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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 44, Dated November 07, 2009
CURRENT AFFAIRS  
cover story

Operation Blind Hunt

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MAOISTS ATTACK AT WILL, FORCES ARE ON THE BACKFOOT AND FRAIL WIDOWS ARE THE ENEMY. TUSHA MITTAL LAYS BARE GROUND ZERO

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Warpath A tribal woman walks past paramilitary personnel on patrol in Lalgarh
PHOTOS: PINTU PRADHAN

ON THE morning of October 23, 14 adivasi women walked out of West Bengal’s Midnapore jail in crumpled saris. Frail and bewildered, they wondered how they would travel 100 km back to their villages in Lalgarh. The women did not know why they had been arrested, or why they were being released.

The previous night, these women had been the cause of shrill debate across television studios – their release was equated with the famous Kandahar terrorist swap. Maoists had attacked the Sankrail Police Station in West Bengal, killed two officers and kidnapped the officer in charge (OC). These women — “the Naxal prisoners,” India’s own Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists — were being swapped for OC Atindranath Dutta. A lower court had rejected their bail plea; now a sessions judge in Midnapore had conveniently granted bail.

Then came a piercing outcry: Is the West Bengal Government soft on Maoists? On cue, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya clarified that his government is not weak, that this is a one-off incident, that no such release will ever happen again. Swiftly, Home Minister P Chidambaram distanced himself, saying this was solely a decision of the West Bengal Government. Immediately, Left Front General Secretary Prakash Karat sprung into damage control mode, emphasising his party is indeed against the Maoists. Home Secretary GK Pillai said the swap was unfortunate. Amid the high-decibel rhetoric, no one asked the basic question. Who are these women? What are they guilty of? What is the evidence of their links with the Maoists? Why were they in jail in the first place?

When you see this frenzy over the release of 14 innocent adivasi women – among them a 70-year-old widow – you know there is reason to be afraid. Operation Lalgarh has set off a horrifying blindness, symptomatic of any war zone. There are the troops, there is the enemy; there is nothing in between. Everything else is collateral damage; everyone else, a prisoner of war. When the Centre launches Operation Green Hunt this year, this is what will be replicated on a much larger scale across Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Bihar. There will be many more hostages and neither side may be willing to swap.

If you had met the families of these adivasi women before any such swap was imminent, you’d know there is reason to be afraid. A skeletal Rabi Patro is sewing sal leaves into plates; he earns Rs 50 for every 1,000 plates. He cannot afford the journey to Midnapore jail to meet his wife. Dhanaraj Mahato is grumpy. With his wife gone, he has to feed the cows and goats. Tapasi Baske’s afraid her mother-in-law may never return but her immediate worry is the hen eating up her rice. None of these families have the resources to travel to court or engage a lawyer. None of them know that in a land far away, their kin have already been labelled as Maoists; that the basic tenet of a just State – being deemed innocent until proven guilty – has been reversed.

LOCAL HUMAN rights groups say there have been more than 400 arrests in and around Lalgarh since June 2009. The police put the figure at 388, of which they say 88 have direct links with Maoists. The remaining, they say, are connected to “front organisations of the Maoists” such as the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA). When you begin to examine the evidence, the specific cases against these men and women, a grand charade, a manic witchhunt comes to light. There is a strategy, a pattern. You can be booked for waging war against the State for raising slogans like “Maoist Zindabad, PCAPA Zindabad” at mass protest rallies – rallies you never attended. Arrested as a Maoist for shouting “Run, Kishenji!” while fleeing from the police. The police don’t have to explain how they nabbed you, but missed the much-wanted CPI (Maoist) spokesperson who was apparently in the same crowd. You can be charged for attempting to murder the police with “deadly weapons” such as “brickbats, bows and arrows” though there is no record of police injury. The Maoists could barge into your poultry farm and threaten you to attend rallies and the next day, you could be arrested for “giving shelter to the Maoists”.

the kandahar swap

image‘We are not free yet. The police could identify us again’

PODDOMONI AND SUNIYA
Farm labourers

SUNIYA BHASKE WORKS as farm labour on brinjal and cauliflower fields. Though she had heard of others, this was her first protest march. Feeding her six goats and 50 hens was more important. They are what she missed most in jail.

image‘We are fools. We talk straight. Will you use this against me?’

