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  Asia-Pacific
The Horror of Custodial Death
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
The Horror of Custodial Death

Nothing can be more heinous than a custodial death. If the keepers of law, policemen, themselves turn killers, snuffing out the very life they are supposed to guard and take care of, it is nothing but travesty of justice. Here the state takes the form of a murderer!

The recent death of a young political leader, Sudipto Gupta, in a Kolkata police station has shocked a state like West Bengal, which has always taken pride in its art, culture and refined living.

True, the state has seen horrific violence and custodial deaths throughout its history. In 1972, the Naxalite leader, Charu Mazumdar, was murdered in cold blood at Kolkata’s police headquarters, Lal Bazaar (often compared to London’s Scotland Yard).

This was followed by a wave of brutal suppression of his followers, mostly students. The then Congress regime in West Bengal reportedly killed many, and many just disappeared.

If the administration had hoped that this would end, once and for all, the Naxalite movement, nothing of the sort happened. Naxalites, on the contrary, have grown in strength, and now operate from many, many more areas in the country that are far away from where the political ideology originated, Naxalbari, near Kolkata.

The moot point here is the kind of draconian powers which governments use to suppress dissent and opposition. The Congress in the 1970s West Bengal made use of state force to try and wipe out Naxalism, and now we see the All-India Trinamool Congress, led by the present Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, attempting to wield extra-constitutional authority.

Banerjee or didi (elder sister), as she is reverentially addressed, and her party came to power in the state after the 2011 Assembly elections, defeating the Communist Party of India –Marxists (CPI-M), which had been in power for over three long decades.

Trinamool’s victory was seen by many – intellectuals and the common people — as salvation for a state that had suffered under the Marxists, who despite introducing reforms in a few key areas like land, were largely viewed as lackadaisical, whimsical and anti-market/privatisation.

Unfortunately, Banerjee has not created any favourable impression either. Herrule has already been dotted with far too many black marks, including rapes and murders. Now, Gupta’s death appears like the last nail in the coffin, and has provoked angry outbursts among the masses.

Gupta (24), a post-graduate student of the prestigious Rabindra Bharati University and leader of the Students’ Federation of India (the student wing of the CPI-M), died after policemen had allegedly beaten him up in custody.

Marxist activists said Gupta was "mercilessly assaulted" while he and other students, who had staged a peaceful protest seeking elections in colleges, were being taken in a bus to the Presidency Correctional Home in Kolkata.

Gupta’s death is being seen as a continuation of repressive measures which the earlier Marxist government was known to indulge in.

The 1970s saw the flight of intellectuals from West Bengal in the face of state authoritarianism. As one commentator put it, “the Bengali culture comprising academic superiority and critical faculty had received a body blow during the social engineering which the once-invincible Marxists had started in the society. The state had moved backward, and the better of the best soon deserted the intellectual capital (Kolkata) of the country. The political rulers of the day (Marxists), in the name of establishing equality, had encouraged mediocrity…”

Banerjee stepped into this bleak scenario, turning the whole city into colour blue. Against the Marxists’ red. But the blue did little to brighten up the state or the lives of its people. Rather, the colour merely deepened the existing melancholy and gloom. So did her politically immature actions.

And incidents like Gupta’s death have heightened fear and insecurity.

The promise of a healthy administration Banerjee made during her election campaigns in 2011 appear like empty rhetoric now. Once looked upon as a saviour, she is now being increasingly perceived as a destroyer.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an India-based veteran author, journalist and film critic, and he may be emailed at gautamanb@hotmail.com



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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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