Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s comment on the death of Sudipto Gupta, a 22-year-old leader of the Students Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in police custody in Kolkata—that it was a “small matter, a petty matter”—shocked both the political class and civil society. The remark, made in Bangalore two days after Sudipto’s death, pointed to a growing streak of insensitivity in her towards political opponents.

On April 2, as part of a “law-defiance” programme in protest against the postponement of college elections in the State, Sudipto and other SFI activists courted arrest and were being taken to the Presidency Central Correctional Home in a private bus. According to the police, Sudipto leant out of the vehicle and was hit by a lamp post. He died subsequently in a State-run hospital.

However, eyewitnesses, including SFI activists, claimed that Sudipto was pushed out of the bus by the police personnel who were inside the vehicle. They also alleged that even after he had fallen the police assaulted him with lathis.

According to a preliminary investigation by the police, Sudipto’s death was accidental. “His injuries are consistent with the head hitting a blunt, stationary object and subsequently falling on a rough surface,” said Joint Commissioner of the Kolkata Police (Headquarters) Jawed Shamim. However, even before the report of the post-mortem examination had been submitted, Mamata Banerjee announced that the incident, though unfortunate, was an accident.

Critics alleged that she was trying to influence the investigation. They claimed that whenever the government or the State administration found itself in an uncomfortable position Mamata Banerjee lapsed into denial mode instead of addressing the issue. For instance, she initially dismissed the now-infamous Park Street rape case in February 2012 as “staged” in order to malign her government. Investigations, however, proved her wrong. Again, when farmers were committing suicide in the face of an agrarian crisis, Mamata Banerjee attributed the deaths mainly to personal reasons. When Kolkata was reeling under a dengue epidemic, she claimed it was a creation of the media.

CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Leader of the Opposition Surya Kanta Mishra said, “She has a limited vocabulary consisting of words like petty, small, concocted and shajano [Bengali for staged]…. She picks one of them from time to time.” He also maintained that the police cannot shrug off responsibility as Sudipto’s death did take place in police custody, though it may have been in transit custody. The Left has demanded a judicial probe into the incident. State Congress president Pradip Bhattacharya criticised Mamata Banerjee’s comment and said such remarks did not behove a Chief Minister. The legendary film director Mrinal Sen said: “For me the one who rules the State, under whom the police are, that is, the Chief Minister, is responsible for this death.”

Sudipto’s family sought the intervention of Governor M.K. Narayanan. “We have not received any word from Mamata Banerjee. If we did, we would not have come to the Governor,” said Sudipto’s elder sister Sumita after her family met the Governor on April 5. The family made it clear that it wanted justice and not “assistance” as initially offered by Mamata Banerjee and requested the Governor for an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

All India general secretary of the SFI, Ritabrata Banerjee, said a 22-year-old’s death cannot be a trivial matter. “Mamata Banerjee’s priorities are all wrong. On the day Sudipto was killed, she was seen amid the revelry of the opening ceremony of the IPL [Indian Premier League],” he said. According to him, Sudipto has become a “martyr for democracy” as his death has prompted other organisations to come out and demand the restoration of democratic rights.

Sudipto’s death led to widespread protests by the SFI and other Left forces not just in West Bengal but in other areas of the country.

In New Delhi, matters took an ugly turn on April 9 when protesters turned violent as Mamata Banerjee and her team of Ministers were entering Yojana Bhavan for a scheduled meeting with Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia. The State’s Finance Minister, Amit Mitra, in particular, who got separated from his colleagues, was roughed up and his clothes were torn.

Left leaders, including CPI(M) West Bengal State secretary and Left Front chairman Biman Bose, former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Surya Kanta Mishra, strongly condemned the incident in New Delhi.

However, that very evening Trinamool Congress supporters took to the streets in different parts of the State and targeted CPI(M) party offices. The following day, too, the violence continued; Presidency University, Kolkata, became a battleground between supporters of the Trinamool Chhatra Parishad and the SFI. Mamata Banerjee, on getting news of the spreading violence, cancelled her appointments in New Delhi and returned to Kolkata.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay