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The run up to the rural local elections in West Bengal saw significant judicial intervention as the Calcutta High Court forced a recalcitrant state election commission to bring in large numbers of central paramilitary forces to ensure a violence-free poll. Past panchayat polls both under the current Trinamool Congress and earlier under the Left had seen significant levels of violence.
Saturday’s election, however, belied hopes that the High Court’s intervention had raised. Although nearly 60,000 paramilitary troops had been deployed, the voting was marred by deadly violence. Twenty people were killed with reports of widespread voter intimidation. This is on top of 22 people killed during campaigning.
India is no stranger to political violence. Riots, lynchings, rapes and murders happen frequently and are often supported by powerful political forces. Yet, in spite of that, no other state in India sees them in the form West Bengal does, with widespread violence related specifically to voting. Even more unique is the fact that rural elections see so much violence in Bengal. In stark contrast, rural elections in many other states are fought at a low, even somnolent pitch.
What explains the fact of rural elections in West Bengal being so uniquely violent?
A history of rural mobilisation
To understand why gram Bangla – rural Bengal – sees so much violence, we will have to look at a short history of its politics. Ever since democratic voting was introduced for provincial government by the British Raj in 1937, the Bengali peasantry has played a major role in its politics. In 1937, in fact, Bengal’s first premier, AK Fazlul Huq came from a peasant-based party, the Krishak Praja Party, that opposed the zamindars that had, till then, controlled much of the countryside.
Within a decade, Bengali sharecroppers were successfully opposing attempts by zamindars to violate a new law that restricted the landlord’s share of the harvest from half to one-third. Although it had been passed by a Muslim League government, this new tebhaga, or one-third law was implemented by communist cadre on the ground, often in the teeth of armed opposition from the landlord’s goondas.
Partition and independence saw a partial restoration of the old rural order as the Congress, a largely conservative party in Bengal, came to power in the newly created West Bengal province. However, the rural mobilisation set off by the tebhaga movement kept on gathering steam. By the 1960s, many militant communist cadres were advocating the use of force in redistributing land under a movement that would be called the Naxalbari uprising. In 1977, when the Left came to power, it brought in land reforms, giving sharecroppers rights over land that they cultivated.
The effects of this sustained rural mobilisation meant that land reforms achieved more success in West Bengal than in anywhere else in India. The state has the lowest proportion of large and medium landowners in the country.
So strong was this peasant base, in fact, when the Left Front government tried to forcefully acquire farmland in the late 2000s to bring in much-needed industry to the state, it was unable to. In an ironic reversal of events during the 1960s, communist armed cadres looking to acquire farmland were met with force from peasants. Eventually the chain of events this set off led to the fall of the Left Front government in 2011.
In parallel to this rural mobilisation was the fact that the Left introduced a strong system of rural local government in 1978. Legally, a significant amount of power was devolved to these panchayats and, unlike in other states, West Bengal never missed conducting local elections. A 2007 study by Shubham Choudury, an economist at United States’ Columbia University, found that West Bengal was second only to Kerala on devolving power to the local level. In fact, Choudury found that Kerala and Bengal were the “only two states to have undertaken significant devolution” at all.
While, on paper, these panchayats had significant power, the peculiar situation of a very strong party in the form of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) meant that often de facto control rested not with the legal panchayat government but with local party officials.
In 2011, however, the Left fell. The Trinamool Congress that came to power had no organisation and was sustained by the personality of Mamata Banerjee. It was the polar opposite of the Left’s organisational philosophy. With no party organisation to micromanage them, panchayats for the first time under the Trinamool, suddenly acquired the full de facto force of the powers that had been de jure devolved to them by the Left.
Successful devolution means that, unlike in other states, control of panchayats in West Bengal is critical to deciding who rules the state. In fact, the stakes are so high, political contests often boil over into violence – a trend helped along with nearly a century of rural mobilisation among the Bengali peasantry.
There is little doubt that rulers in Kolkata have often encouraged and, in fact, benefited from this rural political violence. The Left, for example, used it to unseat the Congress. The Trinamool has, in turn, used it to try and wipe out the Opposition. However, so strong is it that, beyond a point, controlling this rural space is not possible from Kolkata. The Left learnt it that hard way when it tried to forcefully acquire land in the late 2000s.
Similarly, the Trinamool high command too has only limited control over rural violence. Incredibly, the vast majority of workers killed in the 2023 panchayat election are actually from the ruling party. While in some cases, the Trinamool has blamed the Opposition and specifically the Left-Congress alliance for these attacks, many of them seem to be the result of intra-party factionalism.
In the run up to the polls, the Trinamool central leadership tried to control factionalism using threats. In an interview, Chief Minister Banerjee warned rebels that funds for their panchayats will come from her government so it was of little use winning a panchayat by defeating official Trinamool candidates. However, top-down threats have had limited effect on the ground and the party went into the panchayat polls riven by factionalism.
Moreover, the sheer scale of the violence along with West Bengal’s large population meant that central paramilitary forces deployed on order of the judiciary were also rendered useless.
In effect, the rural political violence in Bengal is paradoxically the result of a strong peasantry as well as strong local devolution. This is what explains the puzzle that while Bengal’s panchayat polls are uniquely violent, they also see significant participation from citizens who come out in large numbers in order to elect their village governments. The turnout for the 2023 West Bengal panchayat polls was 81%. Compare this to 67%, the national turnout for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.