Kolkata: Action by the Centre and the reaction to it by the Mamata Banerjee government has given birth to the latest bout of politics in West Bengal, as the state fights the spread of the coronavirus.
The Union home ministry on April 19 issued an order and set up six Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCTs) for West Bengal, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh to examine lockdown violations, social distancing norms and preparedness with regards to health infrastructure.
Early on Monday (April 20), two teams, each comprising five senior-level bureaucrats, reached Kolkata. The two teams were tasked to visit seven districts — Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Kalimpong in the north, and Howrah, North 24 Parganas, Medinipur and the state capital, Kolkata — to investigate the reports of violation of lockdown rules.
Shortly afterwards, West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee took to Twitter.
I urge both Honb’le Prime Minister @NarendraModi Ji & Home Minister @AmitShah Ji to share the criterion used for this. Until then I am afraid, we would not be able to move ahead on this as without valid reasons this might not be consistent with the spirit of federalism. (2/2)
— Mamata Banerjee (@MamataOfficial) April 20, 2020
During her daily COVID-19 briefing from Nabanna, the state secretariat, the West Bengal chief secretary Rajiva Sinha said, “Without even asking us, the Central teams have entered the state and surprisingly started moving with the BSF [Border Security Force]. They are behaving as if we are hiding something. Until we meet and brief them on the situation, we won’t allow them to move around the state. We all have to combat corona[virus] together.”
Mamata Banerjee then took what was already a brewing situation a step further and wrote an angry letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and said sending teams without intimating the state in advance was a “breach of established protocol.”
She wrote to Modi that while the Home Minister spoke to her at around 1 pm on April 20 to inform her about the visit of the IMCT, the teams had already landed in “Kolkata airport at 10.10 am via the AI Special Cargo flight.”
Banerjee also contested the Union home ministry order which states that the lockdown had been violated in Bengal and the situation was “specifically serious” in some districts. “The selection of districts and observations made unilaterally are nothing but figments of imagination and unfortunate,” she wrote in the letter.
The chief minister stressed that her government had been proactive in announcing a lockdown and its extension, even allegedly before it was announced by the Central government. “Such unilateral action on the part of the central government is not desirable at all,” she wrote.
A member of the IMCT sent to Bengal, meanwhile, has alleged that the team has been refused to do their job in Bengal. NDTV quoted Apurva Chandra, a senior Defence Ministry official who is heading the Kolkata team, who told the news agency ANI that Bengal has been particularly problematic in extending cooperation to this team.
“We were assured we could visit places today [April 21]. Today we were informed there were some issues and we will not be going out,” Chandra reportedly said.
Origin of the tussle
The genesis of the stalemate started with another letter dating to April 10. The Union home ministry, in this letter to the West Bengal government, based on reports from security agencies, stated that “gradual dilution of lockdown has been reported in the state…”
It further states that non-essential shops were allowed to function, religious congregations have allegedly been allowed and there is crowding at ration shops where political leaders have been seen distributing rations.
Specifically, it identified areas like Rajabazar, Narkeldanga, Topsia, Garden Reach, Ikbalpur and Maniktala, where complete violations of social distancing norms were observed. Interestingly, four out of the six above-mentioned locations are Muslim-dominated pockets of Kolkata.
In the following days, The Wire visited each of these markets and many others in the city but couldn’t differentiate the aforementioned locations from the rest. Markets in Kolkata predominantly occupy in narrow lanes and are cramped, enclosed locations.
That said, people have flouted social distancing norms in almost every market in the city. Local television channels have shown how social distancing norms were not followed in districts of West Bengal such as Purulia, Siliguri, Birbhum, Rampurhat, Jhargram, and so on.
The MHA’s order highlighting just six markets where people allegedly violated social distancing rules stands out.
Stop dirty COVID politics #ModiShah
Sending 2 Inter Min Teams to WB to check COVID after 3 districts on list already non hotspots according to Union Health Min! Also Maha 2, Raj 1 & MP 1 team
Coincidence 3/4 are Oppn states? Only 1 team to MP w/no health min & worst stats? UP? pic.twitter.com/svAcaBFb0N
— Mahua Moitra (@MahuaMoitra) April 20, 2020
Moreover, in the last two weeks, local administration along with police, have shifted most markets to nearby fields and parks, in an attempt to maintain social distancing norms. The Entally market has been shifted to a nearby field, Gorabazar in Dum Dum has been moved to the Central Jail Maidan, parts of Nagerbazar have moved to two nearby grounds.
On April 17, while briefing the media, Mamata Banerjee told the police that wherever necessary, armed personnel should be deployed at marketplaces to ensure there is no crowding. The lockdown should be enforced more strongly than before, she had said.
The charges in the MHA order have similarity with the charges Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state president Dilip Ghosh has levelled against the state government for days. Ghosh had also suggested favouritism.
“People are not receiving rations in many areas. In most places, TMC leaders are distributing ration to their own supporters, and common people are being deprived. This has been going on since the beginning of the lockdown,” Ghosh told media.
Meanwhile, West Bengal police in Bankura district has booked Bankura’s BJP MP Subhas Sarkar under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Disaster Management Act (DMA), 2005, for allegedly spreading false alarms.
This happened after the chief minister’s warning of “strict legal actions” that will be taken against people spreading misinformation around COVID-19.
Targeting the Mamata-led administration, Sarkar on April 13 wrote on social media: “I raised the issue of two bodies being secretly buried. Fortunately, none of them tested positive. But the secrecy and the manner in which the burial took place itself caused panic among the people of the district.”
Similar allegations were later levelled by other BJP leaders, including the party’s IT cell national head, Amit Malviya.
The next allegation came when another saffron party MP, Alipurduars’ John Barla, in a letter to Amit Shah mentioned the ‘gross injustice’ being meted out by the state. Barla also said he had been put under ‘house arrest’ by the state administration.
Barla said the state government seized all the relief materials and brought him back to his house when he had gone out to help those in need.
BJP MP from Barrackpore, Arjun Singh has alleged that the police have restricted him from going to provide relief materials. On Thursday, Singh tweeted, “While on the way to the distribution of food packets and other necessities, I have been detained by the police at Amdanga, under my LS constituency.”
Singh has also taken to Twitter on the current issue and alleged that the Bengal government has proven exceptionally uncooperative with the Centre.
केंद्रीय टीमों को बाकी राज्यों में सहयोग मिल रहा है सिवाय बंगाल के।
केंद्रीय टीम बंगाल को कोरोना से बचाने आयी है लेकिन दीदी बंगाल में ‘कोरोना-राज’ चलाना चाहती हैं। 2/2#IndiafightsCorona#DidifightsModi
— Arjun Singh (@ArjunsinghWB) April 21, 2020