Lalgarh in 2002: A Saga of Police Brutality Years Before the Conflagaration

May 4, 2010

The adivasis of Lalgarh of West Midnapore district rose up against police brutalities in November, 2008, in a historic uprising that has been continuing for more than a year now. The police atrocities, indiscriminate raids and brutal beatings, resulting in serious injuries to many people, mainly women, took place in the wake of the landmine blast near the West Bengal chief minister’s convoy, as he was returning from inaugurating a SEZ in the Salboni area. There is a perception that the police atrocities were a result of the landmine blast, and many have even accused the Maoists, who triggered the landmine blast, of deliberately drawing the ire of the police on the adivasis. However, police atrocities have been the reality in the lives of the adivasis in this region for the past decade and more.

As the following series of reports, titled “Inside Midnapore”, by the veteran journalist and Sanhati member Nilanjan Duta, which appeared in the Times of India, Kolkata, in 2002, show, the poor adivasis of jangalmahal have borne the brunt of similar atrocities for a long time. They have been subjected to beatings, torture, molestation of women and false cases, all of which give us a sense of déjà vu today in 2010. And there was no landmine blast which caused these atrocities; it was their demand of simple development measure such as health centres, schools and roads and the basic means for survival, such as proper prices for forest produce such as the tendu leaves and babui grass, and an end to harassment in the hands of forest officials, timber mafia etc. that drew the ire of the state on them. Today, the home minister P Chidambaram and the West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee say that operation Green Hunt, and the operations of the combined forces in Lalgarh, is to pave the way for “development” of the adivasis. We run this series of reports again to remind the readers what the adivasis have got from the state when they have demanded the same development in the past.

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INSIDE MIDNAPORE

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Where people are fighting their own war

By Nilanjan Dutta

TOI, Kolkata, 8.10.2002

Banshpahari (West Midnapore): While chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was thundering at a rally in East Midnapore on Sunday about “development” work being hampered by “extremist” organizations such as People’s War, in these remote corners of West Midnapore, villagers were preparing to a movement on no other issue than development.

If there was any Naxalite activity there at all, they vouched, it was precisely because there was no development. And what if the People’s War was not to be traced in the area at the moment, the people realized that they had to fight their own war.

So, on Tuesday, they would be marching to the block development office at Belpahari to press for their modest but long unfulfilled demands for development– a health centre, water for irrigation and electricity.

This time, the banner that would lead them would be that of Shara Bharat Krishak Sabha, the peasant organization of the CPM.

Politics, for the impoverished, tribal-dominated population of the rough terrain at the tri-junction of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia, has been rather complex. They are willing to rally behind CPM’s mass organization, vote for Jharkand Party sometimes, or on other occasions, boycott elections at the call of the Naxalite People’s War and the Maoist Communist Centre. It is evident from the numerous tiny handwritten posters plastered on the hut walls, that the hand that calls for fighting the state also spreads the message of the ruling party’s peasant front. It is people’s strategy for their own war, their struggle for existence.

As one enters Banshpahari, a series of sleepy hamlets about 30 kilometers from Belpahari, it is the same old story. From Chakadoba to Pachapani, agriculture has never been good here, and this year it has been particularly bad.

The rains came late and when they came did more harm then good.

There is no irrigation—no canal can be found within 56 kilometres. There is no electricity to run the pump sets, and the few that are there cannot be operated because kerosene is too dear, selling at more than the official price, which the people cannot afford.

Only one crop can be grown. The yield is not than four to five mounds per bigha, and the average land holding is about four bighas. A large majority, however, are landless labourers, who go to work in other districts for a living.

Those who are left, cut the babui grass in local fields and weave ropes and baskets.

However, movements organized by Naxalites have succeeded in pushing the wages from about Rs. 10 to about Rs. 30.

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INSIDE MIDNAPORE

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Paying the Price of seeking development

By Nilanjan Dutta

TOI, Kolkata, 9.10.2002

Banshpahari : Autumn is in the air and kashphul bobbing in the breeze make the setting perfect for a peaceful retreat during the Pujas. It is a path to Jangal Mahal, a gateway for off-the-beaten-track tourists in this season.

