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April 12, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

Oh, not to be in Calcutta

Of the last three weekends, this is the first that I will not be spending in Calcutta. As much as I love the City of Joy, this is not, on balance, such a bad thing. I spent last weekend stuck in an endless traffic jam. And the weekend before that, I watched openmouthed as the Calcutta police shut down much of the centre of the city and inconvenienced thousand of citizens.

Let me explain. On the weekend before last, I was part of the press party that accompanied A B Vajpayee to Calcutta. As we drove into the city, I noticed that the roads were suspiciously free of traffic. On the bypass, there were no cars even on the other side of the road. Park Circus was bereft of vehicles. Park Street had been shut down for the benefit of our motorcade. So, it turned out, had Chowringhee. And Red Road. And the entire route to Raj Bhavan.

When the prime minister left Raj Bhavan for his public meeting -- half an hour before it, actually -- a similar exercise was undertaken and whole roads sealed off. All this, I was told, was done unilaterally by the Calcutta police in the name of VIP security.

As somebody who was fortunate enough to be part of the VIP motorcade, I have to say that I was put to no inconvenience -- rather, others were inconvenience because of us. Motorists were stranded for hours, some went round and round in search of alternative routes and at hotels, they were advising guests to leave for the airport four hours in advance.

All this because the prime minister was in town.

The following Saturday, I was back in Calcutta to moderate the Calcutta Club debate. This time we should be okay, I thought to myself, Vajpayee is in Lucknow. But I had forgotten something: Sonia Gandhi was in town.

Even so, I was not unduly perturbed. Sonia travels in New Delhi with minimal security. She uses two unmarked Ambassadors and no uniformed policemen are associated with her protection detail. So, there should be no problem.

No way. That may be how Sonia moves around in New Delhi, but things are very different in Calcutta. On Saturday morning, she attended a Spastic Society function at the Taj Bengal. The overzealous Calcutta police promptly shut down the entire route from Raj Bhavan to the Taj and flooded the hotel's lobby with a hundred policemen. Nor were they shy about admitting this. They used the press to advise motorists to take alternative routes because they were shutting the roads for over an hour.

That evening, on my way to the Calcutta Club I noticed that police pickets were preventing cars from entering AJC Bose Road. As you can't get to the club without traversing AJC Bose Road, I wondered how anybody would make it to the debate -- and inevitably, I silently cursed Sonia's security.

It turned out I was wrong. The disruption had nothing to do with Sonia. AJC Bose Road was not only closed, it was also jammed. The cars that had made it on to the road through a variety of devious routes found themselves stuck for hours. We couldn't start the debate till an hour and a half after the advertised time. And even then, guests kept trickling in throughout the first few speeches.

And why was AJC Bose Road jammed/closed? It turned out that a procession celebrating the tercentenary of the founding of the Khalsa Panth had decided to wander through the centre of the city during rush hour. The obliging police force had promptly closed all the roads and stopped traffic.

I couldn't help feeling sorry for the folks at the Calcutta Club. They had already postponed the debate by a week fearing traffic disruptions during Vajpayee's visit. They had spent sleepless nights hoping that Sonia's security would not lead to road closures and jams.

But in the end, it wasn't VIP security that got them. Right there, in the centre of Calcutta, they were done in by a parade of Sardarjis.

I recall these instances not to make the usual points about VIP security. Yes, such security is intrusive and a nuisance, but equally, there is no denying that some VIPs need protection. For instance, Rajiv Gandhi would still be alive today if he had been granted SPG protection.

The trick is to find a balance that allows you to protect the VIP without needlessly inconveniencing everybody else. It is not that difficult a balance to achieve. They have found it in England and the United States. And even in New Delhi -- where hundreds of jokers on whom nobody would waste a bullet get security -- traffic disruption is at a minimum. The Delhi police only stop traffic for the prime minister (not for Sonia or L K Advani or anybody else) and then too, only for seven to 10 minutes at a maximum. A police vehicle travels ahead of the motorcade, temporarily clears the roads, and then, after the motorcade has passed, it is traffic as usual for everyone. There are no half hour closure or diversions.