SUDHARANI BASKE
70-year-old widow

SUDHARANI BASKE CANNOT understand what has suddenly happened to the country. She is convinced the police is out to pick up everyone. She will not believe you no matter what you say. You are, after all, the police in plain clothes

image‘They can’t get the right people, so they are picking us’

PRATIMA PATRO
Adivasi sal-leaf picker

AS HER HUSBAND is too frail, Pratima does everything – clean the mud hut and earthen pots, till the fields, graze the cows, and gather firewood and sal leaves from the jungle. She screams in anger when you mention the police. Will they feed her family when she is in jail, she wants to know.

Operation Lalgarh has triggered a horrifying blindness. In the name of combating India’s greatest internal security threat, the State is doing to village folk what it did to Muslims in the name of curbing terrorism. “Most of the people we pull up are ordinary villagers and tribals,” an Assistant Commander of a paramilitary unit in Lalgarh admitted. “We pick them up because they don’t listen when we ask them to stop. They try to escape, so we arrest them. We hand them to the Bengal police. The police interrogates them and decides whom to send to jail. Usually, they try to let off the innocent tribals. Mostly, those with previous cases against them are detained.”

If you happened to see what evidence the police have against the 14 ‘Kandahar women’, the horrifying blindness of Lalgarh would become apparent. All 14 were booked for criminal conspiracy, waging war against the state, abetment to waging war against the state, unlawful assembly, rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, rioting with a common objective, obstruction of public servants and attempt to murder. They were also booked under the Arms Act. The charge of waging war against the state is punishable with life imprisonment.

This is what the tribals say happened that September afternoon: While patrolling in Basber village, the paramilitary forces stopped a local boy, Lalu Tuddu, for questioning. He could not tell them where the Maoists were hiding. The police began to thrash him. Chitamoni, an adivasi woman, rushed to his aid; she too was beaten. Villagers then swarmed in protest. The troops left immediately, but the incident tipped over a cauldron of rage welling ever since Operation Lalgarh began. A huge group of adivasis (mostly women, since men were working in the fields) decided to march to the panchayat office in Katapahari and “make the Pradhan aware” of what was going on. The panchayat office is opposite a military camp. As they reached the panchayat, the troops stopped them and sprayed tear gas. The tribals dispersed and some rushed inside the panchayat office. The troops followed them in and began a lathi charge. They managed to catch 14 women and beat them. The lady sarpanch was also beaten up. The 14 women were taken inside the CRPF camp and thrashed again. They were then shoved inside a police van. When they tried to resist, they were told they were being taken to the doctor. The van, however, stopped at Lalgarh Police Station. They were taken to another location in Keshpur to spend the night and presented in Jhargram court the next day. After paperwork at the court, they were taken to Midnapore Jail.

How A Deaf Ear Is Turning Ploughshares To Swords

A State stung out of stupor lashes out at opposition, seeing Maoists everywhere, a democratic protest movement inches towards violence

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PHOTO: AFP

ON THE evening of October 27, an armed mob blocked the path of a Rajdhani Express train with felled trees. They abducted two drivers, smashed windows and scrawled a message in red ink, “Chhatradhar Mahato is a real good man.” The incident triggered high drama: “India will not buckle! How can we accept such an audacious Maoist attack?”

The group that claimed responsibility for this incident was not the Maoists. Maoists do not patiently engage Bengal’s intellectuals and activists in deep discussion; they do not meet the State Election Commissioner before general elections as this group’s leader, Chhatradhar Mahato had done.

