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WITH public anger against authoritarianism, corruption and criminalisation steadily on the rise, Bengal is witnessing a chain of mass movements drawing all sections of the people against the TMC misrule across the state. The historic success of the March 10 strike of the state employees and teachers has surely generated new hopes and confidence amongst the participants and the people at large. On the same day, despite all attempts made to thwart the student rally on March 10 from reaching the state legislative assembly, the programme turned out to be an overwhelming success. And finally maintaining firm solidarity and unity with other peasant masses, potato growers in different regions of the state gathered on March 11 to block highways at set times, in a coordinated manner, to highlight their plight.
MARCH 10TH HISTORIC STRIKE
Year after year, employees and teachers who are paid from the exchequer of the state government of Bengal are being deprived of dearness allowance amounting to thousands of rupees. They are getting much less scale-wise, not only compared to the salary of central government employees but also compared to that of state government employees of other states. As several forms of protest against this prolonged deprivation – meetings, marches, cease-works, sit-ins – had fallen on deaf ears, they were forced to go on strike on March 10. The strike call was jointly given by two broad platforms of state employees and teachers namely Joutho Moncho and Sangrami Joutho Moncho, bringing all forces under the same umbrella irrespective of political ideologies by following the mantra of 'Unity and Struggle'.
However, this strike was not only on the demand of the DA. There was also the demand for transparent and permanent full-time recruitment for vacant posts in all educational institutions and government offices. A huge network of Trinamool Congress activists and leaders involved in fixing rates, collecting money and facilitating recruitment of ineligible candidates as teachers, employees in Group-C and D categories in connection with the West Bengal School Service Commission recruitment scam is getting exposed and the henchmen are being taken to custody day after day. But there is another side to the story. In all about 3.5 lakh teaching positions in schools are lying vacant. Particularly in rural Bengal there is a severe shortage in teaching staff. In many schools the student-teacher ratio is shockingly poor. The scam-tainted school education department and school education infrastructure of the state is in shambles. The scenario is almost the same in the field of higher education. The hidden agenda is perhaps to pull down the public education system and make the private system flourish. This year only six lakh candidates appeared in the secondary examinations – a staggering four lakh less than last year! There are lakhs of vacancies in government offices. There is little, very little permanent appointment. The contractual, casual or irregular employees are working like permanent employees on very low wages. Therefore, one of the demands of this strike was making temporary workers permanent. The other longstanding demands included restoration of democratic order, ending divisive politics, and increasing social harmony.
It must be remembered that after a long period of almost 52 years, the middle class state employees and teachers of the state went on strike directly against the state government. With the strike spreading to government offices, to schools, and even to law courts, all government operations were virtually shut down in the strike-hit sectors. Despite the government's strict media manipulation, TV channels were forced to show pictures of empty seats and meager attendance in the offices from the early hours. The reaction quotes gathered from the public made it immensely clear that the demands had won over the broader sections of the masses. The government, true to its nature, had imposed stern measures in advance declaring the planned strike as illegal and threatening disciplinary action including pay-cut and ‘break-in-service’ against strikers. But these draconian regulations were ignored and flouted in the face of strong morale of employees and teachers. The strikers demonstrated in front of the local government offices, judicial buildings and educational institutions. Those demonstrating included pensioners, whose life-savings are getting severely curtailed due to non-payment of DA.
Just as the city of Kolkata brought the image of the strike to the fore, the panchayat employees and school teachers in the rural areas also helped spread the message of the strike to the rural areas with incredible strength and courage. Most significantly, the teachers’ strike in particular and the impact of the call among school teachers in general, clearly indicate what is in store. About 1.5 lakh teachers have struck work on March 10. Among them there are many who are not formally associated with any group, union, organisation, or association. Not only the broad masses of organised teachers, but the broad masses of the ordinarily unorganised teachers, particularly female teachers have also been universally drawn into the movement. Putting all surmises at rest women teachers courageously and determinedly joined and even led the strike in overwhelming numbers.
