A grave past comes to haunt the CPM

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Human skulls and bones dug out from a red bastion in rural West Bengal. In a desperate plea post polls, CPM men turn informers on their own crimes. Tusha Mittal reports

Bones of evidence Locals hold aloft the remains of a skeleton, one of the many that were found buried in a village in West Midnapore
Locals hold aloft the remains of a skeleton, one of the many that were found buried in a village in West Midnapore
Photos: Pintu Pradhan

NEARLY A month after the CPM’s electoral drubbing in West Bengal, the skeletons of a 34-year-long regime are tumbling out, quite literally. On the morning of 4 June, at the call of local TMC leaders, the West Bengal Police arrived in Benechpara village in West Midnapore district. They were taken to a clearing amid paddy fields, a slope from where a stream once flowed, and was now covered with mud. After the police arrived, an excavator began scooping out earth. Soon, villagers jumped into the hollow pit with sickles and shovels. On a hot June morning, in the heart of what was once a CPM bastion, the digging began.

At a depth of 10 feet, they hit the first bone. According to locals present, this is what was excavated: 14 legs and 14 hands. Four skulls with teeth. Three skulls with scalp hair. 81 ribs. 33 pieces of miscellaneous bone parts. Three limbs wearing pants, folded up. One pelvic bone wearing the elastic of an underpant. Torn clothes. One shard of human hair.

On hearing this, Shyamal Acharya of Khetua village rushed to the spot. His father Ajay Acharya, a TMCworker had been missing since September 2002. In the mix of mud and bone, Shyamal saw a white dhoti and off-white kurta that he claims belonged to his father. Nuruddin Mondal too is convinced. “I know this is him, this is my friend Nobo,” Mondal says holding a piece of blue-and-yellow striped cloth. “This is the vest we bought together. I have the exact same thing.” Soon other voices began to speak up: survivors, eyewitness, locals. “We heard the firing that night. We knew something happened here. But if we spoke earlier, our bones would have been in that pit too,” says local Mathura Marick. Officially, the TMC now claims that these are the remains of seven TMC workers who were killed by the CPM in September 2002 and whose bodies have been missing since. According to the TMC, these men had been forced to flee their villages in the nascent years after the party’s birth in 1998.

“The CPM had begun to threaten us,” says TMC member Ram Sani who claims he survived the 2002 attack. “Hundreds of us were staying in a refugee camp in Midnapore town.” In September 2002, there was an all-party meeting, a “shanti baithak” presided by then SP KC Meena where CPM and TMC leaders agreed to cease hostility. “After the agreement, we were returning home with the assurance that we won’t be harmed,” says Sani.

Based on testimonies of survivors and eyewitnesses, this is a reconstruction of what happened next.

About 50 TMC workers returned to Khetua party office in Keshpur block. A group of nine went to Ajay Acharya’s home to drink water before proceeding towards Gargi village. Midway, they were surrounded by 50 men, armed and firing at them. The group scampered towards Piasal village. A few kilometres on, Sani caught a bullet in his leg and collapsed. He was beaten till he bled. When he regained consciousness, he found himself at the Keshpur Rural Hospital. The next day, he was charged under Section 304 with attempt to murder, and went on to spend 90 days in jail. Meanwhile, the eight others had fled farther. They entered Piasala village with the CPM gang close on their heels.

CPM Harmad shot the injured victims several times in broad daylight outside a temple in the village centre

Inside the village, two of the eight TMC men snuck into the house of Gobindo Majhee. One of them — Ajay Acharya — was a Brahmin who offered puja at Majhee’s house, so Majhee’s mother let him in. A third TMCworker, Arup Ghosh, ran towards a banana grove behind the village and hid under stacks of hay. Four others were trapped in the centre of the village, outside a Kali Mandir.

By then, CPM workers were pouring in from all directions. About 1,000 surrounded the village. A few barged into Majhee’s house and dragged the two hiding TMC men out. All seven were beaten with lathis, axes, sickles and rifle butts. Thirty minutes later, a local CPM Harmad, Sona Das, 22, zoomed in on his motorbike. By then the seven TMC men were lying near-dead on the ground. “Sona Das shot at each of them with his rifle,” says Gobindo Majhee, who claims to have witnessed the incident from his doorstep. In broad daylight, outside a Kali temple in the centre of a village, multiple bullets were fired into each body, one by one. The bodies were then loaded onto a bullock cart and dumped in a nearby field. Later, the CPM men returned. The bodies were tied with ropes to bamboo shafts and taken into a mango field. They were buried the next day. Meanwhile, Arup Ghosh was found hiding in the hay by other CPM men. He was beaten, put into a bag and whisked away. When Ghosh regained consciousness, he too found himself at the hospital. Three days later, when Shyamal Acharya did not hear from his father, he tried to file an FIR at the Keshpur Police Station. The officer-in-charge refused to register a complaint. “Where is the evidence?” he was asked. On a second attempt, couriering a complaint by post, Acharya was able to get it registered. Soon after, the police visited Piasal, picked up Majhee’s father Padmaji for questioning. Padmaji was detained for 24 hours and let off. The police have not visited Piasal since.

Meanwhile, Sona Das returned home safe. Das’ village Lokhapat is about 500 metres from Piasal where the carnage happened. Villagers in Lokhapat say they saw Das the very next day. No police came. Since the 2002 incident, Das has lived in his village. According to locals, Prashanto Ghosh, brother of former Western Region Development Minister Sushanto Ghosh, visited him often. The last time the villagers saw Das was Friday, 13 May — judgement day. As the election verdict began to pour, Das disappeared.

