Electoral violence in India: A look back in time on use of brutal force on the battleground

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This is not the first time though that we have observed electoral violence in India. If you take a look back in history on the use of brutal force on the election battleground, it might surprise you.

The violence outside a polling booth in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal resulted in the death of at least four people. Comments from the Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, other leaders and now the remarks by the Election Commission of India have been flooding the internet and will definitely make headlines for tomorrow’s newspapers. But the fact of the matter is we lost lives in the process of establishing the democracy of this country — to choose the representatives who will lead the state for the next five years. This is not the first time though that we have observed electoral violence in India. If you take a look back in time on the use of brutal force on the election battleground, it might surprise you. Let’s take a walk down the past decade of elections and the electoral violence that surrounded it. But first, let’s take a closer look at what happened in West Bengal today.

What really happened today?

The incident took place after a local mob confronted and attacked central security forces over a so-called misunderstanding, the Election Commission said and added that the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel were forced to open fire to “save their lives and government property like EVMs”. According to the election commission, the central forces near the polling booth in Sitalkuchi were merely trying to get a sick boy some help, but the locals mistook the situation and thought that the boy was beaten up by the CISF personnel. They went on to assemble nearly 300-350 villagers.

The Election Commission called it a mere “misunderstanding” and an attempt to ” save lives” and government property. “Due to the misunderstanding, the agitated mob attacked the CISF personnel detailed at the booth with deadly equipment and some of them even tried to snatch their arms and ammunition,” it said. The Election Commission of India said that the security personnel did not shoot the mob at first. They fired in the air but it did not seem to deter the mob. “Faced with no other alternative, to save their lives and government property like EVM and other polling materials, the CISF personnel opened fire. As a result, four persons who got bullet injury succumbed to their injuries at the local Mathabhanga Sub-Divisional Hospital,” the EC added.

Mamata Banerjee, the backbone of the Trinamool Congress and the Chief Minister of the state has dubbed it a “planned attack” and blamed the central forces of “murder”. Banerjee also added that the West Bengal Police’s CID (Crime Investigation Department) will conduct a probe on the matter. “Home Minister Amit Shah is completely responsible for today’s incident and he himself is the conspirator. I don’t blame central forces because they work under Home Minister’s order. We will demand his resignation,” she said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not sit quietly either. “What happened in Cooch Behar is very saddening. My sympathies are with the families of those who died, I condole their demise. Didi and her goons are perturbed, seeing the people’s support for BJP. She has stooped to this level as she can see her chair slipping away,” the Prime Minister said while addressing a rally in North Bengal’s Siliguri. “Didi, this violence, the ways of inciting people to attack security forces, the ways of disrupting the election process will not save you. This violence cannot protect you from your 10 years of misdeeds,” he further added.

Electoral violence in India
Source: Pew Research Center

The ‘bloody’ re-election

A report from the Ministry of Home Affairs, released in March 2021, with data on political violence in West Bengal said that there were 693 incidents and 11 deaths during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. It also added that during the 2018 panchayat elections there were 23 deaths on the polling day and the preceding night. This information helped the Election Commission of India decide on the unheard-of eight-phase Assembly Election schedule in the state. But even though West Bengal was targetted in the report, it wasn’t the only place violence occurred. We do not have a government survey on it but the reports on violence during and before the elections were at the least, not sporadic.

Violence, deaths, vandalism, EVM malfunctions — these issues were everywhere and it marred the Lok Sabha elections that started in April 2019. Two people died when the TDP took on the YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh. While Naxals triggered IED blasts at Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli and Chhattisgarh’s Narayanpur, voters did not care much and came out to vote as well. In the north-eastern region, suspected militants had attacked Indian Border Security Forces when they were escorting polling staff through a path that is known to be sensitive in Assam.

Electoral violence in India: Does it help poll results?

“Do parties matter for ethnic violence? Evidence from India” is a paper written by Gareth Nellis, Michael Weaver, Steven Rosenzweig —  political scientists from Yale University. They say that “the election of a single Congress MLA in a district brought about a 32 per cent reduction in the probability of a riot breaking out prior to the next election. Simulations reveal that had Congress candidates lost all close elections in our dataset, India would have faced 10 per cent more riots and thousand more riot casualties… The pacifying effect of Congress incumbency appears to be driven by local electoral considerations, in particular, the party’s exceptionally strong linkages to Muslim voters during the period we investigate,” they wrote. They said that communal riots strengthen “ethnoreligious parties at the expense of multi-ethnic ones like the Congress”. So a party like BJP will gain more from a communal riot or bout of violence. Why? Because the people would be polarised more than ever and that would push them to vote towards the religion they subscribe to. Even an atheist in a communal mob frenzy would, in most cases, side with the people from his own religion just to ensure protection and security for himself and his family.

What happened in 2014?

The year 2014 will be etched deep into the history of not just India but of the world. The Lok Sabha Elections of 2014 brought the Bharatiya Janata Party to power with a majority of seats in the Parliament. This happened after years and while this helped make the Parliament a more relevant house that could actually pass laws and not dilly dally, it also took the country to major headlines across the world, mostly for the wrong reasons.
Gunmen killed four paramilitary soldiers and three polling officials travelling on buses after conducting polls. While Maoists ambushed a bus near Shikaripada, Jharkhand to kill four paramilitary soldiers and two polling officials, suspected rebels killed an Indian electoral official and also injured four others in an attack on another bus in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir. Poll violence also claimed more than seven lives in the state of West Bengal leaving more than 740 persons injured in around 825 incidents, media organisations had reported.

Use of brutal force on the battleground, why?

“Violence during elections is a form of manipulation intended to affect election outcomes, and still occurs routinely outside of advanced, industrialized democracies. The intent of campaign violence is to influence the dynamics of electoral competition, in particular, to reduce turnout among opponents,” said Ursula Daxecker, in her paper, Unequal votes, unequal violence: Malapportionment and election violence in India.  “Political scientists recognize that elites in unconsolidated democracies can choose from a long menu of manipulation, but research often studies different forms of manipulation in isolation. I argue here that the presence of institutional biases such as uneven electoral apportionment has important consequences for elites’ incentives to use other, more short-term and blatant manipulation strategies such as pre-election violence,” she added in her conclusion.

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