In November 2008, this group, the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), led mass protests against police brutality. The government sent troops, instead, calling the PCAPA a Maoist front. There is no evidence till date to prove this claim. The Maoists say they support the PCAPA but there has been no formal statement from the PCAPA supporting the Maoists.

This week, PCAPA spokesman Asit Mahato declared the outfit would no longer continue democratic protest. “After continuous torture by the joint forces, the PCAPA has decided to form a people’s militia to combat the forces.” The Rajdhani attack, then, was a show of strength, a warning of things to come if we continue to enforce a police state. Much of the PCAPA’s shift has to do with the arrest of Chhatradhar Mahato on charges of CPI (Maoist) links and the subsequent witch-hunt of his supporters.

WHEN SUPPORTERS OF MAHATO ARE ARRESTED EVEN BEFORE HE IS CONVICTED OF ANY CRIME, IT ONLY DEEPENS DOUBT AND MISTRUST

Born in Amlia village, Mahato studied at the local Lalgarh school and Midnapore college. Besides farming rice and potatoes, he has a small business procuring sal leaves from locals and selling them in Orissa. By the police’s own admission, Mahato has an annual income of Rs 1 lakh to Rs 2 lakh. Yet, the West Bengal DGP declared on record in a press conference that Mahato has a Rs 1 crore insurance policy. Days later, when questioned for proof, the DGP admits it is “unconfirmed” and that further investigations are needed.

It is such flip flops that make one doubt the other serious police charges against Mahato, which include “hatching a widespread criminal conspiracy to overawe the state government through criminal force, links with the CPI (Maoist) and the murder of CPM activists”. When the police arrest supporters of Mahato even before he was convicted for any crime, it only furthers this climate of doubt and mistrust. (Bhanu Sarkar was picked up in Kolkata while putting up posters demanding the unconditional release of Mahato.) And when they arrest a 70-year-old widow for attempting democratic protest, you know it is the State that is fast becoming its own worst, most violent enemy.

THIS IS the version of Manisankar Mahanta, Sub-Inspector of Lalgarh Police Station: “On 3rd September, me, a lady constable and the joint forces were patrolling near Basber maidan at 2 pm. When we were passing Basber village, we were resisted by women folk and minors. We suddenly heard sounds of the shank, dhamsa, and madal (tribal musical instruments). We saw 300 to 400 villagers armed with bows and arrows, boomerangs, axes, sickles, and other deadly weapons. They did not allow the combined forces to enter the village and were screaming abuses. They were hatching a conspiracy to loot the weapons of the police. They were shouting anti-national slogans like ‘Maovadi Zindabad, PCAPA Zindabad, Kishenji Zindabad, Chhatradhar Mahato Zindabad’ (Long live the Maoists, the PCAPA, Kishenji and Chhatradhar Mahato.) The tribal women and children came forward to form a barricade, while the men, armed with deadly weapons, stood behind them. From the jungle, the Maoists were firing at the police. As they fled, three women sustained injuries on their hands and legs. The police arrested 14 women. At the police station, we seized three arrows and brickbats from them.”

Three arrows, imagined or otherwise, could have kept 14 tribal women in prison for years. It is a bizarre war, and the only people the State seems to be fighting are its weakest citizens.

THE MEDIA DUBBED IT A ‘KANDAHAR SWAP,’ BUT NO ONE ASKED THE BASIC QUESTION: WHO WERE THESE WOMEN REALLY?

On the afternoon of October 23, the 14 adivasi women returned to the villages of Basber and Tesabandh. Sudharani Baske, a 70-year-old widow was one of them. Two months ago, something made Baske limp out of her mud hut and stride through the jungles into town. Something carried her feeble legs down three kilometres of broken road to the local panchayat office. It was her belief in the Indian Constitution, her faith in a democratic process. Sudharani Baske had heard about a grave injustice – a local boy thrashed by the paramilitary forces. She believed the Indian State allowed her the freedom to protest. She was wrong. In Lalgarh’s war zone, freedom is the first casualty, democracy, the second.

