The massive victory of the TMC in the just concluded Kolkata Municipal Corporation election, in which the BJP’s vote share percentage has come down to a single digit, will further strengthen Mamata Banerjee’s claim, that she is the ‘alternative’ face of the opposition to take on Narendra Modi at the national level. But her authoritarian rule, the abysmal track record of her government in West Bengal on respecting human rights and adherence to democratic norms, and corruption at all levels of her administration, make her liberal supporters’ and PR managers’ clamour to project her as an “anti-fascist” saviour sound hollow, writes Olivia Banerjee.
Recently, on December 1, 2021, actor-activist Swara Bhaskar, in a public meeting with CM Mamata Banerjee in Mumbai, said, “I hope that you, in the process of your growth to the national influence will also be a voice for those who don’t have the power, are vulnerable, but still continue to resist. That is an avocation from you. That you, and people like you who are a part of your position, come to power, you all will make sure that the rule of the law and the Constitution are in place even if it is to your detriment. Because, there is nothing greater than the nation.’
Swara Bhaskar applauded the CM Mamata Banerjee for being the face of the contemporary anti-fascist popular movement against the right-wing forces in power in India. Bhaskar also brought in the issue of political prisoners, and the draconian laws such as UAPA, highlighting the Bhima Koregoan case.
She also stressed the fact that the actors and artists are facing regular hindrance in telling their stories to the public. She asserted that the right-wing groups have targeted comedians like Aditi Mittal, Agrima Joshua, and Munawar Farooqui, who had to spend a month in jail for allegedly hurting religious sentiments. She alleged further that common citizens are facing an “unaccountable mob,” which is being used by the ruling dispensation, while the police and other state institutions are giving it a free rein.
Swara Bhaskar further alleged that sedition law and UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act) provisions are being distributed like “prasad from God we don’t want to pray to.” The fact that Bhaskar made such comments in front of Mamata Banerjee, revealed a larger Indian political reality. The reality is that the Indian liberals like Swara Bhaskar, have often interpreted Banerjee as the face of the resistance to the current regime’s right-wing, Hindutva fascist politics. However, what is lost in that liberal trust on Banerjee is the fact that the latter’s rule in West Bengal is marked by a consistent history of gross human rights violation, silencing of political dissenting voices and even imposition of UAPA on political activists, facts that keep getting erased within the larger national political arena, which attempts to find an electoral alternative to the current fascist regime.
Indeed, as part of her “popular anti-BJP leader” face, Banerjee did sign a letter which also included other major opposition party leaders, that was sent to the President of India, expressing their ‘grief and outrage’ at the death of Father Stan Swamy in custody, arrested on ‘trumped up charges under the draconian UAPA’, on July 26, 2021. The opposition leaders wrote: “It is now incumbent that all those jailed in the Bhima Koregoan case and other detainees under politically motivated cases, including draconian laws like UAPA, Sedition Act etc. be released forthright.”
However, what was brushed under the rug was the fact that during her tenure as the Chief Minister of Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly used the UAPA as a political weapon, hurling sedition charges upon several activists and political workers, including students, youth activists and journalists. For example, Sharmistha Chowdhury, one of the primary organizers of the famous Bhangar Movement, was charged with UAPA, and was incarcerated for months. In fact, UAPA was used liberally on several political workers during the Bhangor Movement, setting a political precedent that a movement for land and economic rights, can indeed amount to “terrorism,” and “sedition.”
Additionally, as multiple social media posts and news reports reveal, violence and intimidation were used frequently during the entire span of the Bhangar Movement. As conversations with the villagers and concerned activists would invariably reveal, the CM’s wrath was acutely felt in the region almost during the entire length of the movement.
Sujato Bhadra, an eminent human rights activist in the state, in a report in Scroll informs, that he was also charged with fabricated cases for his participation in the movement, which eventually prevented him from continuing his visits to Bhangar, in the outskirts of Kolkata. In the same report, Bhadra also noted how he was finding it “difficult” to “reconcile” his previous perceptions of Banerjee, with her government’s current policy of “cracking down” on agitations and agitators. According to Bhadra, Banerjee can be described as “giving the police a free hand to slap UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act] charges against democratic movement leaders.” And, this is precisely the allegation that has flown in from various social, political, workers’, farmers’ and students’ organizations about the current TMC regime in West Bengal. And, for those who have witnessed the fiercely resilient face of Mamata Banerjee, throughout the 34 years of Left Front rule in West Bengal, including her agitations in 1995 against TADA, to which she alluded to in her response to Swara Bhaskar, the current instances of gross violations of human rights and the frequent use of repressive mechanisms by her government, indeed, demand much political reflection.
