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The Bone Collector
No one is certain about how many people have died or who the victims were. But it's a 'massacre' that has become handy (and timely) political ammunition for all parties gunning for the ruling Left Front in West Bengal. What with the Election Commission signalling simultaneously that polls to the state assembly will take place in the third week of May, political war gaming over the so-called Chhoto Angaria massacre has become frenetic.
Most people in West Bengal now believe that some people did die in Hemnagar village in the Chhoto Angaria area of Midnapore district on the night of January 4. According to an fir filed by Abdur Rahman Mondal, a villager, about 15 people took shelter in his two-storey kuccha house that night. Around 8 pm, several armed men, believed to be cpi(m) activists, surrounded the house, hurled bombs and set fire to the roof. As the inmates of the house ran out, they were brutally hacked with cleaver knives. Abdur Rahman, who has become incommunicado after filing the fir, was returning home and saw the carnage but was too scared to intervene.
Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee seized the initiative, claiming 18 people were killed, all supporters of her party. But she eventually released 11 names. The local administration concedes that 11 people are missing. The local bjp leader, Ram Prasad Tewari, too sticks to the figure of 11 dead, saying "it would be unwise to claim there were 15 or 18 victims."
The only hole in the story is that no corpse has been found. But circumstantial evidence at the scene of the crime—spent cartridges, blood-soaked clothes, bones and bloodstains—supports the Trinamul version, barring the colour of the dead. The media outrage has now led to chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharyya ordering a cid inquiry, something of a climbdown after the initial denials of any such incident or at least the involvement of cpi(m) cadre.
Questions have, however, been raised about the political affiliations of the killed. The pwg, a banned Naxalite group, has claimed that the victims were its members who were slain by the cpi(m) cadre as it was building a base in the region. Many locals believe this version as the victims too carried weapons and had a police record. Besides, a forensic department spokesman claimed that the gutted house was being used as an armoury—a description that fits in better with the pwg theory than the Trinamul. The pwg claims that Rahman pretended to be a Trinamul supporter as he did not want to be arrested.
Even if the slain villagers were not supporters of her party, there is little doubt that it's Mamata who has been able to generate the maximum heat over the incident. After some loss of face in her state, thanks to her months of vacillating over quitting the nda-led Union government, the hue and cry raised by Mamata did succeed in putting the state government on the defensive. The lady again appeared to be in form.
But if Mamata is to make a fight for it in May, there are several hurdles she has to cross. For one, it is clear that the Left Front, which got 49 per cent of the popular vote in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, can only be defeated if all the other parties (Trinamul, Congress and bjp) join forces—the logic behind the so-called mahajot. While the bjp has stated that it has no problem with Mamata coming to some sort of an understanding with the Congress, these sentiments have not been reciprocated by the latter.
There is a clear difference of opinion between the state unit of the Congress and the central leadership over allying with Mamata if she remains in the nda. While state leaders like Ghani Khan Chaudhary want to go with Mamata, the central leadership believes there is no way it can taint itself by being on the same platform as the bjp.
Moreover, in the era of coalition politics there is another complexity to the Left-Congress relationship. While the Congress may be fighting the Left Front in West Bengal, the only way Sonia Gandhi can ever come to power at the Centre is with Left support. That is why Congressmen from West Bengal speak in two voices. After the recent massacre, for instance, some high-profile Congressmen publicly supported Mamata's demand for President's rule in the state. But according to nda sources, the same leaders have privately told them that they can never endorse President's rule or the concept of a mahajot.
As for the bjp, it is doing its best to keep Mamata in the nda. The nda team that went to investigate the Chhoto Angaria massacre endorsed Mamata's version of events and supported her demand for President's rule in the state. Team member and bjp MP Vijay Goel described the Communist Party as the "criminal party of India" and West Bengal as "violent Bengal".
But it has been home minister L.K. Advani who has done his utmost to humour Mamata. In less than 10 months, he has written as many as seven advisories to the state government about law and order and the violence of the Left cadre. bjp leaders say that if the Centre had its way, it would impose President's rule on the state. But with the party not having the necessary numbers in the Rajya Sabha, there is no way that Parliament will ever endorse the invocation of Article 356.
The bjp believes that if Mamata can split the Bengal unit of the Congress, she may leave the nda. But, asks a top leader, "since Mamata is likely to lose anyway, why should she give up the financial clout and the protection she gets by remaining in the nda?". As for the so-called debate over the Muslim vote (25 per cent of the West Bengal electorate), bjp leaders privately say that Mamata has already lost minority support.
The bjp also maintains that as law and order is a state subject, there is little that the nda government can do to directly protect Mamata from the formidable machinery of the Left. At best, the Centre can nudge the Election Commission into conducting polls under very tight security. Moreover, the EC can exercise its powers to transfer or suspend government officials on poll duty who are seen to be partisan. Vijay Goel says that the visiting nda team has requested the EC to insist on voter identity cards. The West Bengal government has, meanwhile, been arguing that people be allowed to vote without these cards as many were lost in the floods.
Clearly, Mamata Banerjee has a tough electoral battle ahead. Before that she has to make a difficult choice: will she quit the nda or stay? Till now, Mamata has proved herself to be a great street-fighter but a poor strategist. Right now, she seems utterly confused. Last week, when the Trinamul, the bjp and the Congress again spoke in one voice after the 'massacre', hopes were revived of some sort of seat adjustment. But Mamata must know that 'seat adjustments' between adversaries work better in theory than in practice.
It's one thing to convince people that a massacre occurred without producing a single corpse. But it'll be quite a feat to get both the Congress and the bjp to agree to even an informal seat adjustment.
with Ashis K. Biswas