There are no political banners. No party flags. No rallies.
The ‘Free Zone’ — a strip of about 1,000 Naxal-infested villages along the West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa borders — is silent ahead of the national polls.
Democracy has vanished from here. And the parallel Naxal government allows no elections.
Elected representatives aren’t tolerated either.
Naxalites have killed 35 politicians — most from the Communist Party-Marxist and regional parties like Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and Jharkhand Vikas Morcha — in four years.
Elected leaders are now fleeing to nearby towns, where security is tighter. Most of them live in groups, their homes built in clusters around local police stations.
West Bengal’s Bandwan block president, Ratan Soren, hasn’t spent the night in his village of Bhomrogora in Purulia district in three years.
His postal address since 2006 has been the office of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), located in a high-security zone in Bandwan town, some 300 kilometres south-west of state capital Kolkata.
The 50-year-old tribal wants to return to his wife and two teenaged children. But he can’t. CPI (Maoist) leaders have issued a death warrant in his name.
“I don’t know why they want to kill us. Perhaps they do not want us to carry on with our development work as it impedes growth of their organisation,” says Soren, sitting on a wooden chair at the party office.
Around him are garlanded photographs of the four colleagues killed by Naxalites in the last 18 months.
As the general election approaches, more politicians are fleeing Red India.
Forty political leaders from villages along the border in Jharkhand have moved to the ‘protected’ Mosabani town in the last four years. They are now demanding increased security after Naxalites gunned down a JVM leader in January, just a few metres from his home near the local police station.
“It seems like we will never be safe,” says JMM member Shankar Hembrom.
In the day, the police patrol the streets, accompanied by paramilitary and Central forces. After sunset, Maoists call the shots.
Patrolling jeeps and any other four-wheelers are routinely blown up with landmines or riddled with machinegun bullets.
Trapped between the police and the Naxalites, villagers are afraid to talk about the elections — or politics, or pretty much anything.
“The cops visit us in the day, demanding information and shouting that we are informers,” says Sanatan Munda (40), a small farmer at Kankrajhore village in Purulia. “At night, the Naxalites come calling, threatening to burn our villages to the ground if we talk to the police.”
No one is safe, Munda adds.
“Last June, the Naxalites blew up a health department jeep,” he says. “They thought it was a police patrol van. It was just a government doctor and nurse being dropped home.”
In Muktanchal village nearby, disputes are settled in kangaroo courts presided over by Naxalites.
Villagers say Maoists punish them if they go to the police or the courts.
Thirty kilometres away, in Lalgarh, West Bengal, angry protests by villagers forced the police to pack up and vacate 10 outposts.
“It’s a good thing they’re gone,” says farmer Chhatradhar Mahato, who led the protests. “They couldn’t control the violence and their presence just made the Naxalites angry. We’re better off without any uniforms around.”