West Bengal

Shock to the syndicate mafia

Print edition : August 19, 2016

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addressing the Martyr’s Day rally on July 21. She announced that all Trinamool members would henceforth have to contribute to party funds, indicating that the party might be looking beyond syndicates for funding. Photo: PTI

The collapse of a flyover (above) under construction at Burrabazar in the heart of Kolkata, days before polling started for the recent Assembly election, drew attention to alleged connections between Trinamool leaders and suncontractors involved in the construction. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Her phone call to Mamata Banerjee on behalf of a friend prompted the crackdown on syndicates. Photo: AFP

Mamata Banerjee cracks down on the syndicate mafia operating in the real estate sector after receiving a call from Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

AT long last Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal has woken up to the increasing menace of the “syndicate raj”, a euphemism for extortionists and other criminal elements operating in the private housing and infrastructure industries in the State. It has begun to crack down on the groups by arresting (as of July 26) 49 persons. One of them is Anindyo Chatterjee, senior Trinamool leader and Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation councillor.

This apparent change in the government’s attitude followed a phone call from Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on behalf of Hasina’s friend in Kolkata who was being harassed by Anindyo Chatterjee.

When Mumbai-based Arunabha Mukherjee wanted to do some repair work in his house at Salt Lake in Kolkata, Anindyo Chatterjee reportedly asked him to cough up Rs.15 lakh in order to continue with the work. Little did the Trinamool councillor know that Mukherjee was a personal friend of the Bangladesh Prime Minister. Complaints against Anindyo had been piling up for a long time, and Sheikh Hasina’s phone call was the last straw. “That the premier of a neighbouring country should call up and complain about the conduct of a Trinamool councillor was too much for the Chief Minister. She was extremely embarrassed and angry and resolved to put an end to this,” said a Trinamool source.

As Mukherjee had not lodged a police complaint, Anindyo Chatterjee was arrested on July 12 on the basis of a complaint lodged against him in June by the veteran Congress leader Santosh Lodh. Anindyo Chatterjee’s men had apparently stopped Lodh from carrying out repair work in his house at Salt Lake. What followed was a crackdown on syndicates, with Mamata Banerjee giving a free hand to the police to act immediately upon complaints of extortion. The 49 arrests were made between July 12 and July 25.

With widespread unemployment and consistently diminishing scope for earning a livelihood, the syndicates provide a source of income to jobless young people. They operate along the blurred boundaries between the legal and the illegal. Though the business of supplying building materials for construction is ostensibly legal, the manner in which it is conducted is mostly criminal. The syndicate operatives and their bosses—many of them post-holding local Trinamool leaders—have been throwing their weight around, emboldened by the free run that they have enjoyed for so long. Many doubt whether Anindyo Chatterjee and the other 48 syndicate operatives would be behind bars now had Mamata Banerjee not received the call from Sheikh Hasina.

A victim of extortion by a syndicate told Frontline his tale of harassment on condition of anonymity. He was building a house on a plot that he owned in the southern part of Kolkata. One day a few young men asked him to stop the construction work immediately. They would allow him to carry on with it only if he bought building material from them. Alternatively, he would have to pay them a hefty amount; he did not divulge the amount lest it gave away his identity. He said: “The boys claimed to be Trinamool members and so I complained to the local police and to the local Trinamool councillor, but nothing came of it. Ultimately, I was forced to buy building material from those boys, but at a rate much higher than the market rate.”

It is more or less the same story everywhere; only the rates differ. Though somewhat reassured by the recent spate of arrests and the perceived tough stand taken by the ruling party, the majority of the victims choose to remain silent, fearing retaliation from the syndicates.

Although the problem of the “syndicate raj” took root during the previous regime under the Left Front, the proliferation of “syndicates” all over the State took place after the Trinamool came to power in 2011. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), with its structured and disciplined network of cadres, had kept the syndicates in check and they were confined to certain areas.

The alarming growth of syndicates in the last five years, the ruling party’s perceived links with such organisations, and the brazen manner in which they were allowed to carry out their operations made the Trinamool Congress practically synonymous with “syndicate raj”. No one, from rickshaw pullers to small shop owners, could hope to escape the syndicates’ extortion.

