Updated: May 2, 2016 6:24:40 am
“From the very beginning, our area has been called a doosra Pakistan (second Pakistan). We have heard this again and again,’’ says Hakim Mohammad Rizwan, who runs a unani medicine shop in Garden Reach, a locality in the Port area of Kolkata on the banks of the Hooghly.
The residents of Garden Reach had that expression flung at them again, this time by Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader and incumbent Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim, who, in an interview to a journalist from the Pakistani daily Dawn, allegedly called Garden Reach “mini-Pakistan” (he has vehemently denied saying so).
“He shouldn’t have said that. He is a minister, he should have been careful. Maybe at one point there was this feeling as this area has such a large population of Muslims. But after so many years of living here, we shouldn’t have to prove that we are Indians,’’ says Rizwan.
Garden Reach, part of the Kolkata Port constituency which voted on Saturday, has one of the highest concentration of Muslims in Kolkata. Within a 10-square-kilometre area and out of a population of 15 lakh, more than 10 lakh residents in Garden Reach belong to the community, with only sporadic pockets inhabited by Hindus.
Garden Reach is famous for a number of completely disparate reasons. For being the last residence of the erstwhile king of Awadh, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.
For being one of the largest riverine ports in the country — the government-owned Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Limited, named after the area, is where ships are built and repaired. And for the notorious distinction of being a criminal den, violent and unpredictable.
“But that was many, many years ago. Garden Reach is no longer violent. Everyone lives here peacefully. People of all religions,’’ says Rizwan.
Many still remember Garden Reach for the hacking of Deputy Commissioner of Police (Kolkata Port) Vinod Kumar Mehta and his bodyguard Mokhtar Ali Khan in the early eighties. Since the incident, Garden Reach has had a number of similar incidents of violence.
Despite claims made by its citizens, it has been named by the Election Commission as one of the “vulnerable areas’’ in a list of 800 and its booths feature among the 1,467 “sensitive booths”. Of the 140 people arrested before the elections, including 20 with criminal backgrounds, a number of them were from Garden Reach.
A cavalcade of police cars and RAF vehicles patrol the streets at intervals. CRPF jawans are stationed on the roads.
Firhad Hakim, the minister who allegedly made the “mini-Pakistan” remark, is the sitting MLA from Garden Reach and is popularly known as Bobby Hakim.
Large TMC posters with “Bobbyda’s’’ face printed on them stare down at passersby as soon as you enter Garden Reach. Several bridges link Kolkata city to Kidderpore, where Garden Reach is located. The Hooghly, which snakes across the terrain, is lined by large ships.
Garden Reach and its surrounding areas are entrepreneurial. Most residents are either tailors or suppliers of construction material. Around 6,000 people are employed in the shipping factories. Rizwan, the unani shop owner in Garden Reach, says his family arrived from Muzaffarpur in Bihar in 1930 and it was his grandfather who set up the ‘Qadri Dawakhana’.
“There is no poverty here,’’ he says, adding that despite Hakim’s comments, the family voted for the TMC. “They are the ruling party. They will form the next government. Why should we waste our votes by voting for someone else,’’ he says.
In neighbouring Metiabruz, a colony of ready-made garment manufacturers that’s part of Kidderpore, 44-year-old Riyaz Qureshi says he is fed up with the constant tension in the area and the intermittent fights among different factions of the Trinamool. “Every once in a while, we close our businesses and lose money. Look at the police patrols. I have never seen this area so peaceful. If only they had police presence and patrolling in Metiabruz through the year, there would never be any trouble here,’’ he says.
“I have heard what Bobbyda said. People have been talking about it. I don’t know if he actually said it. But this is not mini-Pakistan. We hate being called that. In any case, I voted for the CPM. The TMC has done nothing for us,’’ says Hakim.