What the killing fields of Bengal say about TMC rule

What the killing fields of Bengal say about TMC rule

Sunday, March 13. Four-time Congress councillor from Jhalda, Tapan Kundu (52), was in a leisurely mood. The hustle and bustle of last month’s municipal elections that took a heavy toll on his mind and body ended recently in relief as both he and his wife emerged victorious. The couple’s win made them important players in the formation of the Jhalda municipal board as the civic body was one...

Sunday, March 13. Four-time Congress councillor from Jhalda, Tapan Kundu (52), was in a leisurely mood. The hustle and bustle of last month’s municipal elections that took a heavy toll on his mind and body ended recently in relief as both he and his wife emerged victorious.

The couple’s win made them important players in the formation of the Jhalda municipal board as the civic body was one of the four that threw a hung verdict, somewhat blemishing the ruling Trinamool Congress’s (TMC) free run in the polls that saw it winning 102 of the 108 civic bodies–the results of which were announced on March 2. The CPI(M) wrested one while the nascent Hamro Party won in Darjeeling town.

In the 12-member Jhalda municipal board, the TMC and the Congress won five seats each and the Independents secured two seats. The day the results were announced, an independent councillor switched sides to the TMC, leaving the power scale evenly poised.

To form the board, the state’s ruling party would now need support of at least one more councillor.

Kundu, however, was not in the mood to cloud his mind with the complexity of the board formation. He stepped out of his house, located in the town’s Ananda Bazar area, for an evening walk. The cool breeze blowing from the nearby Saharajhore River was blissful as summer was just setting in over the town, nestled with its rolling land and scattered hills at the lowest step of the Chota Nagpur Plateau in Purulia district.

Barely had he taken a few steps when the idyllic serenity was brutally shattered by three gun shots fired by three motorcycle-borne assailants. Kundu slumped to the ground before anyone could even fathom what was happening.

He was rushed to the Jhalda primary health centre from where he was referred to a hospital at Ranchi in neighbouring Jharkhand. Doctors there declared him dead.

“Tapan Kundu was killed by TMC goons to stop the Congress from forming the board in Jhalda. They have eliminated him so that they can get an upper hand in the hung board,” state Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said, an allegation vehemently refuted by the TMC.

Around the same time, some 264 km east of Jhalda, at Panihati in North 24 Parganas district, two-time TMC councillor Anupam Dutta (48) was coming out of a medicine shop when an assailant shot him dead. CCTV footage of the area showed Dutta was just about to ride pillion on a two-wheeler when a man wearing a blue and white striped t-shirt, his face concealed beneath a mask, came from behind and shot Dutta at point blank.

“BJP MP Arjun Singh is behind the murder. We (TMC) urge the police to investigate the murder and arrest the culprits as soon as possible,” TMC leader Partha Bhowmik said after the killing. The BJP, however, blamed the killing on the TMC’s factional feud.

The blame game notwithstanding, the twin shootings, within a span of a few hours coming weeks after the sensational killing of a political activist and a vocal critic of the state’s TMC government, Anish Khan, speak volumes about West Bengal’s political culture and its deep-rooted malaise.

The blood bath

Narrating the events that led to the killing of his 28-year-old son on the intervening night of February 18 and February 19, Anish’s father Salem Khan said four persons—one in police fatigue and three other dressed as civic volunteers—barged into his home at Sarada Dakshin Khan Pada in Howrah district’s Amta. They were looking for Anish, a student of journalism. Before Salem could understand what was happening, the three ran upstairs while the one in police uniform held Salem hostage at gunpoint. Soon after the three went up, Salem said, he heard the sound of something heavy falling on the ground. Within minutes, the trio came down to inform their “boss” that the “job was done”. Satisfied with their ‘accomplishment’, the four left the house in a jiffy.

Salem, meanwhile, rushed to the second floor, only to find his son lying in a pool of blood on the ground below. He was allegedly thrown off the second floor of his house. The death, as expected, triggered massive protests, particularly from the students’ community, in the state.

Incidentally, Anish himself was the face of the students’ protest at the time of the anti-CAA movement. During the 2021 assembly elections, he worked for the Indian Secular Front, floated by Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui.

After his death, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, however, claimed that Anish was in touch with the TMC and that in the elections he had helped the party.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has claimed that Anish Khan was in touch with the TMC and had helped the party in the elections. Photo: PTI

On May 24 last year, after the poll results were announced, Khan had lodged a written complaint with the police that a few local TMC leaders had threatened him for organising a blood donation camp in the area. There are also allegations that a group of people led by a local panchayat office-bearer and a TMC booth-level leader ransacked Anish’s house soon after the results were declared.

