Mamata and the police chief : Who 'bit' whom? (West Bengal Newsletter)
By Sirshendu Panth, Kolkata, Feb 15 : Over 14 years ago, Mamata Banerjee made an extraordinary allegation about a young Kolkata police officer. Then in opposition, Banerjee alleged that Deputy Commissioner of the South Division Ranjit Kumar Pachnanda had bitten (yes, bitten) her.
The then stormy petrel of opposition politics in the state also alleged that the police officer had torn her saree and blouse, dragging her as she led a sit-in protest.
Pachnanda, who had since risen to be Kolkata's police commissioner, was Thursday removed from his post.
The divesting of the hot seat occurred after a policeman was shot dead by a youth in broad daylight in the Garden Reach area, as clashes occurred between rival student groups in the stormy build-up to student union polls.
Public memory is short, and perhaps not many will recall that on Oct 25, 1998, about a week after Diwali, Pachnanda had led a police force that dragged Banerjee from South Kolkata's Bedi Bhawan, leading to road and rail obstruction by the Trinamool supremo's loyalists.
It was after that protest that Banerjee made the stunning "bite" allegation.
The IPS officer was left defending himself: "Do I look like a dog?" he asked media people.
It came as something of a surprise that Banerjee decided to continue with Pachnanda as the top cop of the eastern metropolis on coming to power in May 2011. The 1983 batch police officer was appointed to the coveted post two months earlier.
With Banerjee sworn in as chief minister, speculation was rife that Pachnanda would be shown the door.
On the contrary, the two struck up a good professional rapport.
Banerjee would appreciate Pachnanda in public, and call on him to follow up on her promises. She would, on occasion, ask him to endorse her claims of the government's achievements.
When the sensational Park Street rape case - involving an Anglo-Indian woman - came to light in February last year, Banerjee described the matter as "cooked up", meant only to malign her government.
Within hours, Pachnanda parroted Banerjee at a media conference.
One gutsy woman officer, however, went ahead with the probe. Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Damayanti Sen cracked the case and arrested most of the culprits.
Within six weeks, she was transferred and made deputy inspector general of police, training, Barrackpore, considered a "garage posting" for an IPS officer who had been entrusted complex criminal cases in the metropolis.
Pachnanda has since been under the scanner of both the media and former top cops.
Banerjee still reposed full faith in her officer.
However, when Special Branch officer Tapas Chowdhury fell to the bullet of a young man on a crowded road outside the Harimohan Ghosh College Wednesday, things changed.
Television footage showed the killer - later identified as Sheikh Shubhaan - running at a distance, then taking a swift turn, rush a few paces and fire the bullet.
The incident caused widespread shock, and revealed much about the state of law and order in Kolkata.
Hours after the incident, nobody was arrested. There were allegations that one of the culprits involved in the violence was allowed to flee, following the intervention of a Trinamool Congress councillor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, Mohammad Iqbal.
As television aired the shocking footage all day, Pachnanda visited the family of the dead policeman. He rushed to the Garden Reach police station to supervise the handling of the case.
TV footage also showed councillor Iqbal threatening a policeman and mobilising his supporters; however, the councillor was not arrested, even though he was named in the FIR (first information report) filed Thursday.
Urban affairs minister Firhad Hakim gave Iqbal a clean chit.
Banerjee, who was away in the sea resort of Digha when the incident happened, made no secret of her annoyance at the handling of the violence soon as she returned to the city.
"There are some names missing in the FIR. I will enquire why," she said.
Hours later, Pachnanda was shunted out. He was transferred to the comparatively less significant post of additional director general (security).
"I had to take such strong action because the criminals were not arrested in time," Banerjee explained.
There were, however, many who held that Pachnanda got the sack for taking a personal initiative in nabbing Shubhaan, the man whom cameras had caught firing the shot. Shubhaab was a close associate of Iqbal.
Pachnanda had named the Trinamool leader in the FIR.
"It seems he bit off more than he could chew," a police functionary told IANS sarcastically, referring obliquely to a 14-year-old "bite".
(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)