Sitalkuchi And After – A Flashback to CPI-M Rule in West Bengal

Graves of the four young men killed in Sitalkuchi, courtesy Newslaundry

As the news of the killings of four youth in Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar district by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) came in on 10 April, reactions of horror and anger became evident all around. This reaction among politically informed sections was only natural, for anybody with a little bit of common intelligence will tell you that the BJP is making an all out bid to capture power in the state. And anyone who has watched the Modi-Shah duo in action over the past few years, does not need to be told what this means. It is always ‘Heads I win; Tails you lose’ with them. It doesn’t matter what dirty trick you have to play, all is fair in this game of capturing power with them. They will form the government, no matter who wins but first, every effort has to be made to ‘win’ by any means. And that means by ANY means, ranging from killing people by engineering violent communal incidents to buying off opposition parties’ winning legislators. Despite the full battery of BJP’s star campaigners ranging from Narendra Modi and Shah to Yogi Adityanath making repeated visits to the state, their rallies have seen very low turnout and in some instances meetings had to be cancelled. So the desperation is growing. The first four of the unprecedented eight rounds in the state’s elections were to be in the areas where TMC is relatively weak. But even in these areas the reports were not very encouraging for the BJP. Thus, every child in Bengal could see what these killings meant. Except the CPI-M that is.

Soon the story of the killings was being given a typically BJP IT Cell spin: a mob of Muslim TMC people surrounded the CISF and tried to snatch their rifles. This was followed by identical tweets by a range of people describing how they could not sleep all night because of the sounds of the explosion of bombs, suggesting that things had been going on all night – and the CISF action in the morning was therefore, only justified.

Seasoned CPI-M stalwarts on Twitter apparently neither saw those tweets or more likely, jumped at them to immediately amplify the BJP narrative of provocation by TMC (Muslim mob is often implied). It is certainly not possible that anybody with a little bit of common sense would not have immediately seen this copy paste job for what it was – a BJP IT Cell operation. The CPI-M leaders and their social media warriors went on, willfully, to reinforce the ‘provocation’ narrative that was being circulated by the BJP.

Meanwhile, many people including poll analysts and former bureaucrats started asking that if there really was an irate mob attacking the CISF party, where was the footage? Was there any video evidence? No such question crossed the CPI-M leaders’ minds and from all appearances, from Biman Bose to Mohd Salim (and the pathetic Sujan Chakrabarty) pushed ahead with not-so-subtle ways of relaying the BJP narrative and indeed, it was not difficult to discern that they were in fact, gloating.

What Actually Happened?

By now any number of investigative accounts have become available which tell us what happened and there is no point repeating them here but this report in NewsLaundry that appeared yesterday is worth a careful read. I am reproducing two small extracts below. One which tells us that there were two separate incidents, unrelated to each other. First the official version:

On polling day, rumours of a child being beaten up by central forces led to a mob surrounding the booth, leading to the CISF firing and the killings. This is the official version. “The action on part of the force personnel was in self-defence after the crowd attacked the polling booth and officers. There is no doubt about that,” CISF’s chief spokesperson DIG Anil Pandey told Newslaundry.

The villagers however, say that there were two separate incidents:

“At around 9 am, they claim, a boy who was playing at Kazi Mod, a crossroad near the polling booth, was roughed up by the central forces. Seeing this, men and women, two dozen or so, surrounded the forces. This led to the forces firing in the air, but the tempers cooled down and the forces drove the child to nearby Mathabhanga hospital.”

“The situation had normalised and they were peacefully voting, the villagers say, when, close to 10 am, two vehicles arrived at Booth 126. ‘Men in uniform got out of the car and approached the booth. They hit one of the boys standing in the line…’ recalls Makshidul Miyan, 40, a migrant labourer whose work takes him to Delhi, Bihar and Nepal.”

In a moment, there was firing. ‘One man standing in my line got shot, there were four people between me and him. I escaped through this narrow alley,’ Makshidul claims, pointing to a gap between two classrooms of the school that doubled up as the voting booth.”

Another account by Anjupa Khatun, goes like this:

“‘My brothers and I went to vote in the morning and were in the line when the central forces came in two to three cars. And within a few minutes there was chaos and firing,’ she recounts. ‘Before we could understand what had happened, I saw my brother lying on the ground. My father couldn’t gather who to pick up, who to help. I request you to please find out who did this.’ Had a mob gathered at Booth 126 and threatened the CISF personnel? ‘That is completely false,’ she replies. ‘It never happened.’

Till yesterday, 14 April the only video evidence available was that of a clip where people, largely women are seen running; there is commotion while gunshots are being fired – the sounds are audible. This video can be seen in the report below.

https://bengali.abplive.com/videos/elections/wb-phase-4-voting-a-video-went-viral-of-the-incident-at-sitalkuchi-on-fourth-phase-polling-809353

Yesterday, however an 11 minute video footage was accessed and aired by Kolkata TV which actually corroborates the villagers’ version. There are no mobs, no altercation with the security forces. In fact, the security forces are standing at the next gate from where they enter after quite some time. It is at that moment that you can hear gunshots and commotion and suddenly the person with the camera runs in and we see two people lying flat hit by the bullets.

