As a probashi Bangali, I have been watching West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on television. It’s unavoidable. The lady’s been ceaselessly in the news— latterly because of the decision to withdraw the support of her Trinamool Congress party from the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre.
Most of the coverage has been unflattering. She got a university professor in Kolkata arrested in April for circulating by email a cartoon that supposedly poked fun at her. She followed this in May by hurling the epithet “Maoist” at a young college student and walked out of a TV appearance at Kolkata’s Town Hall. The student had asked her about the status of women in the Trinamool-ruled state. In August, a farmer in Belpahari village in West Midnapore district was arrested after asking the chief minister what she had done for the poor. She also suggested that a particularly high-profile rape case was part of a conspiracy to malign her.
This struck many as ironic—especially journalists of my vintage who were covering Writers’ Buildings, the seat of the West Bengal government, back in 1993, at a time when Jyoti Basu reigned as chief minister of the Marxist bastion. Since then, Mamata Banerjee, the street-fighting politician whose heart bled for the poor, seems to have become Mamata Banerjee, arrogant, irascible, unpredictable and intolerant of criticism, although the lady herself will likely claim that her heart still bleeds for the poor.
The other Banerjee
In 1993, business papers were still white (and not pink like most of them are today). I had just joined the news bureau of one in Kolkata (then Calcutta) after a year in the features section, and was a newbie in the press pen at Writers’ Buildings. Biman Banerjee, my senior colleague, was mentoring me through the process of becoming a news reporter.
This particular incident took place on 7 January that year, a cold and windy day. The city was calm after the communal riots that had broken out in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya a month before. The press enclosure was on the first floor and strategically located. Through its glass walls, reporters could see who was visiting the ministers’ rooms.
Banerjee, then 38, was a junior minister of sports and youth affairs in the P.V. Narasimha Rao central government, besides being a Youth Congress leader. She was on dharna that day at Writers’ Buildings, specifically in front of the door to chief minister Jyoti Basu’s chamber. She had her arm around a thin, dark, waif of a girl barely out of her teens. Dipali Basak was a deaf and mute girl from Phulia in Nadia district, raped by a local Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) hoodlum. When parties talk about being cadre-based, what they mean is that they can mobilize people on the ground. Low-level muscle is an integral part of such systems and a local strongman is an important cog in the party machine—and the CPM was in clear ascendance in West Bengal at the time. (It’s another story that the “street cadre” are said to have smoothly switched allegiance to the new masters in the state.)
There was no way, therefore, that the state government would give in to Banerjee on such an issue. That didn’t stop her from squatting at Basu’s door in her white cotton saree and hawai chappals (still her preferred attire) with the girl, demanding the arrest of the man accused of rape.
The local police had apparently refused to file a first information report (FIR). I don’t remember whether she had an appointment with Basu, who wasn’t in his office; but from the press enclosure I saw her sitting there for hours. Jaikrishna Bose, Basu’s all-powerful executive assistant, asked her several times to leave.
I also saw then state home secretary Manish Gupta entering then chief secretary N. Krishnamurthy’s room often. His helplessness at being unable to resolve the tricky situation was evident.
If I remember correctly, Basu’s room had two doors and Banerjee had blocked the front. Basu could have entered through the rear door but he wasn’t really the kind of man who would do that. By 4pm, a posse of women police had trooped in to Writers’ Buildings and encircled Banerjee and Basak. She was told she would have to leave as the chief minister had no time to see her. Banerjee refused. I also saw Gautam Mohan Chakrabarty, a deputy commissioner in the detective department, in the corridor.
At 4.30pm, the tense stand-off erupted in a brief burst of violence. Banerjee had to be removed as Basu was about to arrive. And, as she wasn’t going voluntarily, she would have to be forcibly removed.
It wasn’t a pretty sight. Her hair was yanked, several blows were landed on both Banerjee and the girl. They were carried along the corridor and rushed down the stairs to the ground floor before being dumped into a waiting police van and whisked away to the Lalbazar headquarters of the Kolkata Police.
All through the incident, Banerjee kept screaming, perhaps in pain but also demanding justice for the girl, at the top of her voice, and hurling abuse at the Left Front government for refusing to arrest the rapist.
The police stopped reporters from following her down the stairs. There was a lathi charge and quite a few cameras were smashed. We watched from the balcony as the van carrying her sped away from Writers’ Buildings.
At the time, Basu was in charge of the home ministry, while Ashim Dasgupta was running finance and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who later became chief minister, was in charge of information and cultural affairs. Bhattacharya ordered the immediate dismantling of the press enclosure. We boycotted the state secretariat for the next three days. Bhattacharya relocated the press room elsewhere on the first floor, putting an end to our vantage point. Reporters could no longer keep a close eye on what was happening in the state secretariat.
I don’t remember whether there was a bandh call given by Banerjee the next day but roads were blocked, trains stalled, state buses were damaged and police fired and lobbed teargas cells to disperse mobs at various places in Kolkata.
Six months later, on 21 July, there was a Bengal bandh. Banerjee led a huge contingent of Youth Congress activists, demanding that electoral photo identity cards be made mandatory for voting. This was to prevent alleged bogus voting by the CPM cadre. At least 13 people were killed in police firing that day. Banerjee herself was stopped in front of the Tea Board building on Brabourne Road, about 100 metres from Writers’ Buildings.
The plan had been for Youth Congress activists to approach Writers’ Buildings from several directions, led by Banerjee and other leaders of the Congress party such as Saugata Roy and Madan Mitra, to lay siege to the state secretariat. I saw police firing near the Esplanade metro station—the road was littered with empty shells and corpses and the smell of cordite hung in the air.
Tushar Talukdar was Kolkata police commissioner and Abani Mohan Joardar was deputy commissioner of police at the time. Incidentally, both Gupta, the former chief secretary, and Joardar, contested state elections as Trinamool candidates in the 2011 state elections and both won—Gupta by defeating former chief minister Bhattacharya.
In September 1993, a local English paper carried a page one story on Basak delivering a baby girl at an ashram near Dhapa, off Kolkata’s Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. Banerjee wasn’t mentioned.
Basak died in March 2009 after being bitten by a snake near her home. Her mother, Felani, still lives in Phulia in Nadia. Basak’s daughter has grown up at the ashram. Basak couldn’t vote for poriborton; her mother did. Her daughter, too, probably cast her vote.
I don’t know whether Banerjee ever met Basak or her daughter after that day, when the girl cowered under the scant cover of her champion’s white saree.