| Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Jyoti Basu greet anti-war rallyists. Picture by Pabitra Das
Calcutta, March 30: As far as anti-war rallies go, Sunday’s mahamichhil or grand rally taken out by the ruling leftists to protest against the US invasion of Iraq was extraordinary.
The colourful procession of nearly 3,00,000 people gave a wide berth to the US and UK chanceries — the focus of anti-war rallies the world over — and marched down a route which did not contain any “hot targets”.
Holding aloft placards with legends, “Drop Bush and Blair, not bombs”, chanting slogans, singing anti-war songs, the men, women and children marched down almost 10 kilometres from the Maidan off Akashbani Bhavan to Deshbandhu park near Shyambazar in north Calcutta. The rally touched Sahid Minar, went through the Esplanade and traversed a tiny stretch of Jawaharlal Nehru Road between Metro Cinema and Lenin Sarani.
Apparently, nearly 19 Left parties — nine of them part of the Left Front that organised the rally — took care to keep the large crowd away from American Center on J.L Nehru Road, and the US consulate and the British deputy high commission on Ho Chi Minh Sarani as a precaution.
Going by the version given by insiders, the leftists, especially the CPM, reckoned that the marchers might go berserk if they were allowed to get “real close” to the chanceries or the American Center, which has already been the target of terrorism once.
Their fear was grounded in the fact that activists of the Students Federation of India (SFI), a CPM affiliate, and other Left lobbies had thrown missiles at the American Center and turned violent while giving expression to their anti-US sentiments. Last week, police had to use lathis to repulse the SFI activists.
“If the situation went out of control today, the police would have had no option but to tackle it with a heavy hand. The resultant publicity would have been very bad because it would have been perceived as ‘our’ police beating up ‘our cadre’ in front of us,” said a senior CPM official. The allusion was to the fact that police affairs are directly overseen by chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the Front does not want him to come under pressure due to any untoward incident.
Another argument advanced by a strong section of the CPM leadership was that expression of anti-US sentiments did not have to be severe because “India is not directly involved in the war, nor is it helping America by providing bases”. After assessing the ground situation, the leadership decided to take the fist-shaking, slogan-shouting show elsewhere.
Apparently, the city police, too, had asked the government and the participating parties to ensure that their hold on the crowd did not sag half-way. Police bosses had reasons to be wary: the strike on January 22 last year was unlike any the city has seen before. Security arrangements around the American and British establishments on and off J.L. Road were beefed up after the attack. Permanent police outposts have been set up on enclosed stretches of pavements to ensure adequate security for the establishments.
Today’s rally, therefore, went down a safer route through Lenin Sarani, Nirmal Chandra Chander Street, College Street, Bidhan Sarani, Shyambazar five-point crossing, R.G. Kar Road, Dinendra Street to reach Deshbandhu Park in the evening, where Bhattacharjee and Jyoti Basu received the marchers.