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Peasant army Tribals at a protest rally against police atrocities in Lalgarh

A DAY LATER, Baske found herself in Midnapore Jail on charges of “waging war against the state”, and “attempting to murder the police” with deadly weapons. Her thighs were red from the police beating, her knuckles hurt, her swollen fingers wouldn’t close. Nearly two months later, they still don’t.

Skin sagging and visibly frail, Baske is returning from a bath in the pond, wearing a thin white sari. She halts on seeing strange faces. There is bewilderment and dread. You attempt reassurance. She launches into a slow refrain. “Are you the police? Will you take me away again? Why are you taking my picture? What will you do with this information? Please tell me the truth. Will you let me live in peace?” She shivers. Clutches your hand. Shakes your shoulders. She says she can trust no one. She forbids her son from giving his name. She breaks down.

“Maybe the police called her a Maoist because our names were not on the voters list,” says her son Ram Dulal Baske. Baske’s husband was a teacher in the local school; her two sons cultivate a small patch of rice. Their monthly income is under Rs 300. Ever since her release, Baske lives in fear of being captured again. She has stopped eating – her family has to force her to eat a meal a day – and sleeps only for a few hours every night. This is what operation Lalgarh is doing to the people it claims to protect. “I saw some women going to protest. No one called me. I went on my own,” Baske says. “What wrong have we done for the troops to beat us? I thought if I don’t protest now, I could be next. I wonder what got into me. I will not protest again.”

WITH OPERATION LALGARH, THE STATE IS DOING TO VILLAGERS WHAT IT DID TO MUSLIMS IN THE NAME OF FIGHTING TERRORISM

Terror, fear, silence – it is what Operation Lalgarh sows, and it is what Operation Lalgarh feeds on. Travelling inside Lalgarh four months into the operation, there is an eerie stillness. Nothing is alive. The local economy, the markets, the buzz of village life, conversation, everything is stagnant, in slow decay. It is harvest season, and usually the farmers work through the night, but “now, we come back by 6:30 pm”. It is Kali Puja, but the villagers can’t celebrate because “the police will think we are getting together for a sangathan (mass movement). Tribals are scared to venture into their own forests to pick the sal leaves that sustain their livelihood. Women are scared to answer nature’s call – “We don’t have toilets at home, so we go into the jungles. Now we can’t even go to the toilet at night. The police harass us for being Maoists.”

At the local market in Katapahari, almost all the shutters are down. “People don’t come out because they are scared of being questioned and beaten by the police,” says Poddot Pratihar, sculpting rosogollas that no one buys these days. He is one of the few who will whisper such things. Most know better. The police could overhear anything, anytime.

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No safe zone Policeman Dibakar Bhattacharya was killed inside Sankrail Police Station on October 20
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Behind enemy lines Policeman Atindranath Dutta was kidnapped by Maoists

They know what happened to Swarup Pratihar. His small wooden shack doubles up as a chicken shop and a phone booth. Police often bought chickens from him. Pratihar happened to be deleting some old voice messages on his cell phone when the troops were passing by on their regular patrol. “Who are you calling?” a CRPF jawan questioned. The last dialled calls were checked, the phone was confiscated and Pratihar ordered to march. Hands tied, face covered with a black cloth, he was taken into a jungle with the armed unit, stripped, interrogated and asked to identify pictures he did not recognise – “tell us everything.” After three hours of questioning and some paperwork, they let him go. “I’m scared to continue my phone business now,” Pratihar says. His phone remains confiscated, an income of Rs 1,000 a month lost.

