It is an ominous sign when political workers behave like armed bandits. The gun-battle between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Trinamool Congress at Keshpur exposes once again the danger of the cult of political violence. Keshpur and its neighbourhood in West Midnapore district became something of a symbol of this cult two years ago when the two parties reduced the area to a killing-field. Worse still, the Trinamool Congress chief, Ms Mamata Banerjee, wanted the Keshpur experiment to be repeated all over West Bengal. She also succeeded in enlisting the support of her former allies in the National Democratic Alliance in the battle for Keshpur. The CPI(M) too fought back bitterly to regain its control of the locality. Fortunately for West Bengal, the dark shadows over Keshpur receded after last year’s assembly elections. The recent violence there suggests that the danger still lurks under the surface of a fragile peace. By taking to arms so openly, both the major partner in the ruling Left Front and the largest opposition party in the state have betrayed their cynical disregard for law and democratic politics. Ms Banerjee can no longer deny that her party depended not only on arms but also on the Maoist guerrillas of the People’s War group of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) to lay another siege on Keshpur. It is a measure of her desperation that she now justifies this in the name of “public resistance” to the Marxists. Quite extraordinarily, she does so while appealing to the Union home minister, Mr L K Advani, to intervene. Out of the NDA now, she must be out of her mind to think that Mr Advani will now fall in for her Keshpur line.
The CPI(M)’s culpability is, however, even greater. Its rapacious politics is compounded by the failure of the administration which it controls. The first time the Keshpur violence erupted, the former chief minister, Mr Jyoti Basu, made the stunning admission that his government had no inkling of the gathering storm. This time the administration too became a partisan in the battle, the policemen strengthening the firepower of the Marxists. Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee must do two things immediately to recover the government’s battered image. He has to rescue the local police from the clutches of partisan politics. He also has to take drastic steps to cleanse the area of arms, irrespective of the party affiliation of the people who possess them. With the panchayat elections due next year, the battle for rural West Bengal will intensify in the next few months. Mr Bhattacharjee has to ensure that this battle is fought democratically and not with the gun.