WHAT GOES UP
It is almost like a new era in West Bengal. Almost. The chief minister has said that no government employee who is absent from work on February 28, the day of the all-India industrial strike, will be granted leave. There is not only firmness in this but partial consistency too, for the statement falls in line with the general anti-bandh approach that Mamata Banerjee has been championing as chief of government. Actually, this attitude is slightly older. Towards the end of her stint as Opposition leader, Ms Banerjee had displayed her sense of responsibility by refusing to call bandhs or support them even if they were called by allies. But that came after years of disruptive rallies and bandhs by the Trinamul Congress. The sudden anti-disruption stance had a very persuasive political cause: Ms Banerjee was out to win all segments of the urban vote and show by her actions that Bengal would turn around if she came to power. Now she is undoubtedly doing her best, but is it enough for people to forget that the anti-strike passion is of rather recent vintage?
To be fair, is there any leader in Bengal who has a principled stand regarding strikes, be it for or against? Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has just demonstrated that bandhs are neither good nor bad, only position makes them so. He has publicly declared that his tirade against strikes when he was chief minister was a "mistake" — a word he loves — and he and his party are out to turn the industrial strike into a general strike just to dare the government to "foil" them. There is a perfection to this volte face. Once again, people will carry on with their lives all over India during the industrial strike on February 28 while the brilliant politicians and their mindless followers in Bengal shut the state down in a show of muscle. The "challenge" is all the Communist Party of India (Marxist), eloquently championed by Mr Bhattacharjee, can think of, hoping that the government will have no option but to come down hard. Violence is welcome, because it will disguise success or failure by intimidating people. It is an unfortunate state that deserves such leaders, and a farcical situation where strikes and bandhs evoke no consistent response from them.
Ex-MLA smashed to death
Burdwan, Feb. 22: A former CPM legislator was axed and bludgeoned to death in Burdwan this morning by alleged Trinamul Congress supporters in one of the most gruesome political murders in the state where battlelines have been drawn over the February 28 bandh.
Another CPM leader who tried to rescue former MLA Pradip Tah, 54, was also killed in the clash, the stage for which appears to have been set by a drive to mobilise support for the Left-backed general strike on Tuesday.
However, accounts from eyewitnesses and police sources suggest that the row over the strike only provided the spark.
Pradip Tah, an influential leader who had staved off the anti-Left wave in his pocketborough, appeared to have been singled out for the murderous attack. No other CPM activist was injured and Kamal Gayen, 65, former secretary of the CPM's Burdwan Sadar zonal committee, was killed when he rushed to save Pradip Tah.
Chitralekha, Pradip Tah's wife and a headmistress, told The Telegraph that an armed group led by Patit Paban Tah had reached her home at 9am and warned that she would become a widow soon. "They said that was the price I would have to pay for marrying a man like my husband," she said.
Around 45 minutes later, the attackers picked out Pradip Tah from a procession, slashed at him with a tangi (axe), battered him with rods and then smashed his face with a boulder.
Among the four arrested later was the suspect named by Chitralekha: Patit Paban Tah. The other three are Chhoton Chakraborty, Bhupal Goswami and Surajit.
A police officer in Burdwan said the four were Trinamul supporters. But Swapan Debnath, the Trinamul president in Burdwan, denied that his party was involved in any way in the killings. "It was the villagers who carried out the attack on the CPM persons," said Debnath.
At least one Trinamul minister also cited a "spontaneous" backlash triggered by "janarosh". "This was a spontaneous protest against harmads. This was a pre-planned attack on the village. There was janarosh (people's anger). Trinamul supporters have got nothing to do with the deaths," minister Firad Hakim said.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who is in New Delhi, saw a CPM hand also. Replying to a question on how the former MLA was "butchered", Mamata said: "No, he was not butchered. There are many cases pending against him. This is a result of the CPM's internal feud. If you want to know more, ask the state government."
Legal sources in Burdwan said Pradip Tah was an accused in the murder of a Congress MLA in 1981. Although Pradip Tah was arrested and lodged in jail, all accused were eventually acquitted because of lack of evidence. Other than this, the sources could not immediately recall any big case pending against the former MLA.
The former MLA, who had won the Burdwan North seat in 2006, had been a constant thorn in Trinamul's side. Although Pradip Tah could not contest from the constituency last year as it was reserved for Scheduled Castes, he ensured that the CPM candidate won the seat in spite of the rapid advances made by Trinamul in what was once an impregnable red citadel.
If the Left had won 23 of the 26 Assembly seats in Burdwan in 2006, Trinamul bagged as many as 15 of the 25 (one seat less after delimitation) last year. CPM sources said an attempt was made on Pradip Tah's life three months ago.
Around 7.45 this morning, CPM workers had put up party flags on houses, shops and lampposts in Dewandighi and the adjoining Mirzapur in support of the strike called by the trade unions on February 28.
The CPM workers allegedly removed a Trinamul flag and foisted a red flag on a cloth-cum-shoe store owned by a Trinamul supporter. The shop-owner, Bidyut Baran Hazra, said he protested.
District CPM secretary Amal Haldar denied that CPM workers had taken out any Trinamul flag while putting up party flags and posters in support of the February 28 strike.
An altercation followed and Hazra informed other Trinamul supporters in the locality. The row soon snowballed into a clash and Hazra and a CPM worker, Rupkumar Gupta, were injured. Both were admitted to Burdwan Medical College and Hospital.
"Hazra received 10 stitches on his head while Gupta, who suffered internal haemorrhage, has been sent to SSKM Hospital in Calcutta," said a doctor.
By then, Pradip Tah and other CPM workers, who were at the Burdwan zonal committee office in Dewandighi, had rushed to the hospital. After lodging an FIR with the police, Pradip Tah returned to the party office and it was decided to bring out a procession to protest the clash. Following the brawl in Mirzapur, a police party was posted in the area. However, they could not prevent what followed.
A little after 9.30am, Pradip Tah led the procession that had around 100 party workers, including women. Around 9.45am, nearly 40 Trinamul activists, armed with rods, sticks and axes divided in two groups and approached the procession from the front and behind.
"It appears that Pradip Tah was their target because no other CPM person has reported any grievous injury. Gayen was killed because, according to witnesses we spoke to, he tried to stop the attackers from killing Pradip Tah," a senior police officer said.
Moloy Gupta, a farmer from a nearby village and on his way to a grocer, said: "I saw Pradip Tah lying on the ground shouting for help while two men were smashing his face with a boulder. I was terrified and ran for my life.
"The police could have easily prevented the killing of the two party leaders with the police headquarters so close by. The police are not working independently. They are being controlled by political leaders," said Surjya Kanta Mishra, leader of the Opposition, who reached Burdwan town.
Asked about the alleged police inaction, the district superintendent of police, S.M.H. Meerza, said: "We are inquiring. We had sent reinforcements to Dewandighi but the incident had already taken place by then."
The CPM has called a 12-hour bandh in Burdwan district tomorrow. Pradip Tah's body was brought to Calcutta and kept in Peace Haven. Tomorrow, the body will be taken to the Assembly.