WITHIN A 10-sq km area and among a population of 15 lakh, more than 10 lakh residents in Kolkata’s Garden Reach are Muslims. With only sporadic pockets in this vast Kolkata Port area on the banks of river Hooghly inhabited by Hindus, the area, locals claim, has always been known as ‘doosra Pakistan’.
On Saturday, when Garden Reach voted, it was in news with state minister Firhad ‘Bobby’ Hakim — the area’s sitting MLA — calling it a “mini-Pakistan”.
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“This is not the first time… From the very beginning, this area used to be known as ‘doosra Pakistan’. We have heard this expression being used again and again,” said Hakim Mohammad Rizwan, a local.
Garden Reach in Kidderpore is famous for a number of completely disparate reasons — for being the last residence of Awadh king Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, one of the largest riverine ports in the country (at the government owned Garden Reach Shipping Limited, ships are built and repaired) and for the notorious distinction of being a criminal hood.
The area is till remembered for the gruesome killing of Kolkata Port DCP Vinod Kumar Mehta and his bodyguard Mokhtar Ali Khan in the early 80s. Since then, it has seen a number of similar incidents of violence. “But that was many many years ago. Garden Reach is no longer violent. Everyone lives here peacefully, people of all religions,” said Rizwan.
However, despite such claims, Garden Reach has been named as one of the 800 “vulnerable areas” in Kolkata with its polling booth featuring among the 1,467 sensitive ones listed by the Election Commission in connection with the 53 constituencies that went to polls on Saturday.
Out of the 140 people arrested, including 20 with criminal backgrounds, a number were from Garden Reach. A cavalcade of police cars, RAF vehicles were seen patrolling the streets. CRPF jawans, too, kept vigil.
As soon as you enter Garden Reach, large posters with “Bobbyda’s” face printed on them stare down at passersby. “He shouldn’t have said that. He is a minister. He should have been careful. Maybe at one point, this was the feeling due to the presence of such a large population of Muslims. But after so many years of living here, we should not have to prove that we are Indians,” said Rizwan, who runs a Unani medicine shops, Qadri Dawakhana — set up by his grandfather when the family had arrived from Muzaffarpur in Bihar in 1930.
Garden Reach and its surrounding areas are entrepreneurial. Most residents are either tailors or supply construction materials. Around 6,000 people are employed in the shipping factories.
“There is no poverty here,” said Rizwan, adding that despite Hakim’s comments, his family has voted for Trinamool. “They are the ruling party. They will form the next government. Why should we waste our votes by voting for someone else?” he said.
In neighbouring Metiabruz, a colony of manufacturers of readymade garments, 44-year-old Riyaz Qureshi said he is fed up with the constant tension prevailing in the area and the intermittent fights between different factions of Trinamool. “Every once in a while, we have to shut our businesses and we lose money. Look at the police patrolling. I have never seen this area being so peaceful. If only they had police presence and patrolling in Metiabruz through the year, there would never be any trouble here,” he added.
With Section 144 of CrPC in place in Kolkata Port, the main road was empty but for the police. As a police cavalcade approached, Qureshi asked a group of boys to go home. “I have heard what Bobbyda has said. I don’t know if he has actually said it. But this is not a mini-Pakistan. We resent being called that. I have voted for the CPM… Trinamool has done nothing for us,” he added.