As darkness descends on Boropelia village, Khemakanta Mahato (64) turns restless. Three years ago, he was picked up by the police in the dead of the night for helping Maoists. Since then, peaceful nights have all but disappeared from the village, the headquarters of anti-government protests led by the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA).
“Every night, we live in fear. Either the police raid the village or the Maoists come under the cover of darkness. The CPI(M) has regrouped and started terrorising villages,” Mahato, a retired schoolteacher said. “How long can we bear the torture?”
Fear stalks the villages of Lalgarh. But a ghostly calm prevails. Two years ago, soon after the joint forces marched into the red territory and captured one village after another, the red rebels went on a killing spree —bullet-riddled bodies of CPI(M) workers would be found lying on the roads almost everyday.
As we start our journey along the bumpy road that begins near Lalgarh police station, my companion, photo journalist Subhendu Ghosh, recounts how bullets were exchanged as the joint forces marched towards “victory” in June 2009. He had travelled with the forces to capture the reclaiming of lost land.
“Things have changed now,” said grocery shop owner Mama right at the entry to Boropelia village. The Maoists, he said, have escaped and the police, with their meticulous public relations exercise, have managed to woo many villagers. “It’s peaceful now,” he asserts.
But the residents of Lalgarh are not sure how long peace will last once election fever grips the district. West Midnapore has traditionally been a CPI(M) bastion. Of the 21 Assembly seats, the Left Front bagged 18 in 2006. But political equations have changed in the past two years. Anti-CPI(M) forces have become strong and Trinamool Congress has gained base with the covert support of Maoists.
Recently, CPI(M) leaders, who had been ousted by the marauding red rebels, started returning to their bases with the help of joint forces. The grand plan to reclaim lost territory was hatched and successfully implemented. Armed camps were set up and villages terrorised into return to the Left fold.
But the killings in Netai village changed all the equations yet again.
At Netai, little more than 3km from Lalgarh police station, the anger against the Left is palpable. The undulating kuccha road, too narrow to accommodate two vehicles, leads to the two-storeyed house of CPI(M) leader Rathin Dandapat. On January 7, CPI(M) cadres fired at innocent villagers from this very house, killing nine people, including four women.
Hundreds of villagers had gathered around the house to protest against CPI(M) atrocities. “Women, with babies in arms had joined the demonstration. It was not an attack, just a protest. Yet, innocent villagers had to die,” said Krishnagopal Roy, retired schoolteacher.
Fifty metres away, three bullet marks on a paddy shop bear testimony to the violence. “Nine people of Netai have saved Bengal,” said Nantu Adhikari, owner of a ramshackle tea stall. “The revolution has started from here. It will spread. Lalgarh will become Cairo,” he said, flashing the newspaper headlines narrating the Tahrir Square uprising.
Our vehicle reaches Kantapahari, where villagers first started the movement on November 6, 2008. They felled trees to block roads and dug up roads four days after a landmine attack on the convoy of the chief minister and Union minister.
At Dalilpur Chowk, from where the movement was mobilised and important announcements relayed to the public, life has returned to normal. Shops do brisk business and both buyers and sellers look happy. “We are happy now, don’t spoil it by writing something foolish,” a shopkeeper advises.
We trace Dipak Pratihar, a middle-aged man with a frail structure and sparkling eyes. In November 2008, he was caught by the police near Lalgarh police station when he was returning with his pregnant wife from a doctor’s chamber. The wife pleaded to the policemen to allow her husband to at least reach her home. All she got in return were kicks. She lost the baby. “No politics for me anymore, I don’t want to talk to you,” came the curt greeting from Pratihar. He had been a strongman of Jharkhand Party (Naren) and is convinced that he was jailed for his anti-CPI(M) activities. After a while, he opens up and says: “I want a non-CPI(M) government and it will surely capture power.”
Trinamool Congress flags flutter proudly at prominent spots and the CPI(M) is licking its wounds, waiting for the right opportunity. Maoists have disappeared into the jungles and only kendu leaf collectors, who venture deep into the forest, come across members of the red gang. Maoists are surely on the back foot but biding time to launch the next strike. The apparent beneficiary of the situation, Trinamool, is upbeat with its newfound foothold in the area. But, at the end of the day, it’s a complex web of politics waiting to unfold before the Assembly elections.
If the shopkeepers tell you all is well and villagers recount the tales of horror, only to compare it with the peace now, they are not lying. But if one travels inside the villages, the fear factor is writ large in every corner.
We visit Chhotopelia village where Chintamani Murmu (43) lives. She was left blinded in one eye by the police in their zeal to conduct search operations after the attack on the chief minister’s convoy. She became an icon of the movement, a symbol of police atrocities.
Nobody tells us where the house is and we take pains to locate it. As we approach the hut, we see peeping heads from behind the door but on reaching the door step, there is no trace of anyone inside. We search the backyard, too, but no one is visible. At Chhotopelia, no one trusts an outsider. Fear rules.
We start for our next destination without speaking to anybody. At Amlia village, close to Lalgarh police station, a 73-year-old man is, however, not scared to talk. “I am the father of a top Maoist leader and a senior leader of the PCAPA now in jail. I have nothing to fear. At the most, the police will kill me.” There was a time when CPI(M) leaders summoned Asutosh Mahato almost everyday for questioning and the police conducted surprise raids on his home every now and then in the hope of finding Sasadhar Mahato, a state committee member of the Maoists who has been in hiding for the past 20 years. Asutosh Mahato’s other son, Chhatradhar Mahato, was the most visible leader of the PCAPA till his arrest in September 2009.
For Asutosh Mahato, the Maoist struggle may have waned for now but what has started will never end. “The movement will continue.”
The polls will unravel a strange concoction of politics — a war between a democratic process and the politics of violence and till then Lalgarh sits on a powder keg, waiting for ignition.