By Tusha Mittal
IF MAYA had been born in a city, you would have heard her name by now. You would have heard a quivering voice describing how she was flung onto a bed by a jawan sent to protect her. You would have seen a delicate old woman holding up trembling fingers to her forehead — a description of how she was raped at gunpoint.
But Maya has lived in the forests of West Bengal for 50 years, in a village called Sonamukhi. That has turned her into a different kind of citizen, invisible, easily ignored. Perhaps that is why she will never stir a nation’s collective consciousness — the same nation that was outraged over accusations of an IG raping a schoolgirl, Ruchika, in urban Chandigarh. Perhaps that is why it has been left to another group to take up her cause — PCAPA (People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities), that began as a movement against state repression, but which the West Bengal government claims is now a front for the CPI (Maoist). And that is why — whether PCAPA is what the State thinks it to be — the group has secured Maya’s firm support .
One year since Operation Lalgarh began, it seems the zone of conflict has shifted, moving from Lalgarh towards Jhargram subdivision. Jhargram first came to the fore when the Maoists attacked a police station in Sankrail. Some months ago, Jhargram was declared a new police district, given a new SP, and additional troops were sent in. Jhargram could now be on its way to becoming the new Lalgarh.
The village of Sonamukhi too is part of this new battle ground. Until two months ago, the PCAPA had no presence in Sonamukhi. Nor had the joint-forces ever raided the village. Now, the PCAPA has already helped villagers build their own road here. The reason why Sonamukhi is significant is because it shows that the group continues to expand despite the State’s crackdown. The State’s strategy of rendering the committee headless has yielded little result. Its first president Lalmohan Tudu was killed in what TEHELKA reported was a fake encounter, and its secretary Chhattradhar Mahato has been in Midnapore Jail, booked under the draconian UAPA act since November 2009. Yet, the committee claims to have approximately 20,000 active members and have 80 percent of conflict zone Bengal as it base, stretching over the three worst affected districts — West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura. (Incidentally also Bengal’s poorest areas.)
This is further significant because PCAPA has been held responsible for the Gyaneshwari train derailment that killed atleast 120 people in West Bengal last month. The CBI has already arrested eight men including a mastermind named Bapi Mahato, a PCAPA member. It has named PCAPA spokesperson Asit Mahato and Central Committee member Umakanto Mahato as the other two most-wanted in this case. While investigators say that Bapi has confessed to his involvement in the incident, the PCAPA claims innocence. The Maoists have also denied involvement in this.
Last week, TEHELKA journeyed inside the PCAPA, visiting its strongholds and speaking to cadres. TEHELKA met PCAPA spokesperson Asit Mahato, 32, near his hideout in the forests of Jangalmahal. Before Mahato went underground, he was a supporter of the Jharkhand Party, which currently holds the Lalgarh assembly seat. Asit says his father was tortured by CPM goons in 1998 when he raised his voice against corruption by local CPM leader Anuj Pandey. That is what shaped Asit’s politics.
The PCAPA runs a parallel government in the conflict zones with an astonishing ease. It is also fertile territory for the Maoists
GREETING US in a pair of sunglasses, brown pants and a striped collar shirt, Asit laughed at his status as CBI’s most-wanted. “The PCAPA is not involved in the Gyaneshwari incident. We had no knowledge of this,” he said. “This has been done by the CPM to defame us. Everyone who has been arrested is a former CPM worker. Bapi was a CPM mole. The CBI has no evidence against me. They have declared Rs 1 lakh reward for me, so we have declared our own reward – 1 lakh each for 9 absconding CPM netas – Sushanto Ghosh, Lakhan Ghosh, Anuj Pandey, Prashanto Das, etc. We will also reward villagers who can bring us the real planners and perpetrators of the Gyaneshwari derailment.”
In many ways, PCAPA is at a crossroads, desperate to prove it has no links with the CPI (Maoist). The committee was formed in 2008 after the police tortured a tribal woman called Chidamani, almost blinding her, during anti-Naxal raids in Salboni. “Our primary demand was an apology from the SP. If he had done that, the andolan might have ended there. But now the public at large hates the police and the CPM. People want to live with dignity, for that we are ready to fight,” said Ajit Mahato, a PCAPA member who, like most, had to flee underground when the joint-operation began in June 2009.
