West Bengal : Circle completed, Mamata’s volte-face on the issue of political prisoners

February 14, 2012

by Ranjit Sur

The circle has been completed. On 6th February, the Mamata Banerjee government fought tooth and nail in Kolkata High Court over the the bail application of five Maoist political prisoners. All these five had already been declared as “political prisoners” by the lower courts and the government had not appealed against it in any higher court. One of the advocates who appeared for the State Government in the High Court is a member of the state-level Review Committee for Release of Political Prisoners created by the government. It is also known that the same Review Committee has already submitted its recommendation to the government for granting bail to this five political Prisoners. Yet the government preferred to oppose their bail, that too through an advocate who is supposedly entrusted with the task of releasing political prisoners. The message is clear and final. The Mamata government is not going to release any political prisoners of the Maoist variety, even if they are given the status of political prisoners by the court. What was earlier an apprehension, has now become a reality. Relying on the government’s observations, the High Court rejected the bail application of the five. The Mamata Government is now opposing the recommendations of its own committee ! A ‘Paribartan’ indeed ! And the interesting point of the story is that none of the Review Committee members have dared to oppose it; even they did not criticise the move by the government or the advocate’s dual role.

The Mamata Banerjee Government assumed power in West Bengal in the month of May 2011. That means almost nine months have passed and rights workers all over India want to know the situation of political prisoners in West Bengal. How many of them are still behind bars? Is there any one still left there ? Everyone knows about Mamata Banerjee’s pre-election pledge that political prisoners would be released if she is voted to power. So it is expected that after nine months at least a substantial part of the prisoners, if not all, would be released. So their query to know about the number of prisoners still left to be released is quite natural. This is particularly because of the inclusion of a famous human rights activist in the Government Review Committee for Release of Political Prisoners, who had himself once boasted in a public meeting that by realizing the release of all political prisoners, he would prove that his joining in the Review Committee was a correct step.

So, let us see what is the situation at the moment. The fact is that not a single, I repeat, not a single Maoist prisoner or prisoner arrested for ‘Maoist-link’ or prisoner arrested for participating in Lalgarh movement has been released so far. No, this is a bit erroneous statement; in fact, two ‘Maoist’ prisoners – Ranjit Murmu and Tarun Saha – are freed forever from this material world. Both of them died in jail custody during the Mamata regime due to maltreatment or no treatment of their illness while in jail. Except these two, 25 other political prisoners from North Bengal are out of jail by getting bail. Out of these 25, 7 are activists of Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and 18 are activists of Greater Kuchbehar Movement. These 25 prisoners figured in the first list submitted by the Review Committee in the month of July 2011. It may be appropriate to mention here that the Review Committee in its first list had actually submitted 78 names for release (i.e. to give bail). Some names of Maoist prisoners were included there. But the State Government refused to accept the recommendation and only agreed to release (i.e. give bail) 50 KLO and Greater Kuchbehar activists; 25 of them are out in bail. Remaining 25 are still languishing in jail, despite the Chief Minister’s public announcement of releasing them before 15th August 2011. Then the Review Committee members announced to the Press that they have submitted a second list of about one hundred prisoners for release (i.e for giving bail). But the government of West Bengal is still sitting on the list and not taking any steps, i.e. neither accepting nor rejecting the list. And, now finally, the action of providing a stiff opposition to the granting of bail by fielding a Review Committee member as a government Advocate in the High Court proceedings has given the final blow and sounded a death knell to the Review Committee for the release of political prisoners.

But this is only one side of the coin – dark and full of hopelessness. Yet, you can call it a tip of the ice-berg. The other side is darker and horrifying too. The new government after assuming power in May 2011 has arrested ‘at least 300 people’ (Tehelka, 10 December issue) branding them as ‘Maoist’ or ‘Maoist linkman’ or for maintaining ’Maoist connections’. This figure is only up to 10th December. This number has substantially increased till today. Not a single day passes without an arrest for ’Maoist-link, either in Junglemahal or Nadia-Murshidabad or in Birbhum districts of West Bengal.

So, finally, the political scenario now in West Bengal is that those political activists, who were in jail for their political activities during Left Front regime, remain in jail without any hope of release in near future. An additional three hundred or more political activists have joined them in jails during the TMC-Congress regime, that too within only nine months of rule. Instead of releasing the political prisoners as promised before the Assembly Election, Mamata Banerjee is filling the Bengal jails with huge number of new political prisoners after becoming the Chief Minister of West Bengal. A volte-face of huge magnitude which the people of Bengal will definitely keep in mind for future.

[The author is a Secretariat member of Association for protection of Democratic Rights(APDR). But the opinions expressed here are personal, and not that of the organization.]