Calcutta was trying to build a protective wall around its shattered sense of security. Calcutta was trying to wipe away the nightmare at dawn.
At 6.36 this foggy winter morning, the city came to know terror, for the first time, first hand. Four young men riding two motorcycles emptied 54 rounds of Kalashnikov fire into a group of bleary-eyed policemen in front of the American Center on Chowringhee, killing four of them.
A person identifying himself as Aftab Ansari, suspected mastermind in the kidnapping of Khadim’s owner Partha Pratim Roy Burman, called The Telegraph office within hours of the attack to claim responsibility on behalf of an unknown militant group he described as Asif Reza Commando Force. He said the attack had been carried out to avenge the death of his friend Asif Reza, also a suspect in the kidnapping, in police custody.
Terrorist and criminal motives were inseparable in the strike as it occurred in front of an American establishment, though it was not clear if the building was the target. No US citizens were inside the building when the gunmen struck.
Police seemed certain that the person claiming to be Aftab Ansari was indeed the Dubai-based gangster because his voice matched the recordings they had from investigations in the Khadim’s case. Ansari had also called a CID official after the attack. The police named an outfit called Harkat-ul-Jihadi-e-Islami, a splinter group of the better-known Harkat-ul-Ansar, as responsible for the killings. But the group denied the charge from Muzaffarabad.
Twenty-two people — policemen and passers-by — were injured in the attack that lasted 40-45 seconds. Posted to fend off sundry Calcutta demonstrators, the policemen were mostly armed with lathis, tear-gas launchers and bolt-action .303 rifles. They couldn’t fire a single shot in retaliation as the gunmen — moving north to south — disappeared into the mist.
Eyewitness Bablu Chakraborty, a car cleaner, was about to cross the road with friend Motilal Yadav when he saw a bike approach the American Center. As the gunmen opened fire, he heard the driver call out: “Jo saamne aayega, uda do usey.” A second later Yadav cried out: “Maar diya”. He was hit on the left shoulder.
The ride-by shooting was timed to coincide with the change of guard at the centre. Police commissioner Sujoy Chakraborty said when the assailants struck, the policemen taking over were still loading their rifles. “They were in no position to open retaliatory fire.”
“It is a dangerous incident,” said chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. “We have to review our security measures.”
All the four policemen killed were in their twenties. Three died before they reached SSKM Hospital, less than 2 km away, while the fourth passed away within two hours of admission.
When the attackers opened fire, some of the policemen on the new shift had stepped off the van parked in front of the centre, while a few of the relieved group had started climbing in.
The authorities were not sure how many policemen — from the Second and Fifth Battalions of the armed and reserve forces of Calcutta police — were present at the spot, estimates varying between the chief minister’s 32 and the police commissioner’s 64. There was also confusion about the number of motorcycles and assailants.
“Two, maybe three, youths on a motorcycle moving from Park Street towards Birla Planetarium approached the centre at about 60 kmph. The bike slowed down to a 20-km cruise. The pillion rider on the two-wheeler uncovered his automatic weapon from under a shawl and started firing at random at the unsuspecting policemen,” Chakraborty said.
The chief minister later said: “We now feel that the terrorists used two AK-47 rifles, as we recovered 54 rounds of spent bullets from the spot. One weapon could not have fired so many shots in 40 seconds.”
Bhattacharjee admitted that the “security arrangements in and around consulates and vital installations were far from adequate”. He spoke to home minister L.K. Advani. “Advani is sending special secretary, home, Ashok Bhandari,” he said.
US consul-general Christopher Sandrolini met the chief minister, who later said the police had been handed the recordings made by surveillance cameras placed at the gate of the American Center.
The chilling message: Ansari was taking full responsibility for the Calcutta killings.
The conversation lasted five to six minutes and Ansari repeated his message more than once. Never did he give the impression of being in a hurry. All through he remained the very persona of courtesy, his statements garnished with janab-s and ji-s.
He raised his voice only once — to underline the “CM saab’s hand in the killing of Rajan”, the Khadim’s kidnap suspect who was killed in an encounter in Gujarat. Ansari mixed Urdu and Hindi, but switched to English while emphasising a point.
