Amita Ghose | May 16, 2019 | 6 min read
Kolkota, West Bengal: On May 14, BJP president Amit Shah took out a roadshow in Kolkata, sending BJP and TMC workers at each other’s throats. Since then, the national media has been debating, analysing, (shouting), and flashing screenshots and videos of the clashes that broke out. Much of the headline space has been dedicated to the heavy violence and vandalism across the ‘cultural capital’, which included damage to the statue of Vidyasagar on the Vidyasagar College campus.
After the stone-pelting, arson, and rioting, the incident is continuing to generate sparring over social media and other platforms. A blame game has ensued over which party is at fault, who started it all and caused the most damage, and what were the police doing despite having advance information about the possibility of such mayhem.
An immediate repercussion of this has been the EC declaring 6 pm, May 16, as the deadline for poll campaigning, which means no party can now take out rallies or roadshows, and later issuing an order shunting the officer in charge of Amherst Street police station.
Amid these ‘consequences’ and finger-pointing, what is most interesting to see is the fourth estate picking sides in its reportage of the ‘black day’ and its related events.
West Bengal goes to polls on May 19, the last phase of the elections, in nine constituencies — Dum Dum, Barasat, Basirhat, Jaynagar, Mathurapur, Diamond Harbour, Jadavpur, Kolkata Dakshin, and Kolkata Uttar; the May 14 disturbance is predicted to have a huge impact on the ballot box.
Media: a mouthpiece of democracy or politicking?
Mainstream English news channels Times Now, Republic TV, and Zee News among others focused on the attack on Shah’s roadshow with the hashtags #BengalBurning, #ShahAttacked, and #ShahRallyTargeted trending on top.
Whether this tripping over each other in the competition over coverage is a hint about whose corner they are in is anybody’s guess.
The regional media, on the other hand, seemed to have gone out of its way to do the opposite; it broadcast fire and clash visuals with inputs suggesting ‘how the gerua gang attacked the college and vandalised the bust’.
Regional mains ABP Ananda, News 18 Bangla, and 24 Ghanta seemed like the state’s mouthpieces. They even declared the vandals as “BJP members”, way before the police or administration arrived on the scene and started the investigation. Panelists and experts on back-to-back debates discussed and dissected “how the saffron party is changing the dynamics of politics in Bengal” or “how it is causing communal disharmony in the state”.
“Everything happened within an hour, leaving all of us in a state of confusion. Frankly, the violations and provocations came from both sides — BJP and SFI-TMC, Chatra Parishad. We did our jobs from the field; the rest was beyond our control. Agendas are set at the HQs of media houses,” said a senior reporter with an English news channel.
While the mainstream news channels continued pushing their agenda on the roadshow attack, no regional media stalwarts really highlighted the fact that SFI and Chatra Parishad had united to stop Shah’s rally.
Administration not in the clear either
Both sides of the media seemed so focused on broadcasting their version of the truth that neither looked into the role of the Kolkata Police in the whole melee, until Shah, in a press conference in Delhi, alleged how his security was compromised on many levels.
“The rally had a crowd of around 20,000 with more joining as it went forward; and yet, the number of police personnel remained surprisingly low. At the same time, when Mamata Banerjee took to the streets and walked her first padyatra on May 15 from Beleghata to Shyambazar, several thousand personnel were deployed,” alleged Sayantan Basu, BJP Bengal’s general secretary.
“Amit Shah is no small leader. He is our party president. How could the police compromise his security like this?”
Multiple reports have revealed that the Kolkata Police special branch had received advance intel on the possibility of a clash on College Street and still did not act on it. People have alleged that the absence of law enforcement gave the mob a free hand to cause greater damage, because by the time the cops arrived on the scene, the situation had already spiralled out of control.
“We kept our campus locked from inside but were able to gauge what was happening out there. When BJP supporters were trying provoke people from our campus, it was our students, staff, and security guards who braved it all and shut the gate; no policeman could be spotted around,” said Abhishek Mani, a student from Calcutta University’s College Street campus.
However, Central Police observer to West Bengal, Vivek Dubey said, “As soon as we received reports about the violence, cases were registered based on incidents. While initially 100 men were mentioned, the Kolkata Police later detained 58.” All of them reportedly belong to the BJP.
On Thursday, the Kolkata Police constituted a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the vandalism. The SIT will be headed by the deputy commissioner of Kolkata Police (North).
Are the police in TMC’s pocket?
In the past several years, the role and credibility of the police in West Bengal and Kolkata have come under scanner, the most recent issue being Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee fighting the CBI on behalf of former police commissioner Rajeev Kumar.
Many had then thought that after strong criticism over the police behaving like the puppet of a political party, the situation would neutralise, at least till the elections. But that doesn’t seem to have happened.
With BJP activist Priyanka Sharma getting arrested for sharing a controversial meme on Mamata Banerjee on Facebook and BJP’s Diamond Harbour candidate Nilanjan Roy being allegedly harassed by the police, the saffron party is alleging misuse of power by Mamata.
Roy is contesting against Mamata’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee. Earlier this month, a POSCO case was filed against him in Falta police station, followed by repeated calls to Lalbazar and Bowbazar police stations. In the alleged molestation a 17-year-old girl on April 26, the girl’s family had lodged a police complaint against Roy.
BJP state president Dilip Ghosh has called the case fictitious, while another leader, Jay Prakash Majumder, has said it is a political conspiracy by Mamata Banerjee. “The whole matter stinks of a deep-rooted conspiracy to defame and malign our candidate. You think an election candidate would be so stupid as to commit a crime as grave as this just before the polls?” asked Majumder.
So far, the Kolkata Police has reportedly found nothing in the case. In the past, its role in the customs’ investigation of Abhishek Banerjee’s wife has also been criticised on many levels.
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