Lalgarh’s red arrows

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THE MOON was red on the night of April 10 in Lalgarh, filtered through the clouds of red soil thrown up in the air a few hours earlier. An angry mob of 6,000 adivasi men and women had marched barefoot that afternoon, drawn by the rousing, urgent sound of dhaks — local drums — signaling red alert. As the beats rang out, man, woman and child had dropped what they were doing and reached for a weapon, clutching bows in one hand, sickles, axes, hacks in the other. Bamboo casks full of arrows rode on their backs, their colourful tails made of feathers from jungle birds fluttering in the wind. Inside their sheaths, the sharp, glistening triangles of steel waited in readiness. The air echoed with frenzied slogans: “We cannot be stopped. Not this time”.

Section 144 had been clamped in the area; there were strong restraining orders. A 500-strong police force had arrived with AK 47s and SLRs to take control. But the adivasis — angry, inexorable — were determined to violate the order and cross over to neighbouring Bankura. They were protesting months of police atrocities. The men in uniform facing them were only an added inflammation. Both parties negotiated through their respective loud speakers — one seated on the roof of a jeep, the other peddled on a cycle rikshaw. Unprepared for this organised show of strength, the police watched, shouted — and watched. The adivasis crossed over. They wanted the release of three community members arrested that morning. If they weren’t released, they said, they would “create trouble again” the following day. All three were released.

The events of April 10 are reminiscent of Nandigram and only a portent of grimmer things. Away from the national spotlight, a kind of local civil war is brewing in Bengal — fuelled by a mix of anger against State oppression and electoral politics. Lalgarh in west Midnapore district, 80 km from Kolkata, has been on a slow fuse since November 2, 2008, when a suspected Maoist landmine went off near Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s convoy in Salboni, 40 km away. According to the state police and Biman Bose, secretary, CPI(M), the wire to the landmine was found originating from Lalgarh. This triggered an indiscriminate and brutal police reprisal. Hundreds of adivasis from Lalgarh were arrested; women were manhandled. Twenty-five year old Prahlad Dahaurya, a vegetable seller, recalls, “Just after the blast, six of our women went to collect leaves from the forest at Bel Pahadi to make leaf plates. The police spotted them in the jungles and stripped them on the pretext of ‘checking’ for Maoist weapons.” Likewise, 16-year-old Buddhadeb Patro was returning home from a Baul performance the night of the explosion, when he and his friends were stopped by 15 policemen in jeeps and taken into custody. Patro, a class eight student at the local village school, hadn’t even heard about the blast. “We kept asking them where they were taking us and why, but they just said, ‘You’re coming with us to the Salboni station’, says he. Patro and his friends were released after a week of intense interrogation.

On November 5, three days after the explosion, the police stormed into Choto Phalia village in Lalgarh, looking for Maoists. The locals insisted they had nothing to do with the blasts but the police refused to believe them. In the ensuing scuffle, the police assaulted 15 women. One woman’s eye was severely damaged; others suffered broken limbs. This incident became a lightening rod.

Patro, 16, was arrested on the night of the blast, on his way back from a Baul concert

Spearheaded by 45-year-old Chhatradhar Mahato, a local tribal leader, lakhs of people from the tribal-dominated West Midnapur, Bankura and Purulia districts have come together to form a huge resistance movement called Police Santrosh Birodhi Janasadharan Committee or the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCAPA). Historically, the Santhal tribals have never taken oppression mutely. At Madhupur, a village near Lalgarh, there is a statue of two Santhal leaders who mobilised a 10,000-strong crowd to rebel against the British on June 30, 1855 — fam ously known as Sajjam Giro. Now, driven by the same gene, the PCAPA and the State’s brutal response to it has brought the area to the brink of civil war.

“I have been used to the police storming my home since I was a child. They would burn papers and break things to terrorise us and accuse us of being Maoists,” says Mahato. His younger bro t – her, Saswadhar is, in fact, a Maoist, but has been undercover since 1990. Chhatradhar claims he hasn’t seen him since. The police don’t believe him. Manoj Verma, SP of Midnapore, told TEHELKA, “If they’re convinced about their movement, why don’t they surrender his brother? It’s obvious they have Maoist links.”

But Mahato, a graduate in arts and now a farmer, refuses to be cowed and has become a towering local hero. His inspiring speeches about the victimisation of adivasis and their power to fight back have turned his people into a resolute force. Each village now has a coordinating committee of five men and five women. Though the movement is still fuelled by the immediate provocation of police brutality, their agenda is wider.

The PCAPA has submitted a 13-point demand to the police and West Bengal government. One of these demands is that the SP of police come to Lalgarh and rub his nose on the ground to atone for the ill treatment of their women. “A sincere apology to our womenfolk will do. Until that happens, our movement will just get worse,” says Mahato. Other demands include drinking water, electricity, a proper implementation of the NREGA and making ‘Santhali’ a recognised language. The PCAPA is also determined not to let the police monitor the upcoming elections. As in Nandigram, they have dug trenches and felled trees to block off roads and barricade villages. “We want free and fair voting,” says Mahato, “If the police enters we will boycott elections altogether.”

