Eight people were burnt to death in West Bengal’s district of Birbhum on Tuesday. The attack took place hours after Bhadu Sheikh, the Trinamool’s deputy pradhan of Barashal gram panchayat was assassinated in a bomb attack.

Without any concrete investigation till now, theories have been floated that the violence was the result of a family feud or was the consequence of an intra-party Trinamool rivalry. It is quite possible that it is both. The eight people killed belonged to the family of Sona Sheikh, once a close aide of Bhadu’s and now accused of murdering him. While the family of the eight people burnt to death are Trinamool supporters, the main accused is also Trinamool: party block president Anarul Hossain.

This is horrific but not surprising. Levels of political violence are so high currently in Bengal that even intra-party feuds can often descend into lethal violence. In fact, with much of the Opposition wiped out from Birbhum district anyway by the Trinamool’s violence, it is inevitable that the opposition to the ruling party will come from within the Trinamool itself.

Brutal Bengal

Political violence has a long and bloody history in Bengal. This traces back to very high levels of political mobilisation in rural Bengal, starting from the 1930s under agrarian leaders like AK Fazlul Huq of the Krishak Praja Party. Post partition, this trend saw a retreat as the Congress, the traditional party of landed elites in Bengal, ensured pro-peasant laws like land ceilings were not implemented.

However, this was only a temporary pause. By the late 1960s, Bengal was in turmoil politically, with communist cadre working to violently overturn Bengal’s rural order consisting of landlords, goondas and the police. The system that replaced it was based, uniquely for India, on party affiliation. This “party-society” was the “elementary institution of rural life in the state”. While other states in India saw politics resting on pillars like caste and religion, for West Bengalis, that role was played by the party.

Party society

This, however, meant that violence too got channelled along those lines. So while other states could see communal riots coupled with politics, in Bengal, violence was committed by as well as against parties. The Left maintained this order for more than three decades and the Trinamool, which managed to successfully resist the Left’s violence towards the end of its rule, has now taken on the role of the primary aggressor.

While things were bad earlier too, it is clear now that the Trinamool’s ascendance to power saw a significant rise in violence. With a strong panchayat system and, unlike the Left, no strong party apparatus to mediate disputes, the Trinamool-era saw a free-for-all at the village level in order to garner political benefits from local government.

So bad are things now that senior Trinamool leaders openly boast of political violence. During the 2018 Panchayat Polls when asked why so many opposition leaders had been unable to file nominations, Trinamool Congress Birbhum district president Anubrata Mondal claimed it was because they saw “unnayan”, or development, on the roads – a thinly veiled, chilling reference to armed Trinamool cadre who had barred off physical access to nomination offices.

People in West Bengal's Nadia district injured in violence during the 2018 Panchayat Elections. Credit: PTI

Out of control

On Wednesday, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee also resorted to whataboutery, claiming that the such incidents were “more frequent in UP, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan”. It was only after a sustained campaign by the opposition as well as media coverage that Banerjee on Thursday visited the site of the killing and ordered the arrest of her colleague Anarul Hossain.

Banerjee has often blamed the Left for Bengal’s culture of political violence (much in the same way the Left once blamed the Congress). However, the Trinamool is dominant to the point of being hegemonic in the state now. For it to pin the blame on the past is like the Bharatiya Janata Party blaming India’s first prime minister for the country’s ills now.

The Trinamool owes a great deal of its success to political violence. But it must make every effort to end the cycle now. This is not only a moral question but one of self preservation. West Bengal has a population greater than Germany’s with almost no organised industry and shrinking employment options. If political violence, much of it conducted with firearms and bombs, continues to be given free reign, there is simply no telling when matters could go out of the control of even the ruling party.

In fact, it might already have.