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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 46

Durga Puja As Protest

Small Traders in West Bengal

Saturday 3 November 2007, by Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri

The four days of Durga Puja signify carnival time in West Bengal. On the main Saptami Puja day—Thursday, October 18—a few of us witnessed a tiny act of defiance by the small traders of Nonachandanpukur Bazaar, in Barrackpore, within the area loosely called Greater Calcutta.

I say Nonachandanpukur Bazaar, but the 58 year old bazaar was bulldozed to the ground on December 29, 2006, by the now familiar combination of policemen and party cadre. The site is fenced with corrugated tin, and through cracks and spaces we saw broken and rusted bars and beams, remnants of the rampage which included looting of the shops. It may be noted that the municipality acted in contempt of a stay order granted in favour of the traders by the High Court at Kolkata.

We spoke to Gopal, the lad whose arm was twisted and broken. We saw the streetside bamboo and polythene tent housing the wares of the two daughters of Bimal Saha who died of a heart attack shortly after his shop was razed to the ground and his wares looted. We heard of the untimely deaths of Dayal Pal, Goutam Ghosh, Mahadeb Pal and Narayan Das, of Sheikh Rahim who lost his reason after the police beat him mercilessly with their lathhis.

WHY did all this take place?

The local municipality wants to build a G+12, a 12-storeyed multiplex, the lowest two storeys to be let for commercial activities. The 500 traders of the original market (330 with trade licenses) requested the municipality to allow them to occupy G-level stalls, but the municipality would only agree to the allotment of stalls underground or upstairs. It may be noted that the traders paid a receipted sum of Rs 20,000 out of the Rs 80,000 raised by the municipality in 1978 for buying the land, and speak of their rights from solid ground.. For the 200 regular rural ‘chashi’ vendors, the traders wanted a G-level area at the back of the market complex, but the municipality refused to recognise their rights, though there was a flourishing ‘chashibazaar’ in the now demolished market. Also, there was no rehabilitation package for the 50 regular hawkers.

The traders did not agree to the municipality’s proposal. The answer was the demolition of this busy and important market, a step which caused great inconvenience to the local buyers, 7000 of whom have signed their support for the demands of the traders.

The interim alternative offered by the municipality was a cramped space at a distance from the original site. All, except about 25, boycotted the “alternative”.

We saw them in their roadside shanties occupying the little space between the tin fencing and the main road. We saw their second roadside market farther up Barasat Road. We went into the “para” localities where the residents had allowed them to sit in front of their houses with their wares.
We saw the human spirit, indomitable and defiant.

WHY must one say this? It must be understood that Barrackpore is the fief of its CPI-M MP, Tarit Topdar, whose house is visible from the market, and 24 out of the 24 councillors of the municipality are CPI-M controlled. These small traders have created the first visible dent in the chariot of the juggernaut here. Imagine their desperation and their courage.

To broadcast their protest, the Non-achandanpukur Byabasayee Bachao Committee decided to continue the bazaar’s Durga Puja on the main Barrackpore Barasat road, in front of the fencing itself. The local thana promptly sent a police guard to prevent them from installing an image of the deity. Finally the police backed out, the Bachao Committee having told the OC and the SDPO that they would not encroach on the road and wanted neither electricity nor a fire protection certificate as they would light lamps and not use any of the listed inflammable materials, and so did not need police permission. Surely, they said, police permission is not necessary just for worship of the deity! Perhaps an even more potent argument was the alternative they aired: they would hire a truck and organise a mobile Puja, touring Barrackpore with their protest.

The small people of West Bengal have found their voice. One sees it everyday everywhere, there yesterday in Tiljala, where lived Rizwanur Rehman, here today in Nonachandanpukur.

The High Court has rejected the contempt petition, reportedly on the strange ground that it was not clear who demolished the market.

The traders of Nonachandanpukur are still strong in spirit. But they are in earnest need of solidarity action.

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