Tathagata Bhattacharya is Editor, Special Editions, at Network 18. Having worked for well over 10 years with leading national and international media organisations, he is as enthused by newsbreaks and analyses as he is by single malts, Jazz and military aviation. You may come across this man listening to John Coltrane or reading Yasar Kemal on some obscure Himalayan tract though work pressure reduces the statistical probability of such a chance encounter.
The path of self-destruction, that West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has embarked on since May, 2011, has been concrete-reinforced by her government's actions over the last two weeks. Yesterday's actions, where the cops and Trinamool goons teamed up to beat up protestors including senior citizens and a university professor was picked up in a separate incident for sending cartoons mocking the chief minister to some 65-odd people, show that the era of democratic lumpenism, last witnessed in Bengal in the early 60s and early 70s, is well and truly back in Bengal.
The Trianmool Congress chief who had come to power on the basis of a strong anti-land grab agitation and on the purely emotive but non-ideological slogan of 'Ma, Mati, Manush (Mother, Motherland and People)' has totally changed her colours.
About 180 families, mostly displaced people from south Bengal and a few other areas had settled in the marshlands of Nonadanga in East Kolkata, hoping to find some kind of a footing after their lives were blown away by Cyclone Aila. They were petty hawkers. Some ran small tea stalls. The women would work as maids in the highrise apartments across the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. Before the Assembly elections, Trinamool Congress candidates had promised not to evict them.
But a few days back, the bulldozers arrived. So did a large police force. The shelters were razed and their minimal possessions gutted. Examinees appearing for their Secondary and Higher Secondary could not even retrieve their text books. When they started protesting, the cops came down on them. Television cameras caught male cops beating up women.
On April 13, 2012, the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), called for a protest march against this forced eviction. The organisation had notified the police a day before. It was a peaceful protest march. So at noon, the activists, many of them respected and well-known members of the Kolkata society, arrived at the spot. They were soon warned by the police that they had express instructions to arrest the protestors as soon as they would get off the pavement. Soon a group of hoodlums and goons, reportedly and as logic would say connected to the Trinamool Congress, rushed towards the people gathered, thrashing them, kicking them off the pavements on to the road.
The cops acted in perfect unison, picking up the agitators, many of them old people and women, and throwing them into the vans. Of course, the protestors had been forewarned not to set a foot on the street.
The day's action was followed by a night raid on the residence of Ambikesh Mahapatra, a teacher with the Chemistry Department of Jadavpur University. He had allegedly been spreading "anti-Mamata Banerjee" cartoons on the Internet. His arrest was kept a secret till Friday morning. Mahapatra's house was reportedly raided by Trinamool supporters who manhandled the teacher before the police picked him up.
The cartoon based on Satyajit Ray's movie Sonar Kella, allegedly shows Mamata and Railways minister Mukul Roy discussing how to get rid of party MP Dinesh Trivedi. Those who have seen the cartoon (and I have) will know that no abuse or invective was used but it was a funny representation of the political happenings which followed former Railways minister Dinesh Trivedi's Rail Budget presentation. There was nothing defamatory about it. When did mocking a politician become a crime in this country? Or does Mamata want to draft different laws for Bengal? But a party leader, who believes in fighting elections but in having no democracy within the party rank and file, would obviously be peeved.
There is an unfolding pattern to Mamata's idiosyncrasies. She went back on her promise to release political prisoners within the first few months of coming to power. She renewed joint operations in Maoist-dominated areas though she had vowed to discontinue the operations as Bengal, in her own words, did not have any 'Mao, Fao' even two years back.
Her party cadres have bashed up journalists on the streets of Kolkata. State libraries have been asked to bar the entry of dissenting newspapers in utter disregard of their popularity. Warnings have come from the tallest leader herself that, if needed, her government will also determine what newspapers people can read.
The strangest thing is that state ministers like Bobby Hakim and Madan Mitra, representing the brawn power of the party, have taken centrestage of late while people with more cerebral credentials like Amit Mitra, Monish Gupta are nowhere to be found. The musclemen are issuing statements to the press. Is it a sign of things to come? Or are the Bratya Basu-s of Team Mamata in hiding as they are finding it extremely difficult to even explain their government's actions, let alone defend it?
By giving the control of the party and the government's machineries to the lumpen brigade, by taking inexplicably arbitrary decisions, the Mamata Banerjee juggernaut has transcended the boundaries of the banal and has entered the realm of the ridiculous. Logic says oblivion would be the natural culmination. But for now, a ban on Facebook may be on the cards.
Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned. Rabindra sangeet (Tagore's songs) already fills the air at the Kolkata crossroads.