An olive branch full of thorns

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Mamata Banerjee promised to solve the Junglemahal riddle by talking to the Maoists. But her subsequent actions have kept everyone guessing. Tusha Mittal reports on the ground reality

Smoked out: Prashanto Das examines the remains of his house that was burnt down by miscreants
Smoked out Prashanto Das examines the remains of his house that was burnt down by miscreants, Photos: Pintu Pradhan

ON THE evening of 17 July, as the sun disappeared into the thickness of Jhargram’s Lodhasuli forests, a cavalcade of uniformed men sped down National Highway 6. They slowed down near a busy truck stop in Gajasimul, about four hours away from Kolkata and barely a few kilometers from where a dense canopy of green begins. Soldiers of the 167 Battalion of the CRPF walked towards a Tata truck laden with onions. In the backseat, a scrawny man lay sleeping on a thin sheet. They asked for his name, matched his face with a photo recently seen, and hauled him out. Underneath the sheet they found a country made-pistol and two rounds of ammunition.

The man later identified himself as Biren Mahato, Jhargram sub-division commander of the banned CPI(Maoist). According to CRPF sources, Mahato is the first Maoist arrested in West Bengal after the Assembly polls that ended a 34-year Left rule and brought Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) to power.

Only a week ago, on the sweltering afternoon of 12 July, another convoy had sped down the highway, past Jhargam and into Nayagram, a village that was once considered a Maoist stronghold. Along with an entourage of ministers, Mamata became only the second chief minister to visit these parts of West Midnapore district, and the first to go by road.

In the run up to the Assembly elections, Mamata had vociferously argued against an ongoing joint operation launched in 2009 to combat the spreading influence of the Maoists. If voted to power, she had promised peace in Junglemahal, an area spanning 69 development blocks in three of the state’s poorest districts — West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia — declared by the Centre as affected by left-wing extremism. At present, there are at least 6,000 paramilitary forces deployed in the state; 31 companies of CRPF in West Midnapore and two each in Bankura and Purulia districts. Post-election, Mamata has kept mum on the withdrawal of troops, and focussed instead on a kind of “bread-bombing”

On 12 July, Mamata stood on stage in Nayagram and announced a mega development package: Rs 112 crore for drinking water, rice at Rs 2 per kg for anyone with an annual income of less than Rs 42,000, pattas of forest rights, land rights, 900 primary schools in the tribal Santhali language, free cycles for girls studying in Class 9-12, colleges, hostels, nursing training centers, agricultural marketing centres. She delivered the key message: the state has not forgotten you. “Esho, amar ghore esho (Come back home to me),” she said.

In the end, the loudest applause came for a bridge. “What do you want?” she screamed into the mike. “Bridge, bridge, bridge,” the crowd chanted. Four kilometres of concrete across what is now water would cut daily commute by hours.

Healing touch?: Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee assures help to a villager at a public meeting in Jhargram
Healing touch? Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee assures help to a villager at a public meeting in Jhargram

But this bridge may not be enough. In the weeks before her first Junglemahal visit, attempting to keep her pre-election promise, Mamata appointed two key committees: one to review cases of political prisoners in West Bengal and another comprising professors and civil liberties activists as interlocutors to negotiate with the Maoists. Extending an offer for peace talks, she signed an agreement that the state government would be willing to talk to any group that lays down arms.

It has split public opinion in West Bengal. Many groups that earlier supported Mamata see this as going back on her poll promise. The two main points of contention are the unconditional withdrawal of forces and the release of all political prisoners. In a press statement issued by Maoist spokesperson Bikram, the party has rejected this offer, and called the development package a “lollipop”.

TRAVELLING THROUGH Junglemahal after the polls is like navigating a shipwreck. The old faultlines between the CPM and TMC run deep. And then there are new power equations, new battles fought under new acronyms; the Maoists have returned, the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities is holding meetings, their earlier leader Chhatradhar Mahato has contested the polls under a new banner (Santrash Durniti Manch), the TMC is holding meetings and rallies, some CPM leaders remain, Harmad Vahini has fled or joined any of the previous groups, and sometimes it is hard to tell which new heroes are old villains in disguise.

