A freelance photographer associated with The Telegraph faced on Wednesday what five police officers did on Tuesday: the fury of autorickshaw drivers who think it is their right to flout and nobody’s business to question them.
Anup Bhattacharya had taken a few pictures of autos illegally carrying five or six passengers on Elliot Road, parallel to Park Street, when around 30 drivers surrounded and threatened to kill him if he did not delete the shots from his camera.
The drivers pushed him against a wall, hurled abuse and forced him to delete at least 10 pictures of rule violations by autos. The intimidation continued for several minutes before police answered an SOS from a reporter with The Telegraph and rescued him.
The freelance photographer recounts to Metro the terrifying experience of being held hostage by a mob of auto rogues.
I had been assigned to take pictures of autos violating rules across the city despite a police crackdown and the transport minister’s warnings.
All journalists are mentally prepared to encounter hostility in certain situations, but what happened on Wednesday was well beyond what you would call an occupational hazard.
I had already taken pictures of autos breaking lanes and going beyond the stop line at signals on Tollygunge Circular Road and the Rashbehari Avenue crossing. I reached Elliot Road around 2.50pm to capture instances of autos on that stretch carrying more than four passengers.
I started to walk along the northern pavement of Elliot Road when some autos carrying five or even six passengers passed by. I took pictures of three such vehicles and was walking in the direction opposite the AJC Bose Road crossing when, all of a sudden, I heard screams from behind. Before I could turn back to look, an auto that had crossed me turned around and braked right in front of me.
Four persons jumped out of the auto and shouted in unison: “Aap photo kyun le rahe ho (Why are you taking photos)?’ Before I could answer them, another group of about seven to eight auto drivers surrounded me and started hurling abuse.
“Show us what pictures you have taken?” they demanded.
I told them I was not a press photographer and was taking general pictures of the streets. I also claimed that my photographs of Calcutta streets was on display at a popular gallery. I had no other way to save myself but to lie. As I tried to stave off a possible assault by keeping them engaged in conversation, they pushed and shoved me.
“Jaan se maar dalenge (We will kill you),” some of them threatened, holding me against the wall of a building near the crossing.
They forced me to delete a series of pictures. I kept smiling all along to give the drivers the impression that I was not nervous although I was terrified within.
Five to six minutes had passed and the thought of a mob attack wasn’t far from my mind. I knew nobody would be able to save me then from the 30-odd auto drivers holding me hostage.
My colleague Subhajoy Roy was around 30 metres ahead. We had maintained the gap so that he could alert me over phone on spotting an overloaded auto and nobody would come to know about it. Now I wasn’t sure he knew I was in trouble.
Fortunately for me, he saw from far that I was being held hostage and telephoned the officer-in-charge of the Park Circus Traffic Guard, Tanmoy Upadhyay. He told the officer that the auto drivers might lynch me if the police were late.
Upadhyay responded immediately. Within two minutes of the call, sergeant Biplab Mondal arrived on his motorbike with a constable, Beshra. Seeing the policemen, three to four auto drivers fled.
Two more sergeants, some cops in civvies and the additional officer-in-charge of Park Street police station, Pradip Kumar Pal, arrived in another couple of minutes. The auto drivers who had been threatening to assault me suddenly dispersed.
The police team took me to Park Street police station, where I lodged a complaint in which I mentioned the registration numbers of three autos, based on the photographs that were not deleted from my memory card. Two of the three autos were seized and their drivers arrested for wrongful restraint, voluntarily causing hurt and criminal intimidation.
(Drivers Md Saddam and Md Naushad have since got bail. The third driver is absconding.)
I still shudder at the thought of what might have been. What if my colleague hadn’t been around? What if the police hadn’t turned up quickly?
I am also convinced that auto drivers in this city think they are above the law. The police started a crackdown last Monday and are prosecuting autos for violations that were earlier ignored. But the drivers are carefree as ever.
The only sign of hope on Wednesday was that the police’s arrival forced the auto drivers who had surrounded me to disperse. The few who remained in sight started behaving quite differently. It proved that if the police want to enforce the law, they can.