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21 July, 2020 21:00:24

Tuesday, July 21, 2020.This is the 27th edition of the red-letter day that heralded a new beginning in the history of Bengal’s political change that culminated with the Singur-Nandigram movement. There are a few watershed political campaigns and movements which have changed the course of history in the country for instance, the Food movement of 1965-1967. The trend of an impending change in the state politics was evident by 1967. 

Take for example the Bofors campaign that literally questioned the integrity of the Indian National Congress Party and dislodged it from its position of respectability. Or, the Emergency rule imposed by Mrs Indira Gandhi that led to the first major defeat of Congress in 1977. The manicured garden that had been tended for 30 long years by the Congress was mauled and destroyed by the Janata Dal who formed the first anti-Congress government in the Centre. The Ram Mandir issue, although it cannot be counted as one that added to the country’s development, none the less spearheaded a major change in the political scenario. But, all the movements mentioned above were initiated by political parties with strong all-India presence and senior experienced leaders. But in the case of July 21, Mamata Banerjee’s solo role is of paramount importance. Many compare her political ascension to Arvind Kejriwal’s rise but they forget that Kejriwal’s political ground was prepared by Anna Hazare’s movement. But there was no godfather, no Anna Hazare to give the necessary push or prepare the ground for Mamata Banerjee.

Today is the 27th year of Trinamool Congress’ Martyrs’ Day. In my career as a journalist, every year when I went to cover the Martyrs’ Day rally, it rained heavily on every occasion and every time Mamata Banerjee said, this rain is symbolic of the tears of the mothers whose sons were martyred on this day. Every year, preparations would have to be made well in advance by the organizers while building the elevated podium and arranging for crowd management on a mega scale. But this year, the situation is totally different. The Covid-19 pandemic is looming large and hence social gatherings, meetings etc are strictly prohibited. Under the present situation, the Trinamool Congress will today have its first mega virtual rally on July 21. The digital rally has garnered a lot of interest in the political circles. A lot depends on the success of this rally as this could be a trend-setter in future. If organizers find the response to virtual rallies is positive, who knows digital rallies would be the next level of communication between political parties and the masses. In a congested city like Kolkata, virtual rallies could provide the much-needed relief from road blocks and traffic jams in the future.

Although on almost all Martyrs’ Day on July 21, it rains heavily, on the fateful day in 1993, it did not. It was rather very warm and sultry. On that day, 13 youths were gunned down on the city road by personnel of the Calcutta Police Force.  All these youths hailed from very poor families. One needs to time travel and go back to 1984 to understand the political situation that culminated to the bloodbath on July 21. That year, the Prime Minister of India, Mrs Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her own security personnel. The same year, Mamata Banerjee defeated heavyweight Left Front candidate Somnath Chattopadhyay from Jadavpur to clench the Lok Sabha seat. She became a Member of Parliament (MP) for the first time. The girl from a poor family came to the forefront of politics. Soon after, she was seen whizzing past from one corner of Bengal to the other, focusing on problems of the common people, inspiring the weak and downtrodden to take up cudgels and fight for their rights, pacifying victims of social or political injustice and find solutions to myriad problems that people faced in their daily lives. Mamata was then the youngest leader in the Congress Party. Mamata was always very focused and wanted to shake the age-old edifices and bring about change in the system. She was soon seen as a threat my many senior congress leaders. The Leftists, who were at the helm of power in the state, realized a new leadership was forming within the Congress Party. 

Why was there a need for a Mamata Banerjee in Bengal politics? That is because, the Left Front government that had come to power in the state in 1977, had moved away from its ideals and principles. People could feel a change in their stance. The Left Front had perpetrated a reign of terror and resorted to barbaric crimes against humanity by openly torching Anandmargi Sanyasis and driving away Marichjhampi refugees from their land. There was no strong opposition in the state. The aftermath of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination affected the vote equation and then Mamata Banerjee’s victory heralded a new beginning in Indian politics.

In 1990, Mamata became the President of Youth Congress. That very year, on August 16, she called for a bandh to protest against the Left Front government’s sloppy governance, its inability to curb rising prices and unprovoked attack on Congress workers. During the bandh, she along with her coworkers had formed a human barricade and sat on Hazra Road when ruffians came with sticks and started beating her and her coworkers mercilessly and the police stood as spectators. Mamata was hit on her head. She was rushed to SSKM Hospital where a doctor later told me she could have died if the impact of the rod had been a wee bit more. The then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu had called the hospital to know about her condition. When he was nailed during a press meet about the identity of the goons, he nonchalantly said those who opposed the bandh had attacked her, making it quite clear that his party was behind the attack.

Mamata bounced back once she was released from hospital. She now realized she would have to fight from her battle from the frontline and decided to participate in the poll for the Congress Party president’s post in the state. She filed her nomination against Somen Mitra, an old-timer and a heavyweight in the state political hierarchy.  She lost the battle but not the will to fight. The next opportunity came on June 8, 1992. The Ballygunge Assembly polls was being held. Large scale rigging and booth captures by the Left Front workers was witnessed but no Congress leader was present to stall the proceedings. When Mamata heard this, she rushed at the site, asked her agent to leave the booth and announced to withdraw the party’s candidate. This created a ruckus and the police resorted to firing. One bystander was killed and this resulted in a major violence on Gariahat main road. 

Mamata realized the only way to stop unfair means in election was to launch proper voters’ identity cards and ensure free and fair polls. She routed for initiating the process and began her movement ‘No card, no vote.’ On this issue she called a meeting at Brigade Parade Ground on August 25, 1992. It was attended by a vast crowd and Mamata established the fact that she was the face of the Opposition party in the state. She brought a symbolic bell at the meeting and announced the bell was the death knell of the Left Front government. 

This was the ground for the incident that occurred on July 21, 1993. It was a Thursday. Mamata was leading a rally to the Writers’ Building, administrative epicentre of the state government.  Protesters gathered at four or five spots and from there they converged and moved towards the destination. The police fired at Mayor Road and Esplanade East. Thirteen youths were killed. They all had been hit above their waist. Wasn’t there any other way to stop the advancing protesters march? 

The ruling CPI (M) party remained nonchalant after such a major incident. Many had expected the party would take drastic step against such a criminal decision and remove the Calcutta Police Commissioner, but the government simply looked the other way and ignored the incident. This brings to mind the first such incident that occurred in August 1959  when the Congress Government under Bidhan Chandra Roy fired indiscriminately at protesters  participating in the food movement, the second one was in 1971 when police fired on suspected Naxalites at Kashipur-Baranagar and the on July 21, 1993, when 13 youths lost their lives in the political rally called by Mamata Banerjee. 

Every year, Mamata Banerjee announces her party’s agenda from the podium on 21st July. With crucial assembly polls just 10 months away, a typical July 21 rally would have been the most suitable platform for party supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to set the tone for next year's assembly polls. Many are looking forward to the virtual platform and how she spearheads her election roadmap for 2021. 

Story Tag:
  • Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal

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