Politics

Rising resistance

Print edition : June 23, 2017

Left Front demostrators trying to break a police barricade during the "Nabanna March" on May 22. Photo: DEBASHISH BHADURI

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. When a journalist questioned her about the assault on mediapersons, she told him not to "indulge in politics". Photo: PTI

During The BJP's "Lalbazar Abhiyan" on May 25. Photo: DEBASHISH BHADURI

The success of back-to-back agitations by the Left and the BJP has shaken the Trinamool Congress out of its complacency.

THE tremendous impact of the back-to-back agitations by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal came as a major surprise not only to the ruling Trinamool Congress government but also to the political observers who had written off the opposition in the State. The streets of Kolkata turned into a battle zone on May 22 and May 25 as lakhs of supporters of the Left and the BJP respectively hit the streets and clashed with the police. For the first time since Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress stormed to power in 2016 for its second consecutive term, soundly defeating a Left Front-Congress alliance and an optimistic BJP, the opposition asserted itself in a forceful manner.

On May 22, Left Front supporters from multiple points marched towards Nabanna, the State Secretariat, in response to a call given by Left peasant organisations, which had set down an 18-point charter of demands. With more than one lakh people hitting the streets, the size of the turn out astounded even the police who had come fully prepared to thwart the agitation. The moment the crowds reached the barricades placed by the administration, the police resorted to indiscriminate use of force. They hurled tear-gas shells, used water canons and carried out a brutal baton charge. For several hours, the police and the agitators were locked in a relentless, unforgiving battle. Cries of pain and defiance rent the air as blood flowed in the streets. Clutching at their red flags, the protesters lobbed back the tear-gas shells hurled at them,and fought back the police onslaught with bricks and stones lying on the ground. One protester, surrounded by several policemen, was seen bleeding profusely from the head and staggering from the blows he received. The more he was hit, the louder he cried “Inquilab Zindabad” (long live the revolution), until his comrades rushed to his aide and forced the police to back off.

According to the Left, more than 300 people participating in the agitation were seriously injured. Those present in the protest claim that the police were aiming for their heads rather than their legs.

Media under attack

Even journalists covering the agitation had to face the batons of the police. More than 50 of them were targeted and beaten up; some were seriously injured and had to be hospitalised. The police turned a deaf ear to their pleas that they were only covering the event, and even when they showed their identity cards they were not spared. This resulted in a major outrage and hundreds of media representatives hit the streets in protest. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee appeared indifferent to the grievances of the journalists. When a journalist asked her whether she would be taking any action on the matter, she branded him as a reporter from Ganashakti (the CPI(M) mouthpiece, which the reporter did not represent) and told him “not to indulge in politics”.

Earlier in the day, Left Front members of the Legislative Assembly sprang a surprise on the State administration by suddenly landing up at the Nabanna gates, a few hours before the “March to Nabanna” began. More than 20 MLAs, including Ashok Bhattacharya, veteran CPI(M) leader and Mayor of the Siliguri Municipal Corporation, and Sujan Chakraborty, Leader of the Left Legislative Party, were arrested. Sujan Chakraborty told Frontline: “Every movement has a symbol. Ours was Nabanna; so reaching Nabanna was extremely important to us. We planned our sudden appearance in Nabanna the previous night. This had a tremendous impact and left the Chief Minister speechless.”

Guerilla tactics

On March 25, the streets of central Kolkata turned into a battle zone, this time with the BJP’s “Lalbazar Abhiyan” (the State Police headquarters are located at Lalbazar). The clash between BJP workers and the police was as fierce and prolonged as the one on May 22. Water canons, tear-gas shells and batons of the police were countered with stones, bricks and rotten eggs and tomatoes by the BJP workers. But unlike the Left, which faced the police head-on in the main roads leading to Nabanna, the BJP agitators used guerilla tactics. They came in massive groups, split up into smaller numbers and used the area’s lanes and bylanes effectively to launch sudden attacks. They even set fire to a police vehicle in an unpatrolled area before dispersing to regroup somewhere else.

