The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A credibility question
- How Buddha govt miscalculated a crisis

Calcutta, Oct. 16: A non-political event — the death of a young man under controversial circumstances — followed by an essentially non-political campaign has forced Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to face avoidable questions about his government’s credibility.

Comparisons will be made with the government’s predicament over Nandigram, especially because that, too, led to Calcutta High Court ordering a CBI inquiry.

But the Rizwanur case has showed the government in a poorer light than even the death of 14 people in police firing at Nandigram.

Coming after the political storm over the Tata group’s small car project at Singur, the battle at Nandigram saw public opinion divided. At stake was the big issue of Bengal’s industrialisation. Those opposing it had their sympathisers, more so after the police firing. But the chief minister had large sections of the people on his side and they saw the protests and even the police action as inevitable consequences of a major policy drive.

Even if the Nandigram tragedy sparked widespread condemnation, there was no getting away from the fact that there were political players in it and, more important, that it was not one-sided aggression on the government’s part.

For all the political and administrative miscalculations that the CPM and the chief minister were accused of, there was no denying that policemen, too, had been attacked by some armed people.

Contrast all this with the known facts of the Rizwanur case. It had nothing to do with politics. The only way one could see him was as a victim. The only rational reaction to the reports of the role of the police had to be one of horror and revolt.

No inquiry report was needed into the exact cause of his death.

That the state and the police intervened in the personal lives of a young couple was enough to deeply disturb and agitate the people. The death of Rizwanur, perceived to be a tragic result of this illegal and unethical police action, was simply unacceptable.

What followed was a series of miscalculations that Bhattacharjee and his party must be ruing now. While the government dithered on its action, the party spoke in conflicting voices. Worse, Jyoti Basu seemed to try to make amends for the chief minister’s silence but ended up making the people more suspicious of the government’s real intentions.

Bhattacharjee’s position that the government could not take action against the police officers without a proper inquiry was not without its merit. But it smacked more of administrative nicety than either political will or a sincere attempt at finding out the truth.

The government had to inquire into two separate matters — the cause of Rizwanur’s death and the allegations about the role of the police. The CID inquiry that the government ordered failed to allay the doubts in people’s minds.

The judicial commission, which will take months to come up with its finding, was looked upon as adding insult to injury. Bhattacharjee’s repeated assurance that the guilty would not be spared made no impact on a doubting public.

The one thing that could have made a huge impact on the public mood was not done — the government took no action against the police officers who, according to verifiable evidence, had done all sorts of illegal things to break up Rizwanur’s marriage at the behest of Ashok Todi. An inquiry by the chief secretary or the home secretary would have had the credibility that the CID probe clearly lacked in the public mind.

The government’s bungling of the case would have been less evident had the protest over Rizwanur’s death taken on a political character.

Despite Mamata Banerjee trying to cash in on it or someone like Siddiqullah Choudhury seeking to mix his own agenda in it, the protest remained untouched by partisan or sectarian politics. What’s more, the protesters only lit candles, unlike the people in some districts who were burning down police jeeps and dealers’ shops over the pilferage of grain from ration shops.

The CPM was hugely embarrassed but it did not have a Mamata to fight in this case. The party stood isolated even from its partners in the Left Front, and ministers belonging to these parties openly joined the public criticism of the police in the case. Even a section of CPM leaders wondered why the government had not done enough to assuage the public anger.

When the Left Front meets tomorrow, the allies are sure to criticise the chief minister on the Rizwanur case. Two prompt measures are favoured in some Left circles as a damage-control exercise even at this stage — the state’s acceptance of the court order for the CBI probe, irrespective of the legal options, and immediate action against the guilty police officers.

The only way Bhattacharjee can retrieve the situation, even if partially, is by coming clean on the government’s intentions. A show of political will, albeit rather late, can still make the people feel that the government has nothing to hide and no guilty men to protect.

If it had moved before, the government could have avoided being seen as acting under pressure.

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