Physical violence made Mamata Banerjee a more resolute politician, Left Front learnt it the hard way
Calcutta is out of breath by the time August reaches her. The weather is muggy, the air moist and the tree leaves dare not move. Everything comes to a standstill as the earth coaxes the clouds to bestow rain as temporary relief from the clammy weather. On 16 August 1990, there was no rain. But there was an unmistakeable heaviness in the air, a dark foreboding of some impending occurrence.
Without paying much attention to the oppressive clime, Saugata Roy made his way to the Congress party office on Harish Mukherjee Road. Around the same time, Mamata too left her Kalighat residence. Her mother, Gayatri Devi, had implored her the night before to stay home. ‘You will not leave the house tomorrow . . . they will kill you otherwise,’ she had tried to reason with her daughter.Mamata Banerjee, My Unforgettable Memories (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2012), p. 75. It was not just a mother’s premonition. Only a few days earlier, Mamata had been urgently beckoned to the capital by Rajiv Gandhi. The senior-most leader of the party had expressed his concern over plausible death threats to Mamata. ‘I heard they are planning to kill you? Tell me, how can I help?’ Rajiv asked Mamata during their meeting in Delhi on 13 August. ‘Rajivji . . . I am overwhelmed. All I want is your blessing,’ Mamata replied.Mamata Banerjee, My Unforgettable Memories (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2012), p. 74. She had always shared a warm relationship with Rajiv Gandhi. His genuine concern touched her. She had to return to Calcutta the very same night; her party needed her in time for the bandh that had been called on 16 August to protest against the deaths of party workers—Raghunandan Tiwari, Manash Banerjee and Bimala Dey—in police firing.
Gayatri Devi instinctively knew that her daughter’s life was in danger. The fact that Mamata had recently alerted the media that her life was under threat from the ruling party and state administration was of no comfort.
Even though Mamata had spoken openly about the threat, Gayatri Devi did not for a moment believe that it would deter potential assailants. She wanted her daughter to stay close to her that day. But as much as Mamata revered her mother’s every word, she had things to get done, and avoiding confrontation was not her style. The Congress rally needed its firebrand leader. Therefore, sitting at home too was not an option. ‘I will only go sit in our party office,’ Mamata lied to her mother. Without waiting to bid her mother the customary farewell, Mamata left home.
Accompanied by a couple of party workers, Mamata reached Hazra, 1.5 kilometres from her residence. She was to lead the rally but sensed that there was some kind of subterfuge at play. The other Congress leaders were either yet to reach the venue or were taking shelter having already heard about an impending CPI(M) attack. But none had a foreboding about the utter ghastliness of the attack. A few moments before it, the entire area, according to Mamata, had been ‘sanitized’. A few yellow taxis carrying CPI(M) workers filled the area and there was no police in sight.TMC MP Saugata Roy in an interview to the author on 6 July 2017.
Mamata saw her assailant, Lalu Alam,It is well-documented that on 16 August 1990, Lalu Alam, the prime accused CPI(M) youth wing leader, hit Mamata’s head with a stick during a rally at Hazra Crossing in Kolkata, the impact of which fractured her skull. charging towards her with a rod. Surprisingly he was wearing a police helmet. At a time when the press was not as nimble on its feet and there was not even a seed of social media, black-and-white pictures of the attack remain the only archival evidence. It can be seen from the pictures that the Congress workers were trying to protect Mamata who seemed to be in no hurry to scurry from the scene; her body language clearly showed that she was not fleeing from the site, but moving forward even as she saw her assailants charging towards her. Lalu Alam’s first blow on the head soaked Mamata in her own blood; even as the warmth of the blood trickled down her head, she felt no pain. What went through her mind will remain a mystery, but in her memoirs she says that ‘she did not lose her cool’. The body, likely under shock and filled with adrenaline, had yet to respond to the excruciating pain. The general reflex and alertness of the brain is heightened when it is under attack. The second blow almost damaged her brain, but she did nothing to protect herself. Only when she saw that there was a third blow in the offing, one that could prove to be fatal, did she cover her head with her hands. She then fainted.
