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Student leader’s death sparks protests in West Bengal

Print edition : Mar 25, 2022 T+T-
Salem Khan (right), the victim’s father.

Salem Khan (right), the victim’s father.

Anis Khan’s house, in Amta of Howrah district. He died after he was allegedly pushed off the terrace of the house.

Anis Khan’s house, in Amta of Howrah district. He died after he was allegedly pushed off the terrace of the house.

DYFI leader Minakshi Mukherjee facing the police during the wave of protests following the death of Anis Khan.

DYFI leader Minakshi Mukherjee facing the police during the wave of protests following the death of Anis Khan.

A wave of agitations following the death of a Muslim student leader, Anis Khan, in controversial circumstances puts West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress in a tight spot.

THE murder of Anis Khan, 28, a Muslim student leader, allegedly by police personnel, has put the Trinamool Congress government of West Bengal in a tight spot. Not only has the incident exposed serious lapses in the police administration and the state of law and order in Bengal, it has also sparked off widespread and relentless protests cutting across religious and political lines. With public outrage snowballing and the demand for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe by the victim’s family and the opposition parties getting louder, the issue threatens to have far-reaching socio-political implications for the future.

According to Anis’ father Salem Khan, on the night of February 18, four people—one in police uniform and three dressed as civic volunteers— entered his house in Amta, Howrah district, looking for Anis. While the man in uniform detained Salem at gunpoint, the other three went upstairs in search of his son. Salem Khan accused the men dressed as civic volunteers of pushing his son to his death from the third floor of the house. He claimed that after Anis’ body was heard falling to the ground, the three men came downstairs and told the man in uniform, “Sir, the job is done.”

A former student of Aliah University, Anis was a leader of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) before becoming an active member of the Indian Secular Front (ISF), which was formed just ahead of the 2021 Assembly election by the influential Islamist cleric Abbas Siddiqui. Anis was also a prominent figure during the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Kolkata. At the time of his death, he was studying journalism and was a leader of the student wing of the ISF in Aliah University.

In his own locality at Amta, Anis was popular and well-respected. According to Nawsad Siddiqui, the ISF MLA from Bhangar, Anis’s murder was a calculated one aimed at sending a message across to those who dared to protest. Speaking to Frontline , Siddiqui said: “Anis Khan was all along an upright person who stood up and protested against injustice wherever he saw it and actively participated in mass movements. I believe that by murdering him a message is being sent across to those who dare to stand up against the establishment and take up the cause of the oppressed. However, those who had him killed did not anticipate the spontaneous outbreak of protest among the common people.... The tentacles relating to this murder are not confined to Howrah alone. I believe it extends to Kolkata.”

Outrage and protests

The murder sent shock waves across civil society. The very idea of the police, who are meant to protect citizens, barging into a house in uniform and committing murder led to outrage. The first wave of protests began with the students of Aliah University, who took to the streets on February 19, blocked roads and demanded justice for Anis Khan. Soon, the agitation grew into a mass movement with Left students and youth organisations—the SFI and the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI)—organising rallies and demonstrations in different parts of Kolkata on a daily basis. They clashed with the police and brought life to a standstill in the city. A section of the intellectuals expressed solidarity with the movement. The residents of Amta also staged demonstrations. DYFI State secretary Minakshi Mukherjee and 16 other Left activists were arrested on February 26 when they were protesting outside the Amta police station. They were slapped with non-bailable charges and sent to judicial custody.

Also read: Two police personnel arrested in connection with the murder of a former SFI leader

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) alleged that Minakshi was subjected to custodial torture. A video of an injured Minakshi limping into custody went viral on social media. CPI(M) State secretary and Polit Bureau member Surya Kanta Mishra demanded “unconditional release” of the arrested activists. “Comrade Meenakshi Mukherjee State Secretary WB #DYFI was beaten by the police before and after her arrest and then produced twice in court with non-bailable charges along with 16 comrades, now in jail custody for demanding #InsaafForAnishKhan . Demand their unconditional release,” he had tweeted. However, on March 4 they were denied bail and their judicial custody was extended up to March 7. They were all released on bail on March 8.

The State government set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to investigate the murder, but that could neither quell the protests nor quieten the demand for a CBI probe. On February 23, five days after the killing, home guard Kashinath Bera and civic volunteer Pritam Bhattacharya were arrested. Anis’ family was not satisfied with these moves. His father said: “The question is who ordered these policemen to commit the murder—for that we need a CBI probe. I want a CBI probe not just to find out who committed the murder, but also who ordered it.”

The police maintained that the SIT was functioning in an “impartial manner” and alleged that the family and the local people were not cooperating in the investigation. Director General of West Bengal Police Manoj Malaviya said: “The SIT is going there [Amta] repeatedly to investigate but is being obstructed. We want to collect the material evidence and move forward with the investigation, so we can bring the whole story in front of you. We feel some political parties out of their own interest are not allowing the family [to cooperate]. When the SIT wanted the mobile phone as material evidence, they refused to hand it over.”

Mamata rattled

The protests and the persistent demand for a CBI investigation were also clearly irritating Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. She said at a press conference: “We still do not know what the situation is. The SIT was obstructed when they went to do a post-mortem. There was a complaint against the police and two police personnel were arrested. I do not know if anything can be proved against them, but the law will take its own course…. The police have started the investigation and the two have been arrested so they cannot influence the investigation. The government is very tough… I came up through the path of protest, let no one teach me about protests.”

