The massive show of strength by the Union at our branch was indeed a highly provocative step taken by the leaders and the display of the cartoon was only to add fuel to the fire. It was a great challenge to Maller. The Union was aware that Maller was not a man to be cowed down by its usual antics. But this ‘special show’ only appeared to have strengthened his resolve to take the leaders head on in the continuing daily drama.
But for some of us at least the situation appeared to be quite unnerving. We could not foresee any peaceful end to the animosity that was developing between the Maller’s team and the majority of staff members. We were also afraid that cash department being a highly sensitive and risky segment, any shortage either willful or otherwise may lead to a highly complicated situation. We were repeatedly assured by Maller and his close confidants that the Union members will never resort to any physical violence and will not involve themselves in any such activity that will question their integrity.
As for me, the life in Kolkata at that stage was quite in contrast to the peaceful and comfortable life I had led in Mumbai for the past seven years. The trouble in the branch had started exactly by the time I was about to settle down with my family in Kolkata. I could hardly devote any time to my family affairs as I used to reach home only late in the night daily. As it was my first posting as a Manager, I had several ideas in my mind to prove my ability as a Manager. My plans included an excellent relationship with the branch staff and an exposure to the rich Bengali cultural heritage. But, ironically, here I was placed in a situation that aimed at teaching them a lesson of their life! Maller knew my dilemma and that I hated the hostile atmosphere prevailing in the branch. He was repeatedly assuring me that things would turn out for the better in due course.
It was not clear to us at that stage under whose directions Maller was acting in his mission to teach a lesson to the Union leaders. The fact that he had been given a free hand by the DM Ramamurthy proved that he was receiving moral support and instructions from the Circle Office. The staff matters at the Circle Office were being handled at that time by Mr.Annappa Pai, the AGM. The other AGM, Mr. K V Bhat was handling advances exclusively. It was presumed that Maller had the backing from none other than the DGM R V Pai himself.
The day of 13th September 1984 turned out to be the ‘D’ day in the history of the Canning Street, Kolkata branch. Mr. Ramamurthy, the Divisional Manager, was on leave as he was sick. Even though the day began just like any other day in our office, a sort of apprehension started growing right from the morning at the branch. The Union leaders were found to be huddling and discussing in hushed voices. Maller had his sources in the minority Union. He got confidential information from them that the leaders were up to creating some trouble and there would be definitely some drama or incident on that day. Maller was also warned that thirteen (13) was a very inauspicious/ominous number and it would be better for him to lie low on that day!
Another development at the branch by that time had also caused lot of anxiety for all of us. As we were being held up at the branch till late in the night, the availability of the person who would start the generator (a private contractor), during load-shedding was very critical. The person concerned had been instigated and he flatly refused to stay beyond the normal office hours. However, there was a hardworking peon in the cash department by name Bijoy (belonging to the minority Union), who used to help in starting the generator. As luck would have it, Bijoy was also on leave on the 13th.
As mentioned by me earlier, it had become a routine for me to go to the Main Branch at the end of the day after completing the work in the Deposit Section (in a separate wing). I used to join the team in the cash section led by Padmanabhan (Manager) for counting the huge amount of cash. Subramanian, James, Radhakrishnan and Garpure were also joining me there. As we joined the team on the 13th September, we could find the atmosphere very grim. We continued counting the cash and we saw the Bengali officers going out of the office one after another after completing their routine work. Mr.Mallya, who was in charge of advances, also left the office at about 7 pm. While Maller was sitting alone in his cabin at the one end of the branch-premises near the entrance, we were in the cash counter situated at the other end. The main branch premises was very huge and it used to take quite some time to reach the cash counters from Maller’s cabin near the entrance. The strong room (where the cash is stored at the end of the day) was in a corner near the cabin. The generator room was also situated near the strong room.
As we were counting the cash, we could see the Union leaders and some other Union members sitting not too far from the cash counters and playing cards. They appeared to be just spending time in anticipation of certain event in the branch. James, who knew each of the employees by their names, told us that they were definitely up to something. We also found that the receipt cashiers were joining the card-playing group, after handing over cash to us for counting, one after another. By that time it was already 10 pm in the night. Suddenly Padmanabhan told us that Bijoy was on leave and in case of load-shedding, there was nobody who could start the generator. All of us felt that the situation could be very grave in such a case.
