[We present below a participants’ account, by Moinak Biswas, of the massive and unprecedented Dhikkar Michhil [condemnation rally] in Kolkata, protesting the killings in Nandigram. We now know, notwithstanding the cold blooded claims of ‘liberation’, that the operation carried out there was no different from what any marauding army does – kill rape, rape, maim. And so, Kolkata rose up in spontaneous condemnation – AN]
The organizers were obviously not prepared for size of the turn-out. That it would be big they must have known, as the outrage had reached a boiling point since the second offensive against Nandigram villagers started on the 6th. . But no one could have anticipated the multitudes that would render numbers obscure on the streets yesterday. The organizers didn’t even bring enough of those little badges which just said ‘Dhikkar’ (‘Shame!’). But then who were the organizers? Some familiar faces were using a loudspeaker to issue basic instructions – ‘Please do not carry organizational banners; do not shout slogans; our route will be.. .’ No one was leading. Many people did not know who gave the call for the rally; they still do not know.
No parties joined, no trucks and trains carrying obedient supporters; one lakh people on the streets, smiling in the early winter sun – the smile of release from inaction, from silence. They had been asking constantly over the last few days: Is there somewhere we can go? Do you know if there is something we could do? I saw my cousins, schoolmates, neighbours – many of whom admitted that this was the first time in their lives they had joined a procession.
We exchanged looks across the street, from one row to the other; they smiled and said, ‘Could not stay home’. Commuters, stranded by the endless human stream, often joined in. Someone shouted from an immobilized tram, ‘March on, we are with you’. Flower petals came raining down on the marchers from an old house near Wellington Square. On Nirmal Chandra Street, a group of locals stood by, displaying words of mourning and anger on small placards.
I was near the Calcutta Medical College when Sibajida and Suman Mukhopadhyay called from Dharmatala, our destination, to say they had reached. ‘Reached! But we have only just started here. And how many are still following?’ No one had a clear idea how many; but someone from the back reported that the tail was moving near Hedua, a kilometre behind us. Calls were coming in from all points along the massive meandering stream, ‘Where are you? How long will you take?’ As if one was still receiving calls to leave home and join. You could just inhabit these old central districts of the city and wait for the march to pass through you, making you a part of its open torso. I felt like telling the first-timers that we were also doing this after a long, long time. A call came from Bankura; Dwaipayan Bhattacharya, missing the rally sorely, shouted: ‘When did you last see such a michhil ?’ I passed the question on to Sourin Bhattacharya, 70, walking in front of me – ‘When did we last see something like this, Sir? ‘After Ayodhya’, he says, ‘After Guajarat’; he then adds, ‘But the CPM and the other Left in power joined those rallies in droves. When did one last see a mass of this size without political parties?’ The question is passed on, the students wait for us to remember; we look to our dadas, the quiet, grey brigade walking with us. Maybe the hunger marches of ’66? But even then, they add, there were party workers. Some bystanders are found managing the lines. No one asks who they are, the most irrelevant question on November 14. We look around and find almost every face familiar, but the wonder is we didn’t know so many unknown faces would appear familiar.
That’s where numbers became obscure. We arrived at Dharmatala at quarter to four, the tail end was to come and mix into the sea forty-five minutes later. The protean mass in Dharmatala, standing, squatting on the main thoroughfare, drifting about and chatting, reuniting with friends, forming circles, cheering one another, singing, collecting relief for the affected in Nandigram, created a perfect picture of a rally without a centre, or rather, without the familiar centring. People weren’t even sure for a while if there was to be the customary dais around which we should finally gather. Some suggested that the little truck leading the silent procession with the sole loudspeaker be made the dais; but Medha Patekar was seen already addressing the crowd from a make-shift stage. Let us have one stage then, the truck people quickly decided. It was impossible to go near the spot. The space, recently christened the ‘Metro Channel’ by anti-government protesters, was not meant for such a massive gathering. Indistinct voices came drifting in from there, but it was not designated as a focus for the eddying movements over the stretch between Lenin Sarani and S. N. Banerjee Road. It wasn’t possible to form the usual semi-circle of spectatorship around a single voice. Was it Mahasweta Devi speaking or Sankha Ghosh? Aparna Sen or Joy Goswami? Was it Pratul Mukhopadhyay singing? Anjan Dutt materialized beside us with Gautam Ghose, who was asking anxiously if Nabaneeta Dev Sen had been spotted. ‘She is ill’, Gautam said, ‘We asked her not to come, but she has sneaked out of home’. The stage had its own little circle, like innumerable other circles of students, actors, office workers, little-magazine wallahs, bespectacled teachers, journalists, holding intense transactions of information and wisecracks. The circles opened and closed to allow for a shifting membership, merged into one another. One could not see the neat police circle around the gathering though, like those found in the aftermath of March 14. Why? We were asking ourselves.
The fairly modest gathering outside the Kolkata Film Festival on the 11th had drawn an excessive display of force from the police, who arrested 68 of a crowd singing songs. On the 10th, they arrested stray people walking away from Medha’s fast. Bodhisattwa Kar, who has earned the distinction of getting arrested on both occasions, must have been wondering too: where were the cordons, the neatly lined up law-keepers? The police looked scattered and vaguely distributed over Dharmatala. Were they mirroring the formless discipline of the crowd, a mass that was swelling and flowing on all sides, not tied up into a bunch by a single thread of harangue? Before people dispersed with companions in tow, looking forward to an adda where the narratives would start, they were asking – what next?
A sequence of rallies and meetings, writing, image-making, arguments. But what about a project, something more sustainable? as Sourin babu kept on saying. If one tried one could read many lips in the crowd uttering the same interrogative. The question was no doubt carried over to the addas that followed. Organizing the streets of November 14 into a legible sequence, a story, will perhaps be the small next step in the direction of formulating the ‘project’. One hopes the story does not forget though that there was no one to pass a single thread of yarn from the beginning to the end of the michhil yesterday.
November 15, 2007