OPERATION LALGARH SOWS AND FEEDS ON TERROR. IT’S HARVEST TIME, BUT NO ONE DARES WORK THEIR FIELDS AT NIGHT

Four months into Operation Lalgarh, the troops are hawks circling above. “If we talk, we are in danger. If we don’t talk, we are in danger,” says Mukata - ram Pratidar. Since the operation be - gan, the sales in his sari shop have dropped from Rs 2,000 to Rs 500 a day.

Ask Tarun Pratihar about the situation in Lalgarh and he shrugs. “I can’t tell you openly,” he says, “what if someone hears me giving my opinion?” It is the same fear many intellectuals in Kolkata have: phone conversations being tapped for any Maoist sympathy. There is a sense of constantly being monitored. “We are living in terror,” says Boloram Pratihar, father-inlaw of a local doctor picked up for Maoist links. “I don’t open my door after 6:30 pm. It wasn’t even this bad during the British rule. I feel caged.”

* * *

Until November 2008, Lalgarh was a nondescript village in the interiors of West Bengal. It had two schools, some roads, no hospitals and no water supply. As Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was returning after inaugurating a Jindal factory near Salboni, a landmine went off ahead of his convoy. Immediately, the police went into an offensive. A wire, they claim, led from Salboni to Lalgarh, which proved that the people of Lalgarh had helped the Maoists in the blast. The witch-hunt began and locals were beaten, a local woman, Chidamani, was blinded. This is what triggered the PCAPA, a democratic agitation spearheaded by Chhatradhar Mahato. The villagers dug up roads, felled trees to block them and refused to let the police enter Lalgarh until the SP came and apologised. But the government decided to send in the troops. In June 2009, the Central and state government launched a combined operation to “flush out” the Maoists in and around Lalgarh. About 2,000 paramilitary forces – CRPF, BSF, Cobra, IRB – were deployed in a 10 square kilometre area. A televised battle between the troops and the Maoists raged.

Within weeks, the government declared the operation successful. The Maoists had retreated, the battle was won. Relief camps were set up to distribute 5 kilos of rice. “Give me irrigation, I’ll give them 50 kilos,” retorts Deepak Pratihar, one of the first victims of police atrocities. His pregnant wife was beaten and he was arrested in connection with the Salboni blast, only to be released two weeks later with a clean chit. When the operation began, he was hunted down again. “You haven’t left Lalgarh, so we’ll let you be,” the police said. “If you had fled, we’d know you were a Maoist and catch you again.” Pratihar works as a security guard of a telephone tower near Lalgarh. “I have never seen a Maoist. It is like some ghost out there,” he says. “But now, whoever wants to protest is a Maoist.”

A Physician In Shackles

imageWhy are the security forces targeting a particular group of people in Lalgarh?

A BRIGHT PINK doctor’s chamber stands out among wood huts. Perhaps that is why it was one of the first places the paramilitary forces surrounded the day they arrived in Lalgarh. “They asked us whether he treated any bullet injuries,” says his wife Sulekha. “Then, they called him a Maoist doctor.”

Arrested for a murder committed two months earlier, where the complainant hadn’t even named him, booked for burning a police outpost on a day where his chamber diary shows he treated 16 patients, Jatin Pratihar, 52, is one of many arrested in Lalgarh post June 2009.

Pratihar sold his ancestral land to finance his studies and his clinic. With a homeopathy degree from Kharagpur Medical College, a pharmacy diploma from Calcutta University and three years experience in Midnapore’s Sadar Hospital, he returned to Lalgarh to work among the locals. Pratihar was the kind of doctor who’d go into the jungles at any time of night and even give his own blood when needed.

His arrest is significant as it seems to be part of a larger trend of arresting the most educated, the ones with the largest fields, the ones with brick houses. “No one has come to ask for our side of the story,” says Sulekha, in tears. “We have been isolated.”

In September, posing as journalists, the police arrested Chhatradhar Mahato for Maoist links. His arrest pushed other PCAPA members and supporters underground. Many have fled home in fear. Gopal Pratihar, a PCAPA supporter, hasn’t come home in months. The police couldn’t find him so they picked up his son Shibhu, who “died” in police custody. Gopal could not be there for the cremation.