This year, few would dare to venture there though. The undulated roads winding ahead from the state highway beyond Belpahari lead to village after village where the prevailing mood is that of resentment and fear. An outsider, particularly those coming by cars, is looked upon with suspicion. Natural, after months of police action.

“We are neing punished for demanding development”, observers an old man. “If one had to do Janajuddha (people’s war) for a health centre, one might as well do it,” he remarks.

Health care is a hot issue. The malaria-infested area does not see any health workers coming. Pregnancies are taken care of by local mid-wives. If an emergency arises, one has to be carried to the nearest health centres, either at Belpahari (30 km), or Ranibandh (25 km), or Bandwan(25 km). The last two, though nearer, are not in Midnapore, they are in Bankura and Purulia respectively. “Whenever we go there, we are treated as dirt. ‘Don’t you have any medical facilities in your own district?’ taunt the doctors”.

Even going to the distant health centres has become difficult after the raids started. When Badal Sarkar,30, of Hatchalipara fell seriously ill, he could not taken to the hospital. All cars refused to go fearing police action. The patient died.

A surprising feature is the thurst for education. Most of the families, however poor, send their girls and boys to school. There is a primary one nearby, with only two teachers for more than 300 pupils, and a high school at Banshpahari.

The Naxalites have raised their issues, and the people responded. The agitations took various forms, ranging from deputation to road blockades,. In the last Assembly elections, only 76 among the 12,00-odd voters at Pachapani voted.

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INSIDE MIDNAPORE

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Police raids leave gaping wounds

By Nilanjan Dutta

TOI, Kolkata, 10.10.2002

Banshpahari: Boycotting the elections was cardinal sin for poor tribals. The powers that be, blissfully unaware of these people until then, suddenly realized that they should be taught a lesson. Scores of police vehicle began to roll down to the hamlets since late last year. Heavily armed men in combat gear descended. They broke into houses, dragged men, women and children out, beat up many and took away some. At the police station, they learnt that they were “People’s War guerrillas”. And that they were involved in the murders of a couple of CPM leaders in adjoining Bankura district.

The memories are fresh in everyone’s mind, and the wounds too tender to heel. They will tell you the sordid stories, once you have their trust. A few have just returned home after spending two to six months in jail. Their families had to sell everything to arrange for the bail bond. Yet others were too poor to organize the money. Many have been tagged with cases in faraway places they had not even heard of earlier. Like those in a batch of 22, linked with a case in Siliguri. Although the Siliguri court granted them bail, most of them have not been able to get out as they could not provide the bond amount. There are even five to seven cases on many villagers.

Ask them about the treatment in custody. They will show you the marks. These were the tell-tale signs left by the “frequent, surprise raids” being conducted to “nip the PW-MCC in the bud”, as the chief minister had mentioned in his police budget speech.

The raids have indeed surprised the people. “Why are we being punished so much for demanding so little?” they ask. These people are minimalist by nature and do not seem to make an issue out of a little bit. If you ask Kartik Ruidas of Chakodoba whether he was tortured, he would replied stoically, “No, they just gave me electric shocks”. That was twice a day for 3 days in his ears.

“I will never forget the chotobabu (junior officer),”says a severely tortured Behula Kalindi. “After beating me, he gave me his own tiffin—a packet of muri and telebhaja—to ear.” He beat though, didn’t he? “Yes, he said ‘after all, it is my duty to punish you.’ He was a good man,” she remarks. Did the officer really believe it was part of his duty to beat up a woman in custody?

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INSIDE MIDNAPORE

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A war against women

By Nilanjan Dutta

TOI, Kolkata, 11.10.2002

Banshpahari: If the Naxalites are waging war against the state, the police are waging war against the women in the remote tribal villages of West Midnapore.

At “15” or “16”, Sulochona Kalindi has gone through hell. Married a year ago, her husband has deserted her, because she is “spoiled” and unable to work. She had come to visit her parents at Pachapani and was asleep at her aunt’s hut when there was a night raid. “Who’s sleeping there?” they asked. “Its my niece,” her aunt said. “Its a boy”, challenged an officer. “She’s my niece and she can’t be a boy.” Sulochana’s sindoor and red and white bangles were clearly visible in the searchlights. The officers had other things in mind. “Let’s see if it’s a man or a woman.” Sulochana was made to strip and pass a bizzare sex determination test.

