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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 49

West Bengal : A Case of Costly Arrogance

Wednesday 28 November 2007, by Nikhil Chakravartty


January 7, 1993, was like any other day in the humdrum life of an overcrowded city tinged with a glow of the Bengali’s undying faith in life. That’s Calcutta. And yet by the time evening descended on the picturesque newly built bridge over the river, one got a glimpse—just a glimpse—of the malady that sometimes afflicts the most reputed among politicians in this day and age. One suddenly realises how fragile our political order is, thanks to the callousness of politicians claiming to be VVIPs.

The story in a nutshell is simple and, as it unfolds, reveals the misadventures of seasoned politicians. In a village in the district of Nadia, a deaf and dumb girl in a poverty-stricken family had been allegedly raped by a local miscreant known to be a worker of the ruling CPI-M. Her mother complained to the Congress Member of Parliament and the then Union Minister of State, Mamata Banerjee, that the police were refusing to register a first information report on the case. Mamata Banerjee, on her part, brought the victim and her mother to the State secretariat, the Writers’ Building with a view to apprise the Chief Minister of the police negligence and to seek redressal.

She was told she could not meet the Chief Minister as she had not made an appointment. Alongwith the victim, the mother and some party colleagues, Mamata Banerjee staged a dharna in front of the Chief Minister’s room, whereupon the police encircled her and physically dragged her down the stairs, put her in a police van and whisked her away to the police headquarters at Lalbazar. She was locked up until after midnight, then dragged out and pushed out of the gate. She sustained some injuries in the police roughing up.

And in the Writers’ Building, press reporters were pounced upon by the police, some press cameras were smashed—an obvious but futile attempt to black out the shocking incident by terrorising the press. The journalists in a body decided to register their formal protest against police high-handedness right inside the government secretariat by boycotting all the functions of West Bengal Ministers for three days.

Next day people witnessed the familiar aftermath—once specialised in by the CPI-M while in Opposition but this time by the Youth Congress—the blocking of roads, stalling of trains, damaging of State transport buses, police firing at one place and teargassing at others.

Looking back dispassionately at the ugly happenings of the day, one could not help being amazed at the way senior politicians let anger and prejudice get the better of them. People are not unaware of the CPI-M’s allergy towards Mamata Banerjee. She was once the target of a heinous attack by the CPI-M mastans who could have killed her in broad daylight on a Calcutta street. But this time, it is the police at the behest of the government that attacked her right inside the Writers’ Building.

To say it was a political stunt on Mamata Banerjee’s part to have disturbed the peace inside the secretariat, as some Left leaders have been saying, is to forget that the precedent for misbehaviour was set about 20 years ago by the CPI-M-led employees when they manhandled the then Chief Minister, Ajoy Mukherjee, in the very same corridor in the Writers’ Building.

Would the heavens have fallen if the Chief Minister of West Bengal had cared to spend a few minutes with the hapless victim brought to his doorstep by a Union Minister and a lady MP? And would ministerial protocol have been defiled if Jyoti Basu, with all his dislike for Mamata Banerjee, had met the Union Minister waiting to see him?

The official explanation for the Chief Minister’s refusal to meet Mamata Banjerjee is that she had phoned for an appointment with the Chief Secretary, and no appointment was fixed for her with the Chief Minister. What quibbling! Even if this version were to be accepted, would Jyoti Basu’s standing before the people of West Bengal have been affected had he let Mamata see him without appointment and listened to the tale of distress she had brought? If anything, such a gesture putting aside official formalities would have won him praise as a gentle father figure approachable to even the bitterest political opponent.

And then, about the minious who minister to the Ministers. To cite a single example, the Chief Secretary. It was reported that during Mamata Banerjee’s dharna he was sending messages to her to come and see him in his chamber: What kind of Chief Secretary is he if he did not have the couresy to come out and personally meet a Central Minister right there in the corridor? Perhaps this Chief Secretary’s code of conduct prescribes that he dance attendance exclusively to Ministers of the State Government.

One also wonders where the police get their sanction for such demonstrations of high-handedness within the precincts of the Writers’ Building—physically attacking a Union Minister and lady MP and also members of the press. If the order to go on such a rampage came to them from the Minister in charge of the police, it makes his conduct all the more disgraceful. The entire episode has made the Left Front Government go down in public esteem not only in West Bengal but outside as well.

What is disturbing is that impudence and incompetence have grown hand in hand within the police ranks in West Bengal. The communal riots, that broke out in Calcutta in the wake of the Ayodhya incident on December 6, 1992, came as a surprise to many friends of the Left Front. The Left Front Government had always claimed it could curb communalism. But the riots showed up the incompetence of the Calcutta Police. The violence was acknowledged to be largely the handiwork of anti-social gangs enjoying the patronage and protection of the political bosses. They were therefore winked at by the police bigwigs who are careful about staying on the right side of the ruling establishment.

The disturbing incidents of January 7 have a lesson for the West Bengal Congress too. While Mamata Banerjee’s initiatives to help distressed people coupled with the shocking conduct of the State Government have earned her plaudits, she and her supporters have to realise West Bengal’s discerning public would not like a repetition of the rowdyism that followed January 7. Traffic dislocation, burning of buses and other such activities—so long passed off as “people’s anger”—do not always pay. Such politics are subject to the law of diminishing returns.

For the West Bengal Congress, unity in defence of the people’s rights and redressal of their grievances is imperative. Political targets are not hit at one shot. They require sustained work to bring tangible relief to people in distress.

A serious aspect of the January 7 incidents was the treatment meted out to the press by the authorities. In a democratic order—particularly in our country which bears the great historical legacy handed down by the freedom struggle—press freedom has been by and large respected by political parties engaged in parliamentary functioning. That is why Jawaharlal Nehru once said wisely, he would prefer a bad press to a captive press.

When, due to their inability to fulfil their promises and commitments to the people, political parties in power attack the press or seek to curb it—as is being seen in many parts of the country recently—they help destroy one of the pillars of our democracy. What happened in Calcutta’s Writers’ Buildings on January 7 is therefore a matter of grave concern for the entire community of the Indian media. There is no doubt it will have far-reaching repercussions. The obduracy of the West Bengal Government, particularly its Information Minister, has unfortunately persisted as could be seen in the removal of the Press Corner at the Writers’ Building, which has provoked widespread resentment as a move to quarantine the press.

January 7 thus has a lot of lessons for the future of Indian democracy. It has revealed how our political leaders, no matter how impressive their image-building has been, are getting cooped up in the groove of narrow politics, unable to realise the world has been changing fast. This is a world that demands discarding of arrogance and intolerance and cultivating in their place fellow-feeling and mutual understanding even with the most implacable of one’s adversaries. There is no room for hollow politics if this country has to be restored to the fullness of its glory.

(Courtesy: The Telegraph)

(Mainstream, January 23, 1993)

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