Political tempers are running so high in West Bengal, it does not take much to spark lethal violence. On Saturday, for instance, an argument about party flags exploded into clashes that resulted in the deaths of three people. The quarrel broke out as Trinamool Congress members tried to remove Bharatiya Janata Party banners in Sandeshkhali, around 75 kilometers from Kolkata on the Bangladesh border. It quickly escalated into a gunfight, reported the Telegraph.
Over the past fortnight, 13 people – eight from the BJP and five Trinamool – have been killed, the Economic Times reported. While West Bengalhas a long history of political violence, this ferocity, after the Lok Sabha election has ended, is unusual even by the state’s own standards.
Social cleavages give this political violence the potential to grow into something even more dangerous. For example, much of this post-election violence has been concentrated in North 24 Parganas, the district bordering Bangladesh. The area has communal fault lines that resulted in Hindu-Muslim riots in 2017 and 2010. Ethnic divisions have also come into play, with a senior Trinamool ministerblaming migrants from Bihar and Jharkhand for displacing Bengalis from their homes.
Much of the blame for this violence will have to be shouldered by the Trinamool Congress, given its status as the state’s ruling party and hence responsible for law and order. Mamata Banerjee’s government has actively encouraged the politicisation of the state administration, so it is not a surprise that the police are either unwilling or unable to stop the violence between BJP and Trinamool workers.
However, in Bengal’s highly politicised environment, the strong opposition BJP bears some responsibility too. The party, which had a 40% vote share in the recent elections, wields considerable power on the ground. In some cases, the BJP has indulged in brinkmanship and fanned violence.
On Sunday, for instance, the BJP insisted that it would bring the bodies of its two workers killed in Sandeshkhali to be cremated in Kolkata, three hours away. This was an obvious attempt to mine political capital from the violence. When they were stopped the police, BJP officials threatened to cremate the bodies on the highway. They backed down only after a long standoff.
Political circles in West Bengal are pointing out that the situation is reminiscent of the time the Trinamool challenged the Communists in the early 2000s and how, half a century earlier, the Communists had challenged the Congress. But this tumultuous past does not absolve either party of the responsibility for the present violence. If they really believe that the interests of West Bengal are greater than their own political ambitions, the Trinamool and the BJP will dial down the tension and end the state’s spiral into violence.