WHAT VICTORY? SCHOOLS ARE OPEN, BUT TEACHERS ARE TOO SCARED. HEALTH CENTRES HAVE BECOME MILITARY CAMPS

Trying to meet a PCAPA spokesperson in Lalgarh is like trying to meet a Maoist. That’s the irony of the operation, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is why it is not surprising that after months of failed democratic protests, the PCAPA has now declared itself “an armed militia”.

What is the definition of victory? If you were to travel inside Lalgarh four months after this grand declaration, a very different reality would emerge. Far from helping development pro - cesses, the operation has isolated Lalgarh completely. Schools are shut. Of the 19 schools occupied by the troops, five have been vacated. Where primary schools are open, teachers are scared to travel from their villages. Bus conductors have changed their routes to avoid the Lalgarh night halt. The health centre in Lalgarh has been turned into a military camp. There were never any doctors in it anyway. Two unwell villagers could not find a vehicle to get to Midnapore hospital. They died.

Meanwhile, the local doctor has been arrested for being an anti-national. The local anganwadi worker who implements the Integrated Child Development Scheme has no work. The food supplies she distributes among pregnant mothers have stopped reaching Lalgarh. The mothers themselves have stopped coming to the weekly meetings. The local NREGS worker has a job card, but no job.

The perception that Lalgarh is a dangerous militarised place has only pushed it further into remoteness. Rental companies in Kolkata are afraid to give you a car to go to Lalgarh. “I want it back in one piece,” says a business owner. Human rights activists, too, seem cut off. “We don’t know what’s happening there because the police is not letting anyone in,” says professor Partho Ray of the Indian Statistical Institute. “It feels like it’s not a part of India anymore.”

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A second Look CRPF jawans on patrol on the road to Lalgarh
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Lock and Load Paramilitary forces during combing operations for Maoist insurgents
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Search and destroy Policemen attempt to identify the location of Maoist insurgents near Lalgarh

What is the definition of victory? In a major embarrassment for the CPI(M) government, West Bengal’s first ever guerrilla attack happened four months into a “successful” military operation. Around 1.20 pm, Maoists attack a police station in Sankrail and shoot two policemen. They leave 20 minutes later with a kidnapped OC, looted weapons and Rs 10 lakh seized from the neighbouring bank. When paramilitary forces arrive at 5 pm, huge crowds are already there. A CRPF officer storms out, bellowing, “You bastards, get out.” Within minutes, he is beating the locals. It is the kind of mindless violence and counter-violence a military operation creates.

Meanwhile Kishenji, the CPI (Maoist) Politburo member is engaged in live phone conversations on 24-hour news channels. In a dextrous move, the Maoists demand the release not of high-profile Maoists cadre supposedly in jail, but of 14 hapless tribal women. Days later, in an unprecedented event, he and other CPI(Maoist) members physically meet reporters to hand over the kidnapped OC. The entire exchange is broadcast on television. Yet our specially trained forces seem unable to locate him. An embarrassed Chief Minister officially accepts that “it’s ridiculous we can’t nab Kishenji”. New revelations that Kishenji has been in contact with CPI(M) allies add to the drama. A RSP Minister Kshitij Goswami says Kishenji called him three months ago.

THE STATE IS ON A WILD CHASE, FIRING IN THE DARK. WHAT IS KILLED IS ON THE PERIPHERY, NOT INSIDE THE JUNGLE

It is a bizarre war, and the only people the State seems to be fighting are its weakest citizens. The “Kandahar swap” is the most recent example of how the government is itself creating a situation that allows the Maoists to step in as saviours. Far from weaning the locals away from Maoist influence, Operation Lalgarh is giving them reason to believe the Maoists’ claim that they represent the masses.

