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Join up for job or junket, march not for political wisdom

A report says more than 600 processions were taken out in the city this year. The figure is attributed to the police and, apparently, does not include the processions taken out without any information to the department.

Many of the 600 processions, for which applications were received by the police, were taken out without a formal permission. On the other hand, innocuous organisations, like a women’s network, complained that even for a peace rally, the police would often harass them and delay giving permission. And when they finally did, the department would invariably insist that the women follow the alternative route suggested by them. Inevitably the suggested route, the women maintain, would be the bylanes winding into a part of the city, never the central business district.

The two reports, along with the news that the state government is finalising restrictions to be imposed on rallies in the city, serve to strengthen the position that eventually, it is the police that must take the call to ensure a smooth flow of traffic and regulate public protests. They cannot follow double-standards and do their job when it comes to, say, a women’s organisation but shy away when it comes to more aggressive political parties.

There is a joke about political rallies in Calcutta that Indian Institute of Management professor Debashish Chatterjee is fond of narrating. He claims that he himself heard processionists in Calcutta shouting, “Bofors-ke resign korte hobe, korte hobe (Bofors must resign, must resign).” Vastly amused, he claims to have asked the processionists who this “Bofors saheb” was; to which the processionists nonchalantly told him that the identity of the “saheb” was known to “the babu” at the head of the procession.

While politicians actually believe that rallies and processions help educate the masses and heighten awareness, available evidence would point to the contrary. Many of the rallyists, it would appear, join in either lured or lulled by promises ranging from junkets to jobs.

Several newsmen are witness to a lady remonstrating with the chief minister of a neighbouring state, reminding him that she had faithfully been mobilising people for his rallies but he had failed to honour his commitment of getting her a job as a constable. The embarrassed chief minister tried to wriggle out of the situation by joking that she was too thin to be considered for a constable’s job. The lady, not to be outwitted, left him speechless by retorting that once she was made a constable, she would gain weight in no time!

Such examples can be multiplied to demonstrate that neither the politics of rallies nor the economics of rallies has much to do with political education. It can also be argued that political education can be best imparted to small groups in classrooms or outside and not necessarily through public rallies.

Calcutta may have been hailed as a city of processions, but traffic snarls are by no means a monopoly of this city. In New Delhi, traffic is often diverted for “VIP and VHP movement” and in Mumbai, the Shiv Sena, if not the sheer number of vehicles on the road, is quite capable of bringing life to a halt.

But restrictions are required more in Calcutta because of its linear expansion, chronic congestion and sheer shortage of public space. In other metros, people by and large know the time it would take them to cover a certain distance. They can make allowances for unforeseen traffic snarls and still plan their movement reasonably well. But in Calcutta, unfortunately, it is impossible to plan because the same distance may take 20 minutes to cover one day but 50 minutes or more the next.

One can almost hear the pro-rallyists snigger and question the productivity of people in the city. What great difference would half-an-hour make to your earth-shaking work, they may ask. But that is not really the point. Even when a handful of persons miss their appointments, flights or trains, it should concern the managers of the city.

While the state government gets busy to impose restrictions, it is perhaps time for political parties to look for new forms of protest. Bandhs, gheraos, conventional rallies and processions would appear to have run out of steam.

Motorcycle rallies flowing with the traffic, stopping at signals and quickly melting away; trade unions paying a small fee to put relevant banners on public vehicles for the whole day or greater use of mass media are just some of the newer forms of protest they can fine-tune. For that matter, why can’t a corner of the Maidan be developed into a Speaker’s Corner'

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