When terror knocked on a forgotten address
25 January 2002
The Indian Express
New Delhi: Perhaps it was inevitable. A city struggling to live up to its past, unable to come to terms with its current irrelevance in the national sphere, and not wanting to peer too closely into a bleak future, finally made the international headlines it so craved — and last enjoyed when its last icon, Mother Teresa, died in 1997 — on Tuesday. But as more details of the attack on policemen outside the American Center in Kolkata emerge, it appears to be exactly that: an attack on policemen who just happened to be outside a sensitive spot. Not the latest assault on American hegemony, nor even a protest against the Indian state. Just an act of vengeance against four unarmed, helpless guardians of the law. Kolkata, it seems, has shot itself in the foot. Indeed, it all seemed very unreal. This correspondent twice drove past within 100 metres of the scene of the incident Tuesday morning; the first time, 15 minutes before the attack, the second, an hour after it. Neither time did anything seem wrong; returning home after breakfasting at the city’s famous Chinatown, the only thing that appeared amiss as our taxi drove up to the Park Street-Chowringhee crossing was that instead of going straight, and so past the American Center, we found the road blocked off by police and had to turn left. To true-blue Kolkatans, this appeared to be just another traffic dislocation the city is notorious for. So, too, did the day’s biggest story appear to other people of the city inured to such crises. As news filtered out about what had happened, there appeared to be a morbid curiosity. People who passed by the scene - and the road was opened to traffic soon after - stood and gawked; then, perhaps after a moment’s reflection, walked away to cope with the many other hardships this city can throw at you. Of more immediate concern was news from Cuttack, where India were having a bad day on the cricket field, the closing of entrances to some Metro stations and the relentless power cuts. Call it cruel, but policemen don’t really occupy top-of-the-mind space in this city. Widely reviled, they are seen as a corrupt, lazy, overweight and inefficient lot who spend their working hours making a fast buck from any of the multitude of rule-breakers. A policeman in this city does not inspire confidence; even when the feeling is not hostile, it resembles a vague cynical sympathy because they really have a bad lot. Unarmed, unfit, unwanted, unkempt, they are expected to keep this city of millions free from crime. And that could be the biggest irony. Because these unfortunate policemen bear so close a resemblance to the city they are supposed to protect. If these policemen are now sitting ducks for the sharpshooters of the Asif Reza Commando Force (and, according to one report, the plan is to kill 20 men in uniform) so too is the city itself for any raider who wants to make a quick killing. Case in point: the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC), which supplies power to the metropolis. Not so long ago a cash-rich company, which had reported profits throughout its life of more than 100 years, it was taken over by the RPG group in the last decade. Today, it owes the state electricity board crores of rupees; its failure to pay up has resulted, over the past fortnight, in the worst spell of load-shedding Kolkata has experienced since the mid-80s, before the industries closed down and there was excess power to distribute. Not so long ago, such a crisis would have prompted red flags outside the CESC’s imposing Victoria House office; maybe a picket or two outside the Goenkas’ Alipore mansion. Perhaps even burning of effigies, something more violent. As of now, there’s been little more than one PIL filed in the High Court. It’s a sign that the city has shed its red badge; the prevailing colour is the pink of the New Marxists and the saffron of the closet Hindutva sympathisers not yet willing to risk outing themselves. Yesterday’s organised unions have spawned today’s lumpen mobs, fighting for little more than their own interests, ready to burn a bus for a smaller, local cause but not agitate peacefully for a larger purpose. You can see them every time India lose at Eden Gardens; you can see it in the statement of a ‘friend’ of umpire S K Sharma who told a local paper he’d thought about reversing his decision on Trescothick, then decided against it given the history of crowd trouble at the venerable stadium. It’s a bit like a taxi driver on a busy Kolkata street; he’ll accelerate to full whenever he finds space, as if to prove a point that the car can go fast. Tuesday’s attack will probably not lead to much change in Kolkata. The people have already accepted it with the phlegmatism that is at once a blessing and a curse. The men in uniform now have yet another object of fear, apart from the local hoods and their political masters. For the rest of India, the mouse has roared; it can now be returned to the inside pages.