The CPI-M Narrative of ‘TMC Fascism’

Everything that the CPI-M has done now is pretty consistent with what it has been doing since the last parliamentary elections in 2019, when it not only saw mass desertions of its voters to the BJP but in fact actively asked its supporters to vote for the BJP. The slogan then was ‘Ebar Raam, Pore Baam’ – Ram this time and Baam or Left next time. This time it is ‘Ekushe Raam, Chhabbishe Baam’ – Ram in 2021 and Left in 2026. To be sure, this is not an official slogan but is commonly heard in CPI-M circles on the ground and is corroborated by every action and statement of its leaders in recent past. Including this one by the State CPI-M Secretary that even if there is a hung assembly after the elections, they will not support the TMC to keep the BJP out. Not even from outside!!

The entire fire of the CPI-M campaign during this election has, therefore, been directed at the TMC, which has in effect meant that it has deliberately underplayed the threat posed by the BJP – both to West Bengal but also to the rest of India, which is keenly looking at what Bengal will do. The level of perversity and the depths of lowliness that the party has sunk in this period are all justified by one single argument: The TMC is ‘fascist’. Though this is not said officially almost all the state CPI-M people routinely invoke this ‘fascist’ character of the TMC as an argument for their focusing on that party rather than the BJP. I have earlier written in this column that really, the opposition of the CPI-M to the TMC is actually an expression of a visceral patriarchal hatred to Mamata Banerjee, the person. I will not repeat that argument here except to underline that the repeated mocking of everything from her unEnglish pronunciation to her wearing slippers, merely betrays the conservative elite/ upper class sensibilities of the party leadership .

However, since a very large number of people outside the state of West Bengal seem to have swallowed the CPI-M representation of the ‘TMC’s terror’ against the innocent thumb-sucking boys of the CPI-M in the rest of this piece, let me simply address that question.

The first question that springs to mind is that how is it that the fearsome, invincible machinery of the CPI-M that ruled West Bengal with an iron hand for 34 years suddenly become such a thumb-sucking innocent that any TMC bully passing by could slap him and send him crying on to the BJP’s lap for protection?

Let me therefore try and sum up the history of 34 years of CPI-M rule and show why this had to happen. This is not a justification for what the TMC does but what I say below is certainly meant to also underline that the ‘TMC Terror’ still pales into insignificance in comparison to that practiced by the CPI-M. The TMC has still to achieve anything like the mass massacres of Marichjhanpi, Nandirgram, Netai and many others. Its ‘terror’ has been and is practically a continuation of the battle for supremacy in the countryside that the CPI-M started and that is continuing today. Only the power roles are reversed.

So let us begin this account by stating the that 34 years of CPI-M rule are book-ended by the Marichjhanpi massacre of Namasudra Dalits at one end (January 1979) and that of the Nandigram peasants (incidentally, Muslims) in 2007 at the other (also see this report). A report cites scholar Ross Mallick’s estimates of the number of people killed in the massacre at about 4200 families, that is about 16000 people!

Fortunately for us, our task has been made easier because D. Bandyopadhyay had already compiled a ‘Census of Political Murders in West Bengal During CPI-M Rule, 1977-2009′ in 2010, on the eve of the Left Front’s ouster from power. This was published by the respected Left wing, pro-CPI weekly Mainstream – not ‘bourgeois’ or ‘anti-Left Front’ by any means. We will leave aside the macabre story of the Sain bari killings that took place long before the CPI-M came to power though it featured three stalwarts of the post 1977 CPI-M, namely Benoy Konar, Nirupam Sen and Anil Basu. Clearly, they had been rewarded for the act.

Here is a longish extract from the article that refers to specific cases and instances, including the infamous Bantola rape case:

