Bengal violence premeditated

On June 30, 2021, the NHRC panel submitted its interim report to the Calcutta High Court, citing the team’s interaction with over 100 families in 168 places and mentioning complaints about 41 murders and allegations of rape of 13 women

A fact-find team of the National Human Rights Commission that was probing complaints of post-poll violence in West Bengal on the directions of the Calcutta High Court was threatened in Jadavpur on June 29, 2021. Interacting with the media, the team stated that the violence was “not sporadic” but “clearly premeditated”, with water supply cut, connecting bridges demolished, and people made to sign that they will never again vote for the BJP. Former Intelligence Bureau chief Rajiv Jain headed the NHRC team.

Aatif Rasheed, vice-chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, who was part of the team, informed this writer that the team had been meeting victims over the past three days and had collected the statements of around 450 persons, but police had registered FIRs in barely 2 per cent of the cases. In many places, they found that people had fled and not returned home from May 2, when the violence began. The homes of the victims were destroyed or burnt down.

Accompanied by the CISF guards, Rasheed moved around Jadavpur. He said the NHRC work was being stymied by the local police, who would call the alleged victims to meet the NHRC team after intimidating them. He found that in one congested area, Hospital Basti, the small hutments of the people had been totally flattened; outsiders occupied some homes as the owners had fled. Rasheed and his staff from NCM, including the CISF guards, were attacked when they tried to proceed further inside the basti, as the two local policemen provided for their security fled. The local Bengali guide disappeared. Saved by the CISF guards, he said, “imagine the plight of poor people. If the police could not help me, how can it help them?”

The DCP, Jadavpur, Rashid Munir Khan, denied receiving any complaints. However, Jadavpur MLA Debabrata Mazumdar (Trinamool Congress) alleged that the NHRC team had provoked people. “I heard that the team was accompanied by a Central force (read CISF). They were joined by some locals who intentionally tried to provoke the locals. An altercation took place.” Khan claimed that BJP workers attacked the local people of the area. In a tweet, leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari (BJP) replied that the incident showed that “democracy is going to the ruins in Bengal”.

The NHRC team decided to interact with different stakeholders for an additional day (June 29) at the State Human Rights Commission premises and hear complaints related to poll related violence in West Bengal.

In Delhi, Call for Justice, a Delhi-based civil society group headed by retired Sikkim High Court judge Justice Permod Kohli, submitted a “fact-finding report” on post-poll incidents in West Bengal to Minister of State for Home G. Kishan Reddy. It said the violence was “premeditated” and aimed at supporters of a party, and accused the state administration of failing to control the violence. The report noted that between May 2 and 5, 2021, there were around 15,000 incidents of violence, nearly 7,000 women were molested in just 16 districts, and 25 persons were killed.

The committee observed that the post-poll violence impacted many villages and towns all across the State simultaneously from the night of May 2, 2021. This clearly suggested that most incidents are not sporadic, “but premeditated, organised and conspiratorial.” In fact, some hardened criminals, mafia dons and criminal gangs, who are mentioned in police records, led and executed the deadly attacks with impunity, which indicates “clear political patronage even before the elections”; later, the same tactics were used to silence political rivals. The lumpens especially targetted persons from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Women, Children and other vulnerable sections of society.

The targetted destruction and vandalization of properties, both residential and commercial, aimed at depriving the victims of their livelihoods and choking them economically. The worst-affected were those who depend on day-to-day work or business, who have been pushed into “financial degradation and unmitigated misery.”

Victims mostly feared to lodge a complaint with the police, due to lack of faith in the police and/or fear of reprisals. Victims who did approach the police were either rebuffed outright or told to settle the matter with the culprits. Many fled their homes and villages to safety and shelter camps within and outside the State (mainly Assam and Odisha).

Worse, the Aadhaar cards and ration cards of victims were appropriated and they were asked to give a written undertaking not to support a particular political party again. Ransom and protection money (tolabazi) was demanded if the victims wanted to return to their workplaces or reclaim their lands or rebuild their houses. Many lost their contractual employment – all these incidents aimed at instilling lasting fear psychosis in the society. Call for Justice lamented the “lumpenisation of public life nurtured and protected through powerful lobbies at every level”, and regretted that the exact number of casualties, serious injuries, and extent of damage to property is yet to be known fully. It stated that the intensity and spread of post-poll violence could have been halted or controlled by timely action by the administration and the police. But no adequate or reasonable measures were taken on the ground, either knowingly or unknowingly.

The committee urged the State Government to initiate concerted and coordinated efforts to restore normalcy and instill confidence in all sections of society. A beginning can be made by setting up peace and reconciliation committees at ward, village, mohalla, block, town, district, and state levels, with representatives from all sections of society, and launching confidence-building measures. A proper atmosphere must be created for the safe return of victims who fled their homes out of fear and insecurity. The State Government should provide free transport and adequate facilities so that victims muster courage and confidence to return.

At the same time, the government must assess the financial losses caused by damage and destruction of moveable and immoveable properties during the post-poll violence by setting up official teams on war-footing. All information thus gathered should be put in the public domain and ex-gratia disbursed through cheques or online transfer, wherever possible, to ensure total transparency. The State Government should promptly announce a special relief package that includes resettlement and rehabilitation, to give a sense of security and safety so that victims can return home as soon as possible.

It urged the State Government to initiate disciplinary proceedings on delinquent officers, especially those from the IAS and IPS, who failed to discharge their duties to protect the lives and properties of innocent victims. Retired Judges of High Courts or the Supreme Court could be requested to head these proceedings. It said the Police should immediately register all complaints and file charge sheets in the jurisdictional courts after due investigation. Time-bound justice can be given to the victims by setting up special courts at taluk and district levels. The victims must receive free legal aid so that they are not burdened with new financial costs. All accused in the post-poll violence should be arrested immediately so that they cannot tamper with evidence, threaten witnesses or coerce the victims.

As West Bengal is a border State, the NIA should investigate the involvement of cross-border terrorists and radical elements in the incidents. An Empowered Committee should be set up to study the demographic changes of the past few decades, specifically in the border districts, and the impact of demographic imbalance on the post-poll violence and increased unlawful activities in these areas.

Finally, Call for Justice recommended that all Reports prepared by MHA, NCSC, NCW, NHRC, NCPCR along with its own Report should be placed before the Supreme Court of India, which should consider setting up a Special Investigation Team to ensure fair investigation and speedy justice. Alternately, the Government of India should consider setting up a Judicial Commission headed by a sitting or a retired Chief Justice or Judge of the Supreme Court or a High Court.

There was no response to several requests by the member secretary, Call for Justice, to the Chief Secretary, Government of West Bengal, for the State Government’s views on the post-poll violence. Hence, the committee submitted its report to the Union Minister of State for Home on June 29, 2021.

Besides Justice Kohli, other members of the team included former Kerala chief secretary Anand Bose, IAS; former Jharkhand DGP Ms, Nirmal Kaur, IPS; former president Institute of Company Secretaries of India Nisar Ahmed; and former Karnataka addl. chief secretary M. Madan Gopal, IAS (member secretary).

Meanwhile, on June 30, 2021, the NHRC panel submitted its interim report to the Calcutta High Court, citing the team’s interaction with over 100 families in 168 places and mentioning complaints about 41 murders and allegations of rape of 13 women.

Organiser weekly (print edition), Vol. 73, No. 3, July 11, 2021

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