We had completed the counting of nearly 80 percent of cash by 11 pm, when the lights went off all of a sudden! It was almost pitch dark in the large premises of the bank. In the normal course, Bijoy would have run to the generator room and started the generator. For quite some time nobody moved and all of us sat inside the cash counter silently. The card-playing group was also sitting silently waiting for our moves. We could see Maller in his cabin at the far end lighting candles and doing some work as if things were quite normal.
After waiting quite for some time, Padmanabhan asked two of the cash peons (belonging to the majority Union) to go and start the generator. They simply refused his orders stating that it was none of their business! Then Padmanabhan told them that it was not his business also and simply continued sitting silently with all of us. The stalemate continued for quite some time and our apprehensions were simply mounting in view of the huge cash lying in an open position.
After some more time, two of the leaders of the Union came inside and asked Padmanabhan to get the generator started. He told them that their Union members had refused to start it. The leaders made it clear that it was ‘none of their business.’ Padmanabhan reiterated that it was also ’none of his business.’ The leaders then went out and discussed the matter with the senior leaders. They came back again and threateningly asked Padmanabhan to start the generator without any further delay. He bluntly told them to mind their business.
The leaders went out and there was a discussion among them. Suddenly we found them forming a procession one behind another. Led by the senior leaders in the front, the parade started from the cash cabin and moved towards the cabin of Maller at the far end! As the procession started, the slogan shouting also began and the vast premises of the Canning Street branch started reverberating with the sound of the slogans at the dead of the night in total darkness! For all of us sitting in the cash cabin it was a blood-chilling experience! Indeed the situation appeared to be going totally out of hands. We were simply clueless as to how the things would turnout in the end.
The procession ultimately reached the cabin of Maller and the slogan shouting reached its crescendo! We could see Maller sitting quite cool in the cabin as if he was totally oblivious of the happenings inside the branch premises! The leaders at the front-end barged inside the cabin and asked Maller to get the generator started so that the cash counting was completed and their members were allowed to go home. Maller simply told them it was none of his business to start the generator! A serious argument followed.
We found the situation quite explosive at that stage. Padmanabhan told us that he would go to the cabin to support Maller as there was every chance of a physical assault on him. He moved out and simply ran all the way to the cabin. I also tried to follow him with the other officers. But in the prevailing high level tension, we were very shaky and could not move fast. Meanwhile, Padmanabhan had pushed himself into the cabin and joined Maller in his arguments with the leaders. The arguments reached a very high pitch when all of a sudden somebody broke the glass sheet on the table of Maller and in the process extinguished the burning candles. We were almost half-way to the cabin at that time and were shocked to see the sudden total darkness in the cabin. But it appeared to be a ‘free for all’ in the cabin and we could hear fisticuffs. As I reached near the cabin along with the other officers, I could see Padmanabhan being dragged outside the cabin after being hit repeatedly! He was finally pushed into a corner outside the cabin by the group in a very bad physical condition. By this time, Mr.Garpure, an officer who was with us, went inside the generator room and managed to start the same. With the lights on, all of a sudden, we could see the faces of all the persons involved in the physical assault very clearly.
While the physical assault had ended with Padmanabhan being pushed into a corner outside the cabin, the ‘oral assault’ started in its full once the lights were on. They used their choicest words to abuse Maller and his Chelas! We had no option other than simply hearing them. Meanwhile, we made efforts to revive Padmanabhan by making him drink water. While he regained his consciousness, he was indeed in a very bad state of affairs.
In the tension prevailing at that time we had totally forgotten to see what exactly was the state of affairs of Maller – suspected to be the original target of attack. We looked at his cabin with great anxiety. And Lo! There he was! Sitting comfortably in his seat and ringing up the telephone number of the officer-in-charge at the Lal Bazar Police Station!
------- (To be continued)
A V Krishnamurthy