It was drizzling slightly, but the afternoon sun was still visible through breaks in the clouds.
The crowd of about 350 ignored the rain. They were staring, with rapt attention, at the short, gaunt, thirty-ish man squatting on the ground, his hands tied behind his back.
A kangaroo court was in session deep inside the forests of Sirshi in West Midnapore, a Maoist-affected district in West Bengal, about 160 km south west of Kolkata.
Using contacts forged over months, HT and a national television channel had secured a ringside view of such proceedings — a first by any media organisation. We had heard stories about these so-called “people’s courts” and the summary executions that followed. Would we witness one today?
“Death,” screamed a young woman from the crowd, sending a tingle of apprehension and excitement down my spine. “He’s a CPI(M) informer. We can’t let him go,” screamed another woman.
A few other women joined them, but their screaming never reached a crescendo. “Everyone who supports this decision, raise your hands,” a dark, elderly man with a grey stubble shouted. This was the first time I noticed the man, obviously the leader of the crowd.
A local informed me that he was a senior leader of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), the Maoist frontal organisation that has now shed all pretences of being a peaceful body.
Only about 30 per cent of the crowd lifted their hands. “Anyone else?” the PCAPA leader asked. “Speak out… do you want this man to get death?”
Only a few more hands went.
The “judge” grimaced. “Only a handful of you have agreed. We’ll have to sit again tomorrow,” he said, signaling the “adjournment” of proceedings.
We had been invited for a meeting called by PCAPA to convince locals that Maoists weren’t behind the Jnaneshwari Express derailment.
But here, in Maoland, things can change fast.
News arrived that a “harmad” (armed CPM gang) had been caught. Within minutes, the gathering turned into a “court”. The accused, one Sricharan Chalak, was herded in and the hectoring started. Within the next hour-and-a-half, the man, who initially claimed that he was a cook employed by some CPI(M) leaders, had “confessed” his involvement in raids on Maoist-dominated villages and arson attacks on PCAPA supporters. The “evidence” seemed “watertight”, but Chalak had still gained a day’s reprieve. Was it because of the presence of media persons?
We’ll never know, but PCAPA supporters told us the next day that Chalak had been set free after serving out his sentence— 100 sit-ups holding his ears.