Battleground Bengal: Five killed in Sitalkuchi, EC and Central forces under scanner again

Central forces open fire killing four people, one more killed by unknown gunmen; EC asks for more deployment of central forces

Bengal Polls

Phase four of the ongoing Assembly Elections in West Bengal took an ugly turn when five people were killed in two separate incidents in Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar district on polling day. While four people were killed when paramilitary forced opened fire at polling booth number 126 in Amtali, another young man was killed at booth number 85 in Panthauli, also in Sitalkuchi.

Incident-1: Firing near Booth number 126

Trouble began when Mrinal haque, a 15-year-old boy was discovered badly beaten up by some people. The boy, a resident of Jorpatki village claims he was thrashed brutally by a central force jawan. He told The Telegraph, “I was in the local market (in Jorpatki on Saturday morning) when a central force jawan grabbed me by the neck and hit me several times with his stick. I pleaded with him, but he kept beating me. After some time, he stopped, and I fell to the ground.” The boy’s parents, Rahila Bibi and Majid Mian have been at the hospital with their son and could not cast their vote.

The boy’s home is less than 100 meters from the Amtali Madhyamik Siksha Kendra near polling booth number 126. The place where the boy was beaten is also very close to the polling booth number 126, and when villagers gathered in protest, personnel of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) allegedly opened fire.

While the boy, a student of Class VIII, is being treated for his injuries at the Mathabhanga sub-divisional hospital, four people were killed in the firing. They have been identified as: Noor Alam Mian (20), Manirujjaman Mian (25), Samiul Haque (21) and Hamidul Mian (31).

Election Commission special observer’s report

However, this narrative differs significantly from the report submitted by Election Commission’s police special observer Vivek Dubey. According to The Telegraph, Dubey’s report says that the boy had fallen sick near the polling booth and some women were tending to him when a group of CISF personnel approached them to ask whether they wanted to send him to hospital in a vehicle parked nearby. According to Dubey’s report, some onlookers mistakenly thought the jawans had beaten the boy and raised an outcry prompting 300 to 350 villagers to gather near the booth. It is alleged that they tried to snatch away the rifles of the CISF personnel who then “fired in self-defence”.

Was firing as per protocol?

However, this begs the question, why didn’t the CISF personnel fire warning shots in the air or fire on the legs, as is the protocol? Also, before police or any law enforcement agency can open fire, they have to try other methods of crowd control such as placing barricades, using tear gas or water cannons or even lathi charge is violent retaliation is completely unavoidable. Only once all these methods have been exhausted and proved to be ineffective, can they open fire and even then shots have to be first fired in the air as warning.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee too raised this question asking, “Are they trained to control mobs? No. I want to know why bullets were fired like this. Why no tear gas? Why no water cannon?”

She told media persons, “This was genocide. The central force just sprayed them with bullets. They fired at the upper part of the body,” adding, “They should have fired below the waist, but the bullets were fired at the neck and the chest.”

Meanwhile, Banerjee has not only demanded an independent probe into the firing incident in Sitalkuchi, but also demanded the resignation of Union Home Minister Amit Shah. On Sunday, still in a wheelchair Banerjee led a candle-light vigil, where she covered a 6 kilometer stretch in Burdwan. At a rally in Jalpaiguri’s Raiganj, she appealed for a peaceful democratic response to the violence saying, “Use the ballot to respond to the bullet.”

She harked back to one of her own slogans from the 2007 Nandigram movement that first propelled her into power, “Bullet-er bodlae ballot chai” that translates into “Bullets should be avenged with ballots”.

Election Commission’s response

Interestingly following the violence, the Election Commission not only suspended voting in the area, but also banned entry of political leaders for 72 hours in Cooch Behar district that comprises nine Assembly constituencies. But Mamata Banerjee responded saying, “EC should rename MCC as Modi Code of Conduct! BJP can use all its might but NOTHING in this world can stop me from being with my people & sharing their pain. They can restrict me from visiting my brothers & sisters in Cooch Behar for 3 days but I WILL be there on the 4th day!”



Banerjee has been getting support from other secular parties and politicians as well. Former Finance and External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha who recently joined the TMC, said, “Election Commission has covered itself with mud by stopping Mamata from going to Coochbehar. After all she is still the CM of Bengal and it is her duty to visit the place of this unfortunate occurrence. We know for certain now that EC is not fair.”



Another former Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram also demanded that accountability be fixed asking, “I cannot recall in recent years any case of police firing on voting day during elections resulting in 4 deaths It is a case of a failure of leadership and management of the deployment of security personnel. Who should bear responsibility?” He also drew attention to the EC’s actions saying, “The EC should be held responsible because it has made large scale transfers and postings of senior police officers in West Bengal.”



