KOLKATA, 21 NOV: Chief minister Miss Mamata Banerjee ~ the main architect of regime change ~ and her virtual mentor and guiding spirit, Magsaysay award winner Mahasweta Devi, today spewed venom at each other with the litterateur branding Miss Banerjee as a “fascist” and the latter making it clear she “didn’t like” her fulmination, “though the words she used were mostly prompted by those acting as the front of the Maoists.”
Squirming at Miss Banerjee’s suggestion, Mahasweta Devi said: “I have a sound mind. I know what I am talking about. If others had to prompt me about what I had to say or think, I would not have won a Magsaysay award.” The chief minister responded with some restraint, though the intended banter was unmistakable: “I respect her age. You must have seen how she was being frequently prompted and I didn’t like what she said.”
Virtually dismissing Mahasweta Devi’s plea for halting joint forces’ action against Maoists in Junglemahal, the chief minister hinted that she might even apply the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 9 (UAPA) to nab those sympathising with Maoists. “I have pressure from the Centre in the sense that the laws prescribe action against such sympathisers, but I would act only if they cross the limit,” she said.
The immediate cause of the exchanges was the police refusal to allow the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights to hold a demonstration demanding, among others, release of political prisoners at Metro channel on 23 and 24 November.
The APDR alleged the police had informed it there was already a booking on 25 November and they could organise their programme on 23 and 24. But on 18 November it claimed to have got a letter from police refusing permission. The CM denied any permission being given and said the APDR had misled Mahasweta Devi as police had given it three choices of venue ~ Gandhi statue, Rani Rashmoni Avenue and College Square. “But, they would only settle for Metro channel though it has already been booked by another organisation. The Trinamul hasn’t got the venue even for seven days during the past 200 days and all other outfits, including Opposition parties, used the space.” But Mahasweta Devi trained her guns on Miss Banerjee. “Did we all bring Fascism to the state by voting for the Trinamul Congress which came to power as people protested against the excesses of the CPI-M? Today our own government took away our right to protest. We never thought the government we voted for would turn out to be a Fascist administration. The government’s efforts to gag the voices against it will never be accepted by the people. It’s their right. If people do not get permission to protest at Metro channel, where will they protest ? It is an infringement on the freedom of speech and expression,” she said.
She then remarked: “If she (Mamata Banerjee) has any sensitivity, she should immediately withdraw joint forces from Junglemahal as they are unleashing atrocities on women and children there. If joint forces are deployed in an area, life comes to a standstill with a plug on water, food and other amenities. The Adivasis are bearing the cost of the joint forces. I don’t know what all packages the chief minister has rolled out for Junglemahal dwellers.” The withdrawal of joint forces from Junglemahal was one of the promises on the Trinamul Congress manifesto.
Miss Banerjee said at Writers’ Buildings she had honoured her pledge by suspending joint operations for over four months and the Maoists responded by killing innocent villagers. “Where were those APDR people? Funds were collected for the people of Nandigram during the agitation there. There hasn’t been any accounting for,” she said. Reminded of the support she received from Mahasweta Devi during election, Miss Banerjee replied one may support or oppose her and she has no problems. She, in turn, reminded the veteran social activist of the honours heaped upon her by the new government and how she was being “looked after” during election. She didn’t give a direct answer to a question whether Mr Sujato Bhadra, a member of the APDR, would continue to mediate with Maoists and said the organisation has four factions.
Dr Surjya Kanta Mishra, Leader of the Opposition, said the spat between functionaries of the APDR and Miss Banerjee was an “internal feud”.
A FASCIST TOO MANY
Dangerous to precipitate matters
AS the rift in the establishment’s lute widens, there are two facets of Mahasweta Devi’s barb at Mamata Banerjee. One is the government’s dealings with Maoists and the other the withholding of permission to hold a rally at Kolkata’s Metro channel. Is fascism the common strand that binds the present Chief Minister and her predecessor? For the social activist and Magsaysay award winner had used a similar epithet in the context of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s Panglossian agenda in Singur and Nandigram. Mahasweta Devi has made an explosive statement at a critical juncture ~ when Junglemahal is in ferment once again with killings and reprisals. A responsible administration simply cannot afford to halt joint operations at this stage, whatever the Trinamul Congress manifesto might say. Equally the government must take a call on her charge relating to atrocities on innocents by the joint forces and the disruption in the supply of food, water and other amenities to the Adivasis. Just as the administration needs to go into the Chief Minister’s charge that funds collected by the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights during the Nandigram movement hadn’t yet been audited.
The provocation for the fulmination of a leading well-wisher of the Trinamul Congress was the police refusal to allow APDR to hold a rally at Metro channel on 23 and 24 November even after, as they assert, permission was granted. Clearly, there has been a mix-up over dates caused by an “oversight”, as a senior officer described it. The APDR, led by the failed interlocutor, was offered three alternative sites in central Kolkata, one of which could well have been accepted. But it is the Metro channel that is the most favoured destination of the political class not least because of its disruptive potential. And Mahasweta Devi has perhaps reacted with far greater indignation than she is entitled to with the claim that the “government we voted for is trying to gag the voices against it”. Denial of the Metro channel by the police on the ground that another organisation had booked the area on the same date doesn’t quite amount to “an infringement on the freedom of speech and expression”. Beyond rallies and joint operations, Monday’s spat between Mahasweta Devi and Mamata Banerjee is the outcome of the fiasco over the APDR’s interlocution. Both sides need to hold their verbal fire instead of precipitating matters in Junglemahal. The Maoist must be laughing up his sleeve over the discord between the establishment and its fellow-travellers.
(The Statesman, Edit page, 23 November, 2011)
SIR, ~ Six months or 180 days may be too early to assess the performance of a government which assumed power in the midst of extraordinary popular expectations. Yet a provisional balance-sheet may be in order. First, the three-pronged strategy of isolating Maoists from Junglemahal has begun to pay off. That the Chief Minister enjoys a mass following was evident at the massive rally at Balarampur (Purulia) on 11 November. This was followed by a well-attended padayatra by Shubendu Adhikari in Jhargram. Second, a raft of development schemes have been undertaken in the three affected districts of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia. Third, the joint security forces have been conducting fairly effective raids. Sophisticated arms and ammunition have been seized, some Maoist leaders arrested and at least two of them have surrendered. This suggests that the leadership is in disarray and is desperately seeking an escape-route.
Once again, the Bengali tourist can afford to visit Darjeeling. Till some months ago, the Hills were virtually out of bounds because of the separatist movement spearheaded by the GJMM. The Chief Minister is trying to woo the corporate sector; by the end of August, West Bengal attracted investment worth Rs. 300,169 crore ~ the highest figure in the country. Industrialists have responded favourably to the Chief Minister’s appeals. New policy initiatives are on the anvil in the educational sector.
It was essential to empower the bureaucracy in terms of rural governance. This will help restore the balance of power between the people’s representatives and officials in the interests of rural development. Critics of the government order, dated 9 November, ought to realise that the rural populace has little or no faith in the panchayats. These quangos are run by the rural elite with close links with the party in power.
Mamata Banerjee’s visit to Bhowanipore police station was an aberration, which hopefully will not be repeated. The flip side of her administration must also include the surfeit of committees. Most of them can be said to be non-starters. The ones on education have been hobbled by resignations. A section within the Congress is trying to scuttle the development initiatives. Is there a conspiracy afoot?
Yours, etc., Debaki Nandan Mandal, Kolkata, 21 November.