Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Sreemoy Talukdar - Police ineffective as goons rule the roost in Bengal // Sandip Roy: Why Are We Silent On The Violence Against The Madrasa Teacher Who Taught 'Jana Gana Mana'?

NB: The rise of rampant criminality in West Bengal is accompanied by freedom for communal forces to intimidate anyone they like. Readers may note that Kazi Masum Akhtar, the liberal Muslim cleric who was beaten up last year for "trying to be a Rushdie", has been subjected to further intimidation, and the police has refused to provide him security. Nor have the mass media paid much attention to his plight. Goons of the TML enjoy complete freedom to assault anyone they like, and political opponents of the TML live in constant fear. The situation is headed for a conflagration, that will combine communal violence with neutralisation of the police. DS
Leave alone evoking fear in the minds of law-breakers, cops in Bengal now evoke laughter and derision, their non-existent spine replaced by a pliable apparatus that nods in favour of the criminals. An independent, bold police force that is subservient to no one has always been a pipe dream in the state, if not in the country. Ruling parties have always treated law enforcement agencies as their tools.

But what has changed in the last four and a half years since the Trinamool Congress came to power is a near-total erosion of authority. The police's will to act has been systematically grinded down and a situation created where officers are scared of losing their jobs while imposing the rule of law. Last Sunday, for instance, the local police station at Kaliachak in Bengal's Malda district was set on fire, many important and incriminating documents burnt to ashes and around 40 vehicles, including police and BSF cars, torched when a massive Muslim protest rally turned violent.

Subhabrata Ghosh, the inspector-in-charge of Kaliachawk police station, and other officers were wounded when protesters drove them out and set on fire part of the police station including the barracks and then ransacked the nearby houses. Two persons reportedly sustained bullet injuries. 
No arrests, though, have been made following the incident in Kaliachak, which is also the hub of fake currency smuggling racket in Bengal, leading Malda south Congress MP Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury to claim that Sunday's violence was another evidence of "utter lawlessness in the state”. "None has been arrested even after such an alarming incident in Kaliachak under my parliamentary constituency. Police personnel were attacked, documents were torched. Police had to flee. Despite being so badly humiliated they could not nab any one yet," Choudhury was quoted, as saying.

Incidentally, Sunday also saw a bizarre defence by the police who refused to come in aid of Kazi Masum Akhtar, the headmaster of Kolkata's Talpukur Aara High Madrasa, who has reportedly been banned from its precincts and assaulted for training students to sing the national anthem ahead of the Republic Day. Akhtar, who on earlier occasions had courted the wrath of local clerics over issues such as modern syllabus, education of girls and child marriage, cannot set foot in his madrasa and has to record his attendance at an education department office to draw his salary. Expressing his helplessness, Kolkata Police Commissioner has written to the chairman of the Minorities Commission, stating that he was not in a position to provide security to Akhtar as “his presence in the area might lead to communal tension”.

With the Assembly elections due in four months and ruling Trinamool Congress going all out to ensure that the minority vote stays firmly in its kitty, the police have learnt not to upset the powers-that-be. They know that if they do, the pink slip won't be late in coming.

In 2013, Kolkata's top cop RK Pachnanda was summarily removed from his post two days after a sub-inspector died in the city's Garden Reach area during clashes between Congress and TMC workers at a college election. According to a report in The Telegraph, Pachnanda was removed as police commissioner for not framing the FIR in the murder as dictated by a TMC minister and approved by the party leadership.

The Kolkata police chief was shocked at the idea of a false FIR to save some goons who had killed an officer-in-duty. His force, too, was angry. A senior colleague had reportedly told the commissioner: “Sir, we have to act now or the morale of the police will collapse. A sub-inspector has been killed and there can be no further excuse for us.” Pachnanda defied the diktat. An FIR was filed against the key accused and 10 persons, many with TMC links, were rounded up. His sacking was made official less than 48 hours later by the Chief Minister on her return from Digha.

