Silence speaks volumes. And, Mamata Banerjee’s solo protest under the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the heart of Kolkata on Tuesday proves just that.
The West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC supremo’s sit-in demonstration, while being confined to a wheelchair, was in protest against the Election Commission (EC)’s decision to bar her from campaigning for 24 hours.
The poll panel banned her from campaigning in any manner from 8 pm on April 12 to 8 pm on April 13 for her remarks against central security forces and a statement which had alleged religious overtones.
In protest against the decision, Banerjee announced on Monday (April 12) in a tweet that “to protest against the undemocratic and unconstitutional decision of the Election Commission of India, I will sit on dharna tomorrow at Gandhi Murti… from 12 noon.”
On Tuesday (April 13) morning, she reached the venue 20 minutes before time, even though there was uncertainty because the area of protest falls under Army’s jurisdiction and the Army was yet to grant permission for the dharna.
“We received an application from the TMC at 9.40am for a no-objection certificate. It is under process and NOC hasn’t been issued yet,” a defence spokesperson was quoted as saying by a news agency.
Draped in her trade-mark white cotton saree with a narrow black border, instead of the usual blue, Mamata camped near the iconic statue for about three and a half hours, pursuing her favourite hobby—painting. No TMC leader or supporter was allowed near the site of protest though.
The silent protest reached millions of homes across Bengal by way of local news channels. Mamata Banerjee’s official Facebook page also live streamed the sit-in demonstration.
The TMC supremo sat alone, making perhaps the most forceful statement of the ongoing elections, projecting herself as a resilient victim of what she had been terming “a BJP-led conspiracy”.
At a distance outside the barricaded protest venue, many TMC-leaning celebrities, party leaders, supporters and bystanders gathered lending support to their leader. They carried placards, denouncing the EC’s decision as a “shame” or a “Black day” for democracy.
“When you can’t beat us, you ban us. This is the black day for Indian democracy,” said TMC spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien.
Addressing an election rally at Khandaghosh in East Burdwan district, Mamata’s nephew and TMC youth leader Abhishek Banerjee said the BJP was trying all its tricks to defeat the lone woman chief minister of the country.
“First they (BJP leaders) conspired to injure her legs; then they used (central) agencies to intimidate her and when all these failed, the central forces killed five people at Sitalkuchi. Election commission even prevented the chief minister from visiting the bereaved families. After all these, they have now barred Mamata Banerjee from campaigning. I want to ask my BJP friends, why are you so scared,” Abhishek said.
It’s obvious that the TMC is trying to politically exploit the EC’s decision in its favour.
“The commission should not allow her to take political mileage by going on with the protest. It should be stopped,” said CPI (M) leader Sujan Chakraborty earlier in the day.
“At the end of the elections, the BJP may curse the commission for its decision that made Banerjee play the victim card,” said a senior journalist and political commentator Ranjan Sengupta.
That the BJP was on the defensive over the issue was evident from its flip-flop on how to deal with the situation.
Initially, the party had decided to move the poll panel asking it to prevent Mamata Banerjee from staging “dharna” as it would tantamount to campaigning, but later it changed its mind, apprehending that it would end up giving more mileage to the TMC.
BJP leader Shanku Deb Panda on Monday night had said that his party was contemplating filing a petition before the EC urging it to stop Banerjee from holding dharna. The party, however, did not make any such appeal.
The commission, however, on Tuesday tried to do some damage control after its impartiality was questioned for being soft towards erring BJP leaders.
The poll panel banned BJP’s Rahul Sinha from campaigning for 48 hours and also issued a notice to party state president Dilip Ghosh for their controversial remarks on Sitalkuchi firing in which four persons were killed.
Sinha, BJP’s candidate from Habra constituency, had said, “The Central forces should have killed eight persons instead of four in Shitalkuchi. The Central forces should be issued a show cause notice as to why they have killed only four of them,” Sinha said.”
Incidentally, all those killed in the firing by central forces, the CISF, outside a polling booth at Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar district on April 10, were Muslims.
Since the killing, the BJP is trying to polarise Hindu votes in its favour. Ghosh said at a public rally that if “bad boys” did not mend their ways, there would be more Sitalkuchi-like actions.
The EC has asked Ghosh to explain his remarks by 10 am on Wednesday.
The TMC and the Left Front-Congress-Indian Secular Front alliance had urged the Election Commission to take strict action against BJP leaders Rahul Sinha, Dilip Ghosh and Sayantan Basu for their “inflammatory remarks” on the firing incident.
The commission’s move gave some talking points to BJP leaders, who were otherwise clearly on the back-foot over campaign ban imposed on TMC chief.
“Ours is a law abiding party. So we will respect the commission’s decision,” Ghosh told the media, reacting to the EC’s decision.