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Kolkata clashes spark election row in India

Updated May 16, 2019

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Kolkata: Police stand beside burning debris on a street following clashes during a rally held by Amit Shah, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.—AFP
Kolkata: Police stand beside burning debris on a street following clashes during a rally held by Amit Shah, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.—AFP

KOLKATA: Clashes between followers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a firebrand opposition leader heightened tensions in the key Indian city of Kolkata on Wednesday ahead of the final round of the country’s hard-fought national election.

More than a hundred people were arrested after street battles that forced Amit Shah, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to leave an election rally in the eastern metropolis under armed guard, police said.

A bust of renowned Bengal reformer, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, was des­t­r­oyed and a college named after him ransacked in the troubles late on Tuesday, which the BJP and rival Trinamool Con­gress (TMC) angrily blamed on each other.

Teachers and students of Vidyasagar college wearing black badges staged a day-long protest on Wednesday, deman­ding an impartial investigation into the incident.

“I could not recognise the office when I stepped in today,” Gautam Kundu, the college principal, said. “Broken shards of glass lay all over and a statue of Vid­ya­sagar was missing from the glass case.

“They (the teachers) were cowering in fear inside the classrooms when the attack took place. We are shocked,” he said. Security was stepped up outside the college as well as at Calcutta University where students demonstrated with placards reading “Go Back Narendra Modi”, “Go Back BJP”.

West Bengal state has been hit by repeated violence between the two parties during the six-week-long election that ends Sunday. Results will be announced on May 23.

Modi’s BJP hopes to capture many of the state’s 42 parliament seats from the TMC to compensate for losses predicted in other regions.

The BJP accused West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee of orchestrating attacks on Shah’s roadshow. Government ministers joined a protest in Delhi which blamed Banerjee’s party.

“Has Bengal acquired a government of gangsters? The attack on Amit Shah’s peaceful rally by TMC is deplorable,” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said on Twitter. Modi condemned what he called “TMC goons” for launching the street battles, in a television interview.

Banerjee hit back by accusing Shah acting like a “god” who does not allow protests. She led a rally of several thousand supporters through the city late on Wednesday. The communist party held its own rally. Trouble erupted when Shah’s convoy drove past the entrance to Calcutta University, where TMC student wing activists had gathered.

“TMC supporters started throwing stones at the tail-end of the rally. A group of people then set two motorbikes and a bicycle on fire,” said witness Partha Sinha.

Political observers say the aggressive campaign by Modi’s party against the TMC in the eastern state has made it one of the most bitter contests in the election.

Modi won a landslide victory in 2014 but many pollsters expect him to lose his overall majority this time. A good performance in West Bengal would significantly improve his chances of a second term.

The BJP and Banerjee’s party have also been at loggerheads over a BJP activist arrested for posting a doctored image on Facebook with Banerjee’s head on the body of Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra wearing a revealing dress.

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2019