Welcome to India’s newest, secret state
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Welcome to India’s newest, secret state

What 30 years of Left rule could not do, the Maoists are doing in a sylvan ‘liberated zone’, with its own roads, health centres, canals and judiciary, reports Snigdhendu Bhattacharya.

india Updated: Jun 10, 2009 08:05 IST
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times

When the engineer came to this sylvan southwestern corner of West Bengal in May, his estimate for rebuilding a canal was Rs 2 crore.

<b1>The government didn’t call him. The villagers didn’t call him. The man from Jadavpur University — an institution known for its engineering department — was called in by Maoists to this sylvan land of 1,100 villages where a seminal change is unfolding in the way India’s most-powerful and long-lived extremist movement works.

Here across a 1,000-sq-km area bordering Orissa in West Midnapore district, the Maoists over the last eight months have quietly unleashed new weapons in their battle against the Indian state: drinking water, irrigation, roads and health care.

Carefully shielded from the public eye, the Hindustan Times found India’s second “liberated zone”, a Maoist-run state within a state where development for more than 2 lakh people is unfolding at a pace not seen in 30 years of Left rule.

Apart from taking over the organs of the state, most notably the executive and the judiciary, the Maoists here have built at least 50 km of gravel paths, dug tubewells and tanks, rebuilt irrigation canals and are running health centres, with the help of local villagers.

Across India, 150 of 600 districts are termed “Naxal affected”, meaning areas nominally or directly under the control of Maoists. India’s so-called Red Corridor now sprawls across nine states. It is a situation that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called “the gravest challenge to India’s security”.

In Kolkata, West Bengal home secretary Ardhendu Sen offered a candid comment. “In areas they have already captured, we would like to show patience,” Sen told HT. “We are yet to decide how would we get back our hold at those areas,” he added.

The Maoists do everything as cost-effectively as possible: The services of the engineer from Jadhavpur University won't be used. "We'll get it done at a much cheaper prices," said an aide of Koteswar Rao, or Kishanji, the secretive chief of the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), the official name for the Naxals, who routinely ambush police and paramilitary patrols — 38 policemen and women have died over the last four months — and terrorise India's poorest regions.

Hundreds of kilometres to the west in their first “liberated zone” in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada region, Maoists have rural governance programmes that include the building of check dams, screening of videotaped educational programmes from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), some anchored by science expert Prof Yashpal; health facilities and medicine distribution, and even instructions in pre-and post-natal care for village women.

In West Bengal’s Maoist “state”, the government's contribution is a single metalled road that runs from towards Jharkhand. “The villagers who stay away from this road don’t have any alternative to trudging mile through the forest," said Chhatradhar Mahato, spokesmen for an Maoist front-organisation called Peoples’ Committee Against Police Atrocities.

Sitting at a village called Barapelia, the unofficial headquarters for the Maoists, Mahato said: "We have started building gravel paths to connect the villages to this road fast.”

Mahato isn’t exaggerating. Maoists and villagers have built many roads, 0.5-km to 3-km-long, linking to the main thoroughfare. The ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, does not like to acknowledge the loss of influence.

“Where have you seen the Maoists?” asked Dipak Sarkar, district secretary of the CPM. “Maoists are a non issue in this area." There are no CPM workers in the “liberated zone”, and requests for help pour in from many villages, mainly for pathways and tubewells, and Naxal leaders prioritise them based on need and urgency.

Today’s priority is to answer a desperate call for drinking water from the villager of Borapelia. We will build a tank, said the Maoist planner, at least 55-60 feet deep. “Otherwise, the miserly earth won’t throw up water,” said Mahato. “But we are planning it to serve like a master reservoir of drinking water for this region.”

Apart from this tank, many tubewells are being revived. You can now see gushing tubewells in the villages of Amdanga, Khairashole, Bahadanga, Pairabila and Shyamcharandanga.

The Maoists have taken over a health center at the village of Katapahari. It is run by doctors marshaled by them. Medicines have been arranged.

All this development needs money, and this is where it gets murky. The Maoists insist the money comes largely from the villagers, who happen to be overwhelmingly poor.

But village sources, requesting anonymity for fear of being killed, said the Naxals use their own money as well.
One of the sources of their money, of course, is extorting government contractors working on the borders of their “state”.

No Maoist zone is complete without kangaroo courts and this region is no exception. Complaints are frequent and leaders like Mahato and another called Lalmohan Tudu dispense speedy justice.

The administration has been literally locked up in the police stations.

At the outpost of Pirakata, a policeman said that he is not supposed to look behind his back. So, he sits with his back to the door of the outpost and is only permitted — by the Naxals — to look ahead. The area behind his back is the “liberated zone.”

Policeman of the Lalgarh thana (police station) have been allowed, after about four months, to get water from a shop in front of the thana.

“If the situation has spun out of control today, it began with police atrocities,” said a local officer candidly. “We have detained and tortured at will.”

The Maoist liberated zone is now spreading due to police inaction, said other police officers, all requesting anonymity. The strategy of the administration is to contain the spread.

“We will proceed according to the law of the nation,” said Manoj Verma, superintendent of police, West Midnapore. He offered no details.

The problem is the laws of the nation don’t work. Even polling booths were forced out in West Midnapore’s liberated zone. To defend their haven, the Naxals have trained and deployed a substantial army.

How long can they defend the area from the might of the state?

“I know an action (sic) is perhaps impending,” said Koteswar Rao, or Kishnaji, the second in command of the Indian Maoists, in an exclusive interview to the Hindustan Times. “But let them try once. It will be the last time they will eye this territory.”

First Published: Jun 10, 2009 02:46 IST