Page last updated at 08:31 GMT, Tuesday, 20 May 2008 09:31 UK

Why Bengal politics are so bloody

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Police patrolling in a West Bengal village during village council election
Clashes occurred despite tight security Pic: Sandipan Chatterjee

Violence during three phases of recent rural elections in the Indian state of West Bengal claimed more than 30 lives.

This was despite the claim of Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya that they would be held "in a festive mood".

The last round of elections on Sunday was the bloodiest, with nearly 20 deaths - almost all in the border district of Murshidabad.

"This district has no industry, huge unemployment, a large smuggling mafia supported by contract killers and musclemen who are used by all political parties," says local political analyst Dipankar Chakrabarti.

Murshidabad, like neighbouring Maldah, has a Muslim majority - and like Maldah, it is also a traditional Congress stronghold, which the state's governing Marxists are desperate to win control of.

'Fight for influence'

Congress parliamentarian Adhir Choudhury has run Murshidabad as his personal fiefdom for decades and Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee owes his first electoral win - in Jangipur constituency in Murshidabad in the last general election - to Mr Choudhury's organisational prowess and power.

The opposition realises it can only fight the Marxists by violence, so they also look to use similar tactics
Political economist Abhirup Sarkar

But in recent months, the Left coalition government has cornered Adhir Choudhury, after he was implicated in several murder cases and even arrested during a parliamentary session.

Mr Choudhury maintains he is innocent.

"The Marxists are desperately trying to increase their influence in Murshidabad and the village polls were seen as a big opportunity," says political analyst Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhuri.

"That's because they have lost their influence in some of their traditional strongholds, so this is a make-up game," says Mr Choudhuri.

"And both the Congress and the Marxists have no reservation about using hardened criminals for spreading terror in Murshidabad."

Actually, all major political parties in West Bengal - either those of the Left coalition or those in the opposition - have freely resorted to violence since Maoist rebels, or Naxalites, began an insurgency in the early 1970s.

Voters queuing up for village council elections
West Bengal's villages have been rocked by political clashes (Pic: Sandipan Chatterjee)

In 2001, Mamata Banerji's Trinamul Congress won a parliamentary by-election at Panskura, allegedly mobilising the local criminal brigade by lavishing them with cash and favours.

A former Marxist mafia don, Mohammed Rafique, swung the polls in the Trinamul's favour and was treated by the party leaders like a film star.

The Marxists, threatened by a possible loss of their influence in the politically-important Midnapore district, hit back with a vengeance, unleashing "red terror" in places like Kespur and Garbeta.

"The Panskura line was countered by the Kespur line, eye for eye, bullet for bullet. This was no political battle, there was no place for debates and polemics, it was a typical feudal turf war fought with unusual brutality," says Ranabir Sammadar, director of the independent think-tank Calcutta Research Group.

'Red terror'

The Kespur assembly seat was subsequently won by the Marxists and their candidate polled 108,000 votes out of 120,000 cast.

Communist party supporter with party flag in Nandigram
The Marxists are accused over violent attacks

"That's unbelievable," says Mr Sammadar. "That's red terror in action."

The red-flag waving motorcycle brigade, openly brandishing rifles and swords, revolvers and locally-made bombs, first made its mark in Kespur and has ever since been the sword-arm of Bengal's governing Marxists.

During the village council polls that ended Sunday, this "motorcycle brigade" arrived in Basanti, an area dominated by their alliance partner, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP).

They allegedly attacked the house of the RSP's minister Subhas Naskar in which his wife Gouri Naskar was killed. The Marxists blamed Gouri Naskar for storing bombs in her house and blamed her death on "one such bomb exploding".

"This is classic political tribalism. In the three decades of Left rule, the Marxists have always tried to undermine their Left allies, by force if necessary. But rarely have they gone this far," says Dyutish Chakrabarty, a professor of politics at North Bengal university.

Mr Chakrabarty says the Marxists have not merely tried to dominate the opposition parties but also their own alliance partners - and the methods have been the same.

"Manipulation of development funds, distribution of small favours, snuffing out dissent by ganging-up tactics and use of terror as the last resort - that's been the Marxist style of political consolidation," says Mr Chakrabarty, who studies political violence in the state.

Buddhadev Bhattacharya
Chief Minister Bhattacharya promised a 'festive' vote

To be fair, the Marxist built up a massive rural support base after they came to power in 1978, by pioneering comprehensive land reforms, by promoting local governance through the panchayats (village councils) and by spending development funds on poverty alleviation projects during the first decade of their rule.

"After that, the party expanded, became more corrupt and violent. And now it needs violence for everything it does - to win elections or acquire land for industry," says Abhirup Sarkar, who works on the political economy of West Bengal.

"And the opposition realises it can only fight the Marxists by violence, so they also look to use similar tactics, as Panskura or Nandigram has shown," says Mr Sarkar.

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