So my point is not about VIP security, it is about Calcutta. Why do the Calcutta Police adopt such extreme measures and treat citizens with such contempt when there is a simpler way of doing things?

Off the record, the SPG will tell you why the Calcutta police behave like this. If you want to stop traffic for only a few minutes, then you need to be well organised. You need a high level of coordination between police parties all along the route and you need to be certain your advance vehicles will reach 10 minutes before the motorcade. As far as the Calcutta police are concerned, this is too much trouble. Why bother with all these complicated arrangements when you can just shut down the whole city for a full hour? That way, there is no danger of going wrong.

It is wrong to assume that policemen do this at the behest of visiting VIPs. I know of at least one instance when Vajpayee looked out of his car and asked, "Kyon bhai, aaj koi hartal hai kya (Is there a strike today)?" He had to be told that he was the reason the road was empty.

I suppose the same is true of the deputy prime minister of Vietnam. Two years ago, I missed a flight because the intrepid Calcutta police shut down the bypass for a full four on the grounds that the Vietnamese dignitary was due to pass that way. I doubt very much if the poor deputy prime minister asked for this kind of security -- who in Calcutta would want to kill him anyhow? But, like all other VIPs, he was at the mercy of the Calcutta police.

Just as the citizens of Calcutta are.

I've never worked out why the police treat the people of Calcutta with such contempt. I used to think that it was a hangover of the colonial past. But there is another factor to consider. It isn't just VIP movement that causes traffic disruptions. A more frequent cause is demonstrations, morchas or michhils. The parading Sardarjis did not stop traffic because they were VIPs. They did so because it has become the fundamental right of any assembly of more than 20 people to bring life in Calcutta to a standstill.

I am willing to concede Calcutta sees more demonstrations than any other city. But the fact remains that all cities have their share of morchas and michhils. They just cope much better. In Mumbai, the police will not allow a procession to disrupt traffic in the city centre during rush hour: They will suggest that the morcha be held a few hours earlier, when the roads are less crowded. They will also refuse to stop traffic for a procession. If a morcha has to cross the road, they will allow one batch of demonstrators to do so, hold the rest back, let traffic run for a few minutes, and then allow the next batch to go across. This way, disruption is minimised.

In Calcutta, on the other hand, any procession can be held anywhere, at any time. There is no question of letting demonstrators cross the road in batches; they have right of way. All this is made worse by a peculiarly Bengali innovation: the propensity to agitate in single file. Everywhere else in the world, demonstrators crowd together. In Calcutta, they walk in single file. This way, even a small group of 200 people can form a long line and cause major traffic disruption.

What unites these two phenomena that so inconvenience ordinary people? How can a city that bends over backwards for rulers also shut itself down to please every roadside agitator? How can the egalitarian stoppages and the proletarian disruptions be reconciled?

I have a theory. When we associate a fawning respect for VIPs with monarchies and colonial societies, we forget there is -- or used to be -- another kind of society where the rulers demanded and received absolute respect: the so-called communist republics. They would close Red Square for Leonid Brezhnev and use batons to clear the streets for Nikolai Ceausescu.

West Bengal is not a Communist republic. But I suspect it draws its confused view of how to do things from some long defunct communist regime. Rule in the name of the people and let them agitate, but never forget the people must serve the rulers.

I can't really object to that. Much of West Bengal voted for the Communist Party of India-Marxist, and those that did deserve what they've got. But what about the rest of us? What about resolutely non-CPI-M Calcutta?

Our lot, I guess, is to suffer. Perhaps one day when the CPI-M follows its east European counterparts into obscurity, its epitaph will read: 'Nobody moved but we passed."

Passed into oblivion, if we're lucky.

Vir Sanghvi

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