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A humid Calcutta night in September 1970. A police van parked in Bhabani Dutta Lane, a stone’s throw from College Street and Presidency University. Inside the vehicle, four young people, told to climb out and go in any direction they please.
As they turn towards their homes, all four are shot dead by the police. The following morning, the papers report the claim that these four Naxals attacked the police with bombs and pipe guns.
It is recorded in history as an “encounter,” one of many from the days of a bloody political conflict remembered variously as a revolution, an uprising and something that came close to civil war. It is now commemorated by a plaque at the spot, which the keen-eyed can still spot in the lane. It’s hidden, on most days, by hawkers’ carts.
In the summer of 2021, political violence in Bengal became a national headline during the state’s eight-phase assembly election. The allegations from mainstream media suggested that the losing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters were being persecuted, in ways that amount to religious violence, by the winning Trinamool Congress (TMC) and its Muslim supporters.
Feverish news coverage communalised the violence in order to single out Muslims for blame, an angle by and large influenced by the majoritarianism of India’s ruling BJP and its supporters. But it also implied, to laypersons outside Bengal, that there was something morbidly unusual about violence in this state.
To this, there is some truth, and certainly a great deal of history. Violence, in changing characters and forms, is embedded in the political and electoral fabric of the region. It is not unusual or purely communal. I’ve known this violence as an ugly and normalised part of life in the state, and studied it academically. The alleged police killing of 28-year-old Anish Khan in February this year has once again made Bengal’s political murders part of national news. 
I wanted to hear from those whose lives had been directly touched by this political violence over the years. So, following the 2021 assembly elections, I talked to political activists and citizens across three generations to stitch together a record.
t goes back, unsurprisingly, to colonial times. In 1905, when Viceroy Lord Curzon partitioned the Bengal Presidency into Hindu- and Muslim-majority regions, violent clashes broke out between the police and anti-partition protesters. This led to the emergence of a new kind of faction within the Indian National Congress, a historically moderate, even conservative political group.
Non-violence eventually came to dominate the popular narrative of India’s independence movement, but Bengal had already taken a different path.  Many Bengali freedom fighters, whose politics were often at variance with each other’s, believed that armed revolution was the only way to overthrow the colonial oppressors.
The idea had several institutional proponents, the most prominent of which did make it into Indian textbooks: the Anushilan Samiti. From its inception, the Samiti, originally a collection of gymnasiums and akharas, emphasised the connection between true freedom, violent revolution and masculinity that had preoccupied Bengali intellectuals for decades earlier. Their targets were functionaries and symbols of the Raj.
Through western and eastern Bengal, the Samiti’s branches organised assassinations, dacoity and explosions, causing so much alarm that in 1924, with a view to check the rise of militant nationalism, the Bengal administration passed the Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance. This law expanded the scope of the police’s detention powers.
Draconian laws went some way to curb the revolutionary movement in Bengal—and so did the growing influence of the Congress party. In the early 1930s, several leaders of the Samiti joined the Congress and actively participated in civil disobedience and Gandhian resistance.
After the end of the Second World War, with India’s independence all but assured, another kind of political momentum grew. A year before independence, the Kisan Sabha, a peasant front of the Communist Party of India (CPI), led the Tebhaga movement, a peasant revolt in rural Bengal.  It culminated in the legal recognition of sharecroppers’ right to two-thirds of their harvest. Though the law was never fully implemented, the movement’s ideas inspired many.
Around and after independence, as Partition refugees poured into the new state of West Bengal, they organised under Left parties like the CPI and the Revolutionary Socialist Party. Through the 1950s, dissent rooted in social and economic dissatisfaction sprang up: a movement against an eviction bill, with protesters demanding recognition of refugee colonies and voting rights; agitations against rising tram prices; protests against rising food costs, driven by the prospect of near-famine situations in rural areas.
The Indian National Congress, now in charge of government, resorted to colonial-style violence to clamp down on these working-class movements. The results were often brutal: after the food inflation protests of 1958-59, for example, 80 protestors were estimated to have been killed. At least 200 were reported missing. 
But even as leftist politics anchored itself in Bengal, and the appeal and success of working-class protests grew, the CPI was riven by fault lines. In April 1964, in the wake of the Indo-China war of 1962, the party splintered into two factions: the CPI and the CPI (Marxist). One of the main reasons for the split was the leadership of the CPI favouring co-operation with the Congress.