Saugata was the MLA of Alipore at the time. In the morning, when he had come out of his house, the police had obstructed his way. He was at the Congress’s Harish Mukherjee Road office when he got word that Mamata had been hit on the head by CPI(M) goons. He rushed to P.G. Hospital (currently known as S.S.K.M. Hospital) and was one of the first people to reach Mamata’s side. ‘I found out that Mamata was in the emergency room. She was conscious but bleeding,’ Saugata recounted.TMC MP Saugata Roy in an interview to the author on 6 July 2017. When he went in to meet her, he did not meet a frail, injured woman; she had a firmness in her voice and a determination in her eyes that was unexpected. He still remembers her words: ‘I will show them [CPI(M)].’ And show them she did.
‘She had to be hospitalized for a long time. The treatment did not go well at P.G. Hospital and so she was shifted to Woodlands Hospital. Everybody felt that Mamata’s life was in danger,’ said Saugata. She was hit right in the centre of the head and her recovery could not be taken lightly. Rajiv Gandhi was most concerned about Mamata. He even offered to send her to the US for treatment but Mamata preferred to stay back. It was on his insistence that she was shifted out of P.G. Hospital; he also bore the cost of her treatment. While in hospital, Mamata heard that she had been made the president of the West Bengal Youth Congress. Rajiv Gandhi had bypassed inner party politics and firmed up Mamata’s appointment, though his decision did not go down well with some of the leaders. Even the West Bengal Youth Congress committee was ratified by him without consulting others who were keen to put a spanner in the works.
Rajiv Gandhi is one of the few leaders that Mamata speaks of with adoration and respect. He was almost a mentor, a father figure, to her. Mamata could be brash, but she had that rare courage that true leaders were made of. He had seen glimpses of her true potential early on and whenever he could, would encourage her like an indulgent parent, sometimes going against his own party members.
Notwithstanding the encouragement and help from a clutch of politicians, Mamata’s political journey remains mostly her own. She does not belong to a political family though her father did his bit in politics. Mamata did not have a godfather in politics, nor did she have a dynasty to aid her. But her biggest challenge was making her way not only in a man’s world but in a profession that has seen few women leaders. Establishing oneself in politics and then climbing up the ladder of success has always been tough for women politicians in India.
She did not have to be like male politicians—she had to be better, she had to be more fearless. Mamata fears only god and her temperamental behaviour has often proved just that. Some of her actions have been perceived as extremely rash—for example, when she threw her black shawl in 1997 at the then railway minister, Ram Vilas Paswan, for an anti-Bengal railway budget or dragged Samajwadi Party MP Daroga Prasad Saroj by the scruff of his collar out of the Lok Sabha well in 1998 when his party opposed the Women’s Reservation Bill.
In 1998, anticipating the tabling of the Women’s Reservation Bill, women MPs cutting across party lines had gathered at one end of the well of the House. The incident took place when Speaker Ganti Mohana Chandra Balayogi entered the House and Daroga Prasad Saroj tried to make his way to the podium. Even though there were other women members present, only Mamata had the gumption to pull him away. She alleged that the Samajwadi Party MP had kicked her while he countered by alleging that Mamata punched him. ‘I had no intention of assaulting and abusing the SP member and only wanted to prevent him from going towards the Speaker’s podium against the women’s reservation bill. I was kicked,’ she said.UNI, ‘Mamata, SP Member Exchange Blows, Lok Sabha Adjourned’, 11 December 1998.
In 2005, she threw a sheaf of papers at the then Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Charanjit Singh Atwal, when Somnath Chatterjee was Speaker, proving that suppressing her was out of the question. After throwing the papers, she rushed back to her seat, sobbing, upset that she had not been allowed to raise the issue of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Samajwadi Party member and actor Jaya Prada rushed to console her. Mamata then sent in her resignation from the Lower House to the Deputy Speaker, but it was not accepted.