On 12th December, 2021, around 11.30 pm, three social workers were arrested from a residential home in Jiban Mandal Hat, a neighbourhood that falls under the jurisdiction of the Jaynagar Bakultala police station. The three were identified as Tirthraj Tribedi, a Jadavpur University student, Alfred D’cruz, a diploma engineer, and another student from a Polytechnic College. The next day, the owner of the house where they were staying — Bablu Halder — was also picked up by the police around 1 PM. Sources say, those arrested were leading a public campaign on behalf of an organization, ‘Sramik Krishak Ekata Mancha’ demanding improvement of the health services in Mayahuari Primary Health Care Center under Bakultala Thana. One day down the line, Ziaul Mandal, another member of the organization, was also taken into custody.
The police did not provide any arrest memo to the families of the held up, didn’t produce the detained youths in court within 24 hours of the arrest, and the arrestees were allegedly slapped and physically abused at the time of the arrest. The accused have been charged with CRPC 108, along with two other cases. The final hearing on 14th December granted them a bail against a bond of ₹25,000 for each, and submission of four Local Land Deeds under Bakultala Thana.
Mayahuari is a small village in Jayanagar in the district of South 24 Parganas. Most of its residents earn their livelihood from meager farm labour and contract-based stitching assignments related to the garment industry. According to the sources, during the crucial months of the COVID-19 induced pandemic, the region suffered immensely from lack of medicine, bed and oxygen provision. Doctors were present for a bare minimum of 3-4 days, despite the government order requiring 24×7 presence of both doctors and nurses. Sramik Krishak Ekata Mancha had organized a signature campaign in the area, raising certain basic demands regarding the improvement of healthcare facilities, and a deputation was submitted to the BMOH along with the 7,500 signatures thus collected.
While addressing a public convention on health care, Mamata Banerjee had declared, ‘Bengal is number one in the health sector in the country.’ The conditions of primary health care centers around the state, like those of Mayahuari, with depleted infrastructure, minimum or zero provision of oxygen, medicines and beds, and non-availability of doctors, however, present a very different picture. And public health workers, who continue to raise their voices demanding basic healthcare facilities during the pandemic, continue to be ignored and silenced. In the case of this particular instance, there were even other repercussions for them. Such repercussions constituted police harassment, arrests, time in custody, and then being slapped with criminal charges.
As reported by various social, political and human rights organizations, Trinamool Congress (TMC), the political party which Mamata Banerjee leads, has predicated itself upon repeatedly targeting the mass movements, resulting in a systematic politics that aims to silence any form of dissent and resistance in the state. There is, then, a two-faced nature to Banerjee’s politics. On the one hand, she represents herself and her Party as the faces of the political resistance to BJP and right-wing politics. On the other hand, her own rule in West Bengal, is built upon a kind of political autocracy that often mirrors, in many ways, the BJP’s politics of violence and disregard for political opponents’ right to freedom of speech, expression and agitation.
Even when the concerned activists were bailed, the stipulated amount of ₹25,000 became a manifestation of a convoluted kind of class politics, characteristic of the Indian social and state structure, and reproduced in judicial administration. When students and daily workers earning around 5,000/month are forced to pay a considerably large amount as a security to sanction their release, it shows how the court of law throws public workers and dissenters in monetary traps, which prevents them from securing their freedom from a case of unjust tyranny. While it shows, even the law of justice is somewhat defined by class boundaries, the frequent use of the expensive criminal justice system by a political party in power, as TMC has a record of doing, also reveals, a regime’s reliance on administrative and legal mechanisms to criminalize dissent, and penalize the dissenters.
At Bakultala, for example, such disregard manifested itself in the ways in which huge numbers of police personnel and RAF were deployed to encircle the entire locality. We were also informed that on the morning of December 15, a group of police, without any women personnel, led by the Bakultala OC, reached Bablu Haldar’s house, forcibly entered the premises and led a search. Earlier on the 13th, when Bablu Haldar was arrested, the OC, DSP and IO of the case, entered the Haldar residence at around 9 pm, and conducted a search. However, after the search, the police locked the house, forcing the women and the children to evacuate it.
