must be asked, can the history of violence justify the events of today?
Increasingly, students in universities and colleges – including Jadavpur University and Calcutta University – are being roughed up for daring to join outfits critical of the Trinamool government. Principals of colleges and headmasters of schools have to pay the price for showing reluctance in following the diktats of Trinamool’s local leaders.
Shows of desperation
Last year, the ascendance of the BJP at the Centre had sparked fears that it could soon replace the CPM as the second biggest political party in West Bengal. Strengthening these fears, CPM members migrated en masse to the saffron party. This too resulted in more violence. But today, while the CPM seems to be regaining its old space under the leadership of Suryakant Mishra – who has managed to drag the demoralised party out of its offices and on to the street – the Trinmool Congress has become even more desperate.
The temerity of its leadership can be seen in their statements. Dismissing the allegation of the involvement of the Trinmool Congress in the attack on Dhiren Let, one of its leaders said that instead of running to the press and crying before it, the CPM should seek their protection before taking out processions.
And what is our response to this violence? In the early days of it, when some respected writers and intellectuals were asked to join a protest against the attacks on the CPM by the Trinamool, they refused by describing the episodes as inconsequential. This is exactly how some of the leading Leftist intellectuals had reacted to the revulsion against the Left Front-led violence in Singur and Nandigram.
Both those assessments were problematic. We must realise that violence has to be rejected irrespective of whether it is Communist red or Trinamool green. Bengal needs to speak up. More than that, India’s civil society must give Mamata Banerjee the message that the violent politics she practices has no place in a civilised democracy like India.
( First appeared in SCROLL on 24 November,2015)