Why Bengal can never forget 21 July

What Mamata Banerjee says or does may be daily news for the national media these days, but why 21 July is a very important day, for her and the state she heads, may not be known to many outside West Bengal.

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On 21 July 1993, the then Calcutta Police, under the Left Front government, mercilessly opened fire and killed 13 hapless party workers at a rally organised by Mamata Banerjee, then a Youth Congress leader.

Banerjee, then West Bengal State President of Youth Congress, had organised a Writers' Abhijaan (march towards Writers' Building) in demand that the voters' identity card be made the only valid document to verify voters in order to put a stop to rampant 'scientific rigging'.

The party workers gathered at five different points across the city on that fateful day. They began marching towards their destination along Brabourne Road and were stopped by a large contingent of police officials near the Tea Board office, barely few minutes from the Writers' Building. The police force started beating up the crowd mercilessly in order to drive them away from the vicinity of Writers' Building.

The Youth Congress supporters who were peacefully rallying refused to stop and walked ahead. Many rounds of teargas shells were fired but the supporters kept moving forward. Banerjee tried to pacify the supporters but the police went berserk in a spate of revenge and did not even spare her.

The Youth Congress supporters approaching from Brabourne Road, BB Ganguly Street, Mission Row, Mayo Road and heading towards Writers' Building were stopped as the gathering was prohibited under the Section 144. The place transformed into a battle zone. People started running across Curzon Park. The police opened fire, killing 13 supporters and leaving hundreds severely injured. Surprisingly, the police aimed for the heads and the chests of the supporters, something unheard of in any civilised country.

Since then, the annual rally, attended by all MPs, MLAs and panchayat leaders is a significant event in the annual calendar of the All India Trinamool Congress — dedicated to the memory of these 13 'martyrs'.

On the political significance of this day, Banerjee says in her book, My Unforgettable Memories, 'It is the day when we remember and offer our respect to the hundreds of people who are fighting death every day, whose lives are a living death, who have lost life and limb in this struggle. For us, it is a day of sorrow and shame.'

Looking back, in the months preceding the 1993 incident, the Communist government of Bengal had won a massive mandate in 1991, but after Mamata became the president of the youth wing of the opposition INC, a new wave of protests began against the 'scientific' rigging allegedly used by the ruling Left coalition to manipulate election results.

In October 1992, Banerjee, a Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs in the Narasimha Rao ministry, held a massive rally at the Brigade Parade Ground to symbolically toll the bell for ousting the Communist government. This rejuvenated the Opposition to the ruling Left after a long gap, say political pundits. As for Banerjee, she recalls in her book, My Unforgettable Memories, 'By the time I reached the venue, there were 50,000 people. Slowly, the crowd started to build up…everywhere we looked, there was a sea of expectant faces. Was this a dream?'

On December 1992, Banerjee took a physically challenged girl, Felani Basak, who was allegedly raped by CPI(M) cadres to Writer’s Building to the then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu but was harassed by the police before being arrested and put on detention.

Finally the youth wing of the party led by Mamata Banerjee, Pankaj Banerjee and Madan Mitra decided to march to Writers' Building to lodge its demand for voters' identity cards to be made mandatory for free and fair polling. Recalls AITMC MP and actor, Shatabdi Ray, 'Didi often recounts that nightmarish day in 1993. People were shot at from the back and front. This was the culmination of the CPI(M)’s autocratic rule in Bengal, she feels.'

A conspiracy theory suggests cadres from CPI(M) mingled in the crowd and started to throw bricks at the police who retaliated with bullets. The decision to open fire was also widely criticised particularly as most of those killed were shot in the back proving that they had been murdered in cold blood. Said AITMC MP, Sisir Adhikari, who was an eyewitness to the gory incident, 'Even Mamata Banerjee who was leading the rally was injured. One of our party workers from Midnapore, Jaidul Khan, realised what was happening and rushed Didi to a safe destination. The CPI(M) bosses definitely knew what was happening as they had orchestrated the killings at Nandigram five years ago. But now there is a commission and a probe will tell the real story.'

The main organisers of the 1993 rally ultimately broke away to form the new party, the All India Trinamool Congress, which took on the mantle of holding the Martyr’s Day rally over the years.

This year though, the 'agitational' character of the rally is expected to change a bit. Banerjee, having completed a year as the Chief Minister of West Bengal is expected to talk about her government’s achievements. Said Subrata Mukherjee, Cabinet Minister in the Trinamool Government and an old mentor of Banerjee, 'Apart from talking about new party plans and programmes at the rally, we also offer some financial support to the families of victims of July 21, who hail from rural Bengal.' The Chief Minister is likely to touch upon strides made by her government in sectors like health and education, said sources.

For Subrata Bakshi, another minister in the Banerjee cabinet, the rally signifies protest against misdeeds of the CPIM-led Government and police atrocity on innocent party workers in the 1993 incident — which many believe to have catapulted Banerjee as the rallying point of anti-Left movement in Bengal. Said Bakshi, 'A commission has been set up Banerjee and sis probing the culprits behind police atrocities on that day. We hope that the culprits come to the forefront.'

Another USP of this year’s celebration is that a delegation from the GTA (Gorkhaland Territorial Agreement) is going to attend the rally for the first time this year. The hill elections — mapped out by Banerjee recently after talking to the political stakeholders (like the Gorkhaland Janmukti Manch) — are due on 29 July.

Interestingly, Kolkata is where the AITMC workers from all over the state flock to a day ahead of the rally. They arrive in buses, lorries, vans by the hundreds in a  rare show of solidarity and for paying respect to those who were brutally massacred on 21 July. Usually they stay at the Salt Lake Stadium and the party provides all meals and accommodation. Apart from political speeches to be delivered by top AITMC leaders, a cultural programme is usually organised from the same platform. MP Shatabdi Roy, who performed with her troupe last year, has been asked by Banerjee to sing a few patriotic songs, including Tagore’s Dhana Dhanya Pushpe Bhora.

This year too, the attendance at the Martyr’s Day rally is expected to cross 10 lakh. Last year, the venue was the Brigade parade grounds but this year, fearing waterlogging from monsoon showers, it has shifted back to the original venue, Esplanade (near the Chowringhee-Central Avenue crossing). But the main talking point will be Banerjee’s speech, where she is expected to also throw some light on her relationship and alliance with the UPA government at the centre and Congress in the state. With Panchayat elections round the corner, any political message from her would be awaited by her allies and opponents in the capital and in Bengal.


Partha Chatterjee, Industries Minister | Remembering the martyrs of our historic victory in Bengal and pledging development for the people of the state.

Sudip Bandopadhyay, MP | 21 July exposed the brutality of the left Front government. They did not hesitate to kill 13 Youth Congress workers and shot them in the head and chest, something which has never happened in the country and the world.

Suvendu Adhikari, MLA | May 21 July prove to be inspirational to every Trinamool worker every waking moment of  their lives.

Madan Mitra, Sports Minister | Victory is ours this Martyrs' Day, but haven't forgotten that July 21, 1993.
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