All political parties in Bengal, including the Trinamool recently, have used lumpen elements for their ends. This culture has only grown under Mamata Banerjee and that has made Bengal into an extremely unsafe place.
A lot has been written and spoken about the unprecedented violence and rigging that marred the civic polls in Kolkata’s upscale exurb Salt Lake-Rajarhat, and the towns of Asansol and Bally on October 3. Trinamool goons not only intimidated voters and even assaulted elderly and respectable people at Salt Lake, they openly impersonated genuine voters and forced poll officials manning booths to do their bidding. Most of the votes in these civic polls were cast by the goons deployed by the Trinamool Congress.
On the eve of polling day, sinister-looking party flag-wielding Trinamool goons on motorcycles went around Salt Lake and Rajarhat, as well as Asansol and Bally, in a bid to intimidate voters. They hurled bombs at some places and openly threatened supporters and activists of Opposition parties, warning them not to step out of their houses the next day. On October 3 morning, residents of Salt Lake discovered to their horror that thousands of outsiders—all from the outlying areas of Kolkata and all of them belonging to illiterate or semi-literate lower middle classes living in slums and shanties—had taken over their township.
These outsiders had crowded around the polling stations and prevented genuine voters from approaching the stations to cast their votes. “The sight of such people was enough to make us turn away from the polling stations. Most of us could not even go anywhere near the polling stations. These outsiders, all lumpen elements, taunted us, used foul language amongst themselves and abused us also. They teased our female family members. So we decided to turn back. We are peace-loving and genteel people and cannot tackle the lumpen class,” said Indranil Sengupta, a former bureaucrat.
Those who braved the taunts and abuses and made it to the polling stations found the polling stations jammed by these outsiders. “There was a long queue outside my booth and it was moving forward very slowly. I waited for over an hour and gave up. While I was moving away from the queue, a youngster holding a Trinamool flag told me not to worry and he would cast my vote. I was shocked and ashamed,” said Rabindra Sangeet exponent Bharati Guha. Her son was more persevering, and what he saw inside the booth was more shocking. “There was a Trinamool man inside the booth and he forced the polling officer to activate the EVM at least twenty times to allow him to cast false votes. I was told by poll personnel that my vote had already been cast,” said Sanjay Guha, a web designer.
Images of Trinamool goons jamming polling booths, intimidating voters and casting false votes were published in all newspapers and such clippings broadcast in all TV channels. Media persons were the targets of the Trinamool goons and photographers and TV cameramen were brutally assaulted, many had to be hospitalized with serious injuries. Senior Trinamool leaders were filmed asking cowering policemen not to allow reporters and camerapersons near polling stations. Trinamool goons chased away media persons whenever they went near polling stations or attempted to speak to voters.
Camerapersons who took photographs of these outsiders were hunted down and assaulted and the images deleted from their cameras. Many voters of Salt Lake who insisted on casting their votes were abused and assaulted. It was only in some pockets that residents of Salt Lake mustered the courage to fight back.
But the point here is not that the Trinamool rigged the polls so blatantly. The CPI(M)-led Left Front government had perfected the art of rigging and before them, the Congress under Siddharatha Shankar Ray made a mockery of the poll process and democracy in 1972. All stand guilty of subverting democracy in a shameless manner. The Left Front, under the CPI(M), had in fact perfected the art of rigging in a scientific manner. Theirs was popularly known as ‘scientific rigging’. “It is very easy to intimidate the violence-shunning middle, upper-middle and rich classes. They are genteel folk and avoid trouble. The Left knew this very well and so deployed their goons the day before the polls to stage bike rallies and marches in respectable, middle-class localities. Middle-class and upscale apartment blocks would have their gates locked from the outside by Left musclemen on the day of the polls,” said Congress leader and prominent lawyer Arunava Ghosh.
On the day of the polling, goons hired by the Left parties would queue in front of polling booths and genuine voters, after waiting for hours, would return home without casting their votes. Many would find their votes had already been cast. In the pre-EVM age, these goons would simply collect sheafs of ballot papers from poll personnel and stamp on them before stuffing them into ballot boxes. Later, they would get poll personnel to activate the EVMs and then cast false votes, just like the Trinamool goons had done on October 3. The Trinamool did on Oct 3 what the CPI(M) and other Left parties, and before them the Congress, had indulged in. The goons were also the same—they had simply changed colors with the change of the ruling party.
But it is the bigger picture that is scary and dangerous for Bengal. Ever since the late 1960s and early 1960s, goons and musclemen dwelling in the slums and shanties in and around the city had been used by political parties to intimidate rivals. But since 1977, when the Left Front came to power, the process of empowerment of such elements in the name of empowering the poor and marginalized commenced. And today, these elements feel emboldened to physically assault respectable doctors and retired bureaucrats of Salt Lake going to the polling booths to cast their votes. Of course, there is nothing wrong in genuinely empowering the poor and marginalized; that should be the priority of all parties. But political parties are not bothered about spreading education and awareness among them; an educated person is, after all, difficult to control and order around to carry out dirty tasks. Political parties in Bengal are not bothered about improving the economic plight of these people. All they do is encourage these people to indulge in illegal activities and take the law into their hands. By encouraging them to do so, the political parties turn them into the lumpen class that becomes permanently dependent on political patronage for survival.
Kolkata, and Bengal is today under the reign of the lumpen class. On Kolkata’s streets, rough and rowdy auto-drivers bulldoze their way and terrorize other motorists, thumbing their noses at helpless traffic cops. And anyone daring to protest their ways can expect a sound thrashing; many ‘bhadraloks’ and ‘bhadramahilas’ have experienced this. Walking on the streets is equal, if not more, hazardous. Long taken over by vendors enjoying political patronage, pedestrians even accidentally brushing against the vendors’ wares or protesting the lack of space to walk can expect a verbal, if not a physical, assault. Foul-mouthed bus conductors and taxi drivers make commuting a hazardous and routinely unpleasant experience for all. In most establishments, government and private, the Group D staff have become a privileged lot and will thwart all attempts to discipline them, thanks to the active patronage of political parties that they enjoy. Many a manager has been roughed up and even killed by such lumpen workers, and the criminals have never been brought to justice.
All political parties rely on them not only for votes but also to intimidate the middle, upper-middle and rich classes who may disapprove of the policies and politics of these parties. As was seen in Salt Lake, a ‘bhadralok’ or ‘bhadramahila’ is powerless in front of an expletive-spewing slum dweller threatening to bash him or her up and even carrying out that threat. More so when the state machinery, including the police, is complicit in such intimidation and violence. The administration is not to blame as the politicians at the helm warn them against enforcing the law. For the political parties, the genteel folk are of no use and can be easily silenced. It is better to cultivate the lumpen class to gain and hold on to power. And over the decades, this lumpen class, not content with being mere foot soldiers of political parties, have started claiming their share of the larger pie. As a result, they are now municipal councilors, chairmen of many municipalities and even MLAs and ministers.
It is this empowered lumpen class who pose the biggest threat to Bengal today. Being uneducated and uncultured, they pose a threat to this state’s cultural and literary legacy. Acutely aware of their shortcomings in such fields, they mock and abuse those who are culturally inclined or accomplished. They place little value on education and civility and know only the might of the muscle. They have little respect for the law and institutions. Their brute power, they know, is enough. The niceties and norms of democracy, civility, tolerance and respect for contrary views hold no meaning for them and, in fact, are anathema to them because these principles are not only alien to them, but also a threat to them. Their aggression towards the ‘bhadralok’ class stems from their inferiority complex.
This lumpen class is also a threat to the state’s economy. Being unskilled or semi-skilled workers, they are also a militant and undisciplined work force who know their political godfathers will protect them at all costs and, hence, they can shirk work and oppose, if needed violently, all attempts to make them work. The rest of them are extortionists—and their ranks have swollen over the last four years—and the like who don’t depend on honest means to earn their living. Bengal’s politicians’ patronage of this class and their encouragement of the illegal activities they indulge in and using them for various acts of political violence and intimidation of voters, is leading to large scale criminalization of the state’s polity. Acts of violence have increased manifold and crimes are on an alarming rise. The law enforcement machinery has been rendered powerless and cops on standby mode watch mutely the depredations of the lumpen class because acting against them would invite the wrath of the ruling politicians.
All this makes Bengal an increasingly unsafe and undesirable place not only to stay in but also to invest in. Bengal is already paying a steep price for the rise of the lumpen class and things will only get worse as the lumpen class enters the arena of governance.