The Trinamool Congress had not only demonstrated an attitude of callous indifference to the just demands of its own employees and teachers, but adopted a characteristically ruthless attitude towards the strike. More significantly, in many areas, groups of Trinamool Congress backed muscle-men were found to behave like extra-constitutional power centers intimidating and harassing strikers and their supporters. The next day’s morning dailies reported that angry "parents'' were attacking the striking teachers in many districts of Bengal. These attempts prove beyond doubt how wide the scope of the March 10 strike is and how deep is its impact. Otherwise, why is there so much effort in the districts to oppress the participants in a strike which the government has called 'dismal failure'? The so-called "guardians'' are in reality members of goon squads owing allegiance to the ruling party. Furthermore, the incidents reveal that Trinamool Congress is ready to stoop to any level to maintain its reign of fear. In spite of all this, the striking teachers and employees say: “Struggle means victory, surrender means ruin – this is the valuable lesson drawn from March 10. Despite repressive measures we are not going to abandon the struggle.”
STUDENTS’ MARCH TO ASSEMBLY
The same determination was fully borne out in the march organised by the Students' Federation of India (SFI) state committee to the West Bengal assembly on March 10. The march was organised on the demands of withdrawal of the decision to close down around 8000 government schools, stopping dropouts and holding students union elections on campus with transparency. Since 2017, elections have not been held. The TMC’s student wing Trinamool Chhatra Parishad is illegally in control of the union bodies since then because elections have not been held. They are regularly misappropriating and/or misusing funds and making a mockery of the concept of democratisation through student participation. SFI sought to meet assembly speaker Biman Banerjee and education minister Bratya Basu to hand over a memorandum containing students’ demands. Earlier, the police, as usual, had denied permission to the SFI to take out the rally. CPI(M) state secretary Md. Salim had remarked that students do not need permission to hold rallies against corruption. The students were also steadfast in their decision to go ahead with their march. As the day rolled by, the thoroughfares from Sealdah Station area to Central Avenue, the crowded Howrah station premises and the traditional iron gates of the legislative assembly stood witness to SFI winning every challenge posed by the government.
That is why Srijan Bhattacharya, state secretary of SFI, who was freed from police custody at around 8:30 in the night, was able to say boldly, "They (the police and the administration) said they would not allow us to go to the assembly." We said, come what may, we shall go to the assembly. So we did. They said they would not allow the march to happen. We said it would. And finally it did take place. We made it happen. SFI made a promise and kept it. Now they know they can't dictate terms to us.”
Mayukh Biswas, all India general secretary of SFI, who was released from Shibpur police station in Howrah in the late afternoon, said, "The Trinamool government wants to develop the education system in the state on the lines of the BJP government's National Education Policy. Mamata Banerjee is cooking food according to Modi's recipe. And a whole generation of Bengal is at high risk of food poisoning. We are fighting for the sake of students, and to establish democracy in educational institutions.”
On March 10, two student marches started from Kolkata’s two major terminal stations, Howrah and Sealdah. The police could not guess how many SFI workers were there, nor could they make out who are protestors, and who are passengers or pedestrians.
It was about half past one in the afternoon. Hundreds of SFI workers and supporters started marching from Sealdah station. The Sealdah station area was abuzz with slogans. The police tried to stop the demonstration from the very beginning. Somehow they could arrest SFI's Kolkata district committee president Debanjan Dey, and secretary Mohammad Atif Nisar and some others from the station. But there was more to the story!
Suddenly thousands of SFI workers rushed in from different directions and a huge procession began to advance. State president of SFI Pratikur Rahman was in that procession. The police ran frantically to control the procession but it was too late. After three or four attempts to stop the procession, the police force had to give in to the SFI's determination. The speed of the procession increased. Along with slogans on demand to save education, and demand for free and fair students’ union elections, the slogan of getting rid of the scam-tainted “Trinamool" rent the air. After crossing the College Street intersection at an unstoppable pace and occupying Central Avenue in Central Kolkata, Pratikur Rahman suddenly announced the end of the march because by that time the area outside the assembly had become a hotbed. Another squad of SFI activists led by state secretary Srijan Bhattacharya had reached the gate of the assembly after defeating the police once again. The police had put up iron barricades, so that the gates of the assembly could not be touched. Srijan Bhattacharya and a group of SFI workers moved the guard rails and climbed up to the gate of the assembly, bypassing the police. Standing at the gate of the assembly, the state secretary of SFI said, "We had accepted the challenge. We said we will come to the assembly, to convey the demands of the students. We have come.'' After that, the SFI workers and supporters along with Srijan Bhattacharya were dragged by the police into a prison van and taken to Lalbazar, police headquarters.