“(T)he CPI-M activists used murder as an instrument of political aggression in the Marichjhapi island of the Sunderbans. We need not go into the long tale. Recent research on the subject revealed cases of monstrous barbarities on the refugees who had come from Dandakaranya at the behest of the CPI-M. The next remarkable case of mass murder was done on the monks and nuns of the Anandmargi group. Seventeen of them were beaten to death and then doused in petrol to burn them publicly. Thereafter the most significant incident to catch the headlines was the Bantala rape and murder. A senior lady officer of the UNICEF and another senior officer of the Government of India detected a case of huge embezzlement of UN funds by some CPI-M organisation within the South 24-Parganas district. When they were returning with a lot of incriminating evidence, their vehicle was waylaid at Bantala by the CPI-M goons. The vehicle was set on fire to destroy all documentary evidence. The driver, who tried to protect the two lady officers, was killed. Then the lady officers were raped and one of them murdered and her body without any cloth left on the open paddy field. When the then Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, was informed of the incident, he quipped to the waiting mediamen: “Such incidents do happen, don’t they?” Thereby he put the official sanction to rape in addition to murder as an instrument of political aggression. Then came the incident of Suchapur murder where 11 Muslim agricultural workers were killed in a gruesome manner because they demanded minimum wage rates fixed by the government from the CPI-M jotedars (landlords). Thereafter they (the CPI-M) resorted to political cleansing of territories by murder, rape, arson and loot. Large areas like Garbeta, Keshpur, Pingla Sabong, Chhoto Angaria, Kotalpur, Khanakul, Goghat etc. were cleansed of Opposition elements by continuous raids as it used to happen in the untamed tribal land of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of the old British India. All these affairs in a sense culminated in Singur and Nandigram where the murderous strife went on for over two years. Such planned but isolated incidents do not give a clear idea of the dreadful magnitude of murders committed by the CPI-M.”

The Suchapur incident of course figures in CPI-M lore as something that was done to beat back dacoits and anti-socials and sometimes as violence indulged in by the TMC. Those were early days of the TMCs existence (it was formed in 1998 and the incidents took place in 2000) but already the CPI-M leadership was feeling the heat, given its style that Bandyopadhyay has outlined above. A report in The Hindu, by no mean sympathetic to Mamata, had underlined the same point that these were primarily landless labourers who were moving away from the CPI-M which was dominated by landlords, though the report simply talks of their ‘aspirations’, not wages:

“When two of the CPI(M)’s Bengal leaders, Mr. Anil Biswas and Mr. Biman Bose, politburo members, condemned the Nanoor killings as well as the loss of lives in incidents of violence in the preceding weeks because of newer political configurations in rural Bengal, they were not speaking through their collective hat. There has not been any major structural change in politics in rural Bengal but the fact is, a large section of the landless is veering towards the Trinamool Congress and, to some extent, its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP), for fulfilment of its growing aspirations or justified craving for prosperity.”

Clearly, the CPI-M had not yet formed a unified opinion of how to read, and deal with, such developments that were beginning to manifest themselves in the rural areas. The relatively more powerful landed elements were CPI-M supporters and rural conflicts were pushing the landless into the arms of the TMC – and sometimes BJP, as The Hindu report suggests.

On the basis of government figures, Bandyopadhyay estimated that between 1977 and 2009, the total number of people killed in political murders in the state came to 55, 408, which gives a yearly average of 1787 murders and a monthly average of 149. We understand that these are figures of murders committed by all parties or political forces but it is, nonetheless, a shocking figure. However, the real point that Bandyopadhyay, writing in 2010,had foreseen is this:

During the last 31 years, no murderer was brought to book for this dreadful figure of 55,408 murders. It is anybody’s guess regarding the number of killers involved. Assuming that there was at least one killer per murder, the number would be over 55,000. With all these murderers roaming about freely, no government (assuming that there would be a change in 2011) can restore the rule of law. They would have to be punished.” (All emphasis added) 

In other words, the same killers who went scot free under CPI-M rule were now with the new party in power and for them, it is business as usual. It is also well known that while small shifts in the rural areas were beginning to take place as seen in the Suchapur case, from the late 1990s perhaps, overall CPI-M domination over the villages continued almost unchallenged. Areas where a challenge did emerge, as Bandyopadhyay points out, like in Keshpur, Garbeta, Pingla Sabong, Chhoto Angaria, Kotalpur, Khanakul, Goghat etc. “were cleansed of Opposition elements by continuous raids”.

The point to ponder is that obviously, as cases like these accumulate, they pass into a shared common sense among the poorer peasants who are outside the power structure. These constitute what James Scott has called ‘hidden transcripts’ that are never available to those in power – doesn’t matter if the rulers call themselves communists! These hidden transcripts go into the making of that explosive situation that was waiting to explode as Singur happened. Singur, in fact, hugely accelerated the process and Nandigram took it to insurrectionary levels. CPI-M was still thinking in terms of political rivalry with the TMC – as it continues to do now – but what was actually unfolding was a breakdown of the old power structure and alignments in the rural areas.

To conclude then, let me just underline that TMCs misdemeanors to me are still nowhere near what CPI-M had achieved in its 34 year rule. If for all those misdemeanors it is to be considered ‘fascist’, what may we call the CPI-M? Apart from the label, what exactly is it that makes the CPI-M seem more superior than the TMC?

3 thoughts on “Sitalkuchi And After – A Flashback to CPI-M Rule in West Bengal”

  1. Aditya Nigam, a very tough piece! Should also appear in The Wire. No? You are quite unique on this one. The BJP goons will still point their guns at us, the Left in Bengal are coming after you…

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    1. Ha ha, Thanks Hartman but I don’t think The Wire will take something like this – they are more reasonable people. I don’t mind playing the bad cop most of the time:)

      Like

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