A bullet fired by a brazen assassin pierced sub-inspector Tapas Chowdhury’s chest and a fettered police force felt a stab of pain at being unable to do anything about it.
The drama of lawlessness played out in Garden Reach on Tuesday in the name of a college-election dispute has led the rank and file of the police to question whether they have any power to act in the surcharged political environment of academic institutions.
“We are mourning a colleague killed in the line of duty. But there are questions to be answered. Why was he shot? Why wasn’t he carrying a firearm? Why were the cops armed only with sticks? Why wasn’t there a lathicharge before the violence went out of hand?” a senior officer in Lalbazar demanded.
Sources said 16 policemen drawn from the Special Branch and the reserve force had been deployed in the vicinity of Harimohan Ghose College early on Monday, albeit with the caveat that they should “hold back” until further orders.
“Urban development minister Firhad Hakim is the president of the governing body of the college and the Speaker of the legislative Assembly, Biman Banerjee, is one of its members…. We were given to understand that our role in quelling any trouble was limited,” said an officer at Garden Reach police station.
Several senior officers told Metro on condition of anonymity that the force’s “preparedness” did not match the need for policing in the area, which has a history of violent demonstrations and attacks on the police.
Television footage shows that the police were not only outnumbered but also little more than witnesses to the mayhem on Paharpur Road.
|police fettered by politicians lose an officer
|TOO LITTLE TOO LATE: RAF personnel in front of Harimohan Ghose College after the killing of sub-inspector Tapas Chowdhury. (Bishwarup Dutta)
Only around 20 policemen, some with lathis and some unarmed, were deployed around Harimohan Ghose College. Outsiders on motorbikes started gathering in front of the college from early morning but the police stood mute spectators. The assembly grew three times in size, but the police contingent remained the same.
The political bosses in the area, with the blessings of the top Trinamul leadership, had ordered — yes, in today’s Bengal politicians order policemen — the cops to “observe, not act”.
The police apparently had no deployment plan for Tuesday’s college poll until a blast in an adjoining house early on Tuesday . After the explosion, in which alleged bomb-makers were hit and a Trinamul councillor’s son was among the injured, hurried arrangements were made, picking up policemen from the special branch and the reserve force. “Last night’s explosion was a clear indication that there could be violence over the college polls. But no elaborate arrangement was made,” said a senior officer at Lalbazar.
|Cops outside the college look
at a printout of prime accused Sheikh Subhan’s face from
ABP Ananda footage. (Amit Datta)
With urban development minister Firhad Hakim being the president of the governing body of the college and the Speaker of the legislative Assembly, Biman Banerjee, being one of its members, the police were told not to make a “big show” of it.
Bombs go off one after the other, the police stand in a huddle. Some of the goons whip out guns, the police stand huddled.
The police had “instructions” from the politicians not to act — no wielding the baton, no tear gas shells, forget about firing blanks.
The assailant in a red T-shirt runs towards a huddle of cops, turns and shoots in one motion and then manages to scamper away. No one gives chase. The fatally injured sub-inspector is picked up by his colleagues desperately seeking medical aid.
A crippled force in shock.
The police finally swing into action even as Trinamul leaders are busy blaming the Congress for the cop attack. So what if all preliminary evidence points to a Trinamul hand in the shooting? By late evening, 10 arrests are carried out, including prime accused Shiekh Subhan.
For once, the police defy their political bosses and step out to arrest those responsible for killing a colleague. Does the mood in the force prompt the Trinamul leadership to change tack? No way! “The ruling party bosses are very unhappy with the arrests because they are all Trinamul functionaries and so the Congress cannot be blamed. They will do all they can to get the accused a clean chit. The force has realised today that for the political leaders in the state, the life of a policeman lost needlessly on duty means nothing. It is a sad day for the police force, a sad day for the city,” lamented a senior cop.
A few telling frames on loop across news channels show armed goons charging at the lathi-wielding cops, who appear on the defensive until their colleague is shot. “Had our deployment been stronger, it would at least have been a deterrent to what happened,” an IPS officer said.
According to him, there was a strong case for “proper deployment” after Arijit Sil, the son of councillor Ranajit Sil, was injured in a blast in the area shortly after midnight on Monday.
Detective chief Pallab Kanti Ghosh’s comments suggested that Lalbazar knew there was a strong possibility of violence.
“There is no reason to believe that those who had gathered outside the college were civilians. They were all anti-socials,” Ghosh said on Tuesday evening.
So why was the police deployment not strong enough to quell them?
Nobody in the police headquarters would say it on record but almost everyone holds the political environment responsible for the force’s “feeble appearance”.
“The chief minister doesn’t want the police to fire even in self defence. Harimohan Ghose College has a strong Trinamul connection; there were instructions not to use force. What could we have done?” pleaded a senior officer
This isn’t the first time that the police have allegedly been asked to treat violence in colleges, especially those that have a strong Trinamul Congress presence, with velvet gloves.
“Elections in some city colleges, including Vidyasagar College on Bidhan Sarani, were held under police supervision only in name. We were asked not to touch anybody, especially from the Trinamul’s student wing, irrespective of the provocation. It was the same at Jaipuria College, where the Trinamul-affiliated candidates won uncontested,” an officer recounted.
According to him, the police bandobast outside Harimohan Ghose College should have been 35-40 personnel with an officer of the rank of assistant commissioner leading the contingent and a deputy commissioner being in charge overall.
A colleague summed up the police’s predicament. “We are not handicapped. We are confused.”