Her actions may not always be well-thought-out, but the belief in her actions is unbreakable. ‘She is an emotional person,’ a senior TMC leader told me.A senior TMC leader in an off-the-record interview to the author. ‘Her politics is from the heart, not always from the mind.’ Fear the person who has nothing to lose—the CPI(M) learnt how true this adage would prove to be. And that is exactly why Mamata armed herself with bravado, treading places even men feared.
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In April 1991, the Left Front swept the West Bengal state elections with 244 seats; the Congress could muster only forty-seven. The Opposition cried foul and accused the Left of rigging the polls. Allegations of booth-capturing, fake votes and forcing people to vote for the CPI(M) were thrown around. Two years later, the issue became the cause of one of the bloodiest incidents in Bengal’s history.
On 21 July 1993, Mamata, as the state president of Indian Youth Congress, gave the call ‘Writers Chalo’. All the roads leading up to the then state secretariat were blocked. The Congress demanded that voter identity cards be made mandatory and be the only accepted document while exercising one’s franchise in order to prevent rigging during elections. ‘No ID card, no vote,’ Mamata declared. Saugata Roy was leading the protest on Brabourne Road when the police resorted to heavy lathi charge and broke up the rally.
Mamata was on the nearby Mayo Road when she heard about the lathi charge. She rushed to Brabourne Road to assemble the crowd once again. A policeman, on seeing Mamata, lifted his rifle and pointed it straight at her. ‘Mamata simply stood in front of him, looked him in the eye and said, “Guli chalao (Shoot me),”’ recounted Saugata.TMC MP Saugata Roy in an interview to the author on 6 July
2017. The policeman, who was as shocked as Mamata’s party colleagues, backed off.
‘Tired, we went and sat at a traffic junction. The police came back armed with lathis and beat us once again. Mamata got hurt that day and so did I,’ reminisced Saugata. Soon after, news came in that there had been police firing on Mayo Road. The police had tried to disperse the crowd by using tear gas, but as the activists kept inching towards Writers’ Building, they opened fire, the unarmed supporters almost sitting ducks. Hearing this, Mamata, who was herself injured, decided to go to Mayo Road where the massacre was under way.
They spotted a black Ambassador car belonging to the press. Saugata, Mamata, a Congress worker and the current deputy mayor of Howrah, Minati Adhikari, and two people belonging to the press got into the car. A policeman dressed in civil clothes with a helmet also got in and sat in the front. The car made its way to Mayo Road with a badly injured Mamata lying in the back seat. There was complete pandemonium on Mayo Road. Congress supporters were running helter-skelter and police atrocity was still under way.
A huge stone was hurled at the car smashing the windshield into smithereens. Minati, who was sitting in front, got hurt and broke her head. There was tension and nervous excitement among party workers as things finally began to settle down. The injured were taken to the hospital but many had died, the exact number unknown. When Mamata was brought to P.G. Hospital, she was unconscious. When she regained consciousness, she refused to get admitted there, fearing a death threat, and was shifted to Woodlands Hospital. They later learnt that thirteen people had been killed and several injured. Apparently, the decision to fire had come from a junior official; the city police commissioner at that time, Tushar Talukdar, was completely unaware of the happenings in the city. The cops had blatantly violated the rules by firing on the torso instead of the legs, thereby killing the protesters. They had fired seventy-five rounds of bullets from revolvers, rifles and muskets, besides resorting to lathi charge and tear gas.
The Union home minister at the time, S.B. Chavan, rushed to Calcutta and advised the then chief minister, Jyoti Basu, to order a probe into the police firing. Basu remained adamant and refused to investigate the incident. He even supported the police brutality by saying that the police ‘had done a good job’ in preventing the attempted blockade of Writers’ Building by a violent mob.
The 1993 Kolkata firing proved to be yet another watershed moment in Mamata’s political journey. Mamata, the street fighter and perennial antagonist to the Left, now had the people’s sympathy too. ‘It is the day when we remember and offer our respect (sic) to the hundreds of people who are fighting death every day, whose lives are a living death, who have lost life and limb in this struggle. For us, it is a day of sorrow and shame,’ she wrote in her memoirs. Since then the Congress and later the TMC commemorate 21 July as Shahid Divas (Martyrs’ Day).
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