|A girl breaks down outside her school on AJC Bose Road during the violence on Wednesday. Picture by Pabitra Das
Inconsolable children in school uniform wail. Grown-ups in office-wear hold aloft hands and file past bewildered men in blue riot gear.
Calcutta, Nov. 21: The two universal symbols of suffering and submission played out for hours in Calcutta today as an explosive cocktail of perceived and other grievances caught fire and burned the heart of the city — the spark lit by an unseen hand.
Wave after wave of mobs — largely made of youths — mounted West Asia-style attacks on police in the maze of lanes that formed a truncated triangle in central Calcutta.
Most of the youths were missing from a demonstration that wound its way through parts of central Calcutta, raising among several demands the ejection of Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen from India and protesting the Nandigram killings.
However, feeding on an unexplained frenzy probably aided by the pressure-cooker atmosphere that set in after the last few months of turmoil over disparate issues, the protest took on a life of its own and sucked into its vortex countless excitable youths waiting to erupt.
By the time darkness fell on the wild dance of defiance, the army was patrolling parts of Calcutta after over a decade. An eight-hour night curfew was also in place as the city went to bed unsure of which way the morning will swing.
If the restraint shown by the Nandigram-scalded police works and the usual calming effect of flag marches kicks in, Thursday should see the gamble of the Bengal government calling for the army in a hurry paying off.
“It seems things have settled down a bit,” a senior police officer told The Telegraph on Wednesday night as soldiers in battle fatigues stationed themselves at sensitive spots.
Referring to suggestions that the situation could have been brought under control had the police opened fire, commissioner Gautam Mohan Chakrabarti said: “Who will dare to open fire' If we do, people will claim that it is unconstitutional.” The high court had termed the March 14 police firing in Nandigram “unconstitutional”.
Around 250 people had assembled around 9.40am near Ripon Street to take part in the protest that began as a sit-in. When the police tried to clear the roadblock during the morning traffic peak-hour, trouble broke out in Park Circus and CIT Road, apparently triggered by rumours of action against the squatters.
People started pouring out and by 10.30am, the police and the Rapid Action Force — which were expecting little more than a traffic headache that has become par for the course after the Nandigram recapture — were on the back foot.
As 350-odd policemen advanced towards the swelling tide of protesters, brickbats and bottles rained on them amid chants of “Go back, Taslima”.
“We do not want Taslima here… Send her back,” thundered a middle-aged man who later identified himself only as Alam, standing at the Ripon Street-AJC Bose Road crossing.
“Do not confuse this with Nandigram… We do not want Taslima, that’s all,” he shouted — a refrain that caught on later as some television channels turned the vandalism into a backlash solely linked to the troubled zone.
As the day progressed, Nandigram took a back seat and the anger against Taslima overshadowed other demands.
The planned chakka jam — organised by the All India Minority Forum and Furfura Sarif Muzadeedia Anath Foundation and the Jamait Ulema-i-Hind (according to the police) — soon snowballed into a fullblown urban war.
Around 12,000 to 15,000 people marched on the streets, throwing missiles at the police, torching at least 17 vehicles, including private cars, and effectively keeping thousands of children captive in schools that dot the area.
The plight of marooned schoolchildren sent waves of panic with parents groping in the dark, which made the whole city reel under the impact of the “localised” street battles.
“The school is in the middle of the trouble zone. I wonder how we will get out,” shuddered Ranjit Sen, father of Ronita, a Class X student of Pratt Memorial.
“The trauma caused to schoolchildren and teachers is particularly” reprehensible, governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi said in a statement.
To keep themselves out of the way of the police baton, many office-goers raised both hands overhead — a gesture seen usually in areas where Section 144 is in force.
Burning its fingers in Nandigram with ham-handed police action and the resultant rebuke from the high court, the state government decided to call the army at 2.10pm.
The army brass in Fort William were asked to “appreciate” that the police had already made lathi-charges and had fired tear gas shells at the mobs. “The next step would have been to open fire,” an army officer told The Telegraph. “They (the state government) did not want to take such a risk.”
The police decision to treat the protesters with kid gloves — other than lathis and tear gas shells, few crowd-control devices were used — drew some fire initially.
But the absence of confirmed loss of life at the end of the day — and considering the possessed manner in which some of the protesters kept coming back to attack the police — suggests restraint was a prudent step and tougher action could have led to a bloodbath.
“We decided to call the army to ensure that the situation didn’t go out of control,” chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said.
“The police had been attacked…. But they showed restraint and tried to contain the trouble though it took some time,” said Bhattacharjee, who held the minority forum responsible for the riot.
“Tremendous disrespect has been shown to Calcutta by an irresponsible leadership,” he said, referring to the forum.
Late in the evening, CPM leaders Biman Bose — who backtracked on an initial comment that suggested Taslima should leave — and Mohammad Salim visited some of the affected areas to advocate peace.
Taslima was not seen outside her residence in Calcutta and guards said she was not in her flat.
Till the evening, the police had arrested 57 people on charges of rioting.