By SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY
FRONTLINE, Volume 29 - Issue 05 :: Mar. 10-23, 2012
West Bengal: The murder of two CPI(M) leaders in Bardhaman district points to an increase in political violence in the State.
THE brutal murder of Pradip Tah, a former legislator belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), and Kamal Gayen, another senior leader of the party, in broad daylight, allegedly by Trinamool Congress supporters, in West Bengal's Bardhaman district on February 22 once again points to an alarming rise in political violence in the State since May 2011, when the Trinamool assumed power. Around 90 deaths have taken place in the last nine months. While the CPI(M) has claimed that 58 of its supporters and workers (as of February 27) have been killed by Trinamool activists, the ruling party has countered that 32 of its workers have been killed by CPI(M) activists in the last nine months.
The CPI(M) attributes the latest killings to a growing insecurity in the Trinamool camp over the former's attempt to reorganise itself and re-establish contact with its support base. According to Surya Kanta Mishra, Leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly, the CPI(M)'s massive rally in the Kolkata Brigade Parade Ground on February 19 and the Left trade unions' call for a 24-hour bandh on February 28 have been cause for concern in the ruling party. “The murder of Pradip Tah and Kamal Gayen was completely premeditated and committed out of a sense of desperation by the Trinamool Congress workers. They are finding it hard to accept that we still retain a huge support base as was evident in the Brigade rally, and they are feeling threatened,” Mishra told Frontline.
Around 8:30 a.m. on February 22 in Dewangdighi, Bardhaman, CPI(M) and Trinamool workers clashed over allegations of party flags being torn down. Local CPI(M) leader Roop Kumar Gupta was injured. Tah (57) and Gayen (70) were not present when the fight took place. Later, Tah went to check on Gupta at the Bardhaman Medical College. After that he and Gayen set off for Mirzapur, adjoining Dewangdighi, to take part in a procession in support of the bandh on February 28 and condemning the attack on CPI(M) workers. In the meantime, an armed gang, allegedly belonging to the Trinamool Congress, had gone to Tah's residence. He was not there, but the gang members reportedly told his wife, Chitralekha, that they would kill him.
Less than an hour later, around 9:45 a.m., as the procession led by Tah and Gayen was dispersing, assailants armed with axes and iron rods surrounded Tah and slashed and bludgeoned him to death. Gayen, who tried to intervene, was also savagely attacked. While Tah died on his way to the Bardhaman hospital, Gayen succumbed to his injuries while being brought to Kolkata for treatment. Four persons were arrested in connection with the case.
“It was clear the attackers had only Pradip Tah on their agenda and were waiting to get at him. Kamal Gayen was killed because he tried to intervene. Nobody else was attacked as such,” said a source who had witnessed the incident. However, according to CPI(M) Bardhaman district secretary Amal Haldar, Gayen's murder may not have been as unplanned as it appeared. “Kamalda was a very prominent leader in the district and also a witness to Pradip's murder,” Haldar told Frontline.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who was in New Delhi when the incident took place, dismissed allegations that her party workers were involved in the murders and put the blame on the CPI(M) instead. “This is a result of the CPI(M)'s internal feud. There were many cases pending against Pradip Tah. This is not murder,” she told the press in New Delhi. However, in Kolkata, her Ministers were telling a different story. State Industries Minister and Trinamool general secretary Partha Chatterjee claimed that the slain CPI(M) leaders were victims of “mob fury” when the CPI(M) “tried to recapture their lost territory”. Other Ministers, including Firhad Hakim (Urban Development) and Moloy Ghatak (Law), gave statements more or less on the same lines.
The police added to the confusion by not seeking custody of the four accused, who, instead were put in judicial custody later on. “This clearly shows that the government is trying to protect the culprits. The Chief Minister and her Cabinet colleagues' statements clearly point to the fact that they are trying to influence the process of investigation,” Mishra told Frontline.
Bardhaman, which used to be a CPI(M) stronghold, returned Trinamool candidates in 16 of the 25 seats in the district in the 2011 Assembly elections. However, Pradip Tah remained a force to contend with in his constituency of Uttar Bardhaman. In the 2006 Assembly elections, he won the seat by a comfortable margin of over 60,000 votes. In 2011 he could not contest as the constituency became a reserved one, but he was a key factor in the party retaining the Assembly seat despite the enormous anti-incumbency sentiment all over the State. “Killing Pradip Tah was perhaps perceived to be a way to create a leadership vacuum in the CPI(M) in the region and thus further weaken the party,” a political source in Bardhaman told Frontline.
According to Amal Haldar, events leading to the CPI(M)'s massive rally in the Kolkata Brigade Parade Ground on February 19 may have precipitated the attack. The rally had made Trinamool workers in the region nervous. “Under Pradip Tah's leadership thousands of people from the region had gone to participate in the Brigade rally. They feared a comeback [by the CPI(M)] and reacted by killing Pradip and Kamalda – the two pillars of our party in the district,” said Haldar.
The Chief Minister's reaction to the killings drew criticism from all sections of society. Eminent artistes, scholars and social activists condemned the incident in a joint statement: “We find it especially outrageous that Ms Mamata Banerjee, the State's Chief Minister, should come out to protect the murderers…. It seems well in line with the Chief Minister's habit of denying tragedies like farmers' suicides or condoning offences like the recent shocking rape in Kolkata.” Among the signatories were Irfan Habib, Prabhat Patnaik, Indira Dev and others. Reacting to a recent rape case in Kolkata's Park Street, Mamata Banerjee had said it had been “staged” to “malign” her government. The police investigations, however, did not support this hypothesis.
The all-India industrial strike on February 28 took the character of a general strike or bandh in West Bengal. It was in preparation for this bandh that Tah and Gayen had taken part in that fatal procession in Bardhaman. Though the bandh was largely peaceful except for sporadic violence, for both the government and the opposition it was a matter far deeper than what met the eye. For the Trinamool, it had been vital that the bandh should be a failure, as it would serve to dampen the spirit of a seemingly resurgent CPI(M). “Such an effort to foil a bandh is unprecedented in the last 30 years in the State. This may indicate an uneasiness on the part of the government,” said a political source. However, though the State government triumphantly announced more than normal attendance in government offices and free movement of public transport, largely empty government-owned buses ran on largely empty streets.