The timing of the violence that suddenly broke out on the streets of central Kolkata on Wednesday morning has got conspiracy theorists coming out of the vast, creaking woodwork that is the capital of beleaguered West Bengal. As, in New Delhi, the Lok Sabha discussed the issue of Nandigram — through the perspective of the highhandedness of implementing SEZs — in downtown Kolkata, the All India Minority Forum (AIMF), a fringe outfit that very few had heard of till Wednesday, started the day by blocking a road in the Park Circus area. The mob turned violent somewhere down the line and started pelting stones and soda bottles not only at the police personnel, but also at members of the media.
For the people of a city that had succeeded in registering their anguish and anger against the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government for its unapologetically iron-fisted handling of the Nandigram protests, Wednesday’s sudden violence from a fringe group was appalling. But what left most of them puzzled was that the AIMF had managed to bring an already bristling city down on its knees over...over something that one would have thought West Bengal in general, and Kolkata in particular, to be immune from: a communalised outpouring. Luckily, there is little fear or scope of a violent backlash from either ‘Hindus’ or liberals. With the same government that has got things all so wrong in Nandigram stepping in to save further communalisation from spilling over into the streets of Kolkata — ironically, by calling the army to impose law and order — the people of Kolkata and Bhattacharjee’s government are, at least on this matter, on the same side.
Apart from the Nandigram protest finally taking on a violent form, what has bothered everyone is the joining-the-dots exercise that the AIMF has conducted. This isn’t the first time that Nandigram, with its industrialisation vs land acquisition debate, has been seen through the ‘communal’ filter. As early as in January, when agitation against the Tatas acquiring land in Singur was on full steam and Nandigram had just joined the anti-SEZ protests, the Jamat-e-Ulema-Hind had held a huge protest rally in Kolkata against the state government’s land acquisition policy. With the victims of the Nandigram carnage being mostly from the Muslim community — on both sides of the cadre divide, due to the large population of Muslims in the area — it would have been naive to expect that no organisation portraying itself as a representative of Muslims in West Bengal would approach the Nandigram affair without putting the ‘communal card’ on the table. If the Indian Muslim Council-USA could condemn the West Bengal government for its actions in Nandigram in March, it was only a matter of time before a more homegrown front would pick up the message and run with it at home.
The AIMF has thankfully cooked its own goose — at least in the minds of the large number of liberals who inhabit Kolkata city — by indulging in a much more preposterous (and ambitious) stapling of so-called Muslim grouses. With the rest of the country still watching West Bengal with extreme suspicion (and with the Left Front government in the state being castigated in Parliament that very same day), the AIMF’s real grouse — the presence of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata, thanks to the Government of India providing her a visa — got its free dry spin all across the media.
The Nasreen-Left Front hyphenation in the minds of the AIMF had been born when earlier this month, a Left Front-sponsored magazine carried an unsigned article defending Taslima Nasreen’s controversial remarks against radical Islam, as well as another article defending the state government’s industrialisation project.
After the small furore over the Nasreen article, the issue of the magazine was banned (despite already having reached many of its readers). But by November 14, with the state government coming under universal condemnation from all sides, an opportunity to vent the ‘original’ anger against the Taslima Nasreen issue came out again. And what better day than when Nandigram and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee were being discussed in Parliament to get one’s 15 minutes of fame.
But as mentioned earlier in this article, there is a conspiracy theory doing the rounds. It goes something like this: the CPI(M)-led government allowed the violent AIMF protest and then quickly brought in security forces. It thus ensured that violence did not erupt all across metropolitan Bengal and, at the same time, sent out the message to middle-class Calcuttans that there are rogue elements out there (as there was in Nandigram) who need to be dealt with heavily.
Are Calcuttans being too paranoid? To quote that old Bengali intellectual who’s been passed on for too long as a Greek tragic dramatist: “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”
Ishan Chaudhuri is a writer based in Kolkata