There is also a Gunda Vahini: armed and masked men on bikes. “Dead bodies will fall if you don’t go to Mamata’s rallies,” some villagers say they heard as this vahini zoomed through forest darkness. TEHELKA could not verify this independently; it is possible that these are TMC’s opponents.

Post-elections, Mamata has kept mum on the withdrawal of troops, and focussed instead on a kind of ‘bread-bombing’

Just as it is possible that any of these above groups could have burned Prashanto Das’ house and bookshop down on the night of 16 July. Immediately after, two trucks of villagers — assisted by local TMC leaders — drove to the sdo office to demand a CRPF camp in their area. This is how the Naxal conflict in West Bengal is inextricably complicated by local politics. This is why Junglemahal continues to simmer.

To understand the faultlines, follow the story of Pallabh Das, now a daily labourer at a CRPF camp in Lalgarh. On the evening of 16 July, a few days after the chief minister’s call for peace, five policemen appeared outside his two-room hut tucked inside the bylanes of Lalgarh. Das wasn’t home; the message was delivered to his bewildered grandmother instead: “Tell him to leave Chhatradhar’s party or his life will be in danger. We’ll arrest him if we spot him.” The cops marched out, stopped at the cowshed ahead, and then returned. “They searched my room, seized blank CDs and took away my motorbike,” says Das. No FIR has yet been registered in the police station and no seizure list produced.

Das believes that this threat is linked,not to the grand war between people and the State, but to local school elections. Later this month, 18 candidates will contest for six seats in the Lalgarh Education Board. Both the TMC and Jharkhand Party have fielded six candidates each. And for the first time, six from Chhatradhar’s new party. The CPM hasn’t fielded anyone. “The TMC doesn’t want us to contest these elections,” says Das. “That is why the police is threatening me. But everyone has the right to participate in politics. If we don’t, how will there be an opposition party?”

Fear factor: The police allegedly threatened Pallabh Das to quit Chhatradhar Mahato’s party
Fear factor The police allegedly threatened Pallabh Das to quit Chhatradhar Mahato’s party

It is a strange crossroads. On the one hand, if implemented effectively, Mamata’s development package could begin to make the Maoists and the PCPA irrelevant. On the other hand, in a democracy, there is a need for a legitimate opposition? Who will play that role in Junglemahal? Is the CPM in a position to do so? And if not, what is left?

To understand the development challenge, zoom into Jhargram, a block that is slowly becoming the epicentre of the conflict, with the Maoists shifting base from Lalgarh. The Jhargram Development Block is one of the largest of 29 blocks in West Midnapore district. Officials at the Block Development Office (BDO) told TEHELKA that until this year’s polls, seven of 13 gram panchayats that make up the block, were deemed ‘closed’. Citing the Naxal conflict as the reason, seven GP offices had shut shop, most turning into armed camps housing paramilitary forces and the Harmad. All civil administration had ceased to function and panchayat members had fled or been forced to flee.

Tapan Rana is one of them. On 13 June, following instructions of the new government, Jhargram BDO ordered all closed GP offices to open. But despite the orders, Rana has not been able to return to work. The Lodhasuli Gram Panchayat office, which he heads, has been turned into an India Reserve Battalion (IRB) camp. TEHELKA visited the Lodhasuli GP and found barracks of men in green fatigues.

“I went there with a letter from the BDO, but the jawans did not let me enter,” says Rana, He was told: “Speak to the inspector in-charge. We have been instructed to stay here in case another Silda-type attack happens,” referring to the Maoist raid on an Eastern Rifles camp that killed 27 cops.

“Let there be security but why should it hinder panchayat work?” asks Rana, from behind a stack of files on a cramped desk at the BDO in Jhargram town. “How will I know which roads and bridges to build in my panchayat if I can’t work there? We asked the forces to let us use at least one room, but they refused. Villagers are suffering. It is impossible for them to go to town for panchayat work.”

