Kolkata is living up to its old name of City of Processions.
The protests about the anti-Islam film, Innocence of Muslims, reached Kolkata on Thursday. 25,000 slogan-shouting protesters broke through street barricades to gather in front of the American Center and burned an effigy of President Obama and pelted stones.
Most media have reported the story as a traffic disruption story. Although the heart of the city came to a standstill it did not make front page news in all the major newspapers. That day also saw a rally by a tribal group and another rally by the Communists. While those were smaller rallies, about 3,000 and 4,000 respectively, the combined effect of all three brought traffic to a grinding halt for four hours. Major thoroughfares were closed off. Ambulances were stranded in traffic. The lines at the Metro railway station spilled out onto the street. Add to that scorching sun and sweltering 92 percent humidity, and the city’s cup of woes runneth over.
“What we did to manage traffic today was the best we could have done under the circumstances. We know it affected the city traffic but we were helpless,” Jawed Shamim, the joint commissioner of police, told The Telegraph.
But only the Indian Express brought up the political colours of the rally. It reported that the 12 Muslim organisations which led the protests were mostly Trinamool-backed. “(Mamata) supported us,” Syed Md Noorur Rahman Barkati, Shahi Imam of Tipu Sultan Masjid told the Indian Express. “More than half the protesters were from the TMC. Several party leaders were present at the meeting. We were told that Mukul Roy called senior Muslim leaders present at the gathering and extended his support also,” said Idrish Ali, a TMC minority leader. (You can read the Express story in its entirety here.)
In fact, the film was not the only subject of the slogans outside the American Center. The crowds raised slogans slamming FDI and saying that that would only benefit America. What the Innocence of Muslims has to do with FDI in multi-brand retail is unclear but the protesters saw the “American hand” in both. An unnamed TMC leader even told the Indian Express that the stridency of party’s anti-FDI stand was because it feared upsetting its Muslim vote-bank!
While the TMC-backed protesters were railing against FDI in front of the American Center, the Communists were also coming up with their conspiracy theory. Left Front chairman Biman Bose had been fretting that Mamata had hijacked the Left Front’s issues and stolen their thunder. Now he sees an “American conspiracy” behind her anti-American sloganeering.
According to the Ananda Bazar Patrika, he told a gathering of Left-front controlled panchayat representatives that just as Lyndon Johnson told Indira Gandhi to be aggressively anti-American as a way to destroy Communists by out-Lefting them, so had Hillary Clinton and (US Ambassador) Nancy Powell told Mamata in their meeting with her at Writers Building. “That’s how the Left can be destroyed. That’s why Mamata is talking leftist these days,” he said.
The rallies exacted their price in commuter woes but didn’t cause any large scale damage even though police struggled to keep it under control. The Bengali daily Bartaman reports that Additional Commissioner (III) Debasis Roy got into a scuffle with some of the rally organisers at the American Center and got a few blows from a tree branch. “What can we do if such a volatile crowd is allowed to protest in the heart of the city?” a police officer deployed there told The Times of India. The American Center had been warned about the protests and closed early.
Protests about the film have rocked much of the Muslim world for weeks especially since the consulate attacks in Libya on 11 September. But the puzzling question remains – why now? Apparently in this case, Kolkata thinks today, what the rest of the world already thought weeks ago.