Editor's Note: The history of political violence and bloodshed in West Bengal is an election tradition since the 1940s, peaking during the 1960s and 1970s, and enduring till date. This is part three of a multi-part series exploring the origins, process and consequences of politically- motivated violence in the state. Read the first and the second part.
Sandeshkhali: Abhik Sardar (name changed), a former CPM member from Joygopalpur village in the Sandeshkhali II block in Basirhat district, is in a bind these days. A staunch Left Front member for most of his life, Sardar joined the Trinamool in 2016.
But in 2021, he is in hiding. Members of the Trinamool Congress, according to Sardar, are after his life because he joined the BJP in Bengal recently.
"I did not have a choice. After the 2016 Assembly elections, the Trinamool forced me to join them," he alleges. Sardar is not alone.
Political parties estimate that at least 60-70 percent of Bengal's CPM cadre was forced to join the ruling Trinamool Congress after the 2016 state Assembly elections, but they soon migrated to the BJP, allegedly because of rampant corruption and torture by local TMC leaders. Across most of Bengal -- especially in the districts of North and South 24 Parganas, Basirhat, Birbhum, Bardhaman, Murshidabad, Malda among others -- violence and intimidation was carried out to poach Left party workers into Trinamool - locally labelled the 'Lal TMC', indicating their move from the Left. The move ensured the TMC's complete domination of the panchayats, leaving no room for doubt about which party controls the state and its coffers.
According to Sardar, he was one of the few that resisted jumping ship. "They charged me with several false cases including theft, loot, kidnapping and murder and under the arms act. These crimes were committed by Trinamool members, but they told the police it was my handiwork. I was not the only one targeted by them -- every CPM and BJP worker who did not agree to join the TMC was charged with false cases. The charges were serious. We would have been behind bars for years. We surrendered because we did not have any choice," said Sardar.
The ruling party, according to Sardar, inducted them soon after they surrendered, and promised them that the charges will be dropped. A few months later, Sardar was nominated for the Panchayat elections under the Trinamool banner and was elected to an important role, managing land affairs in the Sandeshkhali II block region. Sardar says that this was just the beginning of the horror. He and his associates were "forced to terrorise" the locals into voting for the Trinamool. The ruling party also indulged in rampant corruption and money laundering, he says. Unable to put up with this torture, Sardar left the Trinamool and joined the BJP. Looking around suspiciously in the deserted lane of the village where he talked to this correspondent, Sardar confesses that he is currently on the run because the police (under orders from the local TMC leaders) are again hunting for him.
But as the popular saying goes, truth is rarely pure and never simple. Dig a little deeper, and the story becomes clearer. The TMC was not looking to recruit Sardar or the other former CPM members to merely bolster their cadre base. Sardar, like several other members who were "poached" by the TMC, joined the party because they had no choice but to join the ruling party, because, after 2011, the CPM had lost all sway in the state that it commanded for decades.
"When the TMC came to power, the so-called CPM loyalists across Bengal realised that they will have no footing unless they attach themselves to the reigning power of the time. Party work in Bengal has very little to do with ideology. It is all about power and domination in this part of the country, said Abesh Das, a local teacher who is also a social activist in the region.
If you are with the ruling government, you have certain clout, you command a certain level of respect and fear. And those who have tasted that kind of power and the perks that come with it, have a hard time letting it go. It is a vicious cycle," Das said.
Ashalata Sardar (name changed) is busy cleaning the floor of what seems like a house under construction. A former Left member from Monipur village -- about 75km from Kolkata and close to the Bangladesh border in Basirhat district -- Ashalata and her husband Arup Sardar (name changed) were coerced into joining the Trinamool like several of their peers. The family traditionally backed the Left front government till Mamata's Trinamool came to power in 2011. According to political observers in the state, a "partisan cleansing" followed in Bengal. Soon after the 2011 state assembly elections, the TMC targeted CPM workers/loyalists and supporters and forced them to join the party.
"They did not attack us directly. But everyone around and near us was being threatened and beaten into submission. There was widespread unrest in a way that homes were being ransacked, people went missing overnight. We did not want that to happen to us or our family. Fearing for our lives, we joined the Trinamool in 2014," Ashalata said.
She fought the next local elections under the TMC banner and was elected village pradhan. "The appointment was a mere formality. My opinions as a councillor did not matter. Decisions were made by someone else and I was there merely to sign on the orders - no questions asked," Ashalata said. "When I asked, I was told to go on a sick leave for a year. Sheikh Shahjahan, local Trinamool block president, is the one who handles all the matters in the area. I didn't have a voice."
'Lal TMC' becomes 'Lal BJP'
According to Sardar and Ashalata, they closely witnessed the domination of the Trinamool and the high-handedness of a few local leaders during the 2018 panchayat elections. "We saw how they kept people from exercising their fundamental right to vote in 2018. We were expected to do the same. I resisted and openly told the local villagers that the TMC is not here to serve, but to rob democracy," said Sardar.