District magistrate of Midnapore, S Nigam is livid. “Their demands are ridiculous. They think they can run their own governments with their own rules. Then why is there an elected government and the rule of law?” Biman Bose of the CPI(M) alleges it’s all a cynical electoral ploy. “Mahato used to be a Trinamool Congress man. This is a typical Trinamool Congress tactic,” he says.

Genuine tribal grievance or electoral game-playing? Either way, with typical myopia, instead of engaging the PCAPA leadership in talks and redressing the allegations of police excess, the Left Front government is repeating old, cynical mistakes. Over the last few months, West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura districts have seen the emergence of local CPI(M) vigilante groups similar to the gun-toting motorcades of Nandigram. The locals call these groupsharmad vahini. Mostly in civilian clothes, sometimes in army gear, the harmad drive around in cars and trucks sporting red CPI(M) flags, use firearms freely and abide by no law.

On February 2, 2009, Lokhindar, 30, went with his father Rajaram Mandi to a PCAPA meeting at Khas jungle, two km away from home. They were two of the hundreds gathered. When the police tried to enter Lalgarh, the locals resisted. Within a few minutes, the harmad — less unconstrained than the police — drove up in six jeeps and opened fire at the committee, shooting three. The mob went berserk and burned three of their vehicles. Rajaram and Lokhindar were two of the three shot that day. Golapi, Lokhindar’s 22-yearold wife was four months pregnant. She got their bodies from the postmorten two days later, peppered with bullets. With the only earning members in the family gone, her immediate concern is survival. “I don’t know anything. Please don’t ask me who killed him and why,” she weeps. When TEHELKA asked Biman Bose why the three victims’ families had not receive compensation from the State, he said, “I wasn’t aware of it.”

ON 11 April, the day after the stand-off at Lalgarh, in the village of Madhupur, a few kilometers away, Adivasi men and women armed with traditional weapons are lying in trenches, hiding in jungles, standing at points of vantage — guarding territory. The night of the red moon had been long. Now, as the police try to enter a village again, another faceoff is triggered. By noon, as the police retreat, the villagers spot the harmad coming. They position themselves around the village in a one-kilometer radius from the huts and start firing. At 6pm, while the firing is still on, SP Verma speaks to TEHELKA on the phone and says, “Yes, the CPI(M) cadres are firing, but there has also been firing from the adivasi side. So far, no one is injured. Our police forces are there to help control the situation.”

Local CPI(M) vigilantes, like the gun-toting cadres of Nandigram, roam freely

No one is injured, but the fear is palpable. Digan Das, a local from Madhupur, says, “We know it’s the harmad because they look more civilian. Even when they are in uniforms, they wear chappals like us. We usually tell the difference between theharmad and the police by their shoes.” Gopal Das, another villager, says, “The harmad always hide their faces so we can never tell who they are. But when they cover their lower face we know it’s them.” Deepak Pratihar, a victim of police abuse from Lalgarh, summarises the situation, “Anybody who is non-CPI(M) bears the brunt. We are labelled as Maoists and then they can do anything they want. There is not a single CPI(M) house that the harmad has attacked. The state police and the CPI(M) militia are one. That is what angers us the most.”

Electoral politics in Bengal has always been a particularly dirty — and bloody — business. And the CPI(M) has a particularly blemished reputation. The Lalgarh flashpoint is of a piece with that. All the victims of state violence or police atrocities in West Midnapore district are from Lalgarh, a Jharkand Party constituency, and from Madhupur, Murmul and Sijao — Trinamool Congress constituencies. But over the last few months, the PCAPA movement has also spread roots into CPI(M) strongholds like Raipur, Shimlipal and Saringa blocks of Bankura district, the Borolampur subdivision of Purulia district and parts of Birbhum district. These are not areas where police atrocities have taken place, but the movement has struck a chord as a way for adivasis to assert their political identity — changing the face of the resistance movement.

The police and CPI(M) militia are one. That is what angers us the most,’ says Pratihar

Bose says, “The problem areas account for only a total of 22 booths in the West Bengal elections. The CPI(M) will win even without them.” But belying his calm, the movement is gaining ground every day. Dhananjay of Madhupur village explains the upsurge of the adivasis in a new light. “It’s not just about police atrocities,” says he. “We’re tired of waiting for development. We have no water, electricity, NREGS, BPL cards, or even a hospital nearby. So don’t blame us for being enraged. What is the point of these elections if it isn’t going to change anything in our life?”

The afternoon after the firing, a group of men are resting on the borders of Madhupur. It’s been another long night. One of them has fallen asleep resting his head on his rubber chappals, his palm clutching a cask of arrows, ready to wage war even in his sleep. Who knows when they will be back next? Ask them what they will do if the harmad keeps getting closer, and they smile and say, “They have weapons. We have people. We’ll show them what our strength is.” As the elections draw closer, the boycott might not make a difference to CPI(M)’s overall hold in Bengal. But a movement has stirred the adivasi soul. They have tasted power; this has given them adrenaline for the fight. The challenge now is to hold together for the long run. District Magistrate Nigam says at the end of an interview, “Have you read George Orwell’s Animal Farm? That is the story of the tribals here.” But that’s the privileged view. The tribals, however, are hoping for a different kind of ending.

WRITER’S EMAIL
shriya@tehelka.com

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