Back at the Sankrail Police Station, the lone remaining officer asks for a transfer. The released OC says he’s not sure he will continue with mainstream police service. He also seems to emerge with new empathy. “We think of them (the Maoists) as aggressive, but at least with me, they were not,” he tells TEHELKA. “They shared their food – puffed rice.”

Meanwhile, the CM announces special pay packages for police in Maoistinfested areas, sanctions Rs 7 crore to “fortify police stations and prevent further attacks,” and begins allocation of paramilitary troops to Sankrail. It could be tomorrow’s Lalgarh. As he boards the bus from Lalgarh to Sankrail, you ask an armed jawan if he’s looking forward to it. “Yes, I’m bored in Lalgarh,” he says. “It will be good to see a new place.”

* * *

On an ordinary day, the joint-forces march through Lalgarh once in the morning, once at sunset. This is not an ordinary day. It is midafternoon and a column of armed men are lined along a narrow strip of road between Bodopellia and Katapahari. Every 20 metres, an armed guard stands to attention. Some face the paddy fields; some face the road. All stare into nothingness. Between them, a CRPF jawan pedals a Scooty. Every five minutes, he pauses, stares into a pair of binoculars, hoping for some finite figure, for some outline of prey.

It is when you see him perched upon his moped, searching in vain for something in motion that the irony and perhaps the tragedy of Lalgarh becomes evident. Behind him, another trooper is pacing up and down with a metal detector. Two mines blew up on this road barely an hour ago. Bullets were also fired from somewhere within the jungles, the sounds coming not far from the Lalgarh Police Station. It is the Maoists taunting the forces: We are here. We exist. The police fire back, random bullets flying into paddy fields.

Every time there is a mine blast — there have been about 35 since June — the paramilitary forces will retaliate. Any local loitering in the area will be herded into a police station, interrogated and probably accused of links with the Maoists.

Imagine a blind hunter at the edge of a jungle. He does not know what his prey looks like, or where it lives, except that it resides somewhere in the deep. Imagine prey that cannot be identified. The State is on a wild chase, firing in the dark. What is killed is on the periphery, not inside the jungle. What has never been inside the jungle is now scurrying towards it for cover.

* * *

KISHENJI IS OFTEN ON 24-HOUR NEWS CHANNELS. EMBARRASSED, THE CM AGREES, ‘IT’S RIDICULOUS THAT WE CAN’T NAB HIM’

On the morning of October 23, 14 feeble women walked out of Midnapore Jail. To understand the horror of what is happening in Lalgarh, their story is crucial. It is crucial because of their place in the wider landscape of Lalgarh, in the food chain within it.

There are layers: there are the Maoists, the PCAPA, the party workers – CPI(M) cadre, the TMC supporters and Jharkhand Party members. The fourth layer is the ordinary people of Lalgarh – rice and potato farmers dependent on the rains, migrant labourers, shop owners. The PCAPA’s support base comes from them.

And then there are the adivasis – the easiest prey. They are not Maoist supporters – many haven’t heard of Kishenji. They are not PCAPA members or the ordinary people who attended PCAPA rallies. They do not have the luxury of being ordinary. They are at the absolute bottom of the food chain, human algae. Many don’t even speak Bengali, and they are far removed from any political churning. This is what makes their story more significant.

The adivasi women’s march to the panchayat office on a September afternoon could have been the beginning of another local people’s movement, in the same way that the PCAPA began. There is almost a sense of déjà vu – the story of Chidamani repeated. From among them, another Chhatradhar Mahato could have risen. But this time, the troops were armed, ready to squash any possibility of democratic protest. By crushing the belief of these women in the relief that the panchayat, a State body, could give them, the State is only pushing its own people towards further extremism. In a blind hunt to combat those that don’t believe in the Indian Constitution, the government is actually isolating those that do.

