The new rule in Mamata-land is what Bengalis call speak-ti-not or don’t utter a word. Anything you say, can and will be held against you.
In May, Taniya Bhardwaj, a Presidency College student, found herself labeled a Maoist for daring to ask Mamata Banerjee about the conduct of state officials over crimes against women. At that time the CM had merely stormed off the stage.
Shiladitya Chowdhury, a poor farmer in one of the poorest areas of the state, was not so lucky. For daring to interrupt Mamata’s speech with questions about the rise in fertilizer prices, Chowdhury was called a Maoist and thrown into jail, booked on non-bailable charges including criminal intimidation.
Today’s newspaper describes Chowdhury’s family as having been Trinamool supporters for over a decade. “My brother was unhappy with the new government’s performance in the past 13 months,” his brother told The Telegraph. “So he had asked the chief minister some questions at the Belpahari rally. But we never thought he would have to pay such a high price for this.”
If unhappiness with the government’s performance becomes a non-bailable offence in West Bengal, the government is going to run out of jail space. Chowdhury just vocalised what a lot of people grouse about in West Bengal’s tea shops.
Shiladitya Chowdhury’s fate has provoked less furore yet than the great cartoon conspiracy or the Park Street rape case or even the Taniya-the-Maoist debacle. Those sucked up the media oxygen and sparked great middle class outrage for days. But the poor farmer’s plight is far more terrifying than all of those three cases combined.
Taniya Bhardwaj didn’t really have to face much more than Mamata’s tongue lashing for having the temerity to question her administration’s record. One could say Mamata was thin-skinned.
The Park Street rape case just saw the chief minister needlessly wading into a criminal investigation that didn’t involve her and giving it political colours. One could say she was misinformed.
In the cartoon case she didn’t give the orders for the professor’s arrest for forwarding that cartoon around. But she fanned the flames by supporting his arrest. One could say she was humourless.
But all of those were just little storms in middle-class tea cups. This is far more ominous for all of us.
The fate of Shiladitya Chowdhury shows that the chief minister means business when she says she brooks no opposition. And the woman, who has risen to power as the saviour of the underprivileged and oppressed and poor, will not hesitate to make an example out of anyone who she thinks is raining on her parade, even when he comes from her most loyal base – the poorest of the poor. The fact that she went after him in full view of the media, at a public rally, shows she doesn’t care what anyone thinks or is supremely confident that no one cares about a farmer in Midnapore.
When Chowdhury first heckled the chief minister, security forces took him away. Mamata told the crowd that she knew there were Maoist infiltrators and see, how she had caught one “crooked man haatey-naatey” (red-handed). The man was questioned and released because the police couldn’t find any Maoist links to the poor bus conductor turned farmer. On Friday evening he was arrested and the “wicked man” was charged with breaking into a high-security zone with mala fide intentions. The man who the police said had eluded them and “fled” from the meeting ground was found hiding in plain sight – tilling his own patch of land. The infamous dushtu lok vanish (wicked person, vanish) cartoon had become ominously real in Belpahari.
Chowdhury’s great sin was he brought up an issue that the CPI(M) has been using to try and hammer on Mamata’s friend-of-the-poor image before the panchayat polls. He did it in Belpahari, a region so poor no chief minister had visited it since 1972. This was supposed to showcase Mamata in her best Lady Bountiful avatar showering peace and development in areas racked by poverty. Chowdhury ruined that made-for-television moment. And when he started shouting at her that the high prices made it hard for marginal farmers like him to continue, many other voices joined him and almost drowned out the CM’s voice. That is unpardonable in the world according to Mamata.
Press Council of India chairman Markandey Katju who had once given Didi a good character certificate has changed his mind and called her “totally dictatorial, intolerant and whimsical.” It’s time the rest of civil society joined him resoundingly.
The question is not whether Chowdhury is a Trinamool supporter or was a CPM man or even a Maoist sympathiser. Do one’s political colours mean one cannot ask a question about fertilizer prices? The basic tenet of democracy, the right to question the government, is now the chief minister’s plaything and she has a police force that is apparently happy to let her get away with treating it as such.
Mamata likes to harangue her bureaucrats on stage, wag her finger at industrialists in public, and hector hospital chiefs in front of television cameras. She obviously wants a state where everyone is held to account except herself. She considers herself beyond accountability, above apology, and always right.
Her critics had long regarded her many gaffes as signs of political immaturity, the opposition leader who has not gotten used to being the government and is in too much of a hurry. Many even call her a little mad, too whimsical for her own good. But our “mad Didi” is almost a term of affection as if she does not know what she is doing.
In Midnapore she showed herself in a much more chilling incarnation. We dismiss it as just another madness of Queen Mamata at our own peril. Or do we not care enough just because Shiladitya Chowdhury is not a ‘person like us’?