There is something “very serious” going on in the state of West Bengal. I am not saying it. These are the Supreme Court’s words. What is even more serious is the conspiracy of silence over it. The “liberals” and “progressives” — the nation’s self-proclaimed narrative-builders and conscience-keepers — remain blissfully unaware, political parties stay silent and the media (at least the local variety of it) adopts the role of Gandhi’s three wise monkeys.
Mamata Banerjee frequently claims that she is “fighting to save democracy”. It is her pet theme in campaign rallies. It is doubtless a noble motive. The West Bengal chief minister brings all Opposition leaders on a stage in Kolkata to ‘save India, save democracy’. She flies to different parts of the country to ‘save democracy’ — though it is not clear from whom and how democracy needs to be “saved”, because we are bang in the middle of yet another celebration of Indian democracy stretching over 43 days to decide the fate of the Union and some state governments.
Nevertheless, the Trinamool Congress chief’s efforts to “save” Indian democracy must be noted and given due credit.
Where we run into slight trouble is when we are forced to confront the realities of the state run by Mamata, the self-anointed "saviour of democracy". Her actions reek not only of intolerance and blatant abuse of power, but also run contrary to every democratic norm that she claims to be the champion of. One may only marvel at the hypocrisy of our letter-happy “liberals” whose passionate loathing of Narendra Modi blinds them to every other reality. Imagine a state forcing theatres to pull out a movie because it is critical of the government. Have you heard even a squeak of token protest from free-speech warriors?
It has taken the Supreme Court to take note of the farce that is going on in the state, not once but on two recent occasions. On Thursday, the apex court criticised the West Bengal Police and fined the Mamata Banerjee government Rs 20 lakh as “compensation” to producers of the Bengali film Bhobishyoter Bhoot —a satirical take on the goings-on in the state. The movie was pulled out of theatres just a day after release ostensibly on instruction of “higher authorities”, forcing its producers to knock on the doors of Supreme Court.
A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta, while delivering the verdict, said, “We have no manner of doubt that this was a clear abuse of public power. The police are entrusted with enforcing law. In the present case, the West Bengal police have overreached their statutory powers and have become instruments in a concerted attempt to silence speech, suborn views critical of prevailing cultures and threaten law-abiding citizens into submission.” The judgment also added that “such attempts are insidious and pose a grave danger to personal liberty and to free speech and expression.”
Kudos to the Supreme Court for keeping its eye on the ball, but how many columns have been written or studio discussions held on this issue? Has Mamata been pressurised by the media? Why did this "story" slip through the cracks?
What has been the reaction of Mamata on this issue? NDTV reports that when the West Bengal chief minister was asked about the film’s “disappearance”, she snapped, “Don’t ask me such questions.”
Perhaps democracy’s rules can be suitably bent to suit political needs, and the TMC government is eager to explore the limits of subversion. The Supreme Court on Friday issued a notice to the Mamata Banerjee government over alleged harassment of customs officials at the Kolkata airport — another development that the captive local media has refused to highlight.
The incident occurred on the intervening night of 15-16 March, when customs officials were allegedly obstructed from carrying out their duty of checking the luggage of Rujira Naroola, the wife of Trinamool Congress MP Abhishek Banerjee, who, along with her female companion, had arrived at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata via a Thai Airways flight.
According to reports, West Bengal Police allegedly intervened after customs officials held Naroola for carrying excess gold without a declaration and “intimidated, harassed and threatened” the customs officials. According to a letter written by Assistant Commissioner of Customs to Inspector-in-Charge of Airport Police Station on 22 March seeking the lodging of an FIR, police officers who entered the airport in different batches threatened to arrest the customs officials and demanded a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) where VIPs were not “checked” and their “safe passage” is assured “without any interception by customs”.
A Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi termed the alleged incident “very very serious” and added, "We do not know whose claims are bona fide.” The apex court refused to consider the submission of senior advocate AM Singhvi that no notice was required to be issued on the petition.
