By Vijay Prashad
EPW, Vol - XLIX No. 20, May 17, 2014 | Vijay Prashad
Santana Mondal, a dalit woman supporter of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was attacked by Trinamool Congress men for defying their diktat and exercising her franchise. This incident illustrates the nature of the large-scale violence which has marred the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal. Serious allegations of booth capturing and voter intimidation have been levelled against the ruling TMC.
Vijay Prashad (email@example.com) is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon.
Santana Mondal, a 35 year old woman, belongs to the Arambagh Lok Sabha parliamentary constituency in Hooghly district, West Bengal. She lives in Naskarpur with her two daughters and her sister Laxmima. The sisters work as agricultural labourers. Mondal and Laxmima are supporters of the Communist Party of India-Marxist [CPI(M)], whose candidate Sakti Mohan Malik is a sitting Member of Parliament (MP). Before voting took place in the Arambagh constituency on 30 April, political activists from the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) had reportedly threatened everyone in the area against voting for the Left Front, of which the CPI(M) is an integral part. Mondal ignored the threats. Her nephew Pradip also disregarded the intimidation and became a polling agent for the CPI(M) at one of the booths.
After voting had taken place, three political activists of the TMC visited Mondal’s home. They wanted her nephew Pradip but could not find him there. On 6 May, two days later, the men returned. They had come for retribution. They kidnapped Mondal, took her to a deserted place beat her savagely and made three deep cuts in her breasts. . Doctors at the Walsh hospital in Sreerampore, the district headquarters, stitched up her wounds and saved her life. Still in pain, Mondal remembered refusing to budge when the men threatened her. “What will you do?” she asked them. “If you will burn down my house, I will sleep in the open. What will you do? You will kill us all, but how many will you kill? There are still many more who will hold the red flag.”
Red Flag Family
Mondal is not a member of the CPI(M) or of any other political party. She does, however, come from what is often called a “red flag family”. Her parents were landless field workers who were part of the movement that struggled for land reforms and registry of tenancy rights; a struggle that propelled the Left Front to power in West Bengal from 1977 to 2011. The scheduled castes and the scheduled tribes of Hooghly provided support to the Left parties. Mondal comes from a dalit family, which benefited from the land reforms of the 1980s. “My parents”, she told the CPI-M leader Brinda Karat, “got their land because of the red flag. The red flag gave them hope”.
In 1980, at the beginning of the Left Front’s rule, a survey in Hooghly found that “agrarian categories corresponded to caste categories”. In other words, dalits had no land. Two decades later, a third of all dalit households in Hooghly owned land, and literacy rate had risen from 13% in 1961 to 59% in 2001. More than half of those who received land under the Left Front reforms were dalits and tribals. Mondal’s parents were among those who gained land, and it was through this land that they were able to thrive.
The opportunities for upward mobility provided by her parents slipped away from Mondal when her husband abandoned her and their two daughters. “People asked me, what will you do,” after her husband left her. “I told them, I am not afraid. I will work. I have brought up my two daughters single-handedly, employed as an agricultural worker. I am not dependent on anyone. My sister and I work so that our families can live. We don’t have to bow before anyone”.
A day before polling in Arambagh, violence tore through the district. There are conflicting accounts of the incident. Both the sides involved–the TMC and the CPI(M)–claimed that it was the other group that was responsible for initiating the violence. In Gaurhati area of Arambagh, Tarun Roy and other members of the CPI(M) claimed that it was the TMC men, led by Tapan Dasgupta, who attacked them. The police promptly arrested CPI(M)’s Roy on the TMC’s complaint and left it at that. Mozammel Haque, a local leader of the CPI(M), complained that “the police were harassing our party without proper investigation”.
The TMC men went from house to house warning people like Mondal not to vote for the Left Front candidate Sakti Mohan Malik. They told them to vote for the TMC candidate Aparupa Poddar, a lawyer, instead. It was also around this time that the TMC seems to have begun executing, what can only be called, its massive ballot theft plan. The extent of electoral rigging has been particularly egregious; in one of the polling booths in Atma (Howrah), 100% of the votes had been cast by 9 am! The CPI(M) alleged that 826 polling stations had experienced large-scale vote-rigging and booth-capturing.
According to conventional wisdom, this kind of violence during elections is a routine affair with the Left as much to blame as any other political party. But in the present context, denying the virulence of the TMC’s electoral violence appears impossible. Even The Statesman (Kolkata), not known for its sympathy for the Left, reported in no uncertain terms on 1 May that the TMC indulged in poll violence, All the major political parties like BJP, CPI-M and Congress demanded re-poll in various Assembly segments as they claimed that Trinamul Congress had unleashed a reign of terror and captured many booths in all the three constituencies with the highest number in Arambagh.
The Election Commission, which monitors the process, refused to entertain most of these complaints–including the one regarding booth-capturing in Atma. The special election observer Sudhir Kumar Rakesh did, however, take up one of the booth capturing complaints from the Lok Sabha constituency of Hooghly. In one of the polling stations, the Election Commission found that the local TMC leader had taken charge of the booth – giving proxy votes to his supporters. This was one of the sixty booths in Hooghly that the CPI(M) had complained about.
The apparent impunity that governs the TMC led the three men to Mondal’s home after the voting day. They came to inflict violence because they know that this is their coin, and that they are rarely forced to repay it. Though Mondal has identified the men to the police, none of them have been arrested as yet. One of the men is from a dominant caste, which means that he should be charged under the 1989 Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Violence) Act. Nothing of the sort has happened. The CPI(M)’s Brinda Karat and other leaders have lodged formal complaints with the National Human Rights Commission, the Scheduled Castes Commission, as well as the West Bengal government. There has been no response from any of these organizations; Mondal has not heard from the authorities either.
The last and the fifth phase of elections in the state witnessed wide-spread violence in 17 constituencies which went to polls on 12 May. Bengali television channels have been repeatedly telecast footage of poll violence orchestrated by the TMC. To cite a few examples‒ Tapas Sinha, the Left Front candidate from Kanthi constituency, was beaten up by a gang controlled by the TMC’s Pradhaan brothers; Sayandeb Mitra, the state president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the CPI(M)’s youth wing, was beaten in Belghoria in the outskirts of Kolkata. Ajit Bhuiyan, a CPI(M) worker, committed suicide because he was threatened by the TMC. These incidents indicate the level of violence on the ground. “In such an atmosphere of widespread terror and intimidation”, wrote the CPI(M) politburo member Sitaram Yechury to the Chief Election Commissioner, “no free and fair polls can take place.”
Santana Mondal is fearless and hopeful. From her hospital bed, in immense pain, she says, “Don’t worry about me. I know the days are coming when TMC’s goonda (gangster) raj will end.”