Bengal election violence pushes EC on back foot
One lakh security personnel were not enough to stop the murder of Tahidul Islam, 40, a CPI-M worker, by suspected Trinamul Congress supporters in the third phase of the Bengal election in Domkal, Murshidabad, on Thursday.
The Election Commission (EC) had vowed to ensure that people in Bengal were able to exercise their franchise without fear. But the reality of violence, intimidation, snatching away of voter identity cards, even in the heart of Kolkata, belies the EC’s assurance.
Throughout the day, sporadic violence was reported from all over as 62 Assembly seats in West Bengal saw an estimated 79.22 per cent turnout on Thursday. Islam’s death was followed by reports of at least ten suffering injuries in poll violence.
Although in Phase III, one lakh security forces were deployed, of which 75,000 are central, the lawlessness continues unabated.
Asked whether the EC was being effective in building voters' confidence, Om Prakash Mishra, Congress leader and professor of international relations at Jadavpur University, said, “The EC is doing its best. The enormity of the problem and the extent of lawlessness have been brought to their notice several times. But the EC is being misled by the police and local administration.
The police and central forces are not present at all during the violence in vulnerable areas. We have been saying that deployment needs to be there not only at the polling booths but also the area surrounding it. But the forces are not present during the violence. Our people have been attacked by Trinamul Congress supporters in Alipurduar in post-poll violence. A Congress leader was attacked by the Trinamul workers on Thursday night in Haringhata. Wherever there is violence in Bengal, the attackers are all Trinamul workers.”
Trinamul Congress leader Sadhan Pandey, however, denied the allegation outright. “Murshidabad is a hotspot of violence. That is because when the MP of that area, Adhir Choudhury [Congress] found that his stronghold was weakening, he combined with the CPM to see that the Trinamul did not gain in the district.... What happened in Domkal was not the work of the Trinamul. The murder [of Tahidul Islam] was the outcome of local infighting. The Congress and CPM are forever complaining to the EC. But they will not be able to gain from it.
The EC and the central forces have to show that they are effective. They have to prove themselves at the national level. But the truth is that the Congress and BJP are feeling very insecure because they have no presence in Bengal.”
Dilip Ghosh, BJP state president in Bengal, however, feels that it is the Trinamul that is feeling insecure, which is causing it to rely on violence.
“I had said after the first phase of the election that the violence would escalate, and this has happened. How many lakhs of forces will the EC bring to Bengal? What can it do if the administration is used for violence? The Trinamul has been intimidating people on the streets all over the state. The EC has got rid of so many officers who were proved to be biassed. How many more can it get rid of? This does not happen in other states. But in Bengal, poll violence has been there since the time of the CPM. There are groups of people whose very jobs are about intimidating voters. In the coming phases, too, the violence will escalate,” said Ghosh.
The Election Commission says it has left no stone unturned to ensure free and fair elections in Bengal. “We have made as many arrangements as possible. We started out confidence building measures even before March. We have been asking people to come forward and voice their fear to us. But not much contact has been made. Also, central forces are limited in number. The same set of forces moves from one district to another as one phase ends and another begins. So sometimes, there may be a little bit of a vacuum when there is skeletal force deployed in some areas. But this is unavoidable. The death of one person in Domkal, Murshidabad, on Thursday is definitely unfortunate and certainly, we should have prevented it. But it is also true that Domkal has a history of poll violence. In the last election, there were 23 political murders there,” Dibyendu Sarkar, additional chief electoral officer, Bengal, told newsable.com.
He further argued that the overall poll percentage, at nearly 80 percent, was “not bad”. “Whatever has come to the notice of the EC, whether through the media or complaints, action has been taken immediately. We do not feel that voter confidence has been lost. Voter intimidation will happen. We have tried to control it, but stray incidents will happen,” Sarkar told newsable.com.
But will Bengal see even more violence in the remaining three phases, as Dilip Ghosh of the BJP has forecast? “The kind of arrangements that we have already been made should be enough [to prevent violence] in the coming phases,” said the additional CEO.
Whether that is true remains to be seen. But if the ferocity of post-poll violence is anything to go by, the prospects for battle-torn Bengal do not seem very bright.