THAT Mamata Banerjee has rattled the Left Front government in West Bengal is now well established. Her relentless campaign for Presidents rule in the state and reports of violence in the districts have further blotched the already tarnished image of the Jyoti Basu government. But if a section of the media has been portraying Basu and Co as the sole villains in the violence since January this year that has left 71 dead (official figures) and left hundreds injured, Outlooks tour of some of the districts throws up a scenario where the blame cannot be fixed onto any one party - the CPI(M) or the Trinamul. If the Left is guilty, Mamata and her cadres have been no saints either.
Mamatas tough posturing has put the Left Front on the backfoot. And though neither Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee nor the Union home minister favour Presidents rule, the missives from the Centre on the law and order situation have forced the CPI(M)-led government to take steps to contain the violence. It has also led to the Left Front rallying round to counter the Trinamul threat.
Surprisingly, since last week leaders of the Left Front have announced a series of concessions to the Opposition. First, home minister Buddhadeva Bhattacharya offered to hold talks with Mamata in an effort to end the spiral of violence. He also suggested an interface between lower-rung leaders of all political parties. Overriding the views of CPI(M) hawks like Biman Bose, Benoy Konar and Sushanta Ghosh, Bhattacharya admitted that the ruling Left Front cannot escape responsibility for the situation. The state CPI(M) secretary, Anil Biswas, then offered to rebuild 1,200 burnt houses in Midnapore district, including those of Trinamul supporters. And the CM has been saying that things are now under control.
According to party insiders, the pressure from the Centre and the stream of officials and MPs visiting the state on fact-finding missions has forced the CPI(M) to rein in its militant cadres. Its difficult, however, to say if Trinamul supporters, who too have been on the offensive in some areas of Midnapore, have been similarly restrained. The bomb thrown on September 14 in Calcutta by Trinamul activists at a vehicle carrying journalists comes as a grim reminder that Mamatas cadre is equally prone to violence as the Marxists.
So is Mamata Banerjee the victim of a Marxist conspiracy? On the face of it, yes. But she is also the perpetrator. In a way, her gamble of trying to match the CPI(M)s famed muscle power in Bengals hinterland has sparked off the violence. This fact was clearly revealed in Outlooks tour of Midnapore and Hooghly districts. If the CPI(M) has a history of using terror to subjugate voters, the Trinamul is equally guilty of following the same line ever since its formation.
Indeed, the roots of the current trouble in the five districts - Midnapore, Bankura, Hooghly, Bardhaman and Birbhum - can be traced back to the panchayat elections held in mid-1998. A newly-formed Trinamul made inroads into the CPI(M) bastions of Midnapore, Hooghly and Bankura courtesy the incumbency factor working against the Left and its muscle power.
According to the police in Midnapores Keshpur area for instance, Trinamul cadres forced several CPI(M) supporters to leave their houses and run for their lives. Recalls Imtad Ali, member of the CPI(M)s Keshpur zonal committee: "In July 1998, at least 2,000 people, all of them our supporters, had to abandon their houses and leave the area for fear of being killed by the Trinamul cadres who were using guns and bombs. Their houses were destroyed and belongings looted. For two years these people have lived an uncertain life." Today, however, the CPI(M) has decided to hit back. The situation has in fact reversed, with Trinamul supporters on the run.
In nearby Ichaipur village, at least 400 people, all of them CPI(M) supporters, had to flee the village in July 1998. Says Sheikh Naushad Ali, a village-level CPI(M) worker: "In July 98, several Trinamul supporters, armed with guns and bombs, attacked our village and forced us to leave. I had to flee with all my family members, leaving everything behind." Kamal Pariya, an elected woman panchayat member from the same village, also ran away and took shelter in a makeshift camp along with her family. "We had to stay away from our home for two years and suffer immense hardships. I was not allowed to function as a panchayat member either."
Locals say Trinamuls terror tactics reached their zenith during the May 2000 Panskura Lok Sabha seat by-election held following the death of sitting MP, Geeta Mukherjee. Between 1998 and 2000, Trinamul had secured the backing of rich zamindars in the area who bear a grudge against the Leftists for having taken away their land and redistributing it among the landless. Many anti-social elements, with political ambitions on their agenda, also hitched onto the Mamata bandwagon.
The combination of money and muscle power deftly orchestrated by the likes of Mohammed Rafiq, a local satrap, gave Trinamul the edge. The Panskura Lok Sabha seat (Keshpur is one of the assembly segments) went the Trinamul way. This, along with the wresting of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation from the Marxist grip earlier this year, appeared to be Mamatas launch pad in her bid to capture the Writers Building.
It was at this stage that the Left went into panic mode and began retaliatory strikes against Trinamul workers. Since January this year Mamatas people have been the target of violence unleashed by the Left cadres. According to one villager, it was "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth situation" in which districts like Midnapore witnessed frequent outbreaks of violence. And the Left has been ruthless. This year there have been 276 clashes in which 28 CPI(M) supporters were killed, the Trinamul lost 43 of its supporters and another 166 workers were injured in the clashes. Trinamul, in fact, claims that 6,000 people were displaced due to the clashes.
Midnapore district in any case has a history of political violence. A surfeit of arms is cited as one main reason. Says Midnapores SP, Gaurav C. Dutt: "Under Keshpur police station alone, there are 850 licensed arms. The number of villages under the police station is just 650." Dutt admits the quantum of illegal arms would be many times over. "Were aware of the problem and are taking steps to rectify it. Weve managed to seize over 200 weapons in the past six months." But arms alone are not responsible for the senseless violence here. The battle is for political supremacy - both the CPI(M) and the Trinamul know whoever controls the villages will end up the winner.
If the CPI(M) cadres were on the run till three months ago, its the Trinamuls turn now to feel the heat. At Midnapore town, there are at least four temporary camps established by the party to house and feed its fleeing cadres. Says Trinamuls Mrigen Maity who supervises the camps: "Were feeding at least 2,000 people daily; the numbers growing every day." At the camp, chaos and bitterness reigns. Say Sunil Memoi from Bahadurpara and Haren Bardoloi from Jagannathpur: "CPI(M) supporters attacked us with guns and bombs. They were fully backed by the police. We had no alternative but to run."
The story repeats itself in Joyrambati in Bankura and Arambagh in Hooghly districts. Says Sumit Bhandari, convenor of Trinamuls Arambagh parliamentary seat steering committee: "At least 3,000 of our supporters are currently ghar-chhada (without a house). People from Shyambazar and Paschimpara have left everything behind and come to town following the CPI(M)s terror tactics. It is not that we are incapable of fighting. If the police remain neutral, we can give them a fitting reply but the police are partisan. Thats why we want Presidents rule in the state before the assembly elections."
Though the Left has asked its cadres to go easy, Midnapore-based observers refuse to accept that a respite is round the corner, and that this is just a lull. "This violence will continue to simmer until the polls, and both sides know it," says a local journalist. For the moment, those opposed to the Left Front have won breathing space thanks to Mamata.
Meanwhile the CPI(M) has asked its cadres to begin fresh efforts to woo voters. In village after village in Midnapore and Hooghly districts red flags have come up overnight almost like elections were only a week away. The turf battle rages on even as people hope that it will be fought democratically and not with the help of guns.