Calcutta, Jan. 8: Vehicle after vehicle stood burning or vandalised on a road not too far from Calcutta shortly before noon today, sending up in smoke the Trinamul leadership's description of political violence as "drama".
At least one teenager suffered a bullet injury in the flare-up at South 24-Parganas' Bhangar, which was sitting on a powder keg for the past two days after a CPM veteran was assaulted but evoked either derision or silence from the Trinamul leadership.
The nonchalance gave way to a scramble today as television channels beamed across the country images of the vehicles in flames in a state that is holding an investors' meet, titled Bengal Leads, next week in Haldia. Such was the jolt that chief minister Mamata Banerjee cut short a fever-enforced rest and reached Writers' Buildings.
As many as eight vehicles carrying CPM supporters bore the brunt of the torching skills of a crowd, said to be packed with Trinamul supporters, on the outskirts of Calcutta today. More vehicles, from both sides, were damaged: 16 vans ferrying CPM supporters and three cars and as many motorbikes belonging to Trinamul supporters.
The flare-up was the culmination of the clashes marked by the assault on CPM legislator and former minister Abdur Rezzak Mollah on Sunday.
Perceived compulsions before the upcoming panchayat polls had made the Trinamul leadership look the other way on Sunday's assault, blamed on the party's former MLA Arabul Islam. Some ministers had termed the hospitalisation of Mollah a "drama".
Although industries minister Partha Chatterjee called on Mollah with a bouquet of flowers yesterday, the effort was seen as a half-hearted damage-control bid in the absence of an unequivocal statement condemning violence.
The worst fears came true this forenoon. Mini-trucks ferrying Left supporters to a rally in Calcutta to protest the assault on Mollah were damaged or burnt at Bhangar's Bamanghata, 25km from Calcutta.
The attack was allegedly led by Arabul, the Trinamul strongman accused of hitting Mollah.
Arabul has been admitted to a private hospital after the former MLA said he was beaten up by the CPM cadres. Doctors said there were no external injuries but Arabul had high blood pressure.
Pradip Mandal, the working president of the Bhangar Block II Trinamul party unit, said he saw "CPM cadres emptying the vehicles and damaging or setting them on fire."
Witnesses said some CPM cadres did storm the Trinamul office after the arson attack.
The claims and counter-claims are unlikely to be settled conclusively in a state known for deeply polarised politics. But Mamata had come to power promising change from a political culture that thrived on intimidation.
Besides, had the government and the ruling party condemned in one voice Sunday's violence, it would have been easier to convince people that Tuesday's lawlessness was the handiwork of the Opposition.
At 11.30am, a convoy of vehicles carrying CPM activists was passing by the Trinamul office. Bombs were hurled and shots fired from the direction of the Trinamul office, where Arabul and supporters were present, according to the witnesses.
"We were sipping tea at a roadside shop. We saw a good number of vehicles moving towards Calcutta from the Bhangar side. We heard gunshots and the sound of bombs. They were flying towards the vehicles," a witness said.
"Within minutes, we saw local Trinamul activists coming out of the party office and instructing their men to attack. Some CPM cadres were running for cover," he added.
A little later, Trinamul men armed with iron rods smashed up the vehicles. Police confirmed the number of vehicles affected but did not say who was responsible.
Fearing trouble, the police were on standby but some witnesses said the personnel either stood idle or slipped away when the attack started.
Younis Sardar, a CPM local committee member, told The Telegraph at R.N. Tagore International Institute of Cardiac Sciences: "We were in a Tata Sumo. The police stopped us a little before Bamanghata for about 30 minutes, saying that a meeting led by Arabul was on at their party office.
"Then they let us pass, saying that the meeting was over. But just after some vehicles had passed the Bamanghata market, Trinamul men began hurling bombs and shot at us. Then they started beating us up." Sardar said he had to crawl under the Sumo and later roll into a nearby canal to escape.
The witnesses said that by then, 20-odd CPM activists came out of their vehicles, barged into the Trinamul party office and ransacked it. Two of the vandalised cars, a Scorpio and a Santro, belonged to Arabul, Trinamul said. The Santro is normally used by Arabul's son.
A police officer said in response to a question: "It all began when Arabul and his men attacked the CPM activists." The officer added that the CPM men had retaliated by attacking the Trinamul office. "But we are not sure whether they fired at Trinamul activists," he said.
State transport minister Madan Mitra said some Trinamul supporters could have been involved in "the spontaneous outburst of people's anger against the CPM".
The police said 16 persons were arrested till tonight. "We will not specify what their political affiliations are," a senior officer said. "Let's just say it's all-inclusive."
Chief secretary Sanjay Mitra said an inquiry would be conducted. "Only the probe will reveal if at all any firing had taken place," he said.