By Bodhisattwa Maity
ON 28 MAY, sometime after the Jnaneshwari train tragedy had pitchforked Lalgarh to national headlines, Hiralal Mahato was arrested by the Joint Forces for his alleged role in the sabotage that took 148 lives. The Class IX student from Dhadkanala was accused of being a conspirator and sent to Midnapore Central Jail.
On 15 June, three people from Kolkata — author Manik Mandal, scientist Nisha Biswas and teacher Kanishka Choudhuri — were arrested for breaking curfew orders in Lalgarh and were remanded at the same jail. In cell No. 32, Manik and Kanishka found themselves in the company of PCAPA chief Chhatradhar Mahato.
Manik used his time to secretly get many of the villagers and activists incarcerated in the jail to write letters addressed to the public explaining their role in the sabotage. That’s how he got Hiralal to pen some letters, which are now with TEHELKA.
According to Hiralal’s letter, he heard of a meeting taking place at a neighbouring school on 27 May. There, he saw a gathering and a pickup van filled with people, including Bapi Mahato (later accused as the chief conspirator and perpetrator of the train sabotage). Bapi addressed the crowd and asked those from Mudabani to board the van and head back to their village. Hiralal then returned home. The next day, on hearing about the train tragedy and fearing the worst from the Joint Forces, Hiralal’s parents sent him to his aunt’s place in Manikpara. Later, he got a phone call from his cousin, telling him that the police had arrested his father, Utpal. Before long, the police arrived with his father and picked him up.
The most interesting revelation in Hiralal’s letter is accidental. After his arrest, he claims to have seen a handcuffed woman at the back of another police jeep. After interrogation, the police took Hiralal to the woman, who was introduced as Soma Mandi, a Maoist action squad leader. The cops insinuated that she was “familiar to him” to make him “confess” that he was a Maoist sympathiser. He denied the charge but was still put in jail.
If his story is to be believed, it belies a news item carried on 24 August by a leading national daily, which claimed that Maoist leader Soma Mandi (and not Shobha as the newspaper claims) had appealed to the police to arrange for her surrender so that she could escape being raped by her area commander Bikash. If she was already in custody, how could she have been mulling surrender?
When TEHELKA made enquiries, people in Jhargram said they had seen Soma in police fatigues being paraded as far back as May. Raju Mahato and Pintu Mahato of Baladhdoba claimed that they saw her, again in a police jeep, as recently as 15 days ago, which is a week before her “surrender appeal”. It was also learnt that Soma was actually arrested on 11 May when she went for a checkup at Nuniakundi.
Soma’s dad alleges she was tortured in jail because of which she has turned an informer
As she hasn’t been produced in court, there are no official records of her arrest and her father, Jamadar, is planning to approach the Human Rights Commission to get information about her. He believes she has been tortured in jail, because of which she has informed on Maoist sympathisers, who were later arrested.
When asked about the allegations, West Midnapore SPManoj Verma retorted, “Will you believe the woman or some villagers who claim to have seen her. Her father may say something, but that is baseless. She said whatever she had to say to the press.” In Lalgarh, all certainties may have been clouded by the dust raised by the jeeps of the Joint Forces.