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Eight hours of madness

Print edition : Dec 21, 2007 T+T-
At Topsia near Park Circus in Kolkata on November 21, residents fight the flames rising from a police jeep that was set on fire by a mob.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

At Topsia near Park Circus in Kolkata on November 21, residents fight the flames rising from a police jeep that was set on fire by a mob.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

At Topsia near

PARTS of central Kolkata took on the appearance of a war zone as demonstrators answering to a call by the All India Minority Forum (AIMF) suddenly turned violent and ran amok for more than eight hours from around 9:45 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on November 21. At least 35 persons, mostly policemen, were injured and more than 50 miscreants were arrested. The Army was deployed in the city for the first time since 1992 when it was called out to quell the riots that broke out following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

It all started when a few hundred demonstrators, mostly Urdu-speaking Muslims, assembled to stage a chakka jam (road block) at Park Circus and Ripon Street in central Kolkata, following a call given by the AIMF and the Furfura Sharif Nujaddidin Foundation. The protest was against the renewal of the visa of exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin and the alleged violence by CPI(M) cadre at Nandigram. The crowd gathered in strength and when the police tried to clear the roadblock they faced a barrage of brickbats, which seriously injured two senior police officers.

The Jamait-i-Ulema-e-Hind, the Islamic fundamentalist group that apparently played a significant role in perpetrating violence in Nandigram, denied any involvement in the agitation. But police sources said Jamait members were the invisible driving force. The police also do not rule out the hand of outside forces, such as the Harkat-ul-Jehadi-al-Islami, a Bangladeshi terror outfit, in the violence.

It was guerilla style warfare as the miscreants used the narrow lanes in the area to launch surprise attacks. They also hurled missiles from the rooftops of houses. They remained undaunted even when the Rapid Action Force was deployed. Passing vehicles, besides the police, were the main targets; more than 20 vehicles were wrecked or burnt, and not even ambulances and school buses were spared. The area has a number of well-known schools, and it was a harrowing experience for the stranded children and their hapless guardians.

In the afternoon, four companies of the Army moved in at the request of the State government and conducted flag marches at around 4 p.m. at Park Circus and AJC Bose Road. Subsequently, Police Commissioner Gautam Mohan Chakraborti visited the affected areas and announced a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. in the disturbed areas.

Although some sections of the media criticised the police for their inaction and attributed it to their lack of preparedness, failure of intelligence, and even pusillanimity, others were of the view that the police showed remarkable restraint. The mob seemed to be spoiling for a fight and police retaliation could well have provided the spark for a communal conflagration. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee called the incident a dangerously irresponsible act of a few people and expressed confidence that it would founder on the bedrock of good sense and communal amity that has been the tradition of Kolkatas citizenry. According to political observers, the motivating factor was neither Taslima Nasrins visa nor Nandigram but the polarisation of the urban minority vote against the Left Front, in particular the CPI(M).

The Jamait-i-Ulema-e-Hind chief Sidiqullah Chowdhuri later reportedly said: Its a warning for the CPI(M). This is just the beginning. The CPI(M) will feel the heat soon. It has suffered major erosion among the minorities. All the areas from where people came in huge numbers are CPI(M) bases.

However, the disturbance was confined to a narrow area of the city, indicating that the uprising was not of the urban minority as a body but one that was engineered by a few conspirators for political ends. The AIMF chief Idris Ali, a veteran Congress leader, argued that he could not foresee the violent turn of events. He was later placed under arrest.

The urban Muslims in Kolkata are linguistically, culturally and ethnically different from the rural Muslims, who, like most of the rural poor, vote largely for the Left. In any case, for many years now, the minorities have voted on political and ideological lines during elections and not followed a communal herd mentality. But a carefully crafted communal conflagration could very well alter the situation, at least temporarily, to destabilise not only the political situation but also the communal harmony that has prevailed in West Bengal even in its most difficult hours.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay