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Riot rap on taxi siege

- Arrested: 21; showcaused: 400
Taxi drivers block the city centre on Thursday afternoon to protest ‘police excesses’. Picture by Pradip Sanyal

As many as 21 taxi drivers have been arrested and booked for “rioting with deadly weapons” and 400 more showcaused for Thursday’s strike, the crackdown coming with a warning from Mamata Banerjee that she would brook no rebellion.

The arrests on Thursday evening and the charge of rioting, an offence that can invite a jail term of up to three years, constitute the strongest action yet against taxi drivers in a city where they are seen to be a law unto themselves.

The public vehicles department on Friday added to it by slapping notices on 400 drivers, asking them to show cause for not plying their taxis on Thursday in violation of a clause in their vehicle permits.

The arrested drivers were in the crowd of protesters that had resorted to violence at the Dorina and Esplanade East-Lenin Sarani crossing. They were protesting the newly imposed penalties for offences like refusal of passengers that would hardly invite a reprimand until recently.

All 21 drivers were produced in Bankshall court on Friday and remanded in judicial custody till August 12.

Police officers said they feared another round of protest by taxi drivers across the city on Saturday but chief minister Mamata made it clear that her government wouldn’t buckle under pressure.

“Why are taxis going on strike? This can’t go on,” she said at a meeting in Shantinpur, Nadia, on Friday.

Mamata also spoke about buses being withdrawn despite the government considering the demand to revise fares. “Buses are being withdrawn even when talks are on and I don’t know why. A committee has been formed to look into the issue of bus fares. Talks are on,” she said.

Sources in the chief minister’s inner circle said she was livid at taxi drivers “rioting” in the heart of the city on Thursday. The arrests followed instructions from Mamata to transport minister Madan Mitra to take “stern action” against those who laid siege to the city centre, they said.

The police had been caught unawares by the size of the congregation at Esplanade on Thursday. What started off as a rally organised by the Citu-affiliated drivers’ union snowballed into a show of unity cutting across political lines as members of several unions, including the Trinamul’s Progressive Taximen’s Union, joined in to turn a small protest into a unified campaign against the crackdown on taxi indiscipline.

The taxi drivers had squatted at the Dorina crossing and later at the Chowringhee crossing, damaged some taxis for not supporting their cause, assaulted motorcyclists trying to bypass the blockade and smashed the windshields of some buses when the police tried to clear the road for traffic. Police sources said at least 10 taxis and several buses were damaged in the protest.

“The decision to arrest the rioters was taken late in the evening,” said a senior officer of the traffic police department. “I can’t recall the last time taxi drivers were arrested on the charge of rioting.”

Rioting with deadly weapon(s) is an offence under Section 148 of the Indian Penal Code that invites a maximum punishment of three years in jail along with a fine. The arrested drivers have also been charged with “deterring police from discharging their duty”, which under Section 353 is a non-bailable offence with a maximum punishment of up to two years in jail.

The showcause notices slapped on 400 other taxi drivers are under Section 120 of the West Bengal Motor Vehicles Rules, which empowers the transport authority to cancel taxi permits for various violations.

Citu and the All India Trade Union Congress, which is the labour arm of the CPI, have called a convention on Saturday to draw up a strategy to deal with “police excesses”. The public vehicles department and the police have been fining taxi drivers Rs 3,000 each for each instance of refusing passengers. Several taxi permits have been revoked after the owners ignored summons to attend hearings by the PVD.

“The government is prepared for the possibility of taxi drivers creating trouble on Saturday,” transport minister Mitra said.

He advised passengers to call the police helplines if they faced any problem with taxis. “The police will immediately reach them and take suitable action,” he promised.

Sources said Mitra had met senior officers at the police headquarters in Lalbazar soon after Mamata’s message reached Paribahan Bhavan on Thursday evening. “It was decided that the government wouldn’t sit back and watch. So, along with the arrests came the showcause notices,” a source said.

Bimal Guha of the Bengal Taxi Association warned of a backlash if the police harassed taxi drivers. “I told the police that this can’t go on. Under what provision of the law can you fine drivers Rs 3,000 for passenger refusal?” he said.