The disregard for human rights, thus, is inbuilt into the ways in which the institutions of the state such as the police, continue to operate in the state. It is, indeed, disconcerting when one thinks about the fact that even raising some basic concerns about the state of public health in the state, can lead one to be incarcerated in Banerjee’s Bengal. Yet, it is precisely incidents such as this one, that remains outside of the radar of liberal India, who want to see Mamata Banerjee as the anti-fascist saviour.
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya reminds us, in an essay in The Wire, that on February 20, 2011, Mamata Banerjee, while addressing a protest meeting in front of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in the Esplanade area in Kolkata, had made a promise regarding the release of the political prisoners in the state. A 13-member committee was formed to look into the issue, a few months after she assumed power in May, 2011, in her government’s first cabinet meeting.
However, the issue of the release of many of the political prisoners, still remains unresolved. Almost 11 years after that promise was made, nearly 75 political prisoners continue to languish inside the jail in fabricated cases. In most cases, our conversations with concerned human rights activists revealed that there is almost no transparency regarding the issue. Conversations with the government officials on the issue have become extremely difficult, and meetings/interviews with the prisoners themselves, even more so.
Additionally, arbitrary arrests of political activists continue in Banerjee’s West Bengal. In October, 2021, a political worker, Tipu Sultan, was whisked away from his house in Bolpur, Birbhum, by the police – illegally and forcefully. He was not given a custody memo under Section 50 of the Criminal Procedure Court and remained missing for almost a day. Neither was he produced in court within the mandated 24 hours after arrest, just like the activists in the Bakultala incident.
Eventually, Tipu was slapped with an UAPA under Belpahari PS Case No. 11/2016 dated 29.01.2016, for which a person named Jairam Murmu was already charged five years ago. Tipu Sultan was arrested earlier, along with three other activists in 2018, but was released on bail as the police failed to submit a charge sheet in the court. His friends and other fellow activists, continue to relate his arrest this time, with his activism in a murder and rape case of a child in Paruldanga, naer Bolpur, which had already brought the administrative failure of the state’s institutions in public view. One is almost reminded of Yogi Adityanath’s silencing of the journalist Siddique Kappan in relation to the Hathras case.
Yet, the story of Tipu Sultan’s arrest remains almost completely unexplored in the mainstream media, both within the state and the nation at large, thus exacerbating the silence around the human rights violations of the TMC regime in West Bengal.
Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) was formed in 1972, by a motley group of democratically oriented and left-minded individuals, whose relationship to the progressive struggles ranged from solidarity to active participation. During the last five decades, APDR has spearheaded many of the campaigns in the state on the question of human rights. Formed in the aftermath of the Naxalbari rebellion, when mass police repression had ravaged in many ways the society in Bengal, hundreds of activists were arrested and killed in fake “encounters”, the organization came forward to raise its voice against the systemic human rights violations, often leading campaigns to make people aware of their rights. APDR happened to be one of the key organizers of the movement to release the political prisoners in the late 1970s and early 80s, and has consistently campaigned in favour of the rights of the communist revolutionaries in face of the state repression, a history that has possibly earned the organization to be identified as “Naxalite” by almost all ruling parties in Bengal.
This year’s APDR was scheduled to hold its state conference. This year’s conference was especially important, since it would have marked the 50th year of its journey. However, the conference was stopped at the last moment, through police intervention, citing Covid restrictions. The forceful cancellation, thus, raises eyebrows — can ‘democracy’ be really protected by those who refuse to allow even a peaceful congregation of the human rights activists of the state?
In fact, the current administration’s frequent use of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (DM Act), originally meant to “provide for the effective management of disaster,” on students, activists and ordinary citizens, who often congregated to demand basic services regarding food, health and disparate online education, and issues of poverty, supply of food grains and non-availability of oxygen, bed and medicine – essential during a pandemic – intensified the feeling of a crackdown within the everyday life of the state.
In July 2021, for example, two members of APDR and five villagers were charged under DM Act, after they staged a protest at the Kultali BDO, office against the administration’s prolonged deprivation of the people of the region (Sundarban), who have been repeatedly affected by lockdowns and natural disasters. The protesters demanded access to food, health, fair compensation, and a permanent solution to the region’s problems. Students in Kolkata, demanding the resumption of physical classes, and a more equitable education system during the lockdown, were also sued again and again in cases under the DM Act. Often times, the slapping of such charges were also coupled with instances of the police lathi-charge on the peaceful gatherings of the protestors.