All this while, far from the drawing rooms and tea shops of Calcutta, a class conflict was simmering in the tea gardens of North Bengal.
n 24 May 1967, an uprising in Naxalbari block of Siliguri sub-division reached fever pitch. The police had received a tip that Kanu Sanyal and other communist leaders were holed up in Jharu Jote village. Inspector Sonam Wangdi was killed in the course of the raid.
There was retaliation the next day in Prashadu Jote village. In open firing, the police killed 11 people: eight women, two children and one man. News of the massacre spread. This was the beginning of the Naxalbari revolution.
The movement spread quickly. Peasant agitators, led by leaders like Sanyal and Jangal Santhal, continued to seize land. Soon, they commanded near-universal support of the vast labour forces in the tea estates of Darjeeling. Post-graduate students of the North Bengal University in Siliguri also joined in.
The leaders of the Naxalbari movement, inflamed by the ideas of Mao Zedong and his Protracted People’s War,  planned to draw the opposition into the countryside and engage it in guerrilla warfare. The idea was to minimise the state’s military advantage. 
This far-left ideology formed the basis of the CPI (Marxist-Leninist), which committed itself to armed revolution. Its early members were communists from the CPI and CPI (Marxist) parties who felt that their organisations were becoming increasingly revisionist.
“Seeing an unknown Chinese man’s graffiti in a room I had always associated with piety and subservience was liberating.”
Subrata Ghosh was one of many genteel young Bengalis whose worldview was transformed by the radical politics of the Left. Now aged 64, Ghosh is a Kolkata-based architect. When he first heard about Naxalbari, he was in middle school at an all-boys boarding school in Purulia. The school was run by the Ramakrishna Mission, a religious organisation founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1897.
The assembly room had pictures of previous headmasters and Swami Vivekananda. There were shrines to a pantheon of Hindu gods on one side. “All I could associate with the space was discipline,” Ghosh told me. But one day, Ghosh entered the room to see that the portraits on the wall had been replaced with illustrations of Mao Zedong. “I saw that the Grade 11 students had either taken the pictures down from the wall or vandalised them.”
“I didn’t know who the man was,” Ghosh said, “but seeing an unknown Chinese man’s graffiti in a room I had always associated with piety and subservience was liberating.” Over the next week, the students barricaded the teachers and served them the same food they got in the mess. Word got around, and the boys’ parents had to come to the school to diffuse the situation. The boys who were responsible were rusticated.
or Lekha Sarkar, now a 72-year-old retiree who lives with her family in Kolkata, the 1970s were life-changing years. She got her master’s degree and got married in the course of one of the most tumultuous decades in Bengal’s history. At the time, Sarkar lived in Baranagar, a Naxal stronghold. The Congress chief minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, presided over a regime that Sarkar remembered as a bloody one. 
Dead bodies cropped up on the streets and river banks near Baranagar; the police raided houses every day; young students were imprisoned without bail. Classes at the Alipur College, where she studied, were disrupted often. “Curfews would often be announced when we had to return from college,” she recalled. “We would walk back home along the railway tracks with our hands in the air so that we weren’t shot.”
On her wedding day, the borjatri, the groom’s procession, was stopped because of a gunfight in Dhakuria, a south Calcutta neighbourhood infamous for police brutality. “Bundook cholche, bomb cholche, aar autar morde aami bou shejei aachi.” I could hear guns and bombs in the background while I was sitting there dressed as a bride.
It was a turbulent decade in many parts of India. An international oil crisis had brought economic anxieties to the forefront. The Emergency years meant that the Left and a nascent political Right were briefly united in resisting the authoritarianism of Indira Gandhi. The influence of Naxalbari was spreading its tentacles beyond the borders of Bengal, to Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.
In Bengal, the CPI(ML) appeared to offer a vision of liberation from societal and class hierarchies. In a country riven by class inequality, the idea of armed revolution to bring about rapid societal change seemed life-changing to many young people.