The conversation follows:
The Voice: Salaam janab, this is Aftab Ansari, calling from Dubai. I repeat, I am Aftab Ansari calling from Dubai, is that clear?
The Telegraph: Yes, Mr Ansari, it is.
Voice: May I talk to your chief editor, or someone who is authorised to receive an important message about today’s incident in your Calcutta?
TT: No problem, we will take your message….go ahead.
Voice: It concerns the killings that took place in Calcutta today at my behest. (Jo karvain aaj hamne Kolkatta mein ghataya, us bare mein kuch bolna hai.)
TT: Are you suggesting that you ordered the killing of policemen? Are you suggesting you are the one responsible for the bloody strike?
Voice: I want The Telegraph to know, and through it your people, government and police, that I, on behalf of A.R. (Asif Reza) Commando Force, am taking the full responsibility (for the killings).
TT: Why did you do it?
Voice: The killings are a serious message for your police (yeh jo karvain ham ne ghataya, yeh Kolkatta police ke liye ek gambhir sanket hai). I hope they will now think twice before thinking of harming me again.
TT: But there must be a substantial reason for doing what you say you did today?
Voice: Han janab, karan hai. Your police and Rajkot police got together to liquidate my close friend in Rajkot just the other day. They had no reason to kill him (Ansari was referring to the death in an encounter in Rajkot late last year of Asif Reza Khan alias Rajan, a resident of Calcutta’s Park Circus area. Known as a terrorist, Rajan was to have been brought to Calcutta for interrogation as a prime suspect in the Khadim’s kidnap case.)
TT: Well, what message do you want the police to read in today’s killings?
Voice: Simple, you (police) take one of my men, I take 20 of yours, in your own backyard. Stop me, if you can. Hamara jo badla lena tha, uoh ham le liya.
TT: Perhaps you would take this opportunity to let Calcutta know whether you have plans for more revenge killings, more strikes …..?
Voice: No, I do not intend to mount another strike or, for that matter, kill anybody now. After all, A.R. Commando Force has taken the revenge. But I cannot tell you about the future because everything depends on how your police force behaves. I will now turn my focus to Delhi and Rajkot.
TT: You do not appear to have anything against the state government?
Voice (voice rising a little): Your CM-saab (Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee) had a hand in the killing of Rajan. He wanted him to be eliminated. Taking the cue from him, your police organised the killing in collusion with the Rajkot police. I know everything.
TT: But wasn’t Rajan involved in Khadim’s Roy Burman abduction case?
Voice: That Roy Burman, too, had a hand in Rajan’s cold blooded murder. They (Roy Burmans) had actively encouraged it. There is nothing that escapes our notice. Why, the volume of money that went into organising it is also known to us…. Listen, I will talk to you later in detail, give me your telephone number… thanks, goodbye.
Today, IT was at our door. The brusque randomness of IT became real in an instant, its certain reach palpable forever. It was not a television image any more, but a reality bite. With big bare teeth.
Fear is an emotion I normally do not feel but today I was afraid. I saw life not as a journalist, covering other people’s tragedies but from the other side. For the first time, I felt the complete reality of being married to a US diplomat, the vulnerability of it all.
I felt what many Americans must feel when they serve in other countries, when their ships blow up, when their barracks are firebombed and when their embassies are attacked. The utter unpredictability of everything.
Today, the fine, sublime Calcutta was shaken. Its superior sensibilities jarred by a hail of bullets.
Our complacency was shattered. Attacks didn’t always happen elsewhere. They could happen right here, on Chowringhee where the massive tide of life flows every day.
Four policemen lay dead, in the cloud of automatic fire and many others were injured.
The murderous motorcyclists had completed their job, answered the call to some unknown God. They were gone in an instant, to plot some other mindless atrocity, another act of revenge.
Ever since the world-changing events of September 11, we had been living under tight security with Calcutta police guarding both ends of our street, vigilant against intruders and outsiders, checking and ensuring our safety.
