How The Fort Oasis Vandalism Exposes Kolkata's Class Faultlines

It’s a perfect frame for a story of two Kolkatas.

19/09/2016 11:48 AM IST | Updated 20/09/2016 12:49 PM IST
Stringer India / Reuters
File photo of a car torched by protestors during a protest march in Kolkata, November 21, 2007.

The gated complex in Kolkata was called Fort Oasis. It turned out to be neither a fort, nor an oasis.

The headlines are pretty much the same across the board.

Mob vandalizes dozens of cars after youth dies in road accident.

Youth dies in accident, mob goes on rampage in Kolkata.

Around 70 cars vandalized in South Kolkata complex by unruly mob.

Here are the basic facts of what happened. A Mercedes was involved in a hit-and-run case at 2:45 AM in the morning. A college student on a scooter was killed and his two companions injured. The people in the Mercedes fled the scene, apparently in another car. The enraged residents of a nearby "slum" thought the Mercedes came from a plush housing complex nearby.

It turns out it did not. But they attacked the complex with iron rods and bricks, broke through the security and vandalized over 70 cars parked there while terrified residents watched from their windows and balconies desperately calling the police. The police apparently did nothing until 9 AM when reinforcements arrived. By that time almost every car the mob could find had been smashed.

It's a perfect frame for a story of two Kolkatas, not quite the haves and have-nots but the have-a-lots and the have-very-littles. The gated community vs the slum at its gate.

The papers carry the roll call of destruction. 10 Honda City cards. 3 Ford Eco Sports. 1 Audi Q3. 1 Land Rover. 1 Skoda Rapid. 1 Nissan Terrano. The make of the victims' scooter does not make it into the reports. This is an old India on foot smashing headfirst into a new air-conditioned India on four wheels.

It's a perfect frame for a story of two Kolkatas, not quite the haves and have-nots but the have-a-lots and the have-very-littles. The gated community vs the slum at its gate. It's tricky terminology especially in a densely populated city like Kolkata where communities have traditionally been mixed. As a Kolkata social worker once remarked, the boy from the bustee and the boy from the middle class household did play football together once and work on the same Durga Puja committee.

But the gated community changed that. One puja went inside the gates. One stayed outside. The places where those worlds meet are ever-shrinking.

Slum is a word loaded with stigma – squalor, crime, disease. According to UN Habitat, a slum is an area that combines the following characteristics: "inadequate access to water, inadequate access to sanitation and other infrastructure, poor structural quality in housing, overcrowding and insecure residential status."

But in neighbourhoods like these in Kolkata there is nothing informal about these settlements. Many have access to running water and electricity and the houses are pucca. Many are older than the gated communities that have sprung up in their midst. A bustee or jhopadpatti or a chawl are not necessarily slums just because they might be low-income areas. We still see that word all over the media and every time the word "slum" is used here it hammers home that visual of the "barbarians at the gates".

And it underscores the thinness of the membrane that separates the two worlds – one that's easily punctured with a brick. The "security guards" can really offer little by way of security. Their uniforms are hardly any protection for them or the mob at the gate.

And it reminds us brutally that though privilege and wealth insulates people like us from people like them, if push comes to shove, their world can easily overwhelm ours while we wait for police reinforcements. It's easy to wonder how much of this is fuelled not just by one traffic accident but the pent-up rage of those who watch everyday a world that's next door to them and yet inaccessible.

Except as its cleaners, maids, drivers and car washers. One report mentions in fact that the initial (and incorrect) tip about the Mercedes belonging to that particular complex came from a carwash boy the slum supplies to the complex.

But here is what is not emphasised in most of reports. Those who were in the car fled the scene. That's the recurring story of modern India, not just in Kolkata. It happened here and here and here. And just this year in Kolkata when an Audi mowed down a jawan. The ones behind the wheel do not even have to have the connections of a Salman Khan. They fled because they were afraid of being lynched. They get lynched because the bystanders think that mob justice is the most effective justice, that those who drive a Mercedes will elude the law if they get the chance, that the police will bend over backwards to please them.

This is really a story, yet again, of a collapse not in law and order as much as a belief in law and order, a belief in a system that works without fear or favour. Now the story is flipping on its head where those in gated complexes fear the mob acts with impunity because they are the footsoldiers of a political party in power while the mob believes the police will always favour the wealthy. The vicious circle is complete.

In the Kolkata rampage, many residents at Fort Oasis pointed out that they recognized many in the mob as local residents who had shown up in rallies and processions for Debashish Kumar, local Trinamool council member. But in an ironic twist, Kumar's own Ford Endeavour SUV was parked in the complex though he does not live there. His daughter does. It did not escape the mob's fury.

What will come off this story? Not much. A few people have been arrested and charged with being involved in the rampage. Will 150 people be arrested? Unlikely. The Mercedes owners will be tracked down and perhaps face charges. Equally likely they will just vanish for a while. There will probably be compensation offered to the families of the bereaved and injured. Fort Oasis will beef up its security. But it will still need its drivers and maids and carwash boys. They will still need those jobs. And the two Kolkatas will go back to their uneasy coexistence, cheek by jowl, yet worlds apart.

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