In those days, Amar Kumar Ghosh lived in Shithi with his wife and young daughter. The neighbourhood was a Naxal hotbed. Now, Ghosh is an 84-year-old retired engineer. He remembered the students who took to the Naxalite cause as “bhaalo chele”—good boys—and “brilliant students” who studied at prestigious colleges like Presidency and Jadavpur. “They were usually serious and intelligent, and were from poor families in Shithi,” Ghosh said.
So-called encounters like the one at Bhabani Dutta Lane were regular occurrences. When hungry students came to Ghosh’s house, they never sat down for a meal, only picked up the food and left, constantly wary of raids and being caught by the police.
I asked Ghosh what the CPI(M) was doing at this time. “They were also at the receiving end of some stray violence from the state,” he said, “but their cadre would often take money from the police to give information about their Naxal comrades.”
In 1970, Ray lifted an order prohibiting police from entering educational institutions. In 1971, as army regiments marched towards East Pakistan, some stayed behind on the chief minister’s request to assist the civil police in ‘exterminating the Naxalite menace.’
As the increasingly vindictive police started going after Naxalites, students who joined the cause became more desperate. When the police and army laid siege to their bastions in places like Baranagar and Chanditala, many were killed or taken away, never to be seen again.
he Naxalite movement began to splinter after its figurehead Charu Majumdar died of an alleged heart attack in jail in 1972. Majumdar had been firmly opposed to allying with any mass movements that hoped to engage with the state framework, but after his death, the CPI (ML) was no longer united in this view. 
On condition of anonymity, I spoke to a 67-year-old political activist who had been close to the Naxalite cause in the 1970s. He had strong views on the ideological disillusionment following Majumdar’s death. Students and activists from the cities should have gone to villages and factory houses to become ‘classless,’ he said; they should have seen for themselves how the people they were fighting for lived and worked.
This is what the slogan ‘Gram Diye Shohor’—from village to the city—was about. The inspiration was Sino-communism: young, educated cadres being “returned to the people” in the “deep soil-base of the country” to “reveal” some of their new-won learning. 
“We didn’t understand that the ground reality between a landless peasant and a person like me was very different,” the activist told me. “We just became urban guerrillas. A city had easy prey: whatever you did would be the headline in the paper tomorrow.”
Ultimately, he noted, the movement was woefully underprepared. “People threw their lives and families away because they believed they were doing the right thing,” he said. “It was the leadership who should have tried to ensure that we don’t get into the trap of urban guerrillas. Everyone that died had seen a dream, but the reality was different.”
“A city had easy prey: whatever you did would be the headline in the paper tomorrow.”
When I asked about police excesses, he countered with an unexpected question: why would the police go easy on us? “You are not the only one with the capacity to kill,” he said. “If one burned down schools and killed policemen, one should also have known that the police would individually pick us up and brutalise us.”
In the end, the movement extracted its pound of flesh at the polls. The Naxalite challenge petered out, especially on the streets of Calcutta, but it took the Congress government down with it. A fractured electoral Left, led by the CPI(M), came to power in the Assembly elections of 1977, defeating not just the Congress but also the Janata Party, which had become increasingly relevant at the national level during the Emergency years. The talk of socialist reform and land redistribution had struck a chord.
n the run up to the elections, the Left Front offered a ticket to a better life to groups of refugees from East Pakistan who had been resettled outside West Bengal. The promises had come from cabinet minister Ram Chatterjee, who personally visited the camps at Dandakaranya  to guarantee that refugees would be welcomed to Bengal once he was elected.  The CPI(M) also led the United Central Refugee Council, an organisation which had played an active role in urban mobilisations and protests since the 1950s.
But the Left Front’s line changed once it was in power. Refugees learnt of the reversal in the harshest way possible. Thousands of Bengali-speaking Dalit refugees from Dandakaranya, who had sold their belongings and made the trip, were met with resistance on arrival. Many were forcibly sent back.
One group of some 10,000 Namasudra families refused to go back. Instead, they made their way to the island of Maarichjhaapi, in the Sundarbans. The government declared this an “unauthorised occupation of Maarichjhaapi,” which was part of a protected area called the Sundarbans Government Reserve Forest. On 26 January 1979, heavily armed police battalions surrounded the refugee colony, and announced an economic blockade of the island. 