I felt for them — sitting there for hours on end sometimes miserably hot and sometimes cold. But they were always there, balancing themselves on benches and stools.
And today they had sacrificed, a day after Martin Luther King’s birthday and ahead of Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary.
The phone rang constantly as friends and family heard the news and began calling. They were worried and everyone wondered where we were headed. No one had answers because there wasn’t any cogent analysis that fit neatly, any paradigm that covered it all.
I had read articles upon articles in the analytical glut of September 11 — from the Right, from the Left and from the centre.
Friends had e-mailed essays and speeches but nothing explained anything perfectly. No real answers on how to fix it all. OK, if not this, then what? I know many had many more questions, but no one had a valid prescription.
I knew there was anger and disillusionment with the way the world was.
But were the policemen who died responsible for it? Did that unknown God ask them to be targeted? Did the motorcyclists even know what they were fighting for? We are always told it is for a cause. A cause that changes shape and size like an amoeba, grows wild in the petri dish of hate.
Life had changed since September 11 and now it will change further. I remember resisting my husband’s suggestion that I carry a cellphone — an affectation I felt I didn’t need.
Today, I felt glad to have all my appendages, minor and major, secure and sound. I could connect to my friends, they could call me.
Who knows where you might be trapped tomorrow? At least you would have the pleasure of chatting a bit, and cracking that last bad joke.
My mind wandered all day from this to that and back again. Nothing seemed to hold my attention for longer than two minutes.
Fragmentation of reality and of the mind?
I struggled to overcome my confusion all day but felt paralysed. Something had happened, something had come closer. And how many walls would one erect against it?
Could I go out into the garden anymore?
On a whim, I checked my horoscope on Yahoo and it said the day would begin with chaos for Capricornians. So true. How did they know?
The writer, former correspondent of The Telegraph in Washington, is the wife of the US consul-general in Calcutta
“I don’t know why the government is doing this to us when it is fast rebuilding all the stricken villages around us,” the 45-year-old woman, who lost her school-teacher husband to the devastating trembler a year ago, said, shaking her head.
Pandya is not the only person asking this question. It is on every lip in Bhuj, which has been left out of the frantic pace of rebuilding going on across Kutch and elsewhere in quake-ravaged Gujarat.
Sixty per cent of old houses and apartment buildings here collapsed in the January 26 quake last year. Nearly 3,000 people perished, but Bhuj has been left to fend for itself as the state government and NGOs focused their attention on the villages.
On the streets, there is no thud of bricklaying, no swish of cement being layered on walls and no plop of painting — the sound of reconstruction otherwise reverberating through the district bordering Pakistan.
Hundreds of people — including Pandya — have been living in the squalor of tin and cardboard colonies set up by two volunteer groups, which threatened to dismantle them in a year. It is a tragedy of sorts as the world refers to the 6.9 trembler that killed more than 20,000 people as “the Bhuj earthquake”.
The neighbouring towns of Bachau, Rapar and Anjar, also shattered by the killer quake, share Bhuj’s fate as the government has yet to decide how to rebuild them. “The government is doing everything possible to rebuild Bhuj city and neighbouring towns. We have a town plan ready for that purpose,” district collector H.N. Chhibbar said.
But that’s as far as the government has gone in the last one year. It has sketched out a plan, but made little effort to translate it on the ground.
The collector said the government aims to build “a new” Bhuj in place of the walled city that served as the “capital” of the state of Kutch till 1947. “The earthquake in a way has provided us with an opportunity to make Bhuj into a planned city,” Chhibbar said.
But this is where the problem lies. The plan, say town planners, is nice on paper but barely workable.
The government, for one, has yet to figure out who owned what in the quake-ravaged city. Most residents lost their land or property documents along with their homes. Government offices, where records were stacked, are of not much use either. They, too, have collapsed.
“It’s a terrible situation. To be fair to the government, they don’t know how to go about it in the absence of records,” said Vipul Vaidya, chief reporter of the Kutch Mitra, the main newspaper of the region.
The problem is compounded by the thousands of tenants who had been occupying many of the collapsed buildings. They have now been left homeless. By law, only owners would get free plots and loans to rebuild their homes.
