| A member of the US air force team walks past an aircraft in Calcutta on Friday. Picture by Amit Datta
New Delhi, Nov. 4: Manmohan Singh’s government has given permission to the Left to “dissent by consent” against the India-US air force exercises to be held out of Kalaikunda in Bengal next week even as F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft from Japan landed in the eastern Indian air force station today.
The cabinet committee on security was summoned by the Prime Minister for an unscheduled meeting late last night ' despite meeting on Thursday morning ' and it discussed the Left’s proposed protest against the drill named Cope India 2005.
Some CPM activists demonstrated outside the airport in Calcutta as US crew members arrived en route to Kalaikunda and in front of the hotel where they put up.
But the protest against growing India-US military ties does not in any way reflect the storm raised in another November 37 years ago (November 21, 1968) when huge crowds on Calcutta’s streets barricaded the path of World Bank president Robert McNamara.
McNamara was also defence secretary in an earlier avatar and was alleged to have masterminded the Napalming of Vietnamese villages.
Many of the US air force elements participating in Cope India 2005 would have seen action in recent wars and the US embassy in Delhi wanted to be assured about their security. It has been told that the Kalaikunda base has been prepared to international standards and a team of the US air force visited it in September.
The Left’s call to its supporters to mobilise in thousands at Kalaikunda near Kharagpur on Monday ' the day the two-week exercise begins ' figured largely in the discussions of the security committee last night and again at a meeting of a cabinet core group this morning.
Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee was present at both meetings as was the chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi.
The government was given to understand that what the Left will “do on the road will not matter on the runway”.
Mukherjee reported to the committee that he had spoken to Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and had been assured that the state government would deploy police in adequate numbers to guard the perimeter of the Kalaikunda air force station outside which the Left protest may be held.
“Everything has been sorted out,” Mukherjee said this morning.
Transport aircraft of the Indian and American air forces have been ferrying equipment and crew for Cope India 2005 over the past week. A little nervousness had resulted out of what is called an unscheduled protest at Calcutta airport' which is the secondary airbase for the exercise ' last afternoon.
There is a major technical reason for the exercise to be held out of Kalaikunda. There is freer airspace for war games over the Bay of Bengal than there is from air force stations inland.