As the joint operation flared up in Lalgarh and the Maoists offered to support PCAPA, there were several internal debates. Chhatradhar Mahato and Lalmohan Tudu walked the middle ground, meeting the Chief Election Commissioner before the general election, negotiating the release of an Assistant Sub-Inspector the Maoists had abducted.
After Chhattradhar’s arrest by policemen posing as journalists, Asit declared the group to be an armed militia. But now, he denies any use of arms by PCAPA. “We only declared that if needed we will use arms in self-defence, but have not done so yet,” he said. That may be a false claim since there are men with arms wandering around PCAPA strongholds.
Sources say there are differing schools of thought within the PCAPA. Some are in touch with Chhattradhar Mahato, letters have been exchanged, and the idea of a political party has been discussed. “We believe in democracy. We are not ruling out the idea of a political party,” Asit Mahato said.
While the hard line faction of PCAPA is comfortable with use of arms, the soft liners would rather that Chhattradhar Mahato contest an election, even if from within jail. That such a thought exists in the party could be seen in two ways. At worst, it could be a strategic move that has the backing of CPI (Maoist) while attempting to distance the PCAPA from them on the surface. At best, it is an indication that the CPI (Maoist) may have influence, but does not remote control the ‘front’. It is possible that the majority of the CPI (Maoist) recruitment in West Bengal is done from within the PCAPA. Yet, the PCAPA is not a banned outfit. The irony is that by treating it as such, the State is only pushing it further underground. “We are ready for talks. The State is not allowing us to come overground,” Asit said.
Even if Asit is caught, there will be new faces ready to take his place. Already younger, more confident leaders are emerging. During TEHELKA’S interview with Asit Mahato, the spokesperson said very little. All along, 26-year-old Manoj Mahato, a Central Committee member, sat by his side, whispering into his ear. He was only distracted when he received a phone call from Midnapore town. “What is my shirt size? Double XL? Or XL?” he asked other cadres before turning to us. “My lahver,” he grinned. “We will get married soon.”
IN THE distance, PCAPA’s new flag swayed in the wind. White represents peace, green for the forests, and a bow and arrow symbol represents the Adivasis. PCAPA is the first Maoist-backed outfit to have a flag. Walk around this PCAPA stronghold and it is easy to forget one is in a conflict zone. There is a PCAPA-run kitchen distributing hot rosogallas and jamun, a vast open field with cycles, motorbikes and cows, and a make-shift thatched roof dining area where all PCAPA workers eat together. Nearby, workers are busy building PCAPA’s first state of the art health center. It will have an operating room, an outpatient room, an office, and a room for the MBBS doctors and surgeons PCAPA plans to recruit. Already the PCAPA says it is providing basic health care in 26 health camps across Jangalmahal.
In Salboni block, it has built 50 small dams or water reservoirs from where canals can extend to irrigate fields. It has also built about 20 km road at the cost of Rs 47,000. In the village of Belasol, another PCAPA stronghold, Pradeep Mahato can now cultivate his five bigha plot three times a year. Earlier, he could only grow rice and harvest once. For 40 years, he depended on rain. “The land is so fertile, but there was no irrigation facility,” he says. PCAPA installed a water pump in the village at the cost of Rs 16,000, covered by collecting Rs 100 from each villager. Now Mahato grows rice, potato, corn, and cash crops like sunflower.
Zamindar and CPM Zonal leader Toton Singh fled Chandabilla village a few months ago. His palatial home, with vast courtyards and archways, now lies wrecked, most likely by the PCAPA. After he fled with his family, the PCAPA divided their land – 150 bighas among 53 landless families who previously toiled as farm labour. Ironically, the PCAPA is now using the same strategy of land reforms that first brought the CPM to power.
“We are challenging the government. Where the state has failed, we are running an alternative government and bringing alternative development to the people,” says Manoj Mahato.
