Paradox of History

Arup Kumar Sen

A large number of 'marginal men' in the city of Kolkata started deriving their livelihood from the hawking profession in post-colonial times,and became an organic part of the cityscape. This happened in the context of partition of Bengal in 1947 and massive influx of people from East Bengal. Many belonging to the profession were supporters of the left parties, particularly the CPI (M), participated in their political rallies and voted for the Left in the early years of Left Front (LF) rule.

However, the hawkers were victims of massive State violence, when the CPI(M) heavyweight, Subhas Chakra-borty, became the transport minister of the State of West Bengal in 1996. At the dead of night on November 24, 1996, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, under the leadership of Chakraborty, started a violent move with the police force and the CPI (M) cadres to evict the hawkers from different parts of Kolkata including Hatibagan in the North and Gariahat in the South. The hawker-eviction drive started with the caption "Operation Sunshine". In their self-defence, the hawkers put up tough resistance with their families, and the Hawker Sangram Committee was born in the same year. About 18 hawkers committed suicide in desperation within a year of the onslaught. The then crusader against the atrocities of the Left, Mamata Banerjee, the present chief minister of West Bengal, actively stood by the side of the hawkers. The hawkers emerged as an important political subject through their participation in the struggle for survival.

On the eve of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup held at the Salt Lake Stadium in East Kolkata in October, 2017, the local administration, under the Mamata Banerjee- led Trinamool Congress government, served notice to the hawkers located in and around Salt Lake, and in the gateway to the New Town from the Airport, to vacate their stalls. After the event, most of the hawkers were rehabilitated in and around their previous stalls. However, in mid-December, the municipal administration in the Karunamoyee area of Salt Lake started an onslaught on the hawkers, and demolished their stalls, with the active intervention of the police force. The evicted hawkers organised protest in the area, carrying Trinamool Congress flags. It seems from the media reports that there is division within the Trinammol Congress leadership on the question of eviction of hawkers. The hawkers reportedly lodged complaints to Mamata Banerjee against the local municipal administration.

At present, there are about 2.75 lakh hawkers in Kolkata.No one knows what will be the fate of the Kolkata hawkers under the Mamata regime. The interesting fact is that the CPI(M) leader and wife of late Subhas Chakraborty, under whose leadership the "Operation Sunshine" was launched under the LF regime, Ramala Chakraborty told the media that though she is not against beautification of the city and freeing of footpaths, she considers this sudden eviction inhuman, in a situation of lack of job opportunities in the State. She added that the CPI (M) will organise street march in protest, demanding alternative job creation. Here lies the paradox of history.

Vol. 50, No.37, Mar 18 - 24, 2018