What followed was a massacre. The forces made liberal use of tear gas. The next day, 13 people were killed by dropping a bottle of poison in their tube well. Those who tried to leave by boat were attacked by police speed-boats. The killers dumped corpses in the Raimangal river. No doctors, journalists, or opposition party leaders were allowed on the island. Officially, two people died in the Maarichjhaapi massacre. Survivors say almost a thousand people died.
Yet this pogrom barely made a dent in the pro-poor image of the CPI(M) within Bengal. 1977 was a new dawn for elite Bengalis, and metropolitan Calcutta was busy with its own cultural renaissance. The party was adept at using art and culture to cement its rule.  Godard was playing in the cinema halls, and the playhouses were full. (Soumitra Chatterjee, a household name in Bengal, returned to the stage with dramas like ‘Naam Jiban’ and ‘Rajkumar’.) The Soviet puppeteer Obraztsov and French mime artist Marcel Marceau passed through, and performed for the public.
For the first time in ages, there was freedom to walk safely at night, in the absence of curfews. The atmosphere made it convenient for the Bengali social elite to play down the massacre in a distant forest reserve. Few remember it today, and even fewer wrote about it. One of the worst massacres in India’s independent history doesn’t feature in most Indian textbooks.  It was only in the 2000s that the TMC resurrected a call for justice for the victims, and then again, largely as an electoral tactic in its assault on the Left Front.
ver the next few years, the Left Front government created a template for violence in the state. It was a suffocating system, almost completely steered by the ruling party, and based on deploying coercive systems to control the electorate and the cadre. The political scientist Partha Chatterjee was the first to theorise a form of social organisation that best explains this violence. This was the idea of the ‘Political Society,’ a society where nothing—not families, religious institutions or friendships—can supersede the importance of the political organisation.
On condition of anonymity, a 35-year-old activist who has been active in Bengal’s hinterland and Kolkata since 2003, gave me an anecdotal example of how this functioned in rural Bengal. If a father dies and two children are fighting over the land, he said, a local leader from the ruling party in the area will mediate the conflict and pass a resolution. If one child is not happy with the result, he might join another political party and start a protracted conflict.
In other words, politics became inseparable from social life in West Bengal. For decades now, that has been the case. Every significant material condition in the lives of the rural poor—from access to loans, to debt waivers and irrigation—is tied to an individual’s links to a party.
“I was politically active but not with the Students Federation of India, the student wing of the CPI(M),” the activist told me of his own college days, to underscore his point. “This information was sent by the CPI(M) to my village, where they turned off the irrigation and water to my father’s land as punishment.”
“The party kept a close watch on the opposition, what they were doing, where they were going, and even what newspaper came to their house,” Partha Sarathi, another political activist who began his work in the 1970s, told me. “The CPI(M) would know the ins and outs of families that did not toe their line. They would corner these families subtly and flawlessly.”
Partha Sarathi currently works independently, conducting sociological surveys in the villages of Bengal. He’d found that academics—who didn’t live in the villages—often wrote approvingly of the Left Front government because they were unable to scratch beyond the surface. “CPI(M)’s brand of violence wasn’t seen out in the open,” he said. “Those that studied villages during CPI(M) rule—sociologists, political scientists—often gave glowing certificates to the Left Front. They stayed in the villages for their research but they couldn’t quite catch what was happening. We locals of West Bengal could see it critically when we went to villages and studied them.”
The Left Front’s machinery was deeply entrenched in these networked and tight-knit villages, away from the mainstream media. Networks in city suburbs, too, were closely monitored by the party. Amitava Sanyal, a journalist who grew up in the sprawling suburb of Jadavpur, remembered certain underdeveloped neighbourhoods in the area where even the “mosquitoes were larger” than usual. They were the parts of town where, it was said, only a minority of residents had voted for the CPI(M). The party had been watching the electoral booths.
he Left Front’s policies promised to centre the poor, the marginalised—and the worker. That rhetoric—the fate of the workers, their plights and rights—is often only effective at the level of electoral manifestos. Subsequently, unkept promises led workers to find other political collaborators.
Biplab Nayak is a political activist who first got involved with the non-electoral Left in 1988, when he was a student. He now works with the Shramik Sangram Committee for the rights of jute mill workers. He told me that the jute mill industry hasn’t seen progress under any government. The blame, he said, lay squarely on the labour unions, whom he prefers to call ‘labour contractors.’
