West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee may have reached out to the victims of Bogtui village arson in Birbhum district. The embers may be dying. The stench of burning may be dispersing. But will the scar in people’s minds ever heal? A fear will forever lurk – when next, where next?
Residents are reportedly reluctant to return home after violence danced naked early this week, barely 70 km from Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Abode of Peace’ (Santiniketan), in the same district. Eight people, including two children, were charred to death in Bogtui village. The carnage took place hours after the murder of Trinamool Congress (TMC) panchayat leader Bhadu Sheikh on Monday, March 21. According to autopsy reports, all eight were beaten before they were burnt to death.
“Earlier, there was a class struggle. There was a political struggle. But now, it is all about money,” said veteran journalist Biswajit Bhattacharya. In 2019, Mamata Banerjee herself admitted that “cut-money” was being collected by her own party members. She then warned leaders against the practice and said she will step up vigil and ensure strict action against perpetrators.
Cut-money refers to greasing the palms of people in power who are entrusted with the disbursement of government funds for relief and rehabilitation. This amount sometimes is allegedly as high as 70 to 80 per cent of the compensation amount. Many eyebrows were raised then, since she stated this from a public platform while addressing district leadership in an auditorium. But the practice still goes on, as alleged in certain quarters.
“In rural and semi-rural Bengal, a parallel economy has emerged. In the absence of economic activities, there is an increase in illegal practices. Unemployment is leading to a spurt in illegal mining and trading in stones and sand. Then at the (Bangladesh) border, there is the smuggling of cattle, gold, arms... even humans,” alleged Bhattacharya.
Birbhum and the adjoining areas are known for the “unofficial” trade-in basalt and sand. Several rivers, rivulets, and tributaries flow through the area - a source for mining sand. Not too far away is the Deocha Pachami- Dewanganj - Harisingha coal block. This area has basalt in abundance.
Political activist Prasenjit Bose is part of the Birbhum Jibon, Jibika O Prakriti Bachao Mahasabha or Birbhum Association for Saving Life, Livelihood and Environment. The association supports indigenous people facing eviction due to a contentious coal mining project. The local people claim the project poses a huge ecological threat.
“People in this area are dependent on agriculture. But there is an organised crime operating in the trade of basalt or black stone and sand,” said Bose, claiming that the trade runs into “several crores”. It thus rakes in the moolah where farming hardly brings any return. Thus, “a syndicate (mafia) has grown around it,” he added.
“Politics revolves here around the control and sale of natural resources. Also, panchayats spend several crores of rupees on so-called development projects. Thus, a nexus has evolved to run the trade, and also to corner government funds,” asserted Bhattacharya.
For a long time in West Bengal, industrialisation has taken a back seat. Agriculture has been the mainstay. Though there were land reforms, farmland was distributed among small farmers and sharecroppers, but no clear policy or process for sale and marketing of the produce was in place.
Economists, like Kolkata-based Abhirup Sarkar, say that statistically unemployment rate in West Bengal is low as compared to other states in India despite the state lacking large industry because small units dominate the production space in the state. And these are not dependent on the global demand and supply.
In the absence of large-scale industrialisation, several youths take to being “promoters” or contractors in construction projects in urban areas. With a real estate boom, business proved lucrative. A “syndicate” spawned under political patronage. The syndicate – allegedly a nexus of contractors, musclemen, and politicians – control an area where any builder has to pay a hefty sum to initiate a project. In addition, the builder also has to procure raw material from the syndicate – even at the cost of compromising quality.
The syndicate also manages to influence lucrative government contracts for infrastructure development and other projects. Bose alleged that District Magistrates, Superintendents of Police, public sector officials often attend briefings held by political strongmen in the districts.
“The trend is worrying,” according to Bhattacharya, “In rural and semi-rural areas, where this parallel economy exists, and a syndicate rules strong, such killings are not happening. It happens at places where small-time criminals clash for one-upmanship.”
In the case of Bogtui, politically, Mamata Banerjee handled the adverse situation in her uncanny but shrewd way. It comes from her almost half-a-century of active politics on the streets and her grasp of the psyche of the common man.
She visited the spot of occurrence on Thursday. While announcing compensation, she admitted that no compensation or government job could actually make up for the lives lost. At the same time, she candidly admitted the failure of the police and district administration and admonished the officials on the ground.
Incidentally, the Chief Minister herself holds the home portfolio in the state and is directly responsible for law and order.
“The state needs to come down heavily on the perpetrators,” said Bose, adding, “the problem is that local administration itself gets involved in the functioning of a syndicate. That needs to be addressed.”
While the neighbouring states have been able to curb violence to a large extent, in West Bengal it has become a way of life. And it is not only limited to election time. Terms like pre-poll and post-poll violence are often used by people and media in the state today.
The situation is particularly bad in rural and semi-rural areas, say observers. Bhattacharya finds a resemblance to the operations carried out by private armies in Bihar of the 1970s and 1980s. Stealth and brutality marked their mode of revenge against each other, he noted.
The Chief Minister is trying to curb the menace, admit many, but it is perhaps literally getting out of hand as the syndicate thrives.
What sparked as a protest against land acquisition for industrialisation metamorphosed into a carnage in West Bengal, remind political commentators. That led to the fall of the Left bastion. The issue continues to crop up, mostly in private, whenever investment is discussed.
For a long time now, West Bengal has lacked a strong opposition in the assembly – whether during the Left Front rule or now. Violence in Bengal must stop. The state needs a complete overhaul. Just hacking at the leaves will no longer help. It is time to get to the root of the problem.
Jayanta Bhattacharya is a journalist with over three decades of experience with many national and international media organisations. He writes on politics, conflict and agriculture. He has extensively covered Afghanistan and many Southeast Asian countries.