After that day's successful rally, the speaker of the legislative assembly sent a letter inviting the SFI leadership to a discussion on March 13. Accordingly, a delegation of SFI West Bengal state committee met the speaker of the West Bengal legislative assembly and the state’s education minister demanding revival of the state's crumbling education system and immediate election of student unions on campus. Coming out, the state secretary Srijan Bhattacharya said that although the minister had given a positive response to most of the demands, including student union elections, nothing can be said until implementation. “If the demands are not met, next time we will not stop outside the assembly, we will get inside. Comrade Sudipta Gupta was martyred on April 2. On that day, a large gathering will be held in Kolkata at the call of four Left-wing student organisations. Modi's new education policy and the anarchy in the education sector in Didi's state – both shall remain the subjects for extensive state-wide campaigns.”
POTATO GROWERS BLOCK ROADS
In another development on March 11, the potato farmers blocked the state and national highways by amassing potatoes in at least 80 places in the main potato growing areas of the state demanding that the state government should buy potatoes from the farmers at a rate of at least Rs 1,000 per quintal. Local people in most of the areas supported the demands of the farmers. As a result, in many places the local administrative authority offered to hold talks with the farmers during the blockade. Already the police had used batons and tear gas to deal with the protests of potato farmers in front of the cold storages of north Bengal. Many farmers were injured. Farmers threw sacks of potatoes on the streets to express their plight.
The police, the administration had already deployed a large force in Pamra near Shaktigarh so that the farmers could not succeed in their announced programme. When it was 2:30 a.m. a group of police tried to thwart the farmers' programme. Farmers were prevented from taking to the highway. But the police did not have the power to stop the potato farmers when they came down on National Highway Number 2 with red flags. The road was blocked; the protesting farmers burnt effigies of Mamata Banerjee, and also burnt tires on the road. They protested by throwing sacks of potatoes on the streets. At 3:30 in the afternoon, thousands of cars stood in long queues on both sides of the national highway. At places the farmers erupted in protest by lying down on the road. The entire national highway was taken over by the farmers with red flags in their hands. The protesting farmers did not give in despite the police trying to incite them in various ways. Later, the farmers lifted the blockade of the national highway at Pamra after the local authorities held discussions with the farmers' representatives and promised to buy potatoes.
This is exactly what happened from block to block from north to south of the state. The AIKS West Bengal committee had called for short-term road blockades and demonstrations across the state by holding potato farmers' conventions in north and south Bengal with an aim to sensitise the government to implement the minimum demands of potato farmers. On this day, the state president of the organisation Biplab Majumdar and secretary Amal Halder congratulated the struggling potato growers of the state and urged them to be more united and ready for the bigger struggle ahead. The leaders appealed to the state administration to play a sensitive role towards the potato farmers and buy potatoes from the farmers at the rate of Rs 1,000 per quintal to protect the potato farmers from disaster. Apart from potato cultivation, prices of other cash crops of the state including onion, as well as prices of other vegetables are currently at rock bottom. The AIKS leadership urged the state government to be proactive in fulfilling its conscious responsibilities in this regard. The leaders said that the irresponsible central government is not announcing the minimum support price for potatoes. Despite the fact of it being ahead of rice-wheat-sorghum-millet in terms of nutrition; potato is considered by them not as food but as only a vegetable, the peasant leaders deplored.
On the whole, the waves of democratic mass movements on the eve of the panchayat elections present a wide range of challenges to the anti-people regime in Bengal.
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