Kolkata Book Fair, the world’s largest in terms of footfall, witnessed a double-faced role of the Mamata Banerjee government on Saturday evening as police roughed up anti-CAA/NRC student activists, both boys and girls, before arresting them in batches.
Even 73-year-old Asit Baran Roy was not spared when he joined human rights group Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) members to demand an audience with the arrested youth. A policeman grabbed his throat and almost chocked him. Dipak Byapari, a youth was taken to hospital as he received head injury. Kith Roddur, a girl was not able to walk to the police ambulance after receiving blows and kicks from uniformed men and women. She was reportedly admitted in a city hospital later.
Raja Biswas, a media worker and cultural activist who had recently undergone a heart surgery, told this correspondent that he met the similar treatment inside the police control room at the fair ground. His crime was that he had tried to save a girl from being dragged away. His glasses were broken as he tried to shield his face from the police blows. Srijan Dutta, a student from Jadavpur University who was informing his friends about the arrests over phone was whisked away.
Afroza Khatun, a women’s right worker, was at her wit’s end when the police refused to inform about her daughter Utsa even three hours after her arrest. Photojournalists were barred from taking snaps of the police vehicles that took away the activists to different police stations. This correspondent saw a woman photographer protesting against policemen for allegedly outraging her modesty. Released after midnight, the activists complained that police had forcibly erased the videos of the police offensive from their cell-phones.
The trouble had begun with scuffles between BJP-VHP supporters who were stationed in numbers at Sangh Parivar book stalls and non-Trinamool anti-CAA/NRC students. Ironically, the Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo had described the latter as the people ‘on the same side’ during the dissent marches against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Kolkata in January. According to Rongoli Chatterjee, a member of Jatiyo Bangla Sanmelan who had filed a FIR with the Bidhannagar police against the VHP men, she and her friends were attacked by the saffron supporters while distributing anti-CAA/NRC leaflets in the book stalls and around.
As the activists were outnumbered, their fellow-travelers from the Little Magazine Pavilion rushed to their support and a scuffle ensued with the Sangh men. Police intervened to disperse both sides but the clash took a different turn when the law enforcers arrested two anti-BJP activists but spared the saffron men. As the detained activists were taken to the police control room, their friends staged a demonstration there demanding their release. The police declined, citing rules and asked protesters to disperse first which they refused. The standoff led to further police charges and arrests.
Neither any senior police official nor any top gun of the Publishers and Booksellers Guild, which organises the annual book fair with government support, were found eager to diffuse the tension. Instead, the situation was allowed to take an ugly turn that led to shouting matches between the two sides including mutual abuses and later to police crackdown. Some policemen even challenged the agitated activists including girls by daring them to test their masculinity. “We are not Eunuchs,” one of them said, triggering protests from elderly rights activist Swapna who pointed to the fact that eunuchs too have rights to be among the ranks of both sides.
Some Congress workers later demonstrated against the BJP on CAA-NRC at the fair.
Police officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, revealed that they were ordered by the high-ups to be ‘tough with the Naxalite trouble-makers who had been targeting BJP-VHP bookstalls for their protest campaigns inside the fair’. “We have allowed them to organise the march inside the fair. But they are making law and order troubles for the state government despite being on the same side on the CAA-NRC. But the Chief Minister does not want the BJP to score a brownie point over the book fair violence. Besides, we cannot afford a snowball effect considering the huge footfalls in the last two days of the Book fair,” one of them said.
However, the activists had a different view of the ‘larger political game plan’ of Mamata Banerjee. “The Chief Minister has been systematically refusing any space to non-TMC secular parties on citizenship issues in order to ensure her electoral hegemony in the 2021 Assembly polls. She does not even spare the civil society groups including the rights groups and student bodies despite the fact they are at the forefront of the citizens’ movements across the country. She has postponed the NPR exercise only after the citizens’ bodies made its organic link to the NRC clear and put pressure on her to shun her earlier support. Still, we have every reason to question the sincerity of her opposition to the Modi-Shah regime on the CAA-NRC issue,” Ranjit Sur, an APDR secretariat member, said.
According to the APDR members who had met the Guild officials demanding their intervention, the latter claimed to be unaware of the arrests and wanted police to be lenient. But the fair public address system continued blaring cautions against all protest marches and meetings inside. The prohibition on politics in the popular book fair has been a highly contested issue since its inception in 1976. The successive Left Front governments tightened its control over the fair as it grew in size and prestige. The CPI(M) particularly used the pliant Guild bosses in its effort to gag all anti-government dissenters including the supporters of Mamata Banerjee in her opposition avatar. History seemed to have come to a full circle today when her police came down heavily on anti-BJP radical left agitators, some of whom had sided with her during the Singur and Nandigram land movements and counted on her promise to change the ‘political culture of ruling party hegemony in all spheres of public life’. Meanwhile, giant screens across the fair relentlessly projected Didi’s fulminations against Modi-Shah regime’s intolerance and violations of pluralistic constitutional spirit and letter.
The Kolkata International Book Fair draws a footfall of over 2.5 million every year.