But there are contradictions in the TMC narrative too. While TMC says all nine workers left from Midnapore, the family of Nobo Laha confirmed that Laha was at his native village until 21 September 2002. “There were threats from the CPM to stop attending TMC rallies. Nobo left the house to go live with a relative. He never returned,” says his brother Sashti Laha. According to sources, the people who were fired upon may have been part of TMC’s armed brigade, tasked with expanding a then-fledgling TMC’s base in Bengal.

That is why the only indisputable fact so far is that human remains have been dug out of a CPM backyard. The rest can only be confirmed after DNA tests. “I can’t say if that is my husband for sure,” says Acharya’s wife Sabita. “I will wait for the DNA test result. If this is true, the CPM people who did this should be killed in the same way they killed my husband.” The CPM has chosen to remain tight-lipped on the issue. “I don’t know what they are doing. I have nothing to say,” Surya Kanta Mishra, CPM Leader of Opposition told TEHELKA.

SINCE THE discovery on 4 June, an FIR has been registered in Amanpour Police Station, Keshpur block, on the complaint of Shayamal Acharya. Former CPM minister Sushanta Ghosh is named in the FIR along with 40 others. The West Bengal CID will formally take charge of the case. “We have recovered four skulls almost intact, broken skeleton parts and pieces of cloth. It appears these bodies were buried some seven to eight years ago,” says Purnashib Mukhopadhyay, West Mindapore CID officer. “The remains have been sent to the Midnapore Hospital. The post-mortem report is awaited. Some locals are alleging these people were killed in a 2002 incident. We will investigate on those lines.”

Ground zero Shyamal and Sabita Acharya, son and wife of Ajay Acharya; Arms recovered from behind the house of Sushanta Ghosh; Gobinda Majhee points to the spot of the murders

The site in Benechpara village is barely 200 metres from the home of Sushanta Ghosh, former CPM Minister, known as one of the party’s key musclemen. Despite repeated attempts by TEHELKA to contact Ghosh, he could not be reached. Though Benechpara is now part of Salboni block, which the TMCwon in the 2011 polls, it was part of Garbeta block before delimitation. Together Garbeta and Kesphur are widely known as the arms cradle of the CPM, their strongest focal point in the parts of West Bengal that have seen the worst pre-poll violence. Despite the TMC sweep in 2011, the CPM retained these two seats.

Yet, that is not something one would guess travelling through Garbeta and Keshpur post May 2011. Even here, not a single CPM flag is visible, most CPM leaders have fled and those who remain will not openly profess allegiance to the CPM. The party alleges that 12 workers have been murdered by TMC post polls. That is why even as the skeletons tumble out, there is something eerier still; a mirror image of bygone days. Yet again, in Garbeta and Keshpur there is no opposition. “Ekhun Shobay TMC (Now, everyone is TMC),” an elected CPM panchayat pradhan told TEHELKA. “On paper, I’m a CPM pradhan, but now I support the TMC.”

It is a curious twist, that TMC men are hiding once brutal enemies from the police and the CPM

That is why the real story is not only in the human remains excavated, but also in how the spot was discovered. At 1 am on night of 3 June, a day before the digging, four figures had walked out to the middle of a paddy field. Three TMC workers and their arch nemesis: a dreaded CPM Harmad, Madan Santra, reportedly a close aide of Sushanta Ghosh. TMC sources say that Santra, who had fled his nearby village Alampur the day of the election verdict, had been captured by the TMC when he attempted to return home on 3 June.

“Madan showed us where the skeletons are,” confirms Pabah Sahu, a local TMC leader who surveyed the spot with Santra. A mango contractor by profession, Santra was part of the CPM gang that, according to Sahu, carried the dead bodies to a mango field on the night of 22 September 2002. “After the polls, Madan was scared for his life. We convinced him that we won’t harm him. We said if he gives us information, we’d keep him in hiding and protect him from the CPM.”

A few cows tied to a tree, stacks of unused wheat grain, Madan Santra’s home in Alampur village is now locked up. While the official story is that Santra is missing post 4 June, TEHELKA has learnt from TMC sources that Santra could be just one of the many CPM ‘Harmads’ TMC leaders are holding in custody. It is a curious twist: Local TMC leaders hiding those who were once their most brutal enemies from the police and their own party. “We caught two Harmads,” admits Chinmay Saha, a TMC leader in Badasol village. “They were trying to flee to Chennai. We nabbed them at the railway station and ran. We are now extracting more information from them.”

It is this information that has perhaps led to the massive arms recovery. Since the poll verdict, in 200 police raids, at least 1,500 firearms and 14,000 rounds of ammunition have been fished out of ponds, schools and CPM party-offices. With all this fire, there’s probably more ash. TMC sources say they plan to dig up other spots revealed to them by CPM men. “We are sure,” says local resident Swarup Sahu, pointing in the distance, “there are more skeletons in the mango garden.”

Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
tusha@tehelka.com

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Tusha Mittal has been with Tehelka since March 2008. She was educated at La Martiniere, Kolkata, and has a bachelor’s degree from Depauw University in Indiana. While in the US, she worked as a reporter and a special sections editor for a local newspaper in Boston. She also interned with CNN Internationalin Atlanta and NBC Universal in London. In her final year in college, she studied the idea of peace journalism and the role of the media in covering conflict.

She travelled to Kashmir for her graduation thesis, which dissected the role of the Indian and Pakistani media in shaping public perception of the Kashmir conflict. Her journalism interests include reporting on environment, human rights, and conflict. She has recently won The Press Institute of India award for best articles on humanitarian issues published in the Indian media. AtTehelka, she has written extensively on land rights and displacement struggles. She is based in New Delhi.

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