Calcutta, Nov. 21: Chief minister Mamata Banerjee today put responsibilities of governance before demands for payback by a section of civil society that described as "fascist" the denial of permission to hold a protest in the heart of the city to push for demands voiced by Maoists.
"There are many who had supported me before the elections and have turned away since then…. It does not matter to me," Mamata said today in response to a chorus of criticism from several card-carrying members of the "susheel samaj" who had rallied around her before the Assembly elections.
If the irony of one-time friends clawing at each other was striking, so was the transformation of a politician whose street-fighting years suggested she would forever remain a rabble-rouser and would be unable to make the crossover that governance demands.
At the forefront of the critics was author and activist Mahasweta Devi who asked "have we invited fascism?"
The alleged provocation was the denial of permission for a rights outfit to use Metro Channel — the passage near Esplanade that is frequently held to ransom by those championing democratic rights to trample the right of movement of other citizens — to hold a protest.
Police said the venue was already "booked" by a Trinamul union and the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) secured permission to hold the programme at another venue.
That neither the upholder of governance nor the crusaders for democracy found anything untoward in blocking Metro Channel is another enduring irony of Bengal. (See Metro)
But the APDR and 20 other organisations convened a media conference, where the 87-year-old Mahasweta Devi said: "In the past 34 years, I criticised all the anti-democratic activities of the previous government and I will continue to do the same. I strongly condemn the new government's hukumat (diktat)."
Looking extremely angry, Mamata herself chose to strike back from Writers' Buildings through a hastily convened media conference. "I saw how some people were prompting Mahasweta Devi during the press conference. She is very old and I respect her age. I will not say a word against her… But I must add that I am not liking the fact that some people are taking advantage of her age and forcing her to tell lies," the chief minister said.
"What can be done if some other organisation has already booked the venue on both the dates?" Mamata asked.
Sources in Writers' said the chief minister could not remain silent after Mahasweta Devi — whom Mamata had described as a pillar of strength on several occasions — launched an assault.
Several prominent members of the culture clan — actress Aparna Sen, theatre personalities Bibhas Chakraborty and Suman Mukhopadhyay, writer Suchitra Bhattacharya and singer Pratul Mukhopadhyay and poet Sankha Ghosh — also criticised the government for not allowing the APDR to hold its meeting.
Sen and Bhattacharya said they were not in agreement with the APDR's demands, but they stood by the rights organisation, saying the denial of permission curbed its democratic right.
The APDR has lined up the programme to seek unconditional release of political prisoners and withdrawal of joint forces from Jungle Mahal — demands voiced by the Maoists and echoed by Mamata before she came to power.
The chief minister cited her constitutional obligations to decry such demands. "We suspended the operations for five months in the interest of peace. It was also mentioned in the Trinamul Congress manifesto. But after eight to 10 killings, we felt we are bound to ensure security of the people. I cannot deny my constitutional responsibilities," Mamata said.
The chief minister also hit out at some of the rights organisations. "These are veiled outfits of the Maoists. They hold the banner of democracy in public and hail the Maoists in private. But these so-called human rights organisations did not raise their voice when one after another Trinamul activists were murdered in the past few months," she said.
Repeating her word of caution for Maoist sympathisers, she said that people found "glorifying" the rebels would not be spared.
Mamata also made a fresh appeal to the Maoists to return to the mainstream. "There is no time limit for patience in democracy. Let us hope for the better. One should not lose faith. Peace is a continuous process and I will definitely keep faith," she said.