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Mighty battle over Memorial

In the twilight zone of Viren J. Shah’s stay at Raj Bhavan, a memorable battle on the Victoria Memorial grounds is brewing between Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government and the governor.

The friction point: the governor’s move to construct an annexe to the 91-year-old Victoria Memorial Hall, housing an art gallery, exhibition centre and auditorium. Shah has taken the initiative as chairman of the board of trustees governing Victoria Memorial.

“We do not know exactly what the governor wants to do. In fact, we do not even want to know what he actually wants to achieve. But our position is very clear. If he wants to get something built on the Victoria Memorial campus, it must conform to all the existing laws,” said chief secretary Ashok Gupta.

“Existing laws” are what the governor could get tangled up in. Before starting work, he needs clearance from the army, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, the state environment department, the pollution control board and the heritage preservation commission.

Official sources said the government has also told the Centre to rein in the governor.

With a few months to go before Shah, a BJP appointee, leaves Raj Bhavan, the current showdown between governor and government is shaping up to be the ugliest of his term.

In the past, Shah has publicly attacked the state government over its handling of education and health, but Bhattacharjee’s administration has never openly retaliated.

This time, though, it’s not sitting back. Victoria Memorial is part of Bhattacharjee territory — culture.

In public, the ruling CPM’s top leaders remained mum on the Memorial muddle. In private, however, they appeared determined to stop construction at the Memorial site.

“This one move of Shah’s will be resisted at any cost,” asserted one of them.

On the other side of the divide, friends of Shah said Bhattacharjee’s government was being “unkind” to the governor by holding him responsible for the decision to build the annexe.

A 12-member committee, of which Shah is chairman, had drawn up construction plans after consulting the Bhattacharjee government, they said.

“How can Bhattacharjee’s government now say that they were unaware' The proposed annexe is near the eastern gate of the Memorial, close to the staff quarters. The idea is to do away with the quarters and build an annexe that will enhance, not tarnish, the aesthetics of both the building and the place,” they said.

“Since the city lacks an art gallery of international standard, the annexe was an attempt to create a space where paintings would be preserved and displayed,” they pointed out.

Bhattacharjee’s bureaucrats and leaders of his party refused to buy the argument. Nor did Subhas Dutta, general secretary of the Howrah Ganatantrik Nagarik Committee.

The committee is opposing Shah’s proposal in court and pushing for the area surrounding the Memorial to be turned into a green belt.

The case comes up for hearing on August 10.

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