“Every union in Bengal’s jute mills, be it CITU (CPI-M’s trade union wing), AITUC (CPI’s trade union wing), or any other political party’s union, all these unions worked for the management’s pay packet,” Nayak alleged. “They would be paid to ensure that certain workers worked for temporary contracts, which didn’t have any benefits like Provident Fund, etc. They would take money from the maliks to provide these workers and also ask money from the workers because they ‘provided’ them employment.”
Workers’ movements in the 1980s typically faced disproportionate police crackdowns, Amitava Bhattacharya, political activist and senior member of the Mazdoor Kranti Parishad,  told me. From a peasant killed by police firing during the Shantipur movement to a jute worker from Gaurishankar Jute Mill beaten to death and another jute worker who went missing and was never found, the stories are seemingly endless and without resolution.
“The party kept a close watch on the opposition, what they were doing, where they were going, and even what newspaper came to their house.”
The Left Front’s politics centred around an accumulation of social capital that grew beyond ideology. The success of this model—based on territorial control and practised transitions from covert to overt forms of violence—was inspirational, even to its opponents.
In 2011, an alliance led by the TMC won the assembly elections. It came to power by battling the ruling Left Front over land acquisition in places like Nandigram and Singur in the late 2000s: familiar provocations, whose resulting patterns are also familiar.
Bhattacharya had himself been part of those protests. He’d been badly injured in Singur.  But Nandigram was worse, he told me. Nobody I spoke to agreed on the death count: the range was 14 to many hundreds. In the course of our conversation, Bhattacharya referred to two kinds of police in Nandigram: the one in uniform and the “hawai choti pora police,” the slipper-wearing police, referring to the CPI(M) cadre who were hand-in-glove with the cops. 
In 2011, Mamata Banerjee’s TMC government jailed Bhattacharya and several of his colleagues for protesting land acquisition in Nonadanga, a Kolkata slum.
Bhattacharya was scathing about what he perceived as the co-option of people’s movements for political capital. “Every political party in a liberal bourgeois democracy participates in people’s movements when not in power and crushes them when they are in power,” he said. “Mamata Banerjee is no different. It was our failure that we let her hijack this movement.”
een as a continuation of this history, the incidents after the 2021 elections were predictable. “It is condemnable but it is not something new,” Dr. Sumita Das, a retired doctor, social worker and political activist, told me.  For the middle-aged voter, especially during election season, it feels routine to wake up to news of murders, assaults and the torching of property in contested constituencies.
What was actually new in 2021 was that the losing party, the BJP, also initiated the violence, especially in North Bengal. The BJP was more than prepared for a scrap in a state that has traditionally rejected it at the polls. In the run-up, its star campaigners had been unabashedly using the vocabulary of violence.
Then state unit president Dilip Ghosh even justified a shooting incident that took place during polling at Sitalkuchi—CISF personnel shot four men from medium range. “If someone crosses his limits then you have seen what happened in Sitalkuchi,” Ghosh had declared. “There will be Sitalkuchi in several places.”
The 35-year-old activist I interviewed, who has been working with student and non-electoral left-wing organisations, guessed that the violence would have been three to five times more had the BJP come into power.
The post-poll narrative of minority-on-majority violence was untrue at best and overstated at worst. “The Muslim community has been systematically criminalised in many places of Bengal,” this activist said. “Political parties make poor Muslim youth carry out political violence for payment. The party is using them for this work.”
I asked Dr. Das if caste factored in the violence at all. “There was no caste angle,” she said, “but caste and class go side by side when it came to political violence.” In her view, lower caste and marginalised people are disproportionately victimised by the violence, but this has more to do with their material conditions. Dr. Das and the activist were making observations that check out against the gory history.
In a state with a steady streak of political violence since independence, post-poll eruptions are not unprecedented.  That is why stories of the lost and missing are told in so many homes; and why so many streets are marked by the memory of the dead. It is a vicious, generational cycle, and the least we could do is not pretend it was born yesterday.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Partha Chatterjee's theory of social organisation as the idea of a 'party society.' We regret the error.
Prabhanu Kumar Das is a student of political science at Delhi University and a freelance journalist writing about politics, culture, and history while trying to navigate India and her intersectionalities.