Bloodshed in Birbhum – Is there a tacit social sanction for violence?
There is folklore around the heroes of violence. They are not villains. There is an admiration for such toxic masculinity -- the man was a tiger, he was fearless; and more
The horror of the events in Bogtui (in Birbhum district of West Bengal), where eight people were burnt alive after the murder of a Trinamool leader, will be listed as one of the worst such crimes in the history of violence in recent times in India. It will join the long list of violence and the politics that triggered it, and become one more milestone added to the small and large outbreaks of political violence the country has ever seen.
The list of hundreds of incidents of brutal killings that were triggered by political tensions includes, among many others, the Nellie massacre in Assam in 1983 in which 2,191 people were killed; Godhra in Gujrat in 2002 when 58 people were burnt alive on a train and reprisal killings followed when hundreds of people died; the killing of an officially counted 3,350 Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 following the murderous assault on Indira Gandhi; and the Mumbai riots in 1992-93, in which 900 people died.
As a reflection of the part that violence plays in the politics of West Bengal, which has a long and indefensible history of violence, the nine killings in Bogtui will be added to a list that includes the 11 deaths in Midnapore’s Chhoto Angaria in 2001, the violence in Nandigram in 2007, the Netai massacre in 2011 and the Nanoor-Suchpur massacre in 2000.
The killing of the deputy chair of the local panchayat, Bhadu Sheikh, has been buried under the continuing outrage over what happened to nine people, six of whom were women and children, who were burned to death in a locked room by men seeking reprisal for the death of their leader. The incident has shocked the people in West Bengal and the whole of India.
The difference between the Bogtui and other incidents of political violence is that it was internecine; rivals from within the Trinamool Congress attacked and killed each other. Bhadu Sheikh was a Trinamool Congress leader; the people who were burned to death were also supporters of the Trinamool Congress. Bhadu Sheikh’s antecedents, his connections to the state police and administration are part of what makes Bogtui a milestone in the long history of violence in West Bengal. Instead of maintaining order, the rivalry within the Trinamool Congress resulted in a breakdown of law and order.
The Bogtui violence is a challenge for Mamata Banerjee, who has to resolve how to restore the rule of law and re-establish order in the affected town and all over the state. During her visit to Bogtui, she was the “Didi,” the head of the family who applied salve on the local communities wounds, promised compensation and thundered that all culprits, regardless of who they were and more importantly, which party they belonged to, would be brought to book.
She was seen to take action against the local police that the local people and indeed the people across West Bengal and India perceived as complicit in the barbarity, by allowing it to happen because they did not intervene, on time.
Bogtui made explicit what was implicit in the way local, politically powerful men exercise their authority, aided and abetted by the local police and administration. By accepting the Calcutta High Court’s order of a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into what happened in Bogtui, Mamata has initiated a political salvage of the situation.
By conceding that the local police would work with CBI, the Chief Minister has shifted the focus to the CBI and away from the West Bengal police and her role as Home Minister. There is no way in which Mamata did not know before Bogtui happened that the law and order machinery was seriously compromised and ineffective as a neutral or unbiased force.
She did know. She confessed as much when she said “the incident could have been avoided had the police responded immediately,” meaning that had the police taken preventive measures after Bhadu Sheikh was murdered, the incident could have been avoided. She emphasised that the police had been instructed to make a “watertight” case, conceding that there were occasions when the police worked to protect the wrong doer.
Reprisals and outmigration after terrifying violence are par for the course, in West Bengal and across India. People flee because they feel vulnerable. When the Chief Minister says that she does not want to hear about people having run away, because the local police and administration could not restore order in Bogtui and its neighbourhood, Mamata is acknowledging that these things happen.
The CPI(M) example
For Mamata, being seen to respond to the Bogtui incident is important in terms of West Bengal politics and given her ambitions in national politics. Having declared herself as the symbol of change, pariborton, she cannot afford it at the cost of being seen as ineffectual in managing the internal conflicts of Trinamool Congress on the one hand and in maintaining order in West Bengal on the other. As an astute politician, Mamata is aware that violence can work to bring down a political party; it happened to the CPI(M) when a series of incidents, culminating in the violence in Nandigram, stripped the party of all credibility with voters.
In a twisted sort of way, Bogtui has made Mamata a key opposition figure in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign to trash the regional parties and present itself as the only alternative, because there is no alternative. Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s jibe in Parliament on why the BJP is different from other political parties is a pointer to the importance of being Mamata.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken about Bogtui and underlined the difference between the BJP and the opposition on at least two separate occasions. For a Prime Minister who is very selective about the incidents that he chooses to speak on, focusing on the Bogtui violence is a political message that he is delivering to his support base and people who may be unhappy with the BJP and are searching for alternatives.
Modi, however, needs to be careful. The BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh is not a haven for Dalits and minorities, going by the data that was shared on the floor of Parliament by minister of state for home Nityanand Rai.
Rampancy of political violence
Violence as the opposite of peace and dignity is endemic in India. There is political violence against which political opponents and civil society as well as the general public come together to censure the indefensible. The articulation of condemnation against political violence is easier than denouncing social violence, within the family, against women and against children, against castes, especially the Dalit and marginalised and vulnerable and against whoever violates the rules of conformity. Against economic injustice and the worst forms of exploitation of labour, working in gigs, under contract and even in the organised sector, the collective consciousness of people is voiced in the lowest register.
There seems to be a calibrated social sanction of violence for atrocities, even those that are listed as heinous crimes through legislations, if these are acts of social and economic violence. It is possible for the Karnataka government to announce the launch date for the ‘Vinaya Samarasya Yojana’ as an awareness programme in gram panchayat areas to eradicate the idea of untouchability, over 70 years after untouchability was abolished by the Constitution of India. It is possible for Dalits to demand police protection for a groom from the community to ride a horse to his wedding, fearing violence from the upper castes in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, because discrimination and caste hierarchies are socially sanctioned.
This is not to argue that the use of violence in politics is defensible or excusable. It is not. But the persistence of the use of violence points in the direction of a social sanction for such violence that needs to be addressed as much by political parties as by local communities. There is a social sanction for violence as a method of settling scores or disputes, including family or rent disputes, because there is social approval for the locally powerful, the strongmen with connections to the ruling party or a powerful opposition that enables them to enforce rules that they formulate, mete out a form of justice that is socially accepted and establish an equilibrium that passes for peace.
There is also a folklore around the heroes of such violence. They are not villains. There is an admiration for such toxic masculinity — the man was a tiger, he was fearless, and more on the same lines. This is very similar to the admiration that the lower, informal economy end of people have for the Shiv Sena for its brutal enforcement and rent collection methods.
There is a social sanction for violence as a performance and a messaging tool. The man who keeps order, the go-to person to resolve and manage disputes in the informal economy, where the law and its processes are not the desired means of settlement, has a particular place in urban and rural India. The political parties use these Bahubalis, and their henchmen to keep the local population on their side.
The tacit sanction for men who can unleash violence from political parties and local communities poses the toughest challenge to the rule of law and democratic politics. Most political leaders play dodge, when they are in the ruling party, when ghastly incidents occur, while the opposition goes on the offensive. The frequency and intensity of violence differs from state to state; inexcusable and indefensible as the use of violence is, it is part of the practice of politics.