We need to break chain of violence at every election

5 min read

This happened in the 1970s. Elections for the post of block pramukh had been held in Uttar Pradesh. But in one village in western UP, where two big families were pitted against each other in the electoral battle, the person who lost was dead-set on getting the Allahabad high court to overturn his opponent’s election. He was willing to spend a fortune on getting a favourable verdict.

Many lawyers he approached told him that his case was weak. But they also told him there were two points on which he could fight the case for a favourable judgment. The man chose two famed lawyers to take up the matter. After all, it was a moochh-ka-sawaal (a question of honour).

The case continued. In the meantime, his family and that of his rival engaged in violent conflicts. The verdict was delivered almost four years later, and it was not in his favour. Since then, I’ve been wrestling with one question: Why was so much money spent and blood spilt for an election to a post like a block pramukh?

The violence during West Bengal’s panchayat elections has reignited this old debate. Our democracy is said to be going through an Amrit Kaal, but when will we be able to obtain any Amrit (nectar)?

West Bengal is no stranger to violence. Here every election is a bloodbath. Every time we heard the allegation of state-sponsored violence. In the last four decades, the Election Commission has improved its system, election after election. This time, a substantial number of central forces were also stationed in West Bengal. Despite this, almost 40 people were killed. A total of 72 persons were killed around the country during the 2019 election year. It is frightening to see so many deaths in West Bengal alone. In this regard, the neighbouring North East and Jharkhand are no less notorious. The question is, who is to blame for this carnage? All the victims were men, and the majority of them were breadwinners of their families.

Let me tell you what I witnessed during the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in 1974. A female candidate was contesting on a Congress ticket. In that constituency, it was customary that no one could win without “stopping” the votes of people from rival party castes. A meeting of strongmen from the candidate’s caste was held at her ancestral mansion four days before the election. The woman’s brother-in-law proposed a three-pronged strategy: One, how they will prevent opposition supporters from voting where their caste was dominant; two, what they would do to ensure that their own voters could vote without any problem; and three, how the Bahubali nearby would reach out to help in the event of violence. While the heated discussion was on, the female candidate raised a seemingly innocuous question: Are you people talking about firing? Is someone going to die as a result of this? The spirited response of a furious young man: Whoever comes in front will die—guns spit fire, not milk!

The woman flared when she heard this response. What she said was not written in history, but the individuals sitting there undoubtedly bowed their heads. She stated that the violence you are referring to would kill only men. I’m not sure if they’ll go to paradise or hell after death, but as a woman, I know their wives will go to hell every day. I will not tolerate this. Regardless, if someone dares, I will file a police complaint myself. Needless to say, she lost the election, and her political career was over.

Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were previously cursed for allowing such horrific events to occur. There has been significant progress. If the Election Commission’s plans have proven effective elsewhere, why do they fail every time in West Bengal?

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, is also a woman. She has served as chief minister for the past 12 years. True, it is the Election Commission’s obligation to prevent election violence, but it is also the state government’s responsibility to prevent such bloodbath. West Bengal has seen an open display of political rivalry since the assembly elections.

Panchayat elections are simply a continuation of that. Some observers see it as a way to prepare for the Lok Sabha elections. This enlightened state, which has traditionally led the way in literary and cultural matters, has become a victim of violence. Mamata is a sensitive politician. Her reign should also be guided by compassion and tolerance.

She is not the only one in the cross hairs. Until the entire political establishment breaks this vicious cycle, elections will be cursed to bathe in the blood of their voters.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. Views are personal.

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Updated: 16 Jul 2023, 08:47 PM IST

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