Over the past few days, tension had been simmering in Cooch Behar’s Sitalkuchi, where central forces opened fire at a mob outside a polling booth that led to the death of four people on Saturday. The incident has now occupied the centre stage of West Bengal politics amidst a blame game.
Bu there were enough indications of an impending trouble. On April 7, chief minister Mamata Banerjee held rallies in an adjoining area, asking people to gherao Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) personnel if they “obstruct voting”. The same evening, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state president Dilip Ghosh’s convoy was attacked allegedly by ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) workers returning from the CM’s rallies. The next day, the TMC alleged an apparent “retaliatory” attack on its candidate from the adjoining Mathabhanga seat.
After Saturday’s incident that killed four people — all from the minority community — the TMC alleged central forces were working under the Centre’s pressure, while the Cooch Behar district administration’s report said the personnel fired only after the mob attacked them. The incident also prompted the TMC to repeat its charge that the Election Commission “appears to be under the command” of the Centre’s ruling BJP.
Meanwhile, the poll watchdog put a spanner in CM Banerjee’s plans to visit Sitalkuchi on Sunday to meet the families of the four victims and pay her respects. Hours after the incident, EC banned visits by politicians to Cooch Behar district for the next 72 hours, citing law and order issues. The TMC will still hold protests across the state.
After the April 7 attack that appears to have been a warning sign, Ghosh demanded that EC must ban Banerjee from campaigning as her “provocative speeches were instigating one community, and, as a result, a river of blood would flow in the state”. Ghosh said the TMC cadre attacked him with bombs and bricks.
The CM held rallies in Cooch Behar earlier that day, casting suspicion on CAPF. “CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) should not obstruct voting. Gherao CRPF (personnel) if they stop you from voting, especially the women. Then, another lot of voters should go cast their votes. I have no respect for CRPF, which is aligned to the BJP,” Banerjee said in her rallies in Cooch Behar on April 7.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to these comments by Banerjee during his rallies in the state on Saturday, accusing her of instigating people against CAPF.
The Cooch Behar administration’s report on the incident to the state’s chief electoral officer mentioned that some “300-350 people including women assembled around the CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) contingent in a booth in Sitalkuchi” after a misunderstanding, and attacked the personnel and tried to snatch their weapons. The report said CISF had to open fire in self-defence and to save EVMs (electronic voting machines) and polling material.
While the CM promised a state CID (crime investigation department) probe into the incident, the Prime Minister asked EC to conduct a thorough investigation and “punish the culprits”.
The fight for the Sitalkuchi seat is intense as the TMC won it in 2011 and 2016, and maintained a lead in this assembly segment in the 2019 national polls even when the BJP swept all Lok Sabha seats in North Bengal.