Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Blood and Bandh- Front’s force kills five Bloc activists

Blood and Bandh
- Front's force kills five Bloc activists

Feb. 5: The blood of its own supporters today stained Bengal's ruling Left Front for the first time since it came to power 30 years ago.

Police opened fire on activists of the Forward Bloc, the front's second-largest partner, killing five protesters after the party's law-violation programme turned violent in north Bengal's Dinhata town, about 725km from Calcutta.

Bloc state secretary Asoke Ghosh condemned the firing as "barbaric" and called it a "shame" but ruled out withdrawing from the coalition.

The party has called a 24-hour state-wide bandh from 6am tomorrow, the first time a front constituent has called one against its own government. The Trinamul Congress, the Congress and the SUCI have extended support to the bandh, while front partner RSP has lent "moral support".

The Bloc has launched the law-violation programme to press for the implementation of a charter of demands that includes several hot-button issues.

The charter opposes special economic zones and big capital's entry into retail. But beneath the veneer, a battle for inheritance could also be at play with some similarities to the Mumbai violence by supporters of Raj Thackeray.

If the Mumbai vandalism was blamed on Raj, the Dinhata protest was led by Udayan Guha, the son of Kamal Guha, the Forward Bloc strongman who is no more. Unlike Raj, Udayan inherited his father's mantle but had been unable to hold on to it, losing the election to the Trinamul Congress last time.

The "law-violation" is the first programme in which Udayan is hogging the limelight, fuelling speculation that he is trying to regain the family pocket borough.

Police sources said 10,000 Bloc supporters marched up to the Dinhata sub-divisional office about an hour after noon, led by Udayan, the district secretary, as three rows of policemen stood guard.

The protesters, demanding that the government act on the Bloc's "pro-people" charter of demands, breached the first barrier. Events soon spun out of control, triggering arson, tear-gassing and eventually firing . Unofficial sources said about 50 rounds had been fired.

Bloc supporters said they heard Dinhata police station inspector-in-charge Sudhangshu Roy give the firing orders.

Four of the dead have been identified as Indrajit Chakrabarty, 25, who had just got a job through the School Service Commission, Niren Haldar, 65, a party leader, Swapan Mahanta, 50, a Bloc whole-timer, and Pradip Burman, 35, an employee of Dinhata municipality. The fifth person has not been identified yet.

The bodies lay on the road till fire brigade personnel took them to hospital.

Nearly 50 people, including 25 police personnel, were injured. Eight Bloc supporters suffered bullet injuries.

The crowd did turn violent but a preliminary assessment suggests the police fired indiscriminately – a charge levelled against the force after the March 14 firing in Nandigram which changed the complexion of the protest there and made it a national issue.

Most of those hit in Dinhata were shot above the waist — and the dead in the head or neck — which goes against guidelines laid down for crowd control.

The parallel with Nandigram and the telltale marks today raise questions whether Bengal police have either the skill or the resources to manage violent crowds.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who reached Delhi this evening, said soon after landing that "this is not an appropriate time" to comment but sources said the government was unhappy with the way the police responded in Dinhata.

Bloc leaders alleged a CRPF squad at the site also opened fire but officials said the central force was "only standing by".

Cooch Behar police chief Anil Kumar said his force had "no other means" to stop the violence. "They seemed determined to ransack the SDO's office and set it on fire."

Bloc secretary Ghosh, whose party has 23 MLAs, took pains to make a distinction between the police and the government. "We have called the police action barbaric and demonic. Had we described the government in the same terms, we would not have continued to be a part of it," he added.

"We are in the Left Front out of political necessity. So long as the necessity is there, we are with the front and will continue to be a part of it," Ghosh said.

But the veteran communist, who had criticised the government's industrialisation drive, had no harsh words for the chief minister who also holds the police portfolio.

"We have not demanded the police minister's resignation. Neither have we sought any explanation or condemnation of the police firing from the chief minister," Ghosh said.

Both Bhattacharjee and front chairman Biman Bose have spoken to Ghosh. In a statement this evening, the CPM called the incident "unfortunate and sad", but held the Bloc responsible for the violence.

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