Gherao!

As you know, the elections in West Bengal are grabbing eyeballs because of the high-octane campaigns launched by the sitting Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, and her principal opponent this time, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). She has been ruling the state for 10 years now.

While earlier – before the campaigns began – many believed she would easily win a third term, now- to many observers including me- such a result seems less certain. It is evident from what we see on television and read in the newspapers that it will be a close finish. The bitter battle for votes will go on till we come to know the results on May 2

The central paramilitary forces are on election duty in that state, to support the Election Commission to ensure that free and fair elections take place. An article in the respected Indian Express no less, headlined that the Bengal Chief Minister has exhorted the women of West Bengal to gherao the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF.)

I was shocked to see this headline because it brought back many memories of gheraos in West Bengal. I remember the days in Durgapur when strikes and gheraos were commonplace and there used to a lot of trade union violence. I speak of the period between 1968-1972.

Decades ago, in many parts of the country, especially in West Bengal where it originated, the gherao was used by trade unions and other striking outfits as an offensive weapon. To gherao meant to surround a person or persons in a room and keep them in a form of captivity. On the face of it it was supposed to be peaceful protest but confining people to their room, not allowing them to have food, water, their medicines or use the toilet was harassment of the highest order. I have heard of cases where executives almost died due to the stress and strain of being so ghearaoed.

As a student of Industrial Relations at XLRI Jamshedpur, I remember we had studied famous judgements like the ones delivered in the Calcutta High Court in Jay Engineering Case reported in AIR 1968 CAL.

Coming back to the present situation, to instigate the public at large to gherao the police was asking for trouble. I thought of so many things that could go wrong if the agitated public began to gherao the authorities- in this case- the paramilitary police.

My fears were not unfounded. Today’s Indian Express reports that four people were killed in Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar district in the state of West Bengal. It is reported that a mob of locals attacked the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) party and tried to snatch their weapons. This led to the police opening fire resulting in four deaths. What a shocking state of affairs!

I realize that politics in West Bengal has always been characterized by violence but I do hope things don’t go totally out of hand. There is no place for such violence in a democracy like ours. The sad part is that the ordinary policeman or the ordinary citizen, in this case, get hurt and at times die. Nothing ever happens to the leaders who instigate violence!

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