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Political Intolerance in Bengal

Looking at 2016 Assembly Polls

Political intolerance is a bigger problem than religious intolerance in West Bengal. How will this affect the 2016 Assembly elections in West Bengal?

The next assembly election in West Bengal is due in the next six months. This election is significant because the Left Front will contest this forthcoming election as an opposition after a long time (the Left Front held power in West Bengal from 1977 to 2011). It is not clear whether the Congress will fight the election on their own or in alliance with the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) or the Left. For the first time in the history of West Bengal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will fight the election with the highest level of capacity in terms of organisation. This follows from their impressive electoral performance in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. However their electoral debacle in Bihar against the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Janata Dal (United) combine will haunt them politically.

Unlike most of the states, it is less important here to build a united front against the Hindutva forces because political intolerance overshadows religious intolerance in everyday life. Harassment of opposition parties is increasing day by day. It has almost become a daily occurrence to create violence and indulge in political mudslinging. Even a leader of the opposition in the assembly was physically obstructed very recently in his own constituency.

Role of the Left

Left parties, more specifically the Communist Party of India (CPI) and later Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), are important in any discourse regarding social changes that have taken place in the last half century in Bengal, if not more. After a landslide victory (235 seats out of 294) in the 2006 Assembly elections, the Left Front government led by the CPM chose the path of rapid industrialisation following the dictum of neoliberal economic policies. This was also the time when Mamata Banerjee (the present Chief Minister) was the sole representative of the opposition (present ruling party) in the state. This is why Ashok Mitra, Finance Minister of the first Left Front government had cautioned immediately after the assembly election in 2006:

Above all, the mandate the Left Front has won, in the view of a vast number of its rank and file, is a mandate for left principles. Any deviation from these principles, such as a diminution of the role of the public sector in the development agenda, could meet with fierce internal resistance. The seventh Left Front government therefore must continuously watch its steps.

The resistance in Singur and Nandigram actually validated his arguments.  The grievances of the rural mass were first noticed in the three tier Panchayat election held in 2008 and the same trend was followed in the general elections in 2009 and onwards. This continued until 2011 ended a stint of 34 years of the Left Front. During this period the two most significant achievements of the Left Front government as claimed in the West Bengal Human Development Report 2004--land Reforms and introduction of Panchayati Raj institutions, were gradually fading away. The inherent structure of the society, more particularly village society, can be best presented by  Banerjee and Roy (2012) that “The rural society of West Bengal is still divided into two social categories Bhadraloks and Chotoloks where Chotoloks belonging to the lower castes are supposed to do the menial jobs and remain subordinate to and serve the upper caste Bhadraloks. Chotoloks belonging to the lower castes are supposed to do the menial jobs and remain subordinate to and serve the upper caste Bhadraloks.”

Ruling Terror

Like other regional parties there is only one face of the TMC appearing in the media and before the public in general--that of Mamata Banerjee. It is ironical that she has also called for a secular front because she had started her political career after breaking away from the Congress party only with the help of the BJP. She occupied a cabinet post in two terms of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) governments. It is unlikely that TMC has a defined political position on class as well as identity politics choosing opportunistic politics over ideological programmes.

Terror reigns in the districts whenever oppositions try to organise any programme. The first corporation election in Bidhannagar, bordering Kolkata witnessed unprecedented terror and booth capturing. Civilians are feeling helpless at this naked show of violence and complicity from the authorities.

Present State of Affairs

Democracy is already threatened in the state. Students’ union elections in more than 450 odd colleges across the state has been stopped in the run-up to the next assembly election. The student wing of the ruling parties need to be kept at bay. University elections to appoint the executive council have also been stalled for the last two years. Even the police is being physically attacked and killed with active involvement of the ruling party.

Against this backdrop, what Banerjee (2015) calls “passive” resistance is surprisingly absent within the Bengali intelligentsia.  Hundreds of workers in tea gardens of Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts are suffering from chronic hunger and starvation, though the state government denies starvation as the cause for death. Farmers are committing suicides for crop failure on a regular basis. However our political discourse and media rarely reflect this reality.

The only hope out of this situation is “active” resistance, but not by the civil society which is largely indifferent in the present situation. Legal provisions are unlikely to benefit common people in West Bengal where the police is grossly partisan. It is upon all the parliamentary left parties who may form a united Left front not only to fight elections but to raise incidents of day to day suffering of working class in the state.  Banerjee (2010) says that “... any attempt to revive the left in India will have to be made against the backdrop of dynamics of change that are taking place in post Marxian phase of historical development”. This is also true for the revolutionary Left who do not participate in elections as Banerjee (ibid) mentions:

“Meanwhile, the CPI(M) and the Maoists should take a break from their respective confines of exclusive electoral politics and jungle warfare, and learn from (and if possible participate in) the various mass movements on issues like environment, forest rights, women’s emancipation, anti-SEZ projects, problems of the urban poor, food entitlement, alternative health programmes, among other things. Experience of this diversity of popular needs and forms of struggle will teach the future generation of the Left to see to it that while making a revolution they do not drift into a militarist disrespect for the human personality, and after gaining power are not seduced by the capitalist message of prioritising private economic profit over collective social prosperity - the twin evils that had bedeviled the movement”.

The future will depend on how the Left, along with other secular democratic forces, can resist both neoliberal as well as communal forces and address the long-term changes occurring in West Bengal’s socioeconomic situation.


[All URLs accessed on 11 January 2016]

AM (2006):  “Suffrage in West Bengal,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 41, No 21,

Roy, Dayabati and Partha Sarathi Banerjee (2012): “Decentralised Government Reforms in Primary Education: Some Reflection on West Bengal,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 47, No 4,

Banerjee, Sumanta (2010): “End of a Phase: Time for Reinventing the Left,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 45, No 46,

Banerjee, Sumanta (2015): “Confronting the Sangh Parivar; Passive and Active Registance,”  Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 50, No 46-47,

Gupta, Monobina (2010): Left Politics in Bengal: Time Travels Among Bhadrolok Marxists, New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan.

Sen, Amartya (2015): The Country of First Boys, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


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