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Mamata Government Resurrects Old and Discredited Law to Repress Protests

Mamata Banerjee had promised to change nepotism in recruitment of class D government jobs, but her government is now doing the same.

SFI and DYFI members march to Raj Bhavan in Kolkata in protest against the TET recruitment scam. Credit: Twitter/CPI(M)

SFI and DYFI members march to Raj Bhavan in Kolkata in protest against the TET recruitment scam. Credit: Twitter/CPI(M)

The recent unprovoked use of the aggressively repressive Maintenance of Public Order Act, 1972, resurrected and fortified by the Trinamool Congress regime in West Bengal, is an ominous signal for any public acts of opposition. Its use against a protest organised by the Students Federation of India (SFI) and the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) just over a month since the amended law was re-enacted is a troubling reminder of exactly how menacing its provisions were in the original, when it was indiscriminately used against young people suspected of having Naxalite or Left links by the Siddhartha Shankar Ray government.

The original law was used against any young person suspected of sympathising with the politics of revolution, which meant using violence to overturn the state itself. That was more than four decades ago.

The Trinamool Congress regime has now used it against protestors demanding transparency in the selection and appointment of jobs for primary school teachers who have qualified in the teachers eligibility tests, with no thought of overturning any established political order.

The original version of the Maintenance of Public Order Act was armed with special provisions to deal with preventing the illegal acquisition, possession or use of arms, and suppress “subversive activities endangering public safety and tranquillity”. The definition of “public safety” and “tranquillity” was not clear 45 years ago and still remains opaque.

Why, then, did the Trinamool Congress regime feel that public safety and tranquillity had been so seriously subverted on March 10 that it used the Act against the eight leaders who went to Raj Bhavan? One possible answer is that the eight consisted of people like West Bengal DYFI president Sayandip Mitra, DYFI’s Kolkata unit secretary Indrajit Ghosh, state SFI president Madhuja Sen Roy and other SFI leaders, including three women.

These arrests could therefore be intimations to the opposition that public demonstrations against the Trinamool government will invite the harshest provisions of the new law. That the government subsequently reconsidered its position and wanted to quickly cover up the situation is clear from the attempt to release the leaders through the special court hearings. If so, it was a hasty step to erase from public memory the use of the Act for an issue that is very sensitive and, in reality, politically embarrassing.

The irony is that from 2009 up until February this year, West Bengal has been convulsed in protests, hunger strikes, attempted suicides, violent clashes with the police and effigy burning of ministers over a scam in the teacher recruitment process. Roads have been blocked and protestors have clashed over the opacity and delays in declaring results and announcing the list of eligible candidates. Litigation has been a part of the peaceful mode of protest, including cases that were heard by the Supreme Court. On March 10, the day the 104 protestors were arrested, there are no reports to indicate that subversive activities had occurred, that public safety and tranquillity had been disturbed.

The turbulence of the 1970s has dwindled to a quiet desperation. The concern of today’s youth is to find a job, any job that holds out the promise of being stable, even if the pay is paltry, because opportunities and options have dried up, if not evaporated in West Bengal over the last 10 years.

In digging this law out of a deep burial pit and adding amendments to further strengthen it, the Mamata Banerjee government has turned an already draconian law into an instrument of wider coercion. Banerjee’s version of the law adds community vigilance to the armoury of repression, by declaring that inhabitants of the locality where public and private property was damaged as a result of subversive activities endangering public safety and tranquillity would also be held accountable for the disturbance. Compensation for the damage to public or private property would be collected from the protestors as well as the inhabitants of the place where the subversive activities had occurred.

In other words, the community would police potential protestors. Vigilantism – that is, law enforcement undertaken without legal authority by a self-appointed group of people – will be used to gag the fundamental and democratic right to protest. It could, therefore, turn into another way of co-opting the locals of an area into the ranks of a Trinamool Congress brigade to enforce “public safety and tranquillity.”

Self-appointed or politically inducted people acting as vigilantes has dark history. It has been used by every repressive regime across the world, including the fascists and the communists under Stalin and Mao Zedong, peaking during the Cultural Revolution period.

If almost every state has its own Vyapam scam, so does West Bengal. The government announced recently that it would take in 72,000 primary school teachers from the 1.23 lakhs who qualified in the Teachers Entrance Test (TET), out of the 20 lakh who took the tests. The education minister, Partha Chatterjee, assured the eligible that “the process would be conducted with utmost transparency,” after the due verification of “information”.

What has transpired instead is that the list of the eligible has not been uploaded on any website, creating uncertainty about who was selected and why. The eligible were sent text messages informing them of their selection, but no letters were initially distributed. During counselling, the eligible were kept waiting for hours as the process in some places went on till midnight. Then, many appointees were informed that, on “verification”, the information provided by them had disqualified them for the jobs.

To protest against the process of verification, selection and appointment, on March 10, SFI and DYFI walked in a procession to Raj Bhavan, for which the police had given permission, to submit a petition to governor Kailash Nath Tripathi. The procession then went to Kolkata’s famous protest space, Esplanade, and sat in dharna. The police pounced on the protestors; 104 were rounded up, packed in police vans and taken to the lock up. On March 11, the protestors were taken to the court, where the magistrate let off 94 of them, as the charges were under Section 151 where bail is applicable. Two protestors – Nikhil Maity and Arup Roy – were seriously injured and could not be produced in court as they were in hospital. The remaining eight, who were leaders of SFI and DYFI, were charged under non-bailable sections and the Maintenance of Public Order Act, so the magistrate sent them to jail custody.

What emerges clearly is the immediate reaction of the West Bengal government – overkill – in the deployment of the strongest legal weapons that it has to repress protests, however peaceful, against growing unease that nepotism and not merit has become the regime’s established way of doing things.

Among other things, it was to overthrow the “interference” by the “party” – the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – in the process of appointment to government jobs, in the private everyday lives of citizens where Banerjee had first raised the slogan of poriborton or change. She had promised that merit and transparency would be the values by which her government would function. Instead, the selection and appointment of primary school teachers who qualified in the TET has become mired in allegations of nepotism and corruption by the ruling party. Even the opposition has been embroiled in the mess; a BJP vice president, Jay Prakash Majumder, was arrested for taking money against assurances of giving eligible TET candidates jobs.

The situation has every possibility of becoming worse as reports have surfaced that Trinamool Congress legislators, all 211 of them, have been directed to send in five names each to the party’s chief whip, Nirmal Ghosh, for appointment as Group D staff in the West Bengal government. Since the Group D selections are made on the basis of examinations, a merit list and through public notification, the reports point to out of turn appointments as a political gambit to buy support ahead of the panchayat elections due next year.

Should more protests break out, over more land grab by warring factions of the Trinamool Congress or even the appointment of Group D staff on the recommendations of Trinamool Congress legislators, can the government politically afford to use the Maintenance of Public Order Act? The original law was controversial, because it was based on the notorious Maintenance of Internal Security Act, which was used and abused by the Indira Gandhi regime to suppress opposition protests. Hubris caught up with Ray and Gandhi for using repression – declaring Emergency, suspending habeas corpus and fundamental rights – to subvert India’s democracy. Hubris could be waiting in the wings in West Bengal too.