“But you cannot wish away the thousands of tenants who had been living in those buildings for ages. Where will they go now?” asked Vaidya. “Actually, the government should have foreseen all these problems before drawing up its plans for a new city.”
The survivors, who have gone through hell these 12 months, feel they have been discriminated against, especially when they see new villages sprouting all around Bhuj, thanks to the joint efforts of the government and the NGOs.
Sushma Iyengar of the Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan, a collection of NGOs working with the state government and the United Nations Development Programme to rebuild the devastated region, said she shared the feelings but denied any discrimination.
“There is no doubt that we — the NGOs and the government — are focusing on rural areas. It is also true that hardly anything has been done in Bhuj compared to the rapid progress we have made on reconstruction of villages. But this is not because we want to discriminate against Bhuj residents,” Iyengar said.
She said the NGOs chose villages because “we mainly have experience of working in villages and have our bases there”.
The enormity of the destruction in as many as 750 Kutch villages — half of it beyond repair — had prompted the government to focus on them. “It is also easy to work in villages and rebuild them than in cities like Bhuj. In villages, people are by and large organised and always lend you a hand and you do not face much legal hurdles,” the activist said.
With no one to turn to, the survivors — used to the comforts of their own apartments till the quake turned their buildings and lives upside down — now hunker down in their cramped shelters, where they steamed in the heat of last summer and now shiver in the freezing Kutch winter.
“God knows what would have happened to me and my three daughters if the Swamynarayan trust had not set up this tin colony,” Pandya said, clutching her youngest daughter. “At least, we have a roof over our heads.”
At a foreign office briefing, Qureshi said India had amassed troops on the border. “They are still there in their positions,” he pointed out. “So frankly, the response that Pakistan had mounted for ensuring that any misadventure from the Indian side would be met with appropriate response is still there. There’s no change in that.”
The military spokesman said that India, over the last couple of weeks, has been “utilising” what it calls RPVs (remote-piloted vehicles), “which are intelligence-gathering pilotless drones which did fly along the Line of Control and the border”.
“In a couple of cases, they have ingressed into Pakistani airspace,” he added. “So, if you are talking about the sort of friction or tension on the border or Line of Control, or the working boundary, it is maintained at that level.”
Asked about Colin Powell’s statement regarding lowering of tension between the nuclear-capable rivals, Qureshi said: “If the US secretary of state was referring to intentions which he may have gauged by his talks with India, that’s something that the armed forces don’t react to. We cater to the capability, the ability of a force to launch an operation … that remains in place. So, therefore, I will say that it’s the same level of tension that prevailed along the border or the international boundary.”
Foreign office spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan said Qureshi’s assessment was the military assessment of the situation. He said that what Powell had talked about was a diplomatic assessment of the situation. “The two have slightly different venues of assessment. Obviously, one has to be based on the reality on (the) ground and the deployment of forces.”
To another question, Qureshi said as long as India had defence capability, Pakistan would respond to it. “Intentions can change in two minutes. But the assembly of forces there have given them (Indians) a certain capability, which we need to guard against,” he underlined.
Qureshi said India had no “reason” to keep its forces on the border because “a lot of people and the world have maintained and reassured that Pakistan wants to resolve all … differences (with its neighbour) peacefully”.
UN secretary general Kofi Annan is arriving here tomorrow to discuss the situation in the region.
Pak list: Pakistan today declined to give details of terrorists alleged to have taken refuge in India. “I cannot tell the details, because I don’t know the details, however, when the list is prepared it will be seen,” an official said.
The bitterness is unmistakable. Angry bystanders refuse to join the bus convoys full of kar sevaks and sants. Shouts of Jai Shri Ram echo from the buses only. “Pet me roti nahi, Ram naam kahan se niklega,” he says.
It’s the same story everywhere. Heavy barricading and fortification of Ayodhya is playing havoc with the lives of its residents. Policemen and paramilitary forces swarm the temple town, as not a single entry-point remains unmanned.
Pilgrims, who are fed up with the frisking and fearing terrorist attacks — played up by the administration and the media — have stopped coming, leaving the town’s economy in tatters.
