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US steps on land mine
US consul-general Henry V. Jardine watches the annual match between the American consulate and the British deputy high commission at a Salt Lake cricket academy on Saturday. The Americans won the match by one wicket. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta

Calcutta, Feb. 24: A visit by the US consul-general to the Jamait Ulema-i-Hind general secretary’s office here this afternoon became a red rag for the CPM, which accused America of “interfering in the internal affairs of Bengal”.

Henry V. Jardine’s meeting with Siddiqullah Chowdhury comes at a time when the CPM has charged the Jamait with turning the land war raging in the state into a “communal campaign”.

Through the 40-minute meeting, CPM and Rashtriya Janata Dal supporters virtually besieged the office in central Calcutta’s Rabindra Sarani, urging Jardine to “go back” and asking why “after Iraq, the US is meddling in Singur and Nandigram”.

Police held the 150-odd protesters, led by the local Left-backed MLA, Mohammed Sohrab of the RJD, at bay.

Jardine emerged around 2.30 pm and was escorted through the slogan-shouting crowd by the police, who avoided a lathi-charge to keep things “amicable”. The US official was accompanied by Tinku Roy, senior adviser to the consulate.

A CPM central committee member later said: “How can the US interfere in our state’s affairs' This is an attack on our sovereignty.”

Siddiqullah at Jamait’s Calcutta office on Saturday. Picture by Pradip Sanyal

The visit revived memories of 1999, when two US consulate representatives had visited Nanoor in Birbhum after the murder of 13 farmers, allegedly by CPM men. Similar accusations of meddling, hurled by then chief minister Jyoti Basu and his party, had prompted the consul-general of the day, Christopher Sandrolini, to meet Basu at Writers’ Buildings.

“Jardine wanted to know the general condition of Muslims in Bengal and our stand on acquisition of farmland for industry and special economic zones,” Chowdhury said.

“I told him Muslims’ socio-economic condition is not good. I asked him to impress on the US government that the UPA should be persuaded to shelve its SEZ policy. He promised to get back to me.”

Roy had called up Chowdhury on Thursday to tell him Jardine wanted a meeting, and then confirmed the trip last night. In between, Chowdhury got the visit cleared by the Jamait’s all-India secretary, Mahboob Madani.

The American didn’t want to dig too deep into the land controversy, saying “it would not be proper for him to interfere in administrative decisions”, the Jamait leader said. Jardine also asked how madarsas are run.

Roy said: “I am not authorised to comment on his visit.’’

“The visit was part of the consulate’s Muslim outreach programme. Similar things are done elsewhere in the country,” a consulate official said.

The consulate reportedly uses the programme to fund organisations working for the uplift of Muslims.

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