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23 May 2017

Bruises, toil, tears and sweat on streets - Muggy Calcutta looks like Kashmir as Left cadres take on cops in show of muscle

A television cameraman being beaten up by a policeman in the
presence of CPM veteran Biman Bose. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
TT, Calcutta, May 22: Central Calcutta was hostage for three hours this afternoon to Kashmir-like scenes of stone-throwing, teargas shelling and baton charges while thousands of commuters stranded in sweltering heat wondered what was going on.
The fight was not over stakes as high as azadi (independence) or the country's integrity, though. It was all about a beleaguered Left Front, led by 70-plus leaders, desperately asserting its presence in Bengal's political space - and a loyal police showing their political masters they had yielded not an inch to the Opposition.
End result of the foiled march to Nabanna: dozens of bruised people on the streets, sweat-soaked passengers in buses, and a handful of injured journalists caught in the crossfire.
"The political temperature is rising in the state: we'll have more such street fights," a senior police officer said.
Sage words. As civic workers began clearing the roads of the remains of the battle, state BJP leaders promised similar machismo during their scheduled march to the Lalbazar police headquarters on Thursday.
"If the police try to do to us what they did today, we won't take it lying down," Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh thundered, indicating competitive muscle-flexing was on the horizon after the Left's display of "valour".
"When brawn becomes more important for the people to choose their political affiliations, such shows of strength by political parties are expected," said a political scientist who did not want to be named.
"With Trinamul establishing its hegemony, the anti-Trinamul people are looking for an alternative that can protect them and take the ruling party on. So the Opposition parties will be trying to outdo each other (in proving their virility)."
Several thousand Left supporters had reached central Calcutta today with the promise of a "peaceful protest" but ended up clashing repeatedly with the 2,000-odd cops deployed.
Sixty-nine police personnel and over 1,000 Left supporters (according to the CPM) suffered injuries during the protest, organised by 11 Left peasant bodies with 18 grievances from farm distress to rising joblessness.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee was in Birbhum for an administrative review meeting but the Left carried on with its programme, which began around 1pm.
Left leaders including CPM state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra had earlier promised not to back down if the administration resisted the march. Their cadres proved it on the streets.
By day's end, each side was accusing the other of having launched the first assault, whose opening scene was witnessed around 1.30pm on Dufferin Road.
As the skirmishes stretched over the next three hours, battlegrounds opened up in Mayo Road and Hastings in Calcutta and Foreshore Road and Santragachhi in Howrah, where several other strands of the march approached Nabanna from various directions.
"This was an unprovoked fascist attack by the police on a peaceful demonstration under chief minister Mamata Banerjee's instructions to trample democracy," Mishra said, announcing a condemnation rally at 5pm tomorrow from the Lenin statue in Esplanade to the Entally market.
Additional commissioner (headquarters) Supratim Sarkar, however, said the agitators had started throwing chilli powder, sand, bricks and festoons without any provocation, prompting the police to cane them at some places and fire teargas at others.
Calcutta police arrested 182 agitators, including 45 women CPM supporters but had released all but 15 by tonight.
"Three cases will be started, two at Hastings police station and one at Maidan police station," Sarkar said.
The police allegedly beat up several journalists, some of whom needed hospital treatment.
Additional commissioner (I) Vineet Goyal, who led the force on the ground, promised punishment if any cop was found to have behaved like "a rogue" on duty. Till late evening, however, there was no word whether any attempt was being made to identify the "rogues".
The Calcutta Press Club issued a statement condemning the attack on the media and demanded an inquiry. A group of journalists will hold a condemnation march from 4.30pm tomorrow between Rabindra Sadan and Kalighat.
Additional commissioner Sarkar condemned the attack on journalists and promised a probe. Sarkar had initially counted only three injured journalists but later admitted receiving footage that suggested the number was higher.
Sources said Lalbazar had received specific complaints of excesses and abusive language against several officers, including an additional deputy commissioner and an assistant commissioner.
The only members of the Left to actually reach Nabanna were a group of MLAs led by Sujan Chakraborty. Nearly an hour before the march started, these 20-odd MLAs shouted slogans outside the state secretariat and courted arrest. They spent the rest of the day at Shibpur police station.
Trinamul secretary-general Partha Chatterjee described the day's events as "drama".
"It was a shameful attempt by the Left to disrupt life and break down law and order to try and grab headlines, while the people keep rejecting them again and again in elections," Chatterjee said.

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