The administration says the “threat” to Ayodhya from terrorists cannot be underestimated. But officials add that they are also helpless in the face of pressure from the home ministry to step up security.
Pilgrims now prefer Prayag, Allahabad and Varanasi as tour operators offer them a “less stressful” package which leaves Ayodhya out of the holy circuit.
Mahants and pandas (temple priests) have turned daily wage labourers. Guides and auto-drivers are jobless. The dharamshalas are mostly empty. Shops vending puja samagri (items for pujas) have started selling tea for Rs 1.50 a cup.
“There were 500 houses belonging to pandas,” says Ram Deen, who sells tea and bidis at Naya Ghat. “Now they scurry around looking for odd jobs. No bhog is offered in the temples as there are no pujas. What will those poor Brahmins do?”
The once-bustling pilgrim town has turned into a silent, brooding fort and residents blame politicians for their doom. “Ram ko chunav mudda banaoge to yehi hoga,” says Deepak Kumar, who used to make Rs 450 a day selling bangles, betel nuts and pan leaves until a few years ago. Today, Deepak says he is happy if he earns Rs 10 at the end of the day.
“Things became bad after the first riot of October 30, 1990,” Deepak says. “But now they are worse than it could ever get.”
Ram Bhajan has also seen his earnings dip to Rs 25 a day from Rs 300-350 earlier. In a dark corner of the shop, his wife Bhagwatidevi curses her fate. But Ram Bhajan is circumspect. “It’s not god,” he tells her. “It’s those doing business in his name who have ruined us.”
In the past one year, things have started looking rather ominous for Ayodhya’s small businessmen and pujaris. “Pilgrim traffic has come down by as much as 60 per cent,” says Sharad Sharma, VHP activist and editor of Ayodhya Samvad. “You can’t blame the people if they are so angry with the government.”
Mahant joins yatra
A day after boycotting the flagging-off of the chetavni rathyatra in protest against the “obtrusive” security there, Janmabhoomi Nyas president Mahant Ramachandra Paramhans today joined the yatra, vowing to begin constructing the temple on March 12 irrespective of the court decision on the issue.
Paramahans said he wanted “to teach Union home minister L.K. Advani a lesson”.
Earlier, the board had limited the supply to 120 MW against a demand of 325 MW. The restriction was withdrawn following a meeting between the CESC brass and the board in the presence of state power minister Mrinal Banerjee.
Banerjee said CESC had made a commitment that it will clear the current dues and part of the earlier arrears by February 7. The amount to received is around Rs 25 crore.
The minister, however, pointed that the dispute between two is not yet resolved and a meeting has been slated for January 27. “We are not happy as yet,” he said. “However, on the basis of the company’s commitment, we have decided to lift the restriction so that Calcuttans have respite from the problem of loadshedding,” he said.
Banerjee said the government would have to take a “hard decision” on CESC if it failed to offer a solution at the next meeting.
It was decided at today’s meeting that CESC will open a “designated account” in March where it will deposit earnings from its 1,300-odd high-tension consumers. Only the board will be able to withdraw money from this account. Rs 25-30 crore is expected to be deposited in this account every month.
The account has been proposed because CESC is debarred by financial institutions from opening letters of credit in favour of the board, Banerjee said. However, CESC will open a letter of credit in June when the designated account will cease to exist.
CESC has also been asked to pay in 12 installments Rs 53 crore, which has accumulated following its failure to honour the agreement with the board to pay Rs 6 crore per month to clear old dues.
It has been asked to give a detailed plan on how it will pay the arrears in the next four years. According to an agreement signed last February, CESC was supposed to clear the dues in five years. But it has not kept that commitment, Banerjee said.
Expressing doubts about the company’s sincerity in running CESC, he said the management had been asked about its intentions. “I will ask the question again in the next meeting because I have my own doubts about CESC’s motive. If they fail to run the company, they should inform us well in time so that we can make alternative arrangements,” he said.