One can, also, of course, argue, the prolonged lockdowns and various restrictions imposed deploying the DM Act, was in itself, undemocratic, and had affected the severely marginalized communities in the most drastic of ways. However, while the lockdown period saw an increasing misuse of the DM Act, used as it was on democratic movements and congregations demanding basic rights and access to life-sustaining resources, numerous meetings and conferences by the parliamentary parties, religious congregations, festivals and carnivals went on unabated. A question obviously arises, does the virus discriminate between those who are gathering to campaign for the elections, or for religious observances, and those who are coming together to demand basic rights to life and livelihood? If indeed, the very act of gathering together was so dangerous for public health, why were the by-elections held?
One must not also forget the death of student-youth activists such as Maidul Midya and Sudipta Gupta, due to police repression. Political prisoners such as Sudip Chongdar, Sushant Shil, and Ranjit Murmu have also lost their lives while in custody during Banerjee’s regime.
During the time of writing this essay, the political climate of the state is charged up with two otherwise disparate issues – the Kolkata Municipal Corporation polls, and the proposed open cast coal mining project in Deocha-Pachami, two small but interlocked hamlets in the Birbhum district of West Bengal.
In the Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections the TMC recorded a landslide victory, reducing BJP’s seats to a single digit. But the massive victory of TMC winning a “record” 134 out of total 144 seats, could not hide the hooliganism, intimidation, threat and violence of its cadres on opposition parties, the bombing, false-voting and rigging in several wards, on the polling day. This, despite Mamata and Abhishek’s repeated warnings and cautions to TMC cadres not to indulge in violence. Leave aside allegations of opposition parties, like CPI(M) and BJP, even ordinary citizens were reminded of the massively rigged Panchayat Elections in 2018, and they ask a simple question. Can they expect fair and democratic governance from a political party which has predicated itself upon such crude violence to ensure its absolute monopoly and control at all levels of governance from Panchayats to civic bodies, by eliminating and wiping out opposition parties. How does one then reconcile to the claim made by Banerjee that the Kolkata Municipal Corporation polls will “show the way” for the rest of the country, thus alluding to her national political aspirations? In other words, whereas Bhaskar consider religious right-wingers to be the only practitioners employing police and cadres for their own political discretion, Banerjee and her party, too, in West Bengal, get repeatedly accused for taking recourse to violence during every election held under the supervision of her own police, thus raising several questions as to whether she and her party can really be effective ideological and political alternatives to the fascist Hindutva right-wing regime.
The recent development of Deocha-Panchami hits another low to the promise and conditions upon which TMC rule thrive. It is important to remember in this context, that TMC’s own emergence and coming to power had happened on the shoulders of the peoples’ movements in Singur and Nandigram. In other words, TMC’s coming to power was facilitated, by and large, by the emergence of an anti-land grab movement in the state. However, as our discussion earlier of TMC’s stand on the Bhangar movement showed, the party has failed to maintain such a political stance once in power. Right now, TMC’s respect for the very idea of “human rights” is at stake after the announcement of the largest coal mining project in the Bengal and Jharkhand borderland, which, as stakeholders and activists maintain, will forcefully displace thousands of Adivasis, Muslims and lower caste communities. While a committee of sycophants has been formed to dish out a “fair” rehabilitation package, what has been disregarded is the fact that the communities do not want to leave their homes and lands for the coal mines in their areas to begin with. They do not want to exchange their generations old culture with the vague promises of employment through coal mines. Even as we write this essay, cases on DM Act have been slapped on nine Adivasi activists associated with Deocha-Pachami Bhumiraksha Committee, several women protesters have been assaulted, allegedly by TMC cadres and police.
For those who are associated with democratic and progressive social movements in West Bengal, there is hardly anything novel in these occurrences. Banerjee’s policy of not allowing any strikes, and cracking down on strikers through the administrative mechanisms, and violence indulged on strike supporters by her party cadres, is well known. Even national strikes called by trade unions against the labour codes, the farmers unions calling for Bharat Bandh against the central government, and the most recent bank strikes, were all opposed by her government and party. As is well known, in her desire and ambition to go national, she has been warming up to the likes of Adani and Ambanis, the corporate sponsors of the present fascist regime in Delhi.
The onus is on the Indian liberals like Swara Bhaskar. Will they take their anti-fascist stand a step further, and begin to look for alternatives beyond the existing political status quo? Or, will they, frustrated with Congress, try to find an “anti-fascist” saviour in an authoritarian Mamata Banerjee?
The author is an under graduate student. Views expressed are personal.