Almost every night, Chandra shuts his tea shop opposite the Metro gate at Esplanade around 9 and catches a train back home to New Barrackpur. But not on Sunday night — when the faceoff between the CBI and police, between Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Centre, kept him awake, like many others on the margins and in the middle of the drama that unfolded in the heart of Kolkata.
A drama that entered the second act Monday night, as Banerjee clocked 24 hours in her dharna against the CBI’s move to question Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar in various chit fund scam cases.
Around midnight Sunday, the dharna was just over three hours old, when 35-year-old Chandra started pumping his kerosene stove — once again. Staring at the bubbling pot of tea were over 30 impatient Trinamool Congress leaders and supporters wrapped in shawls, mufflers and jackets. About 20 metres away, Banerjee, wrapped in a shawl, sat on a chair in front of a 30-foot stage hurriedly erected under a colourful shamiana. Party leaders, ministers and senior police officers huddled in the cold nearby as the Chief Minister received calls of support from Opposition leaders.
With scores of police vehicles and barricades in place, the site was under a thick security blanket. “I will not leave until justice is done. Democracy is in peril. If they think they can threaten me by coming to my police commissioner’s house, they are wrong. Rahul Gandhi called me, so did Akhilesh (Yadav) and others,” said Banerjee.
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Her party’s leaders, meanwhile, discussed plans to carry on the agitation, speaking in hushed tones. Some of them were also calling for warm clothes to be brought in. “When I saw the Chief Minister and all these people, I arranged for some milk and reopened my shop. There is no drinking water now, not even bottled mineral water. But I will not return home tonight. I expect this to continue, just like during the Singur land agitation,” said Chandra. He was referring to the successful agitation steered by Banerjee in 2006 against the then Left government over the “forcible” acquisition of farmers’ land for a Nano car plant.
As the night ticked over, Banerjee asked the ministers and top officers to leave, since the state budget was to be placed in the Assembly Monday. Only a close group of leaders, including Dola Sen, Mahua Maitra and Indranil Sen, remained. Soon, Irrigation Minister Rajib Banerjee started pacing the stage.
“I am here because I heard there was a big problem and our Didi is here to protest… something to do with the BJP and the CBI. We will not let anyone harm Didi,” said Chotelal Shaw, 20, from Bidhan Sarani, about 4 km away.
At the home for Commissioner Kumar on Loudon Street, two patrol vans and six officers kept vigil. Just hours earlier, this was the Ground Zero of the confrontation, with Banerjee rushing across on hearing that a CBI team had arrived.
At Nizam Palace, a few minutes away, the CBI’s office was guarded by armed central personnel. It was around 1 pm, and a meeting was on at the office on the 14th floor — the team that was blocked from questioning Kumar was drawing up a timeline of what had happened, phone calls were being made to Delhi, some were dialling home to reassure their worried families.
About 15 km away, two police vans were on duty outside the other CBI office in the Salt Lake CGO complex. Inside, the central forces were in charge. “I didn’t know what was happening. The policemen came suddenly, they did not tell us why. They left after 9 pm, and the central forces arrived,” said a security guard.
By 3 pm, back at the dharna site, Banerjee was seated on a bed, an air-conditioned van with a toilet stationed to the left of the stage. The Chief Minister inquired whether there was food and water to last the night. On the ground near the barricades, some workers were fast asleep on plastic sheets.
As dawn neared, more barricades were put up, metal detectors brought in, and municipal garbage bins placed. A green carpet was also brought in — the show was getting ready for another day.