It’s September 17. Night at Chakaltore. A whiff of mahua — a local brew — and excitement have turned the night intoxicating. Young Santhal girls holding umbrellas are looking coyly at available young men. On this night, the Santhals have always found their life partners, for the last 800 years.
The Chhata Parab, or umbrella fest, in Chakaltore, about 12 km from Purulia district headquarters, was declared open in the afternoon, with the ‘King’ of the land holding a huge umbrella – a symbol of safety and security of a young girl.
Only 30 km away, the Naga regiment of the Central Reserve Police Force is hunting Maoists in the jungles. For, Purulia district, 320 km northwest of Kolkata, is one of the three Maoist-hit districts — the other two being Bankura and West Midnapore — of West Bengal.
In spite of the times being different — violent and uncertain — young men started assembling from the afternoon. The festival of love started with exchanges of shy glances as men and women court each other.
By evening, most were high on mahua with the beats of madol, traditional Santhali drums. But when the revelries were on at Chakaltore, CRPF jawans were sniffing around the area.
The rebels, steadily losing out at Lalgarh in West Midnapore, are regrouping in Bagmundi, Balarampur, Arsa and the Ayodhya mountain range in Purulia. It’s easier to sneak into Jharkhand from this area.
Three days ago, seven rebels were caught in Jhalda, 45 km southwest of Purulia town. Threat calls to businessmen and factory-owners have started making news. Village heads have been ordered to “provide” youths, between 18 and 25 years, to man Maoist squads.
“Many young men have fled to Jhalda town fearing that they will be picked up at night,” said Bhajan Deb, a tea stall owner at Chakoltore. Deb, however, did not specify who were likely to pick them up.
Although Avanindra Singh, district magistrate, said he had no information of Maoists trying to recruit from tribal villages, he admitted: “They are building bases in Arsa and Jhalda, areas around the hills.” At the fair ground, the 70-year-old ‘King’ of Chakaltore, Debi Prasad Lala Singh Deo, keeps vigil on his ‘kingdom’. A businessman, the former royal, is keen on his family traditions. “They can’t do anything to the festival. They had done it elsewhere. But this is the festival of love.”