The police were as ruthless with their batons as earlier, and if this time the journalists were spared (they were given bright yellow jackets to wear to separate them from the others), common people who had nothing to do with the agitation got a taste of the police batons. The police even stormed the nearby metro stations, where some of the BJP protesters had apparently sought refuge; in meting out punishment to the political activists, they did not spare some of the innocent commuters and bystanders. According to the BJP, more than 130 of its supporters had to be hospitalised, several of them with critical injuries. A total of 141 BJP activists were arrested, including national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, Rajya Sabha member Rupa Ganguly, national secretary Rahul Sinha, West Bengal party president Dilip Ghosh, and prominent leader Locket Chatterjee.

Opposition gains impetus

The two violent protests gave a strong impetus to the opposition parties of West Bengal, which were for the past one year languishing in a state of stagnation. The 2016 Assembly elections lent an aura of invincibility to the Trinamool. It won 211 of the 294 Assembly seats in spite of the Saradha and Rose Valley scams and the Narada sting operation in which top party leaders were seen accepting cash on camera. It trounced a combined opposition of the Left Front and the Congress, which theoretically was seen to be in a position to oust the ruling party. Indeed, the opposition looked all but decimated after the results were announced. Not only did the vote shares of the Congress and the Left dip, but the credibility of both took a beating. The alliance was widely perceived to be unprincipled and opportunistic.

The Trinamool also prevailed as the winner in the subsequent elections. In the stray cases where opposition candidates won, they were more often than not seen to be crossing over to the Trinamool. Of the seven municipal bodies that went to polls across the State recently, the Trinamool won four while the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP won in the Darjeeling hills of northern Bengal thanks to its alliance with the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha. However, the Trinamool managed to make inroads into the region, which was evident from its victory in the Mirik municipality.

In this context, it was a do-or-die situation for the Left. If it failed to make an impact with the March to Nabanna, it was doomed to further political obscurity. The BJP was in a similar situation. After the kind of stir the Left created, if the BJP could not match it with its own “Lalbazar Abhiyan”, that would be a major political setback for it. “We had to succeed in creating an impact, especially after what the Left did, otherwise our claim of being the main political opponent of the Trinamool would lose credibility,” a BJP leader told Frontline.

BJP and the Left

While the Left and the BJP each claimed that the success of its agitation had established its stature as the main opposition to the Trinamool, Mamata Banerjee dismissed the protests as “political hooliganism” and a “competition for the second and third place”. Sujan Chakraborty said: “With our March to Nabanna, we have thrown a direct challenge to the Trinamool government. The alternative is still the Left, in spite of some political observers claiming that the Left’s position has been taken over by the BJP. While the BJP’s programme was just to show their strength, the Left’s was part of a consistent programme and campaign on the life and livelihood issues of the masses.” He also hinted at a tacit understanding between the Trinamool and the BJP at the Centre, pointing out that on the day the BJP held its “Lalbazar Abhiyan”, Mamata Banerjee went to Delhi to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Many political observers maintain that such agitations will ultimately not translate into votes. Nonetheless, the protests have shown that the opposition in the State may be down but not out and has shaken the ruling party out of its complacency. The Left leadership admitted that the May 22 protest served to lift the morale of Left workers and supporters and galvanised them into action, which was evident immediately after the agitation. “The ruling party thought that after six years of constant oppression, our cadres and followers would be completely shattered. But now they have realised that there is no dearth of people still wanting to raise the red flag in Bengal,” said the young CPI(M) leader, Shatarup Ghosh.

Moreover, the massive turnout in the two agitations exposed the simmering discontent among sections of the population against the present government and gave impetus to the opposition to regroup and join forces to take on the ruling party. The day following the “March to Nabanna”, a protest rally was organised by the Left Front, and a number of eminent Congress leaders participated in it. “It was necessary to demonstrate that the Congress and the Left are together.

In the recent past we have been united in our efforts to fight the Trinamool. The success of the March to Nabanna has further strengthened our relationship,” Om Prakash Mishra, general secretary of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee, told Frontline.

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