Meanwhile, TMC’s Derek O’Brian pointed out that it was the EC that had transferred several top police officials, including the Superintendent of Police for the area where the incident took place. Openly calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah “killers”, O’Brien said, “At your command, the EC recently changed the DG of Police in West Bengal, the ADG Law and Order and even the Superintendent of Police of the area where the killings took place.” He added, “The buck stops with you. The buck stops with the EC.”



Other questionable actions of the EC

The EC has also directed the Home Ministry to deploy additional central forces for the remaining four phases. This also appears excessive as already over 900 companies of central forces including Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) as well as the CISF have already been deployed in the state. Interestingly, the TMC has repeatedly accused these central forces of voter intimidation, a subject on which there is complete radio silence by the EC.

On Friday, April 9, just a day before voting was to take place for phase four, the EC removed Asoke Chakraborty, an SP rank officer posted in Mamata Banerjee’s security detail. The reason given was security lapse that led to Mamata Banerjee getting injured in Nandigram on March 10. In fact, on March 14, the EC, in an unprecedented move, had suspended Vivek Sahay IPS, Director Security for Mamata Banerjee and directed that charges be framed against him for his failure to protect a Z+ protectee (Mamata Banerjee). The EC had also directed that a Committee of Chief Secretary and DGP shall identify “the other proximate security personnel below Director Security, who failed in their duties to prevent the incident and protect the Z+ protectee VVIP and take suitable action for their failure under intimation to the Commission”. This move is noteworthy, as these “proximate security personnel” have been working with Banerjee for years. It thus appears to be a rather sensitive step, given how it is basically a move directed at taking Banerjee’s trusted inner circle of security personnel away from her.

The decision to suspend and transfer senior officers was taken based on a report and recommendations by Special General Observer Ajay Nayak and Special Police Observer Vivek Dubey. The same Vivek Dubey whose report in the Sitalkuchi matter insists that CISF personnel “fired in self-defence”.

Also, on April 9, the EC transferred Bhangar police station inspector-in-charge Shyam Prasad Saha alleging he was “playing a partisan role to help the Trinamul candidate.”

On Thursday, April 8, the EC issued notice to Mamata Banerjee for allegedly asking for votes in the name of religion. This notice followed a complaint by the BJP about a speech made by Banerjee on April 3 in Tarakeshwar in Hooghly, where she reportedly asked the Muslim community to ensure that their vote does not get split. The same night, the EC issued another notice to Banerjee for her remarks about the CAPF. Banerjee had, in her speech, allegedly asked women to gherao (surround) central force personnel if they create trouble during voting.

On Wednesday, April 7, the EC removed three District Magistrates: Nikhil Nirmal of South Dinajpur, Enaur Rehman of East Burdwan and Purendu Maji of West Burdwan. While polling will take place in East Burdwan in two phases: Phase 5 on April 17 and Phase 6 on April 22, both West Burdwan and South Dinajpur will go to polls during the seventh phase on April 26.

Communal element to firing?

What cannot be ignored is that all those killed, as well as the injured boy, belong to the minority community. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s track record with respect to protecting and defending minority rights is for all to see. Meanwhile, they have never shied away from accusing the Trinamool Congress (TMC), and Mamata Banerjee in particular, of “appeasing” minorities. BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari was recently served notice for his highly communal poll speech where he called Mamata Banerjee “Begum” and claimed that if she was voted back to power, “she will turn Bengal into mini-Pakistan”.

Incident-2: Young voter killed at booth number 85

In this case, an 18-year-old, first time voter, Ananda Barman was gunned down by unknown men when he went to cast his vote at a polling booth in Pathantuli, also in Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar. It is alleged that the boy was dragged out of the booth and shot dead. The TMC blames the BJP, who in turn claim that the boy was their polling agent and was killed by the TMC. Violent clashes erupted between workers of both parties and police resorted to lathi charge.

Further communalisation

Meanwhile, the BJP attempted to add a communal colour here as well, claiming that the Chief Minister paid homage to the Muslim victims of the firing in the other case, but ignored the Hindu victim in this case. Swapan Dasgupta, the the BJP candidate from Tarakeshwar Assembly constituency claimed, “It isn’t surprising @MamataOfficial  offers no comfort to the family of Anand Burman who was killed while queueing to vote. He was a Rajbangshi, which isn’t her votebank. Contrast with her high decibel protest against the death of 4 Muslims in a poll fracas incited by her.”



But the claim was debunked by the TMC. Derek O’Brien tweeted a picture of the list of names at the event where Banerjee paid homage to the victims.


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