Death and Politics

by    /  April 15, 2013  / No comments

Love, murder, impunity, and the Indian government: Limits on expression in the world’s largest democracy.

Communist Party supporters in Kerala during the campaign season of the 2011 Indian election. Photo: Ranjit Bhaskar/Al Jazeera

Rizwanur Rahman lived a nondescript, anonymous life in Calcutta, West Bengal. He was 30 years old and worked as a Computer Graphics Trainer. He belonged to a middle-class Muslim family, and like any other educated young person in the city he worked hard in an attempt to better his lot. In time, he would have probably gotten married to a young woman from his community that his family chose for him. But as the cliché goes, fate had other things in store for him.

In time, Priyanka Todi, the daughter of the rich industrialist Ashok Todi, enrolled in the same institute where Rizwanur taught. Priyanka is from a conservative Hindu family, but that did not prevent her from falling in love with Rizwanur. In India, a Hindu-Muslim union is always fraught with tension, and things were no different in Calcutta where the ruling party at the time was Marxist, even though the Leftist parties in India have always purported to be secular.

The couple eloped and got married in 2007. Priyanka was 23 years old, legally an adult at the time of her marriage, but her powerful industrialist father was furious with her for breaking class and religious boundaries.

Two weeks after their marriage, police and politicians who were friendly with Ashok Todi conspired to first arrest Rizwanur and then take Priyanka away from his house. On September 8, 2007, Rizwanur was summoned to the Kolkata police station. Allegedly, Priyanka’s uncle, under her father’s instruction, submitted a false application to the police saying that Rizwanur had forcibly detained his wife. Rizwanur was eventually released from police custody, but a few days later, on September 21, 2007, his body was found dead near a railway track. The police claimed his death was a case of suicide and the city erupted in fury.

Because the then Chief Minister of the State and the Chief of Police were allegedly involved in the murky affair, the case was cited to be one of the major reasons why the Marxist government was trounced in the state’s 2011 elections.

The current Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, who rose to power on an overwhelming mandate against the misrule of the Marxist government, was at the forefront of the protests against Rizwanur’s suspicious death. Despite this, the Supreme Court of India agreed with the authorities and ruled Rizwanur’s death a suicide.

Additionally, while the investigations were under way, Arindam Manna, a railway policeman who had first investigated Rahman’s death, was also found murdered. However, for her part, Priyanka Todi seems to have put the entire unsavory incident behind her and moved on with her life. The media furore over the death of the young man died a quiet death after the court ruling.

Since Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress Party came to power, she has made plenty of whimsical moves and outrageous statements to keep the media hounds busy. Rizwanur Rahman’s death would have remained yet another buried chapter in the history of violent-prone West Bengal, if another young man, Sudipto Gupta, had not also died under suspicious circumstances in police custody last week.

But it was not an ill-fated love affair that drove Sudipto Gupta to his untimely death. Sudipto was a student activist who belonged to the Students Federation of India, a left wing, Marxist group. He was protesting against the state government’s decision to postpone the elections for student bodies in colleges and universities. The protest was peaceful, but Sudipto was associated with a Marxist organization, and his views conflicted with those held by Banerjee’s ruling party.

The student protests happened on the same day that the Indian Premier Cricket League was being inaugurated in a city stadium, an event that Banerjee was attending. In a crackdown on the protests the police arrested all the students who were demonstrating peacefully and herded them onto buses. Sudipto died while on the bus that was carting him away along with the others. The police claim he died in a freak accident—while he was leaning out of the bus he hit his head on a lamp-post. But those who were present with him on the bus tell another story about Sudipto’s death. According to them, he died because of the injuries the police brutality inflicted on him.

So, once again, the City of Joy has erupted in anger. The parallels between the two tragedies in the span of a few years are striking to say the least. When Rizwanur’s death was first reported, it was the then Chief Minister of West Bengal who jumped the gun and allegedly claimed the death was a case of suicide, even before the post-mortem reports had come in. The current Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, also shot off her mouth in the presence of television cameras and said that Sudipto’s death was an “accident” before the post-mortem reports could come out. To add insult to injury, she also claimed his death was a “petty” matter.

Understandably, the youth in the city are seething with anger. Even students owing allegiance to rival bodies who frequently engage in violent altercations with one another have united to condemn the police action that led to Sudipto’s death.

Subhojit Das, a 21 year-old activist belonging to the youth student wing of the Trinamool Congress Party (founded and lead by Banerjee), posted pictures on his Facebook account to express his anger and disillusionment with the current political establishment and the mysterious circumstances of Sudipto’s death. Das was expelled from the party the very next day. The move has not made the young man retract the principled stance he has taken over the incident, although he has not shied away from publicly stating that he’s afraid of the repercussions that may follow.

Political analysts in India are busy debating whether Sudipto’s death would have the same consequence for the upcoming Panchayat elections that Rizwanur’s death had on the state elections in 2011. However, what may have been forgotten in the raging political debates is that two young lives were snuffed out before they could realize their potential. One of them because he dared to break social conventions to fall in love and the other because he chose to exercise his freedom to protest peacefully—a right that the Indian constitution guarantees to all its citizens!

What can be a greater tragedy than this?

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