Fingers crossed on EC’s ability to hold peaceful polling in the next four phases in Bengal  

Despite extending the election to eight phases and deploying record number of central forces, the Election Commission has failed to conduct peaceful polls in the first four phases.

Election Commission (Photo Courtesy: social media) 
Election Commission (Photo Courtesy: social media)

Barun Das Gupta

Amid all the heat and hype of electioneering in West Bengal, one fact stands out prominently and incontrovertibly. The Election Commission has totally failed to conduct peaceful polls in West Bengal. What happened at Sitalkuchi in North Bengal on April 10 has got nationwide publicity because five persons were killed but incidents of poll-related violence have been taking place from the beginning. It is ostensibly to prevent violence that the EC took the unusual decision of holding Bengal polls in eight phases. It is again to maintain peace that the EC requisitioned 80,000 Central paramilitary forces in West Bengal. It has requisitioned another 71,000 for the next four phases.

What exactly happened at Sitalkuchi is still not clear as conflicting accounts continue to pour in. Villagers complained that they were prevented from entering a particular polling booth. This resulted in a clash. The CISF which was on duty there complained that fifty to sixty villagers, most of them women, “attacked” them and “tried to snatch arms” from them. Some tried to lay siege to the polling booth. It was only then that they resorted to firing, killing four persons, all of whom belonged to the minority community. An eighteen year old youth, Anand Barman, who was in the queue to cast his vote for the first time, was shot dead by an “unknown” shooter.

Several questions arise. First, who ordered the CISF to open fire? According to criminal law, a magistrate has first to declare an assembly of people as unlawful and ask them to disperse. If they do not heed, they are warned that force will be used to disperse them. If that is also of no avail, the magistrate orders the police force (whether State or Central) to resort to fire tear gas shells. If that fails then the next course is to lathi-charge the mob. If that also fails, then the magistrate gives the order to open fire. The firing has to be below the waist line so that the person is injured, not killed. But in the case of Sitalkuchi firing, all the victims were shot on the chest or throat. Obviously, the CISF wanted to kill, not injure.

It is not known whether there was any magistrate present at the time of firing and whether it was he who ordered to open fire. If there was no magistrate then the most vital question that arises is who ordered the firing by the CISF or the CISF jawans fired on their own. Mamata Banerjee has asked to produce the CCTV footage of the incident but no footage has yet been produced. Why? There is no answer. It is said that the CCTV footage is not being released because it will prove the utter falsity of women trying to snatch arms from the CISF jawans.

In the highly polarized political situation in West Bengal where the electorate is sharply divided between supporters of Trinamool Congress and the BJP, violence was there from the very beginning. Countless incidents of supporters of one party attacking the offices of another party, beating up people and destroying furniture, attacks on candidates of rival parties have been happening. Countless complaints have been and are being filed before the EC by the contending parties.

On April 1 when polling was taking place in Nandigram constituency, Mamata rushed to a polling booth named Boyal when she heard that BJP supporters were preventing voters from casting their votes. She was virtually besieged by an angry mob for about two hours when there was hardly any security personnel to protect her. Anything could have happened. Fortunately nothing happened. But the fact remains that for two long hours the Chief Minister of the State was without any protection, surrounded by an angry mob. For her it was not a new experience because she has faced such situations many times in the past but that does not condone the lapse of the part of the security staff.

The idea has gained ground that the BJP is losing the West Bengal polls and is coming nowhere near its target of winning 200 seats. The crowds are getting thinner and thinner at the public meetings of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and J. P. Nadda. Meetings to be addressed by them are getting regularly cancelled on some pretext or other. At one such public meeting addressed by Amit Shah where there was a sprinkling of “public”, Shah rebuked a press photographer who was taking pictures of the near-empty meeting ground. “Turn your camera toward the dias” he thundered at the lensman.

The present situation, surcharged as it is with violence, bodes ill for the next four phases of the polls. The killing of four persons by the CISF at Sitalkuchi has generated immense anger against the BJP because the CISF is a Central force. The two have become synonymous to the common people. In the 2019 LokSabha polls, the BJP did unexpectedly well in North Bengal. The TMC lost ground heavily to the BJP. But the situation has changed since then. The TMC has been able to wrest back many of the areas it had lost to the BJP. The Sitalkuchi incident may tip the scales further against the BJP.

Next comes the role of the Election Commission which is supposed to conduct the polls with absolute neutrality and without any political bias. The TMC and its leader Mamata Banerjee have been complaining that the EC is not acting in the way it should but that it was acting at the behest of the BJP. On Monday, the EC slapped a ban on Mamata. She was asked not to take part in the poll campaign for the next twenty-four hours – from 8 P.M. on Monday to 8 P.M. on Tuesday. This actually leaves Mamata with just two hours for campaigning for the fifth phase of polls.

The EC has found her guilty of asking votes on communal line and asking women voters to “gherao” the Central forces when the latter try to prevent them from voting. Both the veracity of the alleged offence and the quantum of punishment meted out are highly debatable and smacks of bias against the TMC and its leader. The EC has taken some step against the BJP leader Rahul Sinha and state president Dilip Ghosh but that is not commensurate to the poll code violations made by them

Dilip Ghosh warned that there would be many more Sitalkuchis if similar situations arose elsewhere. Rahul Sinha regretted that the CISF had shot dead only four persons. They should have killed eight. Sayantan Basu threatened that they would play “more Sitalkuchi games” if the TMC went on with its slogan Khela Hobe, meaning we shall play games. It is in this highly surcharged atmosphere, reeking of violence that the electorate in West Bengal will exercise their franchise in the next four phases of polls.

(IPA Service)

Views expressed are personal

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