That the police have learnt their valuable lesson became clear when last year, in a re-run of the Garden Reach murder, another police officer took a bullet, this time during the Kolkata Corporation elections. Sub-inspector Jagannath Mondal was shot at while trying to disperse a group who were allegedly led by the husband of a TMC candidate. Mondal survived the attack but key culprits remained untouchable amid a blizzard of complaints that the police were shielding TMC supporters.

City police commissioner Surajit Kar Purkayastha, who apparently had no knowledge even one hour after his colleague was wounded, visited Mondal at the hospital but that failed to rev up a demoralised police force. "After spending a day like puppets in the hands of a ruling party, getting a bullet was the last nail in the coffin. Even a police officer being shot in daylight in the heart of north Calcutta did not appear to have stirred the conscience of our higher-ups. The probe is now progressing at its own pace. It is clear the allegiance of the bosses lies with the political masters and not the foot soldiers," an officer was quoted as saying by The Telegraph.

Mamata Banerjee, who visited the officer in hospital along with the police commissioner, praised the police's handling of corporation polls: "Calcutta police is the man of the match. I thank and congratulate my entire Calcutta police family." CPI(M) MP Md Salim blames Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who has kept for herself the police portfolio, for subverting the power structure and demoralising the force. "Law, police manual, orders from the High Court or Supreme Court are no longer the guiding principles for the police in Bengal. "For every action, they wait for a decision from the CM. They are dependent on her whims and fancies. This has completely sapped their morale and destroyed their prestige. They are unsure whether to save their jobs or act in accordance with the law," the CPI(M) Politburo member told Firstpost.

The optics aren't good. In November 2014, a TMC-backed mob barged into the Alipore police station, ostensibly enraged over the administration's attempts to evict encroachers from a piece of land owned by the state public works department. In a scene straight out of a Bollywood potboiler, law-enforcement officers were seen hiding behind cupboards, diving under the table and using files as protective shields to save themselves from being beaten up right inside a police station. The five perpetrators who were arrested were later released on bail.

Or in May last year when the chief minister criticised her own cops in the state Assembly for booking five youngsters, including the niece of the Kolkata mayor, in connection with a road accident. The constable in question later told reporters that the occupants of the car shouted at him, snatched his notebook and threatened that they would have him kicked out of the job.

When incidents such as these take place, it serves to not only take away the fear of the law and deterrence perception leading to less compliance from citizens, the cops conversely suffer a crippling blow to their confidence that they will be backed by the system in discharging their duties. And each time, the bar is set even lower. In December last year, the high court had to issue a threat of calling in the Army because the police have failed to carry out its order of forcing encroachers to vacate a plot in the city's Naktala area. “There is lawlessness… how is it possible that some people would agitate right in front of the city police commissioner? One person threatened to end his life with kerosene. I have come to know that the commissioner was there with a 500-strong force. Why could he not do anything? I will not spare anybody… if needed, I will call the army to tackle the issue,” observed Justice Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya.

The commissioner's dilemma is understandable since the plot has a club backed by TMC leaders and a defunct pumping station. "When top cops are busy clubbing or staying in the good books of the CM, why would constables or sub-inspectors risk their lives or their jobs?" asked Md Salim, adding, "This has become an administration run by criminals." A charge reiterated by Sidharth Nath Singh, the BJP national secretary. "There is no rule of law in the state. The goons, backed by the ruling party, have no fear of the police as we saw during last year's municipal elections," he told Firstpost.

It isn't the opposition alone who are crying foul. “There is no control. Those who are assaulting policemen on duty and ransacking police stations are being patronised by a section of the ruling party. Senior police officials who should intervene are silent. This trend is dangerous and can have serious consequences," AP Mukerjee, former director general of WB police, has been quoted as saying.

Violence Against Madrasa Teacher Who Taught 'Jana Gana Mana'
Kazi Masum Akhtar should be bigger news than he is. When the headmaster of a madrasa is beaten up for training his students to sing the national anthem it should create a bigger furore than it has. As of now only a couple of media outlets have reported the story. Akhtar is the headmaster of the Talpukur Ara High Madrasah in Kolkata. According to the New Indian Express he was training his students to sing the national anthem for Republic Day. But he ended up being “viciously assaulted by maulanas and their henchmen” who called the national anthem a “sacrilege” and a “Hindutva song”.