It is a curious phenomenon. At one level there is the State fighting the Naxals. At another, entire villages in West Bengal are branded as either CPM or PCAPA villages. CPM leaders have admitted to TEHELKA they have “reclaimed” 50 villages in the past four months. In villages where the PCAPA has made inroads, even elected CPM leaders have fled or have been driven out. The process of expansion is referred to by the locals as “gram dakhal” — a sense of capturing, that leaves no room for dissent. While the CPM seems to be forcing villagers to rallies at gunpoint, the PCAPA is wooing them with alternative development. The goal, ultimately, is the same — the Adivasis have become mere numbers in a show of strength. One year into Operation Lalgarh, Jangalmahal has become a place where the idea of freedom has collapsed. That is why trying to gauge who the Adivasis really support, or what they really want, is a futile exercise. Strangely, in a battle where everyone seems to fighting for the people, the people themselves have no space for free thought. One year later, raped by the forces, left alone by the men who flee underground, and placed as the first exhibits in rallies, the women have suffered the most.
IT WAS around 5 am, just after dawn on June 30. The villagers of Sonamukhi heard the sounds of chocolate bombs, usually set off by the Village Defense Committee. Spearheaded by the PCAPA, such committees are groups of villagers who take turns every night guarding the village, alerting the locals to the march ofthe joint-forces. In a matter of minutes, villagers say about 500 armed men had surrounded the village.
Police sources said they raided the village because they had specific “human and technical intelligence” that CBI most-wanted Umakanto Mahato was hiding there. During the search operation, gun shots were heard from Kajol Mahato’s house. Police claim they were fired at by Maoists and PCAPA members hiding atop her house. They say the rebels escaped, but left two jawans severely injured.
The State pushed the PCAPA underground. Now, it can use justice to pull them out. It still has more tools than it chooses to use
“More than 2.5 hours of firing took place in Sonamukhi. Because our concentration shifted to the injured men, the Maoists were able to escape. We were unable to recover any weapons, but we recovered fired cartridges and posters,” Jhargram SP Praveen Tripathi told TEHELKA.
Locals contest this version and say the police entered the same house from two directions. Both search parties ended up firing at each other, injuring the jawans in the process. While search operations proceeded through the day, villagers say the forces told the women to collect in the courtyard. “They separated the older women, asking us to wait at a different spot,” says Shayoni Mahato, 55. “Utho, Utho, bheetar chalo,” Shayoni says she saw the forces pointing to a few younger women. “When they began calling the married women into a room, I suddenly realised what their intention was,” she says.
These are the testimonies of three women who allege rape:
MAYA MAHATO, 50
Maya lives in a two-storied hut at the edge of a forest. Her husband picks sal leaves and her son Deepak Mahato is a teacher in a local school in Jhargram. On the morning of June 30, Maya says she was taking the cows for grazing when uniformed men appeared before her. “May I tie the cows to a tree?” she asked. When she returned to her hut, the forces had moved on, except for one middle-aged jawan. “Suddenly, he pulled by the arm and dragged me into my house,” she says. “Then he pulled my hair, hit me on the side of my face, and pushed me onto the bed. He put a gun at my forehead and said he would shoot if I screamed for help. He lift up my petticoat, opened his chain, and pressed himself upon me. He raped me. My husband was in a room above, but I was too scared to yell for him. I did not make a sound. I did not have to do anything. He did everything.”
LOKHI MAHATO, 35
Ask Lokhi to narrate what happened on June 30 in the presence of other villagers and she will only say she was beaten brutally on her thighs. “Two men pressed me down. They wanted to rape me but I held my knees together firmly,” she says, acting it out. “I did not let them rape me.” It is only when you usher her inside the close doors of her home and speak in quiet whispers that Lokhi breaks down. Her eyes are wide with anger and her face wet with tears. Her voice gets louder, till suddenly, she almost begins to scream. “Take me to them. I will identify those bastards. I want them hanged,” she says waving her fingers. “I tried very hard. Believe me, I did not want to part my knees. I’m a married woman. I have self-respect and dignity. They stripped me of it all.”
On the morning of June 30, while Lokhi was seated in a courtyard with other women, two men signaled to her. It was around 7 am and by then the rains were coming down hard. “Oye Mutki, utho utho,” a jawan screamed. She was clutching a phone in her hand. The phone has one number – her husbands’ – and songs for her children. “Why do you have a phone?” she says another jawan bellowed. “Before they could take it from me, I hid it inside a pile of cow dung. Then they took me into an empty room, closed and locked the doors, and threw me onto the bed. They pulled my saree out from the waist. Both held me down. One of them opened his chain and raped me. They were speaking in Hindi. When I tried to scream for help, they put a pistol into my ear and said ‘open your clothes’”.
