Political Violence and its Aftermath
Last year’s panchayat elections in West Bengal saw widespread violence
Third-year history honours student Dipankar Das was cycling back home to his village Budhakhali in Kakdwip, 24 South Parganas district after midnight on May 14, 2018. As his house came into view, he saw that it was on fire. When he entered inside, he discovered that his parents Usha (41) and Debu Das (50), both workers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had burned to death.
It is alleged that Usha and Debu Das were the victims of the mindless panchayat violence in West Bengal that made national news last year. Around 29 people are estimated to have been killed due to violence related to the panchayat elections which took place last May. The village in which Usha and Debu Das lived, voted a few hours after their death.
According to Das, people from the Trinamool Congress had visited his parents before the elections, saying, “Why are you still with this party? Everyone is leaving...” He also claimed his father told him that a man came to his house around two months before the incident and said, “We’ll burn you.”
After the incident, then West Bengal police chief Surajit Kar Purkayastha had said, “Electrical wires were found at the house and the fire appeared to be an incident of short circuit.” However, a forensic report came to the conclusion that there were traces of fuel in the remains. Two weeks after Purkayastha's statement, he was made state security adviser to the West Bengal government.
Kakdwip lies in the Mathurapur Lok Sabha constituency, a seat reserved for the Scheduled Caste community. It is presently a Trinamool stronghold. The current MP is Choudhury Mohan Jatua from the Trinamool, who has held the seat since 2009 and has been fielded again to contest the elections this year. The MLA from Kakdwip is Manturam Pakhira, another Trinamool leader, who also declared that it was a 'short circuit' which was responsible for the tragic deaths, before the forensic report came out.
The opposition political parties had accused the members of the Trinamool of indulging in widespread violence during the panchayat elections. The matter had reached the Supreme Court and the elections were also delayed, but the violence continued. Even though some of the victims were from the Trinamool, the party won as many as 34.2 percent of the seats uncontested.
After the election results were announced, Chief Minister of West Bengal and TMC president Mamata Banerjee said, “The majority of those killed were from the Trinamool Congress. We will be helping them, and we will see if we can also provide compensation to the families of the supporters of other parties who lost their lives,” she said. Dipankar Das says he has not received any compensation.
It’s been almost a year since he lost both his parents. As both West Bengal and India are in the midst of yet another election, with much more at stake, the life of Dipankar Das has turned around entirely.
Less than a week before the first phase of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, I went to meet him on a Monday afternoon in his lawyer Sabyasachi Chatterjee's chamber in central Kolkata, located right opposite the City Civil Court.
Das left Kakdwip for Kolkata on May 15 and hasn't been able to go back to his village even once after the incident because of fear.
He had once decided to go last November but when he was around 20 kilometres away from his village, the people close to him from the region asked him to turn back. He was told, “Don't come here. There is a problem. Everyone has come to know… People are saying that if he comes, we'll see what has to be done.”
According to Das, he named 14 people in his police complaint, all of them from his village. However, only one of them has been arrested so far, Sourav Mondal, the attorney of record in Das’s case told me.
In August 2018, nine people were arrested - eight of whom were CPI(M) supporters and one from Trinamool. Das told me that the ones arrested had actually helped him out after he had discovered the bodies of his parents. They are all currently out on bail.
Almost one year after the alleged murder of his parents, Das feels that not much has happened to ensure that his parents get justice. He said, “The aim with which I came here to the court, I am not getting that… The case is not going ahead at all.”
And he has chosen to sacrifice a lot in order to fight for justice for his parents: from pursuing a different career to living in a city which he does not like at all. He said, “My plan was to become a school teacher.” But the deaths of his parents changed that. “When I came to Kolkata... the people here told me that yes, the position that you are in, through this medium (law) you can get a lot. This incident has taken place but you can do a lot… you can take up your own case,” he added.
So he set aside his plan of becoming a school teacher in his village and began preparing for a law entrance exam instead. He lives with his relatives in the city and comes to lawyer Sabyasachi Chatterjee's chamber a twice or thrice a week to study for an entrance in June for admission to the Kingston Law College affiliated to the West Bengal State University.
Das isn't particularly fond of living in the city. “I was very happy over there because I could adjust in that environment well. Apart from the people in this chamber or others that I mix with, the environment is very different… I don't like it. I mean, I don't like cities in general. It's not about Kolkata. I don't like cities. I like it in the village.”
However, he does have a support system in the city comprising influential CPI(M) leaders. A day before I met him on Monday, Chandana Ghosh Dastidar, the former CPI(M) Kolkata Municipal Corporation councillor of Ward 101 accompanied him on his visit to his maternal uncle's home in Kakdwip, which is located around 15 kilometres from his village. Das travelled there for the first time since the incident.
Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, senior counsel for the CPI(M), former mayor of Kolkata (2005-2010) and the current party candidate for the crucial Jadavpur Lok Sabha constituency in the Lok Sabha is also representing Das in the case currently in the Calcutta High Court.
Political violence in West Bengal has been an unfortunate reality every time elections take place in the state. And one can sense the brutality of it every time one talks to the family members of the people who were killed. What do we make of it in this the world's largest democracy?
Dipankar Das's village goes to vote on May 19 in the Lok Sabha elections and he does not possess a voter card anymore. It was burned in the same fire which resulted in the death of his parents.