That is a bizarre claim in itself since Jana Gana Mana is a pet peeve of the Hindutva brigade who insist, despite Tagore’s own statement to the contrary, that it is obeisance to the King Emperor and would rather have Vande Mataram as the national anthem.  
The maulanas may have well done the beleaguered Jana Gana Mana a favour.

Except this is not a story about just the national anthem. This is an older feud with Kazi Masum Akhtar. According to the Hindustan Times, way back in March 2015, Akhtar came under fire for not wearing a skull cap and being clean-shaven. His wife told HT that the members of the managing committee asked him to mail photographs to the school to see if his appearance passed muster.

Also Akhtar writes in Bengali dailies and a column calling for strong actions against madrasas which harbor terrorists and an end to early marriages for girls irked many in the local community. 
Even back in June 2015, the state education department unable to find a workable and safe solution was allowing him to mark attendance at the office of the district inspector of schools. What the New Indian Express article does not make clear is how he was back at the school teaching the national anthem under those circumstances all of which again underscores the fact that the story has not been covered in depth.

In March 2015, an incensed mob surrounded the school and beat him up with iron rods before police could get to him. They were angered, among other things, by an article he had written giving a historical perspective to the Battle of Karbala. He told the Indian Express he got calls saying “Are you trying to become another Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen? You will be eliminated.” The local police officer in charge told the paper they got a counter FIR where local Muslims alleged he was hurting the community’s feeling by promoting anti-Islam statements.

While many details appear confusing, what is clear is this is not a stray incident. According to the New Indian Express, Akhtar has appealed to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the governor and the chair of the State Minorities Commission six times but to no avail. The Indian Express reported in April 2015 that its investigations had revealed that the Metiabruz madrasah managing committee had petitioned the board to remove him because of an “atmosphere of tension”. At that time the Kolkata municipal elections were around the corner and the government had no interest in alienating powerful local community leaders. The Non-Party Democratic Forum had rallied by Akhtar’s side saying it “signals a forthcoming Talibanistic orthodox reign of terror for all citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims alike".

Ironically, the same Akhtar was recommended for the state government’s Shiksha Ratna award for best teacher in the state shortly before the trouble started. The national anthem controversy has thrust him into the news because it is so egregious but this is the story of a longer tussle between the belief system of a teacher and the religious leaders of the community which he is serving. One could argue that his “progressive” beliefs are a mismatch in the more orthodox community where he works. But nothing can ever justify a mob with iron rods attacking the headmaster of the school.

Kazi Masum Akhtar deserves our attention because every act of intolerance, especially intolerance that leads to violence, deserves to be condemned with equal vigour. If VHP or Bajrang Dal vigilantes decide to strong-arm theatres to stop screening Shah Rukh Khan’s 
Dilwaale in Mangalore because of his comments about “intolerance” or the Sri Ram Sene drag women out of pubs, they deserve to be condemned. 

Those who threaten Vidya Dinker - the Citizens Forum activist in Mangalore fighting against the spate of “immoral policing”- with rape, assault and murder, should be charged just as those who beat up Akhtar should be charged with assault. When police turns a blind eye to verbal violence, harassment and intimidation because it fears “tension” it sends a green signal to thugs of all sides that they can get away with more.

And that is what seems to have happened in this case as well. The Mamata Banerjee government has actually been good at nipping attempts to create communal tension in the bud. (Remember the furore over the missing fourteen-year-old girl which given communal colours before she suddenly returned home?) But at the same time it has been accused of pandering to the minority community for votes. As a result the police seem unwilling or unable to stand up to bullying to protect the likes of a Kazi Masum Akhtar. That is why we should ensure Kazi Masum Akhtar’s case is not just a local news footnote. In many ways he stood up for the national anthem. Hopefully the media will also stand up for him.

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