“We are happy that Kishenji has helped us,” says Sudharani’s son, Ram Dulal Baske. “But they should not have killed the two policemen.” Ask why, and Sudharani’s feeble voice chimes in. “Because not all policemen are bad. Man should not kill man.” In the haze of Bengal’s uncertainties, it may not be easy to identify who a Maoist is, but it is easy to identify who a Maoist is not. If the war rages on, this last line of certainty may blur.

THERE ARE TOO MANY STAKEHOLDERS, TOO MANY VERSIONS, TOO LITTLE FACT. IT’S NOT EASY TO GET TO THE TRUTH

Already, the shift has begun. The previously democratic PCAPA has declared itself an armed militia. But DGP Bhupinder Singh is not willing to see. “If they’ve turned into militia, they can no more claim innocence as mere villagers,” he says. “Our task will be easier.” Operation Lalgarh has triggered a horrifying blindness, a fatal arrogance, a convenient amnesia. That is why we have forgotten that the Maoists are not new to Bengal. They have been in the jungles of West Mindapore, Purulia and Bankura since the 1970s. Yet, the first overt attack from them was a mine blast in 2003. Could it be because of a new state policy to tackle Naxalism? In his budget speech in 2001, CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya emphasised the need for police raids. In his 2002 speech, he said it was “paying dividends”. Fifty-four people were arrested in West Midnapore in 2002, accused of waging war against the state. All 54 spent a year in jail. Bail was granted in 2003, but the cases continued.

In 2008, in a damning judgement, a sessions court judge said: “It is found that from different parts of West Bengal, other chargesheeted, accused persons were arrested and tagged (in this case) only on the ground that the police suspected they belonged to the People’s War Group. [People’s War Group and Maoist Communist Centre later merged to become CPI (Maoist)]. The police tagged these 54 persons in different cases so that they cannot be granted bail and shall be kept in custody for long years. The police falsely arrested them without any evidence. False chargesheets have been submitted against them. The investigation by the police in this case was not apolitical. The conduct of the entire police administration of West Midnapore is always in a partisan manner and politically motivated, which is proved in this case. It is found that people at large are revolting against the police for maltreatment towards the public.”

Operation Lalgarh is not a new war. It is a more visible, military manifestation of State repression that has been brewing in Bengal for years. Far from isolating the Maoists, it is rapidly pushing the masses towards them. There is no reason to believe Operation Green Hunt will yield different results. That is why Chhatradhar Mahato’s mother Niyati has a new sympathy for her eldest son. A member of CPI(Maoist), Sasha - dhar Mahato has not returned home in 18 years. “Earlier I would curse him,” says Niyati. It was because of him that both her younger sons, Chhatradhar and Anil had been jailed previously. “Now I think he’s doing the right thing. He is fighting the police for the poor.”

That is why Anil Mahato’s five-yearold son Arup has a new hero. “I saw him on TV,” he says. “When I grow up, I want to be like Kishenji.”

* * *

On the night of October 27, an armed mob stopped a Rajdhani train and kidnapped its drivers. It triggered hot debate. “The Maoists have political support,” declared Home Secretary GK Pillai. “The Bengal government should prove the existence of Maoists,” retorted Trinamool Congress leader Partho Chatterjee. The captured OC may have links with the Maoists, chimed another report.

There are too many stakeholders, too many versions, too little fact. In such a murky maze, there can be no finite villains and heroes; it is not easy to arrive at any finite truth. Except one. Of this we can be certain – inside the battlefields of Lalgarh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Bihar, the face of the State is more brutal than any other stakeholder. The State is the least attractive option. If this is a war, our government can only win it by reversing that equation. Decades of armed presence have not yet won “the hearts and minds of the people” in Kashmir, in Manipur. There is no reason to believe they will be successful elsewhere. In the haze of India’s uncertainties, it is not easy to identify who a Maoist is, but it is easy to identify who a Maoist is not. If the war rages on, that last line of certainty will blur.

WRITER’S EMAIL
tusha@tehelka.com

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 44, Dated November 07, 2009
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