As Ghulam Ali started Dil Mein Ek Lehar Si Uthi Hai Abhi in his revered baritone in a Kolkata auditorium, somewhere in a little town in Bengal's border district, the administration was busy wiping off evidence of violence that threatens to scar Trinamool Congress' bid to win a second consecutive term in Assembly elections.
No one, though, can accuse Mamata Banerjee of not trying.
So when the Ustad, after vowing not to visit India again till 'the time is right', responded to her call and landed in Kolkata on Swami Vivekananda's 153rd birth anniversary, the West Bengal chief minister sought to deliver a triple whammy.
Before a packed Netaji Indoor Stadium on Tuesday night, a beaming Mamata took a dig at those opposed to the Pakistani ghazal maestro's India visit and announced Bengal as the seat of secularism in India.
“This is the land of Rabindranath Tagore, Paramhansa Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das. Ghulam Aliji, you are always welcome here and will have to come again and again,” she said in Urdu.
“Swami Vivekananda preached tolerance and today is his birthday. The world is one and we cannot live without tolerance,” she said, even reciting a Urdu couplet to driver home her point.
By harping on 'tolerance' in the backdrop of a huge cut-out of Swami Vivekananda, Mamata attempted to send three messages.
One, by choosing Swamiji's birth anniversary as the date for the Ustad's ghazal performance, Mamata attempted to send out a message to the RSS, who has never hidden its admiration for the ascetic, philosopher and reformer who is credited with Hindu spiritual reawakening in the late 19th and early 20th century.
This was Mamata's way of saying to the RSS, "lay your hands off Swamiji and don't try to appropriate his legacy".
Two, in the curious machinations of how a government functions, the ghazal function was ostensibly organised by three departments — youth affairs, information and culture, and department of minority affairs and madrasah education. The latter, however, was at the forefront, micro-managing the event and even handing out the invitation cards. The message, once again, of the chief minister reaching out to a certain community before the Assembly polls was not to be missed.
Three, by inviting Ghulam Ali, whose concert in Mumbai was cancelled in November last year when Shiv Sena threatened to disrupt it — and making him perform before a packed auditorium — the Bengal CM was trying to score an obvious political point rather than showcasing her appreciation of art and music.
As Ghulam Ali compared Mamata to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of wisdom and music, and started with "Nafraton ke teer khakar, doston ke sahar mein…" before belting out numerous popular numbers, Mamata — who has never shied away from revealing her national ambitions — put clear daylight between herself and other claimants to India's "secular throne", including the likes of Arvind Kejriwal and Nitish Kumar.
However, well might the chief minister invoke Tagore, Bose or Vivekananda to bolster her claims of being a secular leader, it is doubtful whether the stalwarts — had they been around — would have approved of the way her administration has sought to handle the now infamous Kaliachak incident in Malda.
Whether or not the violence was stoked by communal fire or a mafia backlash against police action on illegal poppy cultivation, organising a ghazal jamboree does not absolve the chief minister of massive failure in maintaining law and order in a volatile area, more so when her administration had clear inkling that trouble may brew on 3 January when Anjuman Ahle Sunnatul Jamaat had called for a massive protest march against a Hindu Mahasabha leader’s offensive comments on Prophet Muhammad.
Given Kaliachak's volatility, the fact that the rally had communal undertones and was held with prior permission from the police, questions are bound to be raised why there was so few police presence that the cops on duty had to literally flee for their lives when the mob attacked the police station and reportedly torched incriminating documents.
Amid reports that the goons had also burnt down several vehicles, shot at an RSS activist and then set alight a few houses and shops in Baliadanga, a locality where mostly Hindus live, the state government, ironically, is guilty of abdicating its responsibilities towards the minorities — in this case the Hindus who form only around 10 percent of the population in Kaliachak block.
What followed the Kaliachak violence was equally curious. According to a report in The Indian Express, the police station, which was ransacked on 3 January, has been renovated at the speed of lightning.
None of the damaged vehicles could be seen within its compound, broken doors and windows have been replaced with new ones.
The damaged building has been repaired and given a fresh coat of paint. The trees, which were burnt, have been chopped off. Bright lights have also been put up and the road in front of the police station, which was earlier used as a thoroughfare, has been shut.
While the state government continues to maintain "everything is normal in Malda", it has repeatedly blocked all rival parties from visiting the area, be it the BJP's fact-finding team, the CPM delegation led by Md Salim or state Congress chief Adhir Chowdhury.
Malda may not alter the course of Bengal politics in the upcoming Assembly polls which the TMC is widely expected to win, but the way Mamata Banerjee has tried to first deflect the blame on BSF and then later tried to audaciously brush everything under the carpet hoping that things would die down on its own, puts in sharp doubt the secular credentials which she sought to forcefully portray on Tuesday night during Ghulam Ali concert.