Playing Tag

The battle for Kolkata’s walls

01 August, 2015

I MET SREK AT A CAFE IN KOLKATA, on the last evening of May. Sipping cold coffee and wiping sweat off his forehead despite the air-conditioning, the 19-year-old undergraduate student, who heads a small band of graffiti artists calling themselves Zephyr, told me of how, earlier that month, soon after municipal polls concluded on 18 April, he had tried to “rid the City of Joy of its eyesore walls.” In the dead of night, he snuck out of his house, in north Kolkata, and hopped onto a friend’s motorbike. Half an hour later, the pair arrived at Jadavpur, an area in the city’s south. The two-person “cru”—jargon for crew—pulled out cans of spray paint, and prepared to “reclaim” with their art a wall covered in political graffiti.

“But before we could start painting, a group of people charged at us,” he said. “We hurriedly picked up our bag and took the escape route,” predefined on an earlier inspection. “We had a narrow escape. Had Shaf, the fellow member of our gang, not been aware of the geography of the area, only god knows what would have became of us.”

Their pursuers were cadres of the Trinamool Congress, or TMC, the ruling party of West Bengal. Since it assumed power in 2011, ending 34 years of rule by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), it has forcefully asserted its claim to thousands of walls across the city, covering them with party slogans and symbology. Its graffiti gangs are particularly active before elections, as they were in the lead-up to the April polls, which the TMC won. So are their rivals from other parties, who challenge the incumbent party’s graffiti with their own. Many in the city see such graffiti as a blight, and some artists and residents are resisting political dominance over Kolkata’s walls. But the TMC is jealously holding on.

“They see our move as an insult to their party and their leaders,” Srek told me. He asked to remain anonymous, explaining that, like other graffiti artists, he stuck to a pseudonym for fear of a “backlash from police and party cadres alike.” He took his name from the eponymous hero of the Shrek series of animated films. “Like him, I am also very lonely and don’t want too much from life,” he said.

A few days before I met Srek, I visited Chittaranjan Colony, near Jadavpur, to meet a member of the CPI(M)’s local committee. “I am married to the party,” the 33-year-old boasted once we got talking, “I will be with her till the end of my life.”

Before the April vote, he told me, TMC goons “beat up our local committee head as his wife and mother did not allow them to paint TMC graffiti on the wall of their house.” The police are also on the ruling party’s side. “If we complain against TMC people, they would put us into lock-up,” he said. He told me not to reveal his name, as he also feared retribution.

Back in Chittaranjan Colony again in early June, I met a CPI(M) stalwart and worker who volunteered a history of political graffiti in the city, though again on condition of anonymity. It began, he told me, in the early days of the CPI(M)’s rise, before a Communist-led coalition defeated the Indian National Congress in legislative elections in 1977. “The Congress never had a culture of wall-writing,” he said, since it had enough money and manpower to arrange “star speakers, big banners and posters.” The CPI(M) found graffiti an easy and cheap way to reach its target demographic of working people and the poor, and started using it particularly “in front of gates of factories and mills” and in posh locales where the class divide was most starkly clear. After the TMC broke away from the Congress to establish itself, in 1998, “they realised the political potency of wall-writing” and started using it too. “When we were in power, most of the walls would be ours—around 70 percent of them,” the CPI(M) worker said. “But we rarely get to write walls now, we do only 2 percent of the total wall-writing we did when in power.”

“They are being paid in the same coin,” Pulak Dutta, the 33-year-old secretary of the TMC’s youth wing in Chittaranjan Colony told me. “When the CPI(M) was in power, they never allowed us to write on walls as they didn’t want a powerful opposition party.” Now, of course, the TMC is dominant. The vast majority of walls I saw across the city were under TMC control. Many walls without graffiti were still tagged with the party’s initials in small type in a corner. “We claim virgin walls as we don’t want the CPI(M) guys to use them,” Dutta explained.

Past attempts to rein in Kolkata’s epidemic of political graffiti have failed, and any citizens defying the parties’ designs risk retribution from their cadres and even the police. SONALI PAL CHAUDHARY / GETTY IMAGES

Election authorities have tried to reign in the use of political graffiti, but never to any effect. The West Bengal Prevention of Defacement of Property Act, passed in 1976, was for years brazenly ignored, particularly at election time, until escalating civil complaints forced the state government to announce stricter enforcement of it in 2006. But the state then amended the law to make it permissible to graffiti privately owned walls after receiving written permission from their owners. Now, political graffiti gangs still work with impunity, and, if ever required, either intimidate owners into declaring their consent or forge letters of approval. The party workers I spoke to, whatever their affiliation, agreed that as a matter of form they should ideally paint over their graffiti after a round of elections is over, but none of them adhered to this practice. “Since the authorities never crack down, ” the CPI(M) local committee member told me, “we also let it be as it is. But if any member of the public tries to deface or whitewash a wall, it would certainly be seen as an act of blasphemy.”

Yet some Kolkata residents are now doing what the authorities have failed to. In mid June, I met Samrat Banerjee, a commercial ship captain who owns a bungalow with a garden in Belgachia, in the city’s north. Banerjee’s work takes him away for six months at a stretch. This March, upon returning home from a six-month stint at sea, he was aghast to see the TMC symbol—two flowers with three petals, coloured white, green and saffron—painted on the outside of his perimeter wall. “I didn’t have the courage to confront them as I fear backlash against my wife and daughter when I am away,” the 52-year-old told me, but he found a creative solution. Bannerjee altered the wall’s design, “putting a cross design on the graffiti with sand and cement.” That brought no retaliation, and he told me he now felt it was “safe to reclaim the wall by giving it fresh coat of paint.” He still hadn’t done it, though.

Individual daring of this sort is rare. The most prominent effort against graffiti involves years of collective action by the Citizen’s Association of the Lake Market neighbourhood, in south Kolkata. When I visited, in June, I met Gautam Mukherjee, a long-time resident and prominent civic leader. “Our movement against graffiti started just before the civic-body election of 1990,” he said. The association delivered a memorandum to local politicians “underlining why our walls should not be made a political tool. Most parties, except for the CPI(M), obliged us.” When fresh graffiti appeared, residents whitewashed over it and wrote a slogan of their own: “Write poll graffiti on our walls and lose our votes!”

Lake Market is now a fortress of clean walls, but Amlan Mitra, a member of the Citizen’s Association, told me he’s not sure “how long we will be able to keep it impregnable.” The workers of the incumbent TMC, he said, “seem less tolerant and little civilised as compared to the CPI(M) cadres.”

Elsewhere in the city the free-for-all continues. Srek, for one, didn’t seem fazed by his close call. He vowed that his gang will “continue our guerrilla warfare—reclaiming one wall at a time, and making the city beautiful bit by bit.”

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that a coalition led by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) was elected to power in West Bengal in 1967. The coalition was elected in 1977. The Caravan regrets the error.

Sanjay Pandey Sanjay Pandey is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. He contributes to several national and international publications, including Al Jazeera, AJ+, Friday magazine and Vice News. He writes on society, culture, human rights and the environment.