The frail girl spoke with difficulty, lying on a cot at her father’s hut, to a fact-finding team of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights and TNN. Meanwhile she has broken a leg and had an operation. A Congress leader had taken her to the human rights commission in Kolkata where she was hit by a car. “Our family income has reduced to half in this hour of crisis. We can’t go out to work together. One of us has to be home to nurse her,” said her parents, both landless laborers. A Congress worker from Belpahari helps though.

Police frequented Krishna Kalindi’s house looking for her husband Manoj. She was assaulted 10-12 times with lathis and butts of guns, she says, and worse, they tore her scarce clothes.

Bimala Mura of Chakodaba was taken from home with husband Uttam to Ranibandh police station in Bankura. They were humiliated in front of each other. Recently bailed out after two months, she remembers other tortured women in jail. Particularly Allahadi Murmu, who was battered by women police.

Kakali Kalindi, 15, of Hatchalipara, escaped physical assault, maybe because she was handicapped. However she complained that police took away her papers and Rs. 720 she had just received as dole.

Behula Kalindi of the same village has gone through long spells of beating in custody. Unable to bear it, she pleaded with the “top officer” in Bankura, “Sir, I have to look after my children, I am a poor housewife.” She made a grave mistake.

“You are housewife?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You are a whore. She did not know what to say.

“I’ll prove to you that you are a whore”. She remained silent.

“Strip.”She looked at the armed hostile men.

“I said strip.” She complied slowly and remained motionless.

“Look, how can a housewife do this?”

All these women are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But who cares?

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INSIDE MIDNAPORE

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Priest, police and Puja in PW land

By Nilanjan Dutta

TOI, Kolkata, 14.10.2002

Belpahari & Kakrajhor: Ever seen the priest at a community Puja pandal taking berak from the ritual to discuss court cases with people? What has this middle-aged man, sporting the scared thread over his chest got to do with things like “bail bonds”?

But this Belpahari in West Midnapore, the terra firma of the People’s War and MCC.

Subrata Bhattacharya is a priest by profession, Congressman by politics and human rights activist by passion. Against all local odds and without any outside help, a few unusual people like him have formed a Bandimukti Sahayata Committee to aid the arrested villagers, who have been not as lucky as “Kaushikbabu” to have gotten bail and be home before the Pujas. Like the 85-year-old Palaram Mahato who has been slapped with nine cases.

If one moves around, one cannot miss the pale faces like that of Malati, the young wife of Bijoy Singh of Majugora. They had taken her husband away and burnt their hut.

The local villagers raised contrinutions, not for organising a community Puja, but for rebuilding Malat’s hut. It now has a shining new thatch, a symbol of people’s coperation and compassion. Police are still visting the villages.

People allege that they are being told to get involved in either the CPM or the Jharkhand Party, otherwise it will be construed that they were still with PW and MCC. There are also little games going on. Once MCC leader, Ujjwal Sardar, has allegedly been set free as he has joined the CPM a few days ago, while another, Jagannath Sardar, is still wanted.

About 25 km away in Kankrajhor, which would be throbbing with tourists in this festive time, is deserted. The tourist lodge caretaker sits idle on a bullock cart. Cart operators at Jhargram cannot get passengers even at half the seasonal fare. “Some time ago a large tourist party came in five cars. I was driving one. A tree trunk blocked the jungle road and we stopped. Three girls with pistols appeared from nowhere and questioned everyone. They let us go only after being satisfied that it was a tourist group.”

“They don’t harm the common people,” said villagers.

“Some kendu leat contractors, however, were beaten up. Perhaps they deserved it, as they used to deceive and torment us themselves,” they added.

Women like the three who have questioned the driver used to bear the brunt of the “deception and torment”.

Now they are paying dearly. People of Banshpahari would tell you that one of their village girls, Khari Sardar alias Mina, has become mentally deranged due to torture. She is now in jail.

Such incidents annoy people like Subrata. “If we don’t do something, it can happen even if my party comes to power,” he comments.

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