The NVF recruitment policy looks dangerously similar to what the apex court has recently ruled as unconstitutional

OTHER GPs too continue to be dysfunctional. The Radhanagar GP office is also a CRPF camp. The Aduiboni GP pradhan has been untraceable for the past one year. The deputy pradhan resigned one month ago. The Salboni pradhan was murdered and all other panchayat members have fled. While no official figures are available, CRPF sources confirmed that GP offices continue to serve as camps. Even a meeting room at the BDO in Jhargram is home to the 2nd Battalion of the IRB. It houses 17 constables and 1 officer. “I don’t know what to do,” says BDO Sudeep Narayan Ojha.

The predicament of the pradhan and BDO mirror what will perhaps be one of the biggest challenges for the new government as it attempts to bring peace to Junglemahal: How to balance development and security? Can development erase the old faultlines in a place where the personal and political are so deeply intertwined?

Meanwhile, construction as begun for a permanent CRPF base in Junglemahal. CRPF IG Alok Raj says that 143 acres have been acquired in Salboni for the base that will house the 207 Cobra Battalion and a training centre. “This will be a permanent base with 2,000 personnel,” he says.

“We haven’t received any instructions from the state government to call off operations,” says Shyamchand Dey, commandant of the 167 Battalion. “Operations are on, but we are focussing on intelligence-based ones. We are not arresting people unless we have proper proof. We are also organising sports events, giving free medicines, identifying blood donors, planting guava and coconut trees, and repairing bridges. We want people to believe we are there for their security. But our strategy remains the same. If we find a Maoist, we will arrest him. If we are fired upon, we will fire in self-defence.”

What has come as the biggest surprise in Mamata’s dealing of the Naxal riddle is this appeal in the heart of Junglemahal: “If you want to pick up a gun, do it for your country,” Mamata declared on stage. “Take the State’s gun, not a private gun. I announce that 10,000 people from this area will be given police jobs, recruited in the National Volunteer Force (NVF), Home Guards and as special police constables.”

“This is the equivalent of making the naughtiest student the class monitor,” says a TMC source. “By taking Junglemahal youth in the police force, we are ensuring they won’t join the Naxals.”

“Development is needed but we also need a massive recruitment drive,” says CRPF’s Raj. “The CRPF also recruited 456 constables from Junglemahal last year, but we need more. These boys will assist us. As they know the area, they will be better placed to guide the forces.”

While the government has not yet spelled out its recruitment policy, it appears dangerously similar to what the Supreme Court has recently ruled as unconstitutional — the arming of tribals as Special Police Officers (SPOs) in anti- Naxal operations in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere in the country.

The NVF positions too are temporary posts for three months. The NVF — unique to the state — was constituted under the West Bengal National Volunteer Act, 1949, “for the protection of border districts and also to give training to some citizens in the use of firearms so their services could be used during an emergency”. Since then, amendments to the Act have altered the duration of recruitment from 10 years to a mere three months.

Even a 2002 SC order hearing a petition (West Bengal vs Jiban Krishna Das) on the NVF has ruled: “The whole concept of the National Volunteer Force is different from that of police force… it can be said that it is a standby force… to aid and help the regular police force or members of other services. It is clear that the provisions of the Act never intended to give permanency to the members of the NVF. Merely because the members have to be treated as public servants and their duties regulated by some prescribed code of conduct, it cannot be said that they will have to be treated as constables of the police force.”

In its order, the SC squashed a Kolkata High Court ruling that put NVF cadre at par with police. “The direction of the division Bench to give status and other benefits (to NVF) as employees of the state government was not legal. It is also not correct to say that the members of the West Bengal National Volunteer Force are entitled to get permanency. According to us, they form two different classes in public service. In this background, the high court was in error in treating them at par with the constables of the state police force.”

This Supreme Court order — itself an admission of how the NVF mirrors SPOs in Chhattisgarh — accepts and legalises the impermanent nature of NVF cadre. But perhaps in the current context of Junglemahal, what is legal cannot be the only yardstick to evaluate what is judicious and wise.

“Any state will have a legal police force that must function within the law,” says Chotton Das, one of the government-appointed interlocutors and secretary, Bandi Mukti Committee. “If the intention is to kill tribals and destroy the people’s movement, we will oppose this. We will have to wait and see what the intention is.”

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

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