In the 2018 elections, the BJP witnessed a huge gain in their vote share in Bengal. The Trinamool's panchayat capture in 2018 acted as an inflection point, decimating the Left and propelling the BJP to the status of the main Opposition party. The ruling party was able to prevent opposition candidates from filing nominations. As a result, the Trinamool won walkovers in 34 percent of gram panchayat seats, 33 percent of the panchayat samiti seats and 25 percent of the zilla parishad seats. Unabated violence claimed over 25 lives, and re-polling was ordered in 573 booths across the state. In contrast, in the 2013 panchayat elections, re-polling was ordered in just 21 booths - the number of booths going for a repoll in 2018 was 27 times more than 2013.
Following the incidents of the 2018 local body elections and the unprecedented violence, the TMC -- according to Ashalata -- targeted those former CPM members who "spoke out against these atrocities of TMC". But local activists tell a different story.
According to a SUCI (Socialist Unity Centre of India) leader from Bodo Tushkhali village in North 24 Parganas, who wished to remain anonymous, it was no coincidence that CPM turncoats like Ashalata and Sardar started "speaking out against'' TMC just around the time when the BJP started gaining ground in the state.
The fundamental difference in the organisational structure of the CPM and the TMC was another factor because of which the turncoats could not adjust to the new order, and jumped to BJP as soon as they got the chance. But the move came with its own set of new, violent incidents in the districts.
"The TMC's insecurity was clear when they were terrorising their own supporters against voting. Ballot boxes were snatched and ballot papers were signed or dumped in the water. The BJP got a boost as the TMC disallowed any electoral opposition, in order to consolidate their power. The TMC's regime has become worse than CPM's violent rule," said the SUCI leader.
According to Sardar, when he started speaking out against the TMC's corrupt practices and violent methods, they targeted him. "My business was targeted, they tore down a part of my house, explosives were hurled at my house and my family was threatened. To save myself and my family, I joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2021."
When asked how a staunch CPM follower joined the ideologically opposite BJP, Sardar, Ashalata and Arup Sardar had similar responses. "CPM's ways were violent too, but it was not mindless. They had strong ethics. The TMC is morally corrupt. They are robbing people of their basic right to vote. We don't have the freedom to speak uninhibitedly. We will be targeted if someone sees us speaking to a reporter," said Arup. When asked why he didn't return to the CPM after leaving the TMC, Arup said, "The Left will not return to power this year, it can't win the elections. We joined the BJP to defeat the tyrannical rule of Mamata and her party. Even though ideological rivals, we have to survive now. Wait and watch, a majority of Left supporters in the state will vote for the BJP this time."
Bhagyadhar Mandal, a long-time BJP member and a former pradhan from Monipur panchayat, said that BJP workers in the region and other parts of the state have only been defending themselves against the brute force of the TMC. "The ruling party targets villagers and locals who support the BJP. They hurl bombs at women and children, they destroy homes, there is a complete collapse of democracy. We can't freely voice our opinions. How can you expect no opposition? Corruption is rampant but we can't speak up against it. If we do, we are targeted. How can you expect democracy when the opposition can't question the government?
Political observers, however, noted that this cyclical violence on the ground is part of the larger culture of violence that Bengal has witnessed over decades and now it has the new entrant BJP in the mix as well.
A former Anandabazar Patrika journalist who is currently the BJP candidate from Suri in Birbhum district -- Jagannath Chattopadhyay -- said that political and electoral violence in Bengal is the "unfortunate gift of the Left regime". "CPM terrorised voters, especially the poor in rural Bengal because they believed that's the only way to have power over the electors. That's how the Left remained in power for 34 years. The TMC followed in their footsteps, but the control that CPM had over their cadre is missing within the TMC," said Chattopadhyay. Under the CPM, he elaborates, the "lumpen crowd" that unleashed most of the violence was used sparingly and only for "specific assignments". "Under the Trinamool, this lumpen crowd has become the grassroots leadership." But now that the "lumpen" CPM and TMC cadre form a majority part of the state BJP's cadre, will the culture of violence continue?
"Our cadre in BJP strongholds is livid, because many of our workers and party members have been killed. And they want payback after 2 May. But the BJP leadership does not believe in tit for tat, especially when it comes to violence. We have already lost many. But at the same time, people have been wronged. The TMC has charged countless people in false cases just because they are in power, and they can. In the last three-four years, almost 30,000 fake cases have been registered against BJP supporters and workers. People have not forgotten this State-sponsored police oppression over the last decade," says Chattopadhyay
Basirhat assembly constituency in the North 24 Parganas of Bengal voted on 17 April. Abhik Sardar, still in hiding, spoke to this correspondent over the phone. "Police have charged me with two murders in the last three weeks. I had nothing to do with those cases. But they are still hunting for me. I could not even cast my vote today.