Lokhi has a five-year-old son and a teenage daughter studying at a Jhargram local school. Before they left, she says they took away the fees she had saved for her daughter. “They took away my dignity and then stole Rs 1500. What is the government going to give us now? Please ask them to help us.”
UMA MAHATO, 30
Uma Mahato’s house is the first house the forces would see on entering Sonamukhi from the jungles. On June 30, she was alone at home. Her husband works as contract labour in nearby towns. “The forces halted outside my door. They asked me if anyone was at home. I said no,” Uma says. “Then the rest of them moved ahead while three men stayed behind. They asked me to go inside the room. When I did not move, they pushed me in. The charpai was in standing position. They laid it down and flung me on it. I was so scared by then I was beginning to faint. After they began to tear my clothes, I lost consciousness. One of them pressed itself upon me, and by then I had almost fainted. After they left, other villagers came in and helped me get up. When I regained sense, everything in my house was upturned.”
On June 1, only Maya Mahato visited Jhargram hospital. Dr R. Sarkar conducted her medical examination. “I found no injuries on her private parts but that does not rule out rape,” he told Tehelka. “For instance, if she was held down by several men or could not fight back for some reason, it is possible that there would be no injuries. A medical swab can only be conducted after permission from the police. She said she did not want to approach the police to lodge an FIR, so nothing further was done.”
BUT THE police are clearly keeping track. Hospital sources told TEHELKA the police picked up Maya’s medical report from the Hospital records room a day later. “I am aware of the rape allegations. No one came to us to lodge a complaint, but we are conducting our own inquiry,” SP Tripathi said. When asked if the police would approach the women for their testimonies, he said, “I cannot disclose the process to the media.”
As the forces dragged the women in, Shayoni ran to her daughter-in-law Soma, encircled her and refused to leave. “They beat me with a stick and threw me to the ground,” Shayoni says. “It was only after I told them that Soma is 5 months pregnant that they let her go.” Maya was also dragged into the room, her cupboards opened, and belongings searched. She says a jawan pulled a cheek and stole Rs 10,000 from her drawer. Her husband, a contractor, sells Sal leaves in Orissa. He had just returned the previous night with the money. What saved her from being raped was perhaps a photograph of a police contingent that fell out from a notebook. The jawan let her go after realising that her brother-inlaw was a constable.
On June 6, the villagers of Sonamukhi – led by local PCAPA members — marched to the Jhargram SDO’s office, C. Murugan. They detailed the incident and asked him to order an inquiry. Murugan constituted a special medical board. The next day six women underwent a swab test at the Jhagram hospital. Hospital sources said the swab samples have been sent to the SDO office. Since the swabs were taken more than 24 hours after the incident, the medical board has recommended that they be sent to the FSL lab in Kolkata. However, no police case has yet been registered.
“The women do not want to go to the police. I have received their medical reports from the hospital and sent them to the District Magistrate,” Jhargram Sub-Divsional Officer C Murugan confirmed to TEHELKA. “If further forensic tests are required, the judicial magistrate needs to order an investigation. According to the CRPC, the investigating agency has to be the police.”
But a troubling revelation complicates this story of rape. In all, eight women in Sonamukhi allege rape. TEHELKA met five women, of which two said they had been beaten but not raped. Significantly, in hushed whispers one of them spoke of how villagers were insisting she had been raped. “I was taken to the fields, encircled by a group of men and beaten so hard, I can’t bend down to collect water. Maybe they had intentions to rape me, but they were called away. I’ve told the local PCAPA leaders that I have not been raped,” said Kajol Mahato. Yet, the PCAPA alleges otherwise. The local leaders took these women, Kajol included, to the SDO’s office. “We have no knowledge of such an exaggeration. This is the first we are hearing of this. We will look into it,” a PCAPA Central Committee member said when confronted.
While this could be read as mere propaganda from the PCAPA, it would be wise not to dismiss it as such. The villagers march into an SDO’s office is a window of opportunity for the State. If the government is able to order an independent inquiry into these rape allegations, it would strengthen those in the PCAPA who believe in democracy. If it doesn’t, it will give more ammunition to the hardliners. The State first pushed the PCAPA underground; it can now use justice and democracy to pull them out. A year into Operation Lalgarh, the State still has more tools than it chooses to use.
Photos: Pintu Pradhan