Remaining firm on her stand to continue with the SIT probe, Mamata criticised the CPI(M), which has been most vocal on the demand for a CBI investigation. “Do not think us to be so weak. If any crime is committed, then no one will be spared. Can the CPI(M) show that they made any arrests during the Nandigram firing? Was anybody arrested after the murder of Tapasi Mallik in Singur? The CBI had investigated that. I am asking this to those who are clamouring for a CBI investigation. Has the CBI been able to retrieve Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize yet? Has anybody got any justice yet? …Just because they are no longer in power they are shouting for a CBI investigation and trying to destabilise the State police force and break their morale. Remember, when there is a robbery in your house, will you not call the police?”

Also read: Political violence in Bengal continues unabated as two councillors are shot dead in separate incidents

Meanwhile, the arrested police personnel claimed that they were being made scapegoats. While being taken into custody, Kashinath Bera and Pritam Bhattacharya said they were “completely innocent”. They said they had received their orders from the officer in charge of the police station. Both claimed they had no idea about how Anis was murdered. Bera’s family has also demanded a CBI inquiry. His wife Rakhi Bera reportedly said: “Kashinath certainly does not carry out his duties without getting prior instructions. How Anis died needs to be investigated properly; if necessary, a CBI probe should to be ordered.” Incidentally, the OC (officer in charge) of Amta Police Station, Debabrata Chakraborty, was sent on indefinite leave.

The opposition parties have also alleged that the arrest of two junior police personnel was nothing more than an eyewash to divert attention from the real issue. Senior CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty called it a “state-sponsored murder” that the government was trying to keep under wraps. “At first the Superintendent of Police denied the fact that the police had gone to Anis’ house. Then three police personnel were suspended. Then two were arrested. So, either the S.P. was lying or the arrests were fake. The arrested personnel themselves said they had gone to Anis’ house on the order of the OC. The government wants to use the SIT to put the entire matter under wraps,” he told Frontline .

Adding further fuel to the opposition’s allegations of a cover-up, Saokat Molla, influential Trinamool MLA from Canning Purba, claimed that he had information that Anis died while trying to escape by climbing down a pipe. He said at a public meeting: “So far the investigation has revealed that when the police went to Anis’s house and were talking to his father, Anis tried to climb down a pipe from his terrace and fell to his death.” The victim’s family refuted the claim, saying their house did not even have an external pipe. Anis’ elder brother, Sabir Khan said, “The SIT investigation is on and yet he [Molla] is saying that according to the SIT’s investigation, Anis fell while climbing down a pipe. Has the SIT given him its report from beforehand? We are not at all happy with the investigation.” Anis’ family also registered a complaint with the local police station against Molla’s comments.

Though the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stayed away from the protest movement, the incident nevertheless gave it a handle to attack the Trinamool with. Suvendu Adhikari, Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, said: “The Chief Minister claimed before the Assembly election that the BJP would implement the NRC and drive out Muslims from the State. Today her police have killed a Muslim brother... the SIT will not uncover anything; a CBI probe is what is required.”

Also read: Cracks in Trinamool Congress

With the local people of Amta resisting the SIT probe, the investigation can continue unhindered only with the intervention of the Calcutta High Court. On February 24, the High Court ruled: “This court is of the view that it would be too premature to opine whether the investigation by the SIT would be appropriate or not. This court would like to first evaluate the investigation of the SIT, the adequacy of which can only be determined thereafter. The SIT shall, therefore, proceed with urgency and expedition. It is expected that no stone will be left unturned in course of such an investigation which shall be carried out in letter and spirit and by the book.” The High Court directed the SIT to submit its report within two weeks of the order. Even then, the SIT faced initial resistance from the local people when they went to exhume the victim’s body for a second post-mortem.

Rizwanur case: Parallels

What may be of concern to Mamata Banerjee is that linked with the demand for a CBI probe are the parallels being drawn with the death of Rizwanur Rahman in 2007. The Left Front government had found itself at the receiving end of large-scale public outrage following the alleged suicide of 30-year-old Rizwanur, a computer graphics trainer who was allegedly driven to suicide by the police following his marriage with the daughter of a prominent Kolkata-based businessman. The death caused a huge outcry, and Mamata Banerjee, then in the opposition, was the most vocal in the demand for a CBI probe. Anis Khan’s family even showed a video clipping of 2007 to the media in which Mamata Banerjee is seen demanding a CBI probe.

Even Rizwanur’s brother, Rukbanur Rahman, acknowledged the similarities between the two cases. “As in the case with Anis’ death, the whole society had then dropped everything and hit the road for the sake of my brother. I see many similarities between the two cases. Like Anis, my brother too came from a lower-middle-class family. If Anis has been murdered, then the killers should be punished,” he reportedly said. However, Rukbanur, who is also a Trinamool MLA from Chapra, does not support the demand for a CBI probe and believes that Anis’ family is “tutored” by external forces. Anis’s family, on the other hand, has alleged that even in its bereavement it is receiving threats over phone for demanding a CBI investigation.

The similarities with the Rizwanur case have made Anis Khan’s death a sensitive topic. It is of extreme importance for Mamata Banerjee’s government now to bring the case to a credible resolution and protect the image of its police force and its own reputation. Without a satisfactory result of the investigation, the issue is unlikely to die down. As ISF leader Nawsad Siddiqui told Frontline , “the protests are just beginning now”.