Out of control

Though the syndicates have served as a major source of funds for the Trinamool and as a potent electioneering machinery, they have also been a constant thorn in the side of Mamata Banerjee’s government, which never tires of trumpeting its “honest” and pro-poor image. As the syndicates began to spiral out of control, bitter and bloody turf wars between rival factions, all owing allegiance to the ruling party, saw murders committed in broad daylight. The Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, Manjula Chellur, hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) petition seeking judicial intervention to protect citizens from the syndicate menace, said large-scale action was needed to stop syndicate hooliganism in the State.

Public outrage over the syndicates began to surface during the 2015 elections to the civic bodies, when miscreants from the syndicates unleashed havoc in the primarily residential Bidhannagar area in eastern Kolkata.

The collapse of a flyover that was being constructed in the heart of Kolkata, in which 27 people were killed, on March 31, three days before the polling for the Assembly election began, also drew attention to the alleged connections between some local-level Trinamool bigwigs and subcontractors involved in the bridge’s construction.

It was obvious that the “syndicate raj” had become entrenched in the economic and political systems of the State. In fact, in a sting operation carried out by a television news channel, Sabyasachi Dutta, senior Trinamool leader and Mayor of the Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation, admitted at the time of the Assembly elections that without the syndicates the government would collapse.

Mamata’s calculation

Mamata Banerjee’s decision to take on the syndicates has come as a bit of shock to the thousands of young people and syndicate workers who have been the loyal foot soldiers of the Trinamool army and a pleasant surprise to urban middle-class voters who had all but lost hope of ever being delivered from the clutches of the syndicate goons.

Political observers feel that it was Mamata Banerjee’s resounding victory in the 2016 Assembly election that prompted her to take this decision. The Trinamool won 211 of the 294 Assembly seats. With this massive mandate, the Trinamool may well have realised that the syndicate machinery is no longer required to win elections. The government’s social benefit schemes for the rural and urban poor have proved enough for a victory of this scale. The weakness of the opposition parties has also bolstered Mamata Banerjee’s confidence.

The social scientist Biswanth Chakraborty pointed out that in spite of its huge win in the Assembly election, the Trinamool had fallen behind in 61 municipalities mainly because its image had been tarnished by the syndicate goons.

“The fact that there are so many municipalities where her party lagged behind has probably made Mamata Banerjee take note of the repeated complaints of her urban voters being harassed by syndicate goons. This is undoubtedly a reflection of the disenchantment that a section of middle-class voters feel about the State government’s apparent reluctance to deal with the syndicate menace. It looks like the Trinamool now wants to win back their confidence,” Chakraborty told Frontline.

Moreover, with her eyes set firmly on becoming a key player in national politics, Mamata Banerjee may now be working on cleaning up her party’s image. Her party’s connection with the syndicates drew widespread criticism all over the country, particularly after the collapse of the flyover.

Although the government’s recent action against the syndicates has been widely applauded by the urban public, there remain niggling doubts about whether the ruling party will indeed completely do away with something that it has been dependent upon for so long. There were occasions when Mamata Banerjee said she would not tolerate “syndicate” activities.

“Those who want to do syndicate may do so, but they cannot be a part of Trinamool,” she had once said. Yet, syndicate operators got the party ticket to contest civic elections and also got to hold key party and administrative posts.

It is no secret that the syndicates are money-making machines and are believed to significantly add to the party coffers. But for the first time Mamata Banerjee is seen to be looking at alternative sources of funds. At the July 21 Martyr’s Day rally, an annual event organised by the Trinamool, she announced that henceforth all members of the party would have to contribute to the party fund according to their means.

Optimism about the announcement, however, was dampened by her assigning to Sabyasachi Dutta, one of the biggest advocates of syndicates, the task of investigating syndicate activities within the party in his constituency, Rajarhat New Town, an area notorious for its syndicate goons.

Mamata Banerjee’s detractors see the crackdown as nothing more than an eyewash.

A political observer said: “It may also be a long-term plan to streamline this illegal industry: remove the smaller fry and consolidate the bigger ones. That way, two birds can be killed with one stone. On the one hand, the State government is seen to be establishing the rule of law, and on the other, the old system of extortion continues but in a more methodical and organised manner.”

It remains to be seen whether Mamata Banerjee, after consolidating her political supremacy in the State, will focus on good administration and continue to clamp down on the syndicates or stop with a token gesture of good governance by arresting some small fry.

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