When Singhvi raised objections against the petitioner’s right to file a plea, the apex court observed, “We cannot ignore what is going on in West Bengal. If required, we can ourselves take suo motu cognizance of the events and get to the bottom of the issue”.
But the Mamata government does more. Apart from browbeating filmmakers into submission and trying to allegedly install VIP culture and implement institutional loopholes for the politically well-connected and well-heeled, the ruling TMC doesn’t mind getting its hands dirty in the rough and tumble of electoral politics. As India underwent the first phase of polling on Thursday, in a by and large peaceful first day Bengal’s Cooch Behar remained a sorry exception.
As Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta wrote on Twitter, “There is a clear pattern emerging from the two constituencies in West Bengal. Peaceful polling in booths where paramilitary forces have been deployed and tension and intimidation where state police is the only force. In the latter, non-TMC agents have been driven out and so have voters."
Opposition parties, including the Left, Congress and BJP, sent a delegation to the Election Commission when voting ended on 11 April, demanding repolling in several booths where the state police were in charge. The EC, which decides on the deployment of forces, could station the CRPF only on 700 “critical” booths, leaving around 1,300 in the hands of the state administration in Cooch Behar district, where the prime minister had recently held a rally and the BJP has mounted a strong challenge. There were also reports of West Bengal police patrolling booths in army uniforms.
BJP candidate from Cooch Behar Nishit Pramanik demanded repolling in 500 booths where state police were deployed. It could be argued, however, that Opposition parties have a habit of making exaggerated claims, and one can subject Pramanik’s demand to skepticism. Interestingly, in the run-up to the elections, polling officials from different districts of the state, including Cooch Behar, had demanded liberal deployment of central forces by the Election Commission and had threatened otherwise to boycott the electoral process.
What were they fearing? The violence, bloodshed and rampant rigging during the panchayat elections where the ruling party won uncontested in a number of seats, is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Organising protests in Cooch Behar, Howrah and South Kolkata, a group of polling officials in Cooch Behar said: “If we do not get the assurance of central force deployment, we will not go to the polling booths. We are not protesting on behalf of any party, but for our lives.” They recalled the death of Rajkumar Ray, a poll official whose body was found on a train track near north Bengal’s Raiganj station during last year’s panchayat polls. A video of a poll officer expressing his fears about lack of security on the ground has gone viral.
What kind of violence and intimidation are we talking about? A report in DNA cites a purported audio clip of a TMC block-level leader warning voters in Cooch Behar not to vote for any other party except the TMC, and asking party cadres to ensure 100 percent votes. In the clip, the leader is heard saying that “if someone tries to vote for any other party, they will be identified. This is the party’s direction.” He is also heard telling cadres that central troopers will be present in only 40 out of 100 booths and “from police to BDO, all are under our control.”
Incidentally, just two days before the commencement of elections in first phase, the EC had replaced Cooch Behar SP Abhishek Gupta and installed Amit Kumar Singh, SS, IB, in his place. This move by the EC did not go down well with the TMC which shot off a letter to the Chief Election Commissioner.
Mamata herself was extremely unhappy with the EC’s move to transfer four IPS officers, including the police commissioners of Kolkata and Bidhan Nagar, before the polls and in a letter to the EC called the decision “unfortunate”, “highly arbitrary, motivated and biased” and ostensibly taken at the behest of BJP. Mamata’s letter, according to a PTI report, also carried a veiled threat. “Should there be any deterioration in the law order situation of the state, would the Commission take responsibility?”
The writers, filmmakers, theatre personalities and others who write open letters to the electorate urging them to oust the BJP government to “save democracy” either suffer a malfunction of their moral compass or send their “conscience-keeping” to hibernation in select cases. The issue, however, is not the hypocrisy of these elites, but the way democratic norms are under threat in Bengal, where the courts have to repeatedly step in to uphold and safeguard constitutional rights.
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Updated Date: Apr 13, 2019 21:11:33 IST