Banerjee said arrears can always be rescheduled, but the same exercise cannot be repeated time and again. He said Sanjeev Goenka had assured him, on behalf of the management, of their abiding interest in the company. Goenka, who could not attend today’s talks because of his preoccupations in Delhi, will meet the minister on his return.
The organisation is particularly upset over the government’s attitude towards sub-divisional officers and ex-officio deputy secretaries.
In a strongly worded letter to chief secretary Sourin Roy, the association has demanded that the status of the sub-divisional officers and ex-officio deputy secretaries be clearly be spelt out and the “prevailing discrimination” between these two groups be removed.
Association members plan to meet chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee early next week to seek his intervention in the matter. “The anomalies have to be removed because this is affecting the morale of nearly 1,700 officers,” said an association spokesman.
“A WBCS (executive) officer on scale no 18 is too senior an officer to roam around the corridors with no defined role to play in the administration,” says a letter by the association’s general secretary, Jiban Chakrabarty.
Citing several instances of “aberrations” in the choice of WBCS officers for certain postings, the association contends that while many junior officers are handpicked to serve as sub-divisional officers, several of their seniors are made to languish in their old posts.
While age and mental and physical health conditions are cited as reasons for denying many senior officers higher ranks, some officers of the same or later batches are promoted as additional district magistrates, the association alleges. This leads to bitterness and demoralises sincere officers, it added.
The association has demanded that all officers of 1979 batch who are still posted as divisional officers be withdrawn as one officer of this batch has already been appointed as additional district magistrate in Malda.
Describing this as “unfair treatment to the officers of the same batch”, the association demanded that the officers concerned be posted either as additional district magistrates or be assigned to posts of equivalent rank “without any further delay”.
The association also came down heavily on the “present practice of sending the names of 10-15 officers by the department for selection of one officer in a particular department”.
The government sealed the borders with Bangladesh and Nepal, as well as all exit points from the city.
Following the attack, security has been beefed up in districts neighbouring Calcutta. The Railway Protection Force and the Government Railway Police will keep a close watch on people travelling in suburban trains from Howrah and Sealdah stations. Sniffer dogs have been engaged to detect explosives.
In Howrah, officers of the Intelligence Bureau are acting in tandem with Howrah police to tighten security at the Amta Sporting Ground where chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee will address a public rally tomorrow in connection with the CPM’s district conference. A crack commando force is being deployed at the venue, said Howrah superintendent of police C.V. Murlidhar.
All sensitive places, including the Howrah bridge, have been placed under a security blanket as they are easy targets, said Murlidhar, who reviewed the district’s law and order situation with senior officials from Central security agencies.
In North 24-Parganas, district police have been monitoring security in collaboration with CISF personnel posted at the Netaji Subhas Bose International Airport. Superintendent of police M. Harisen Verma said security personnel were checking long-distance trains and buses.
Police officials in Hooghly said patrolling has been intensified on the highway and all vehicles will have to undergo intensive checking. Plainclothes personnel are being deployed at the Bandel Thermal Power Plant.
All five districts in north Bengal bordering Bangladesh have come under the security scanner and BSF personnel guarding the border are on high alert. North Bengal inspector general of police N.R. Das met the police superintendents of five north Bengal districts to discuss security arrangements. Murshidabad superintendent of police Rajesh Kumar said special measures have been taken by police stations bordering Bangladesh.
“We are also in constant touch with BSF and CISF officials deployed at the Farakka barrage and the NTPC office,” he added. He admitted having received reports from security agencies that insurgents may target the Farakka barrage and other vital installations during the Republic Day celebrations. Metal detectors have been installed at the Farakka barrage as a precautionary measure.
A senior official attached to the district intelligence branch claimed that a section of unemployed youths recently joined the ISI and underwent training in Bangladesh. He said police were keeping tabs on the youths’ families.
Nadia superintendent of police Ramphal Pawar said steps were being taken to stop infiltration across the border. He said BSF and other Central forces have been put on alert.
Malda SP Pankaj Dutta said about 75 terrorists have entered the district from across the border. “We are yet to arrest any of the terrorists,” the police official added.
Sunrise: 6.25 am