That Anish was being intimidated, his friends say, was evident from his social media posts. In one of his Facebook posts he had said he would “embrace death” rather than “sell himself to brokers”.

Home guard Kashinath Bera and civic volunteer Pritam Bhattacharya were arrested in connection with Anish’s death. The duo, however, said they had visited Anish’s house following the order of the officer-in-charge (OC) of Amta police station.

Amta Police Station OC Debabrata Chakraborty was sent on leave on February 24, after a special investigation team (SIT) was constituted to probe the death of the student leader.
Murder of political opponents is par for course in Bengal ever since the 1960s. But the three recent incidents set a new low and have enough reasons to rattle the TMC government.

Power games

As in the case of Anish’s death, the TMC and police’s role came under scanner in the death of Tapan Kundu as well.

In connection with the killing of the Congress councillor, police arrested Dipak Kundu, a nephew of the slain councillor. Dipak contested the civic polls on a TMC ticket against his uncle and lost. Jhalda police station in-charge Sanjeev Ghosh’s name also cropped up in the case with Kundu’s wife, Purnima, lodging a written complaint against him before superintendent of police S Selvamurugan.

In a video clip that went viral, the IC was heard putting pressure on Mithun Kundu, another nephew of the slain councillor, to convince his uncle to join the TMC. The police have confiscated Mithun’s mobile to ascertain the veracity of his claim about the video conversation.

Meanwhile, a Panihati municipality contractor, Sanjib Pandit, has been arrested in connection with the death of Anupam Dutta. Sanjib hired a killer to gun down the TMC councillor over a dispute over allotment of PWD works of the municipality, police suspect.

“The arrest of the contractor completed the jigsaw puzzle if one is intrigued as to why even after a landslide victory in the last assembly elections and in subsequent polls, there is so much political violence in the state allegedly perpetrated by the ruling TMC. TMC leaders often argue why they would resort to violence after getting such an overwhelming mandate. The answer lies in the killing of Panihati councillor,” said political commentator and author Nirmalya Banerjee.

Political power, Banerjee added, has become synonymous with corruption, particularly at the grassroot level as local-self-governments play an important role in the distribution of freebies doled out by the TMC government as social security schemes. He also pointed out how the chief minister, ahead of the 2021 assembly elections, herself admonished party functionaries for taking cut-money from beneficiaries of welfare schemes.

Many closely observing the activities in the state say the police’s nexus with the politicians is only aggravating the situation.

A victim of innumerable political violence herself—and in many senses a product of it —TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee should know it better that if the violence spiralled beyond control, as it is threatening to be now, it could be her political Waterloo.

When the Calcutta High Court recently ordered police protection for as many as 303 victims of the alleged post-assembly poll violence on 2021, the underlying message of no-confidence on the TMC leadership to rein in its supporters to check political violence was unmistakable.

After all, the TMC top leadership’s appeal for violence-free polls ahead of this year’s civic elections went unheard, much to the chagrin of many senior leaders, who publicly aired their disapproval of the muscle-flexing.

“The manner in which the civic body elections were conducted will tarnish the party’s image. People will stop believing in us,” veteran TMC leader and MP Saugata Roy said after the civic polls. But not many in his party, particularly those in the lower and middle rungs, are willing to fall in line because of the high stakes involved.

“Even within the TMC there are many contenders for each post. That is why incumbent councillors and panchayat members or any other elected representatives are very insecure of their positions. They constantly fear that a defeat can ruin whatever they have amassed. So, they fiercely guard their turf and can go to any extent to defend it,” said Rajagopal Dhar Chakraborty, political analyst and former registrar of Calcutta University.

Observers like Chakraborty say the dilemma for the TMC is that these leaders generously contribute to the party fund from their amassed wealth and also wield significant power at the local level, making them integral to the TMC’s formidable election machinery at the grassroots. The party cannot afford to forgo them easily.

BJP MLAs protest against the killing of TMC councillor Anupam Dutta. Photo: PTI

Hence, the party has been trying to deal with the situation with superficial sternness, now and then issuing warnings and selectively taking action against a few erring members. The ineffectiveness of such measures has been too evident now for the TMC to continue with such half-hearted attempts.

The party, which came to power in 2011 with the slogan badla noi badal chai (we want change, not revenge) should remember that it does not take much time for people to change their mandate. After all, the Left Front tumbled from its high horse in 2006 to face defeat five years later for similar reasons.

“Power without effective governance may last for years but that’s anarchy which the public never voted for. The TMC, which picks on the BJP government at the Centre for ruling with an iron fist, must remember that democracy is not about party supremacy but people’s rule,” said Banerjee.

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