A Bengali reformer and political violence mark polls in West Bengal

Last Updated: Fri, May 17, 2019 14:18 hrs

As the final phase of polling approaches, West Bengal is proving to be a state where instances of violence have leapt to the forefront rather than the issues facing voters. On Wednesday, the Election Commission (EC) put an end to campaigning a day early. Under Article 324 of the constitution, the EC made the decision after violent clashes broke out between cadres of the BJP and the Trinamool Congress (TMC).

The decision made by the EC has come under widespread criticism from many opposition parties including the Congress and DMK. The Election Commission has come under scrutiny and criticism in this election regarding allegations of bias for the ruling government at the centre. Last month, the EC told the Supreme Court that it had limited powers to discipline politicians who sought votes using caste or religion.

To avert any notions of bias, could an all-party panel be appointed to straight things out? Former Legal Advisor to the EC, S.K. Mendiratta, tells The Print that the appointment to the EC itself should be looked at first saying in part, “Having a select committee appoint members of the EC will also avert and avoid all criticisms of bias that comes its way… I have also said that at least one of the members of the Election Commission should come from a judiciary background.”

It has been noticeably slow in its decision making process when it came to complaints against the Prime Minister. Faizan Mustafa, an expert on constitutional law, writes in the Indian Express on the role of the EC in the wake of its announcement on Bengal –

The situation in West Bengal — of some violence and vandalism, which was neither new nor alarming and critical — is covered by existing laws, and there was no need to invoke the residuary power granted to the ECI by Article 324. The ECI’s credibility has suffered during these elections.”

Apart from perhaps Rahul Gandhi, no one has been more vocal in opposition to Modi than Mamata Banerjee. The rhetoritic has only been increasing in the days leading up to the polls. Violent clashes broke out during BJP Chief Amit Shah’s roadshow including the statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar being vandalised at Vidyasagar College in Kolkata. A SIT probe has been ordered to investigate the incident.

The BJP and the TMC have pointed fingers at each other regarding who is responsible for the incident. Videos of the incident have gone viral on social media. Soon after the incident, Banerjee along with other TMC leaders replaced their profile pictures on social media to that of Vidyasagar. The incidents of violence have been ugly to say the least and the Tribune editorial called this a new low in the battle for one-upmanship –

“A free and fair inquiry into the Kolkata fracas is a must to bring out the whole truth and uphold the rule of law. It was a brazen display of hooliganism and lawlessness. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is taking a holier-than-thou stance, even though she and BJP president Amit Shah are equally responsible for letting their workers run riot.”

Chandra Vidyasagar is a significant person in the state. An iconic social reformer and scholar who died more than a century ago, he has become a point of violent contention in the West Bengal elections. He was seen as an important figure in the Bengal renaissance who established schools and colleges and voiced his support for widow remarriage which made the then British government pass the Widow Remarriage Act in 1856. His textbook of Bengali alphabets titled ‘Borno Porichoy’ (Introduction to Alphabet) made him intrinsic part of Bengali students’ childhoods. Biplab Lohochoudhury, professor at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, in a column for the Indian Express, writes on the importance of Vidyasagar in Bengal –

Vandalising Vidyasagar’s statue goes against Bengal’s intellectual legacy. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was the foremost figure against whom the Naxals had a huge grudge. Vidyasagar has gradually been sidelined during the last few years in Bengal through the erasure of the Bengali language training’s cultural context — for instance, by selectively changing some text, at the primary level.”

Violence in West Bengal politics sadly isn’t new. The 1990’s and 2000 saw the CPI (M) led Left Front crack down on detractors and Mamata Banerjee herself hasn’t been innocent in this regard. As part of the EC’s call on ending campaigning early, it had removed two top officials of the state with immediate effect - Principal Secretary (Home) Atri Bhattacharya and IPS officer Rajeev Kumar from his post of ADG CID.

The nine constituencies going to polls on Sunday including North and South Kolkata which are urban areas, the remaining seven are mainly rural and rural-urban. The incident took place in North Kolkata where the college is located and as tensions remain high, an outsider political narrative may or may not work for those who are non-Bengali. With the Left barely present in the state anymore, the battle between the TMC and BJP has reached the boiling point.

More columns by Varun Sukumar