Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sing along, or else - The CPI(M) knows when and how to use the police


Sing along, or else
- The CPI(M) knows when and how to use the police

Does duplicity have a face? There is no need to guess three times. To match the face, the chief minister of West Bengal has a double role besides his chieftainship: he is police minister and culture minister. He uses the police to protect his brand of culture. The sanctity of the international film festival in Calcutta has to be protected from the artists, poets, actors and film directors of Bengal, singing in pain, awareness and protest against the CPI(M)’s second devastation of Nandigram. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s lathi-wielding policemen went for artists and students because they had got too close to Nandan, where the festival is being held, beat up whomsoever their lathis found, be it a woman actor or student, loaded them in vans and shoved them into the lock-up at Lalbazar.

That is all that policemen in Bengal need to do, when they can take time off from their duties of separating couples when any aggrieved father has clout enough to engage the police to break up his offspring’s marriage. But where armed groups fire on the unarmed, demolish homes, where gunfire rages and grenades explode among groves and fields, where alternately victorious groups take turns to drive out their opponents with women, children, the old and the sick from their dwellings in a home-made war over territory, the police are absent. Or almost. The chief secretary of the state, with the home secretary by his side, had promised a credulous Bengal that all those driven out, presumably irrespective of party affiliations, would be able to return home with police protection. So there were policemen, at two spots far away from the scene — perhaps to prove that bureaucrats don’t do out-and-out lies?

The chief minister’s party knows how to use the police. They can be used as shields when members of the party cadre decide to shoot down villagers — with police help — as they did on March 14 this year. And they know how to use women and hostages as shields when they want to block the entry of CRPF vehicles — now that they are here — into the core area of the battle, so that their takeover of lost ground can be completed without interference from the law, as they did on Sunday. It is a small incongruity that a party cadre cannot order policemen about. Neither can they decide when Central forces are to be let in. The orders and decisions surely come from somewhere else?

Facts are good enough story-tellers. They show that policemen in the city cannot wait to get their hands on poets and artists because they might disrupt the chief minister’s festivities with their singing, while forces waiting to implement law and order in Nandigram are turned back to sit and twiddle their thumbs as CPI(M) cadre make their fortress safe. Apparently, the administration has curled up and died there, just where it suits the chief minister’s party. He, being a man of more parts than can be named, knows exactly when to give his fief the look and feel of a police state, and when to ask the police to look the other way. For months at a time. When North Bengal exploded in the Prashant Tamang controversy, the army was there within hours.

A senior spokesman of the CPI(M) said on Sunday that there is no more terror in Nandigram. By holy writ, obscure to all non-party creatures, partymen do not have to speak the truth, what they speak is the truth. So when CPI(M) leaders, within the government and without, keep promising a peace process in Nandigram for days before the region is overrun with party cadre, the rest of the world is duty-bound to believe them. If someone dares to suggest that they have a habit of being economical with the truth, or if someone believes them and is hideously disillusioned after the ‘action’ in Nandigram, they are damned for having failed the demands of objective truth. No protest is legitimate in the eyes of the government — as the arrests of artists show — because no one protested against the miseries of the homeless in Khejuri. That is where the CPI(M) supporters driven out of their homes had gone.

Violence is unacceptable, say the protestors, and nowhere are the sufferings of the people to be condoned. Instead of vengefully throwing Khejuri into their faces, should not the CPI(M) leaders ask themselves why the miseries of the homeless in Khejuri did not figure in the popular protests? Can it have to do with the fact that the chief minister, together with other leaders in the government, constantly talks about “ours” and “theirs” as if they were not governing West Bengal but taking part in a street fight with party thugs? Or can it be that even the foolish citizens of Bengal suspect that the homeless in Khejuri have been carefully nurtured over the months so that the place could be used to build up an arms cache and the name could be used as ammunition to discredit all protest? Or can it just be that people do not believe a word that this government or its party says? Why ask the people a question the administration, “their” administration, should answer?

Why Khejuri alone, what about “outsiders”? Those who protest are not only biased, they are blind too. Maoists have laid mines in Nandigram and two CPI(M) supporters have died. No death can go unmourned. But if ordinary people as well as intellectuals protesting on the streets find it difficult to believe in Maoists from Jharkhand, not one of whom has been identified, whose fault is that? They are as invisible as those policemen supposed to have been grievously wounded during the March 14 massacre. As for the mysterious outsiders on the “other” side, they certainly merge in well. Because the only outsiders identified so far are those in Janani Intbhanta after March 14 and Tapan Ghosh and Sukur Ali on November 11. All fighting for the CPI(M).

It may be that CPI(M) leaders were never told the fable of the wolf and the shepherd boy by their grandmothers. They cannot imagine that people might actually dare to disbelieve them. The CPI(M) general secretary has said at a press conference that because of an ex- parte order of the Calcutta high court, they decided to restrain themselves from sending the police there for all these months. The people are supposed to have forgotten that the high court had first asked for an immediate investigation into the circumstances of the police firing on March 14 and directed the state to ensure “the safety and well-being of all general public in the area”, then had reiterated the instructions about restoring normalcy and law and order later. But the party is happy now. According to the general secretary, the administration can move in at last. That is, the West Bengal government has got the CPI(M)’s goons to clear the way.

The government’s satisfaction is understandable: goons are good company. Better company than those intellectuals and artists, left-leaning or even party loyalists, who are taking to the streets or boycotting festivals in protest. Not only have many of them boycotted the Calcutta film festival, they have also decided not to participate in the Natyamela. While a quiet and far-from-politically-visible Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay refuses to attend a film festival seminar, an acutely ill Sumit Sarkar joins a protest rally in Delhi.

Shame can be measured in many ways. It is good of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government to offer us such a wide range of images to choose from. An unarmed man with a gamchha round his shoulders, his legs curled up, his brains spilled by a bullet, lying on the spot he had stood minutes earlier shouting slogans against the guns that crackle across a smoky field. Or even just the once-green fields, groves, the spattering of tiled houses and occasionally running, secretive figures, blurred by shaking, uncertain cameras of people risking their lives to catch the total absence of policemen, of any shred of civilization, and the shifting colours of hatred and murder. But maybe we have grown used to those.

But there is another. The face of a gentle-spoken poet, teacher and scholar, small in build and towering in stature, gazing in through the closed gates of Lalbazar police station. Somewhere within those gates are artists and students arrested for singing. It is enough to look at his eyes.

Upon hearing that intellectuals were boycotting the film festival, the chief minister had said, “If you have the list, you can put it in a photo frame and hang it on the wall at home.” In return, he should be presented with this picture. He can look at the poet’s eyes and congratulate himself on what he has achieved.