Caught Between Two Sickles

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A democratic protest against gross police brutality becomes a battlefield for two equally callous foes – Trinamool and the Left

Aparna SenAparna Sen
Filmmaker

THE SWAJAN group, of which I am a member, went to Lalgarh despite pressing personal commitments simply because we felt that it was incumbent upon us. Swajan, which means ‘your kin,’ includes poet Joy Goswami, his wife Kaberi Goswami, Shaonli Mitra, Arpita Ghosh, myself, Kaushik Sen, Professor Bolan Gangopadhyay and Prasun Bhaumik. Swajan is made up of people from diverse backgrounds, including writers, theatre personalities and academics. We are not affiliated with any political group and this is our greatest strength as it means we do not have any axe to grind. Our politics is entirely issue-based. Nandigram was the catalyst and we came together after the atrocities committed there.

Frontlines Aparna Sen (left) and other Swajan activists with Chatradhar Mahato (right) in Lalgarh
Frontlines Aparna Sen (left) and other Swajan activists with Chatradhar Mahato (right) in Lalgarh
Photo: Pintu Pradhan

There is always a great tussle between the opposition and the ruling party, but the point is that the state doesn’t belong just to the opposition or the ruling party. It’s ours. In order to protect democracy, we, as citizens, must step in. It is important for intellectuals to be involved.

We had been hearing many contradictory reports for a while. The Trinamool camp says the CPM is concocting everything, while the CPM says the Trinamool is concocting everything in collusion with the Maoists. We don’t believe either side. On top of that, the press reports different things. That’s why we decided to investigate Lalgarh by ourselves.

When we got to Lalgarh, we found the villagers terrorised because they were caught in the crossfire between the Maoists, the police and the state administration. It all started with the landmine blast by the Maoists in November 2008 when they tried to kill the chief minister. As guerrillas do, the Maoists left the area but the villagers had to bear the brunt of the state’s anger. There was a lot of police brutality. Pregnant women were kicked in the stomach and a woman called Chitamoni Murmu lost her eyesight in the violence. As a result, the villagers formed the People’s Committee Against Police Brutality (PCAPB). We met their leader, Chatradhar Mahato who had told us in Kolkata earlier that in 32 years of Left rule, the government had not done a thing for Lalgarh.

The worst account is that the police defecated and urinated in the scarce drinking water of the villagers

Lalgarh is really backward. There is no sanitation, no schools, no proper medical centre, not even electricity. In this age of globalisation, you can’t expect people to be deprived and remain silent. Their demand is for development. It is well known that wherever there is deprivation, the Maoists step in. They provide money and medicine and thus insidiously infiltrate a community. The villagers are very scared because on the one hand there is the police and on the other hand there are the Maoists. The villagers had boycotted the police and the Maoists had apparently even captured some of the police thanas. But it’s not very easy to know what exactly happened because there are so many contradictory reports.

On Sunday, June 21, the day we went to Lalgarh, we heard from the villagers and from some journalists that some villagers under the jurisdiction of the Belpahari police thana, had been tortured. Women were dragged out of their homes and stripped. We heard that their saris were hoisted up and they were hit on their private parts. A boy of seven had his bones broken. The worst account is that the police defecated and urinated in the villagers’ meagre store of drinking water. As a result of all this, the villagers left home and went to the relief camps. They were very scared and said that they had dug up the roads and blocked them with trees to stop the police. They insist that theirs is a peaceful, democratic and legitimate movement against police brutality and demanded that the police apologise. The police weren’t even allowing the wounded to be taken to hospital. In fact, while we were with Chattradhar Mahato, we heard him repeatedly asking on his mobile, “Has the patient been taken to the hospital?” Everyone was scared to do so because of the threat of police brutality on the way. They are also scared of the Maoists and did not dare speak out against them. They insist that theirs is a separate movement and say that they cannot help it if Maoists hiding in the forest shoot from there. It’s true that there is a lot of infiltration of Maoists and other parties in the villages. And it is also true that the CPM panchayat has taken a lot of money. Whatever money comes from the Centre is stolen by the Panchayat pradhan.

We suggested that the villagers appeal to the Maoists. In fact, if we had access to the Maoists we would have appealed to both parties to lay down their arms. We don’t want CPM workers to be killed either. We don’t want the torture or killing of any human being. Because we have no access to the Maoists, we appealed to them through the media. We said that if they really had the welfare of the villagers in mind, they should disarm and come forward to the discussion table. We are appealing to the state government also to ask their forces to lay down their arms and hold on at least till the 14th of July, which is the next date for discussions. But all this is falling on deaf ears.

If a democratic protest movement is silenced, people will not dare to exercise their right to protest

WE SUGGESTED to the PCAPB that they state categorically in the press that they have nothing to do with the Maoists, and to also appeal to the Maoists not to interfere in the movement. But they don’t dare do that because they are scared of the repercussions.

Swajan has written to P Chidambaram stating that Lalgarh has a long history of deprivation and police brutality and as a result, people have lost faith in the state administration. So it is important that a delegation be sent from the Centre to mediate.

The government is now saying that Swajan violated Section 144 of the CrPC. But there was no way of knowing that Section 144 was in place. We had let the administration know before we set out. Shaonli Mitra even spoke in advance to Chief Secretary Asok Mohan Chakraborty. All he said to her was, “It’s better not to go today. Why don’t you go couple of days later? That’s my request.” But he didn’t say, “Don’t go,” or say that Section 144 is in force. There was no public notification either. The police stopped us several times on the way to check the car and nobody said anything. This charge of violating Section 144 has definitely been levelled retrospectively.

The government is also saying we smuggled Maoists in our car. Even assuming we had got in touch with the Maoists, where would we have hidden one? Our cars were stopped and checked at every step. The government wants to frame us somehow or the other and they are trying their best to do so.

It would be very sad if a legitimate democratic protest movement like the PCAPB is equated with a terrorist group and is therefore quashed. People will not dare to protest democratically if that happens.

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