Jan 15: The Retreat of a Regime

January 15, 2011



The CPM has spared nothing in its desperate bid to cling on to power after a 34-year reign in West Bengal. Netai village in volatile Lalgarh is the latest flashpoint of the deadly civil war simmering in the state. TUSHA MITTAL chronicles how political parties are shedding blood ahead of Assembly polls


EVERYWHERE THERE are flags dug in, and flags ripped out. The battle for West Bengal has entered its final, and perhaps most barbaric phase. There is no accurate count of how many have died so far. Some killings have been targeted. Some have been collateral damage. Some of the dead aligned with the Trinamool Congress, some with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), some with the Indian National Congress. For some, their political affiliations were unclear at the time of death. Some supported a political party only to save themselves. Some could not save themselves because they supported a political party.

To understand the pattern of death, zoom into one subdivision. In the 2009 General Election, the TMC won all the parliamentary seats in Hooghly, except Arambagh subdivision. Anil Basu was the lone CPM MP to retain his seat. But the margin of victory had plummeted from nearly 6 lakh votes in 2004 to about 50,000 in 2009. The TMC had wrested Hooghly.

Arambagh, the CPM’s last hold in Hooghly, saw its first murder immediately after the 2009 verdict. Yudhishtir Doloi, a TMC worker, was cut up into pieces (see case studies). Ten more have died since.

Anant Duloi was tilling his fields when he suddenly collapsed, dead. Uttam Doloi was driving his bullock cart when he saw some disturbance and stopped. His family believes the police fired the bullet that killed him. Rabin Addok was coming back from the local wine shop when masked men strangled him to death. When a mob couldn’t find Dasrat Das’s son, they murdered him instead.

Arambagh is symptomatic of the civil war-like situation across West Bengal. In the past month, TEHELKA has travelled to five districts mapping the ground realities. While there are smatterings of conflict in almost all 18 districts, the most volatile zones are those where TMC has made substantial dents in the past two years — East Midnapore, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Hooghly and pockets of Burdwan, an otherwise red bastion. These are places where the TMC can now look the CPM in the eye, and where the CPM is vying to recapture, or to retain. (And then there is West Midnapore, where the electoral battle is complicated by the presence of both Maoists and security forces. The TMC accuses the CPM of using the CRPF; the CPM accuses the TMC of siding with the Maoists.)

THE FIRST signs of this near civil war came in East Midnapore, when 14 villagers died in police firing in 2007. What began as a conflict over land spiralled into an ugly political war. Men on motorcades trooped in waving flags, brandishing arms, pitting neighbouring villages against each other. While the TMC shoved the CPM out of Nandigram, the red brigade swarmed into nearby Khejuri. Three years later, the war in Khejuri continues.

But the Nandigram-Khejuri flashpoint was not only about visible violence. It also brought to the fore another kind of insidious violence that has now reached a peak. Post-Nandigram, several artists found themselves in a dilemma. In the past 34 years, through its trade unions, mass organisations and cultural guilds, the CPM has made inroads into almost every aspect of civil and daily life — education, local football, art galleries, the municipality. For a large section of the middle class, CPM patronage has been essential to survival. Suddenly, theatre directors who spoke out against the CPM after Nandigram found their shows being cancelled. Those who continued to speak out found they had to align with the TMC.

In this manner has Bengal’s political war shrunk the space for the neutral citizen. The fight of local residents over a water body, the Tata factory in Singur, university education, the civil rights movement — suddenly everything in West Bengal is coloured red or green. Writers, economists, athletes, musicians, bureaucrats, and even policemen — suddenly everybody has to choose. And then, the colour must be conformed to.

In many ways, West Bengal has been flung into the space between shifting regimes, one intoxicated on power and the other still unsure of the kind of power it wants to be. What is happening in Bengal is a kind of upheaval that comes with tectonic change, with the uprooting of 34 years of entrenched, nearly unopposed rule. It is a blurring of the collective and individual, a state of war where it is becoming impossible to distinguish between the political and the private.

Perhaps that is why the bodies of Amrito and Tapas Saha are being paraded in TMC rallies across Kolkata. It is not clear whether the brothers were TMC members in life, but they have certainly been declared ardent supporters in death. TEHELKA visited their village Ketugram the day after their murder. Green flags outside their home had been positioned the same morning to prepare for the visit of TMC stalwarts. The Saha family echoed the TMC line that the brothers had been murdered by their neighbour Kailash, a CPM supporter, because of their political affiliation. The Congress claimed the brothers as their supporters. Meena Parveen, a village resident, told TEHELKA that she heard Kailash threaten the brothers over a personal land dispute, a day before the murder.

On the morning of 7 January in Lalgarh’s Netai village, eight unarmed villagers were shot dead by men firing from the rooftop of a two-storey building. The building is the home of CPM zonal leader Ratin Dandapat who fled the village six months ago. Last month, locals say, it was turned into a CPM camp housing 30 armed cadres, known as the Harmad Vahini.

For the past month, life has changed in Netai village. “The Harmad threaten us to attend CPM rallies at gunpoint, force us to cook food, and make us do night patrols to guard the camp from the Maoists,” say the locals. “A list with villagers’ names and assigned duties is maintained.”

BUT A week ago, the cadres announced a new demand — every house must send its men for arms training. “We will not always be here to save you. You have to defend yourselves from the Maoists. We are preparing you to protect your village,” the cadres declared. On 6 January, the villagers were told to gather at a football field at 3 pm. Of the 500 who assembled, 62 were picked based on their physical fitness.

“They told us to sit down and hop on the ground with lathis in our hands,” says Subroto Pal, one of the chosen men. “I had just eaten lunch and couldn’t do it. Then they beat us with the lathis. ‘If you don’t do this, we’ll shoot all of you and load you into a 10-wheel truck’,” they told us.

On the morning of 7 January, two men with rifles arrived outside Ranjit Patro’s hut. His son Aroop Patro had not attended the mandatory training session the previous day. “If you don’t send your sons for arms training at 3 pm today, we will set all the houses on fire,” they warned. That morning, all the villagers decided to unite in protest. More than 1,000 gathered outside the CPM camp.

Local leader Abani Singh emerged and asked five people to come in for a dialogue. Village elder Krishnagopal Rai was one of them. “We said we are ordinary villagers who don’t want to pick up arms. We want to live in peace,” says Rai. Singh signalled to other cadres on the rooftop and told Rai he’d discuss the matter with his leaders.

Suddenly he saw another band of CPM men marching towards the village, firing in the air. “They were reinforcements from nearby Harmad camps,” he says. “The firing from rooftop began as soon as they arrived.” Rai’s testimony counters the police claim that it could have been retaliatory fire from the Maoists. It shows that firing from both directions came from the CPM.

“Suddenly the woman next to me died on the spot,” says Kolami Pal. “We all ran.” Phulkumari Maiti went to save her 12-year-old son Krishna. She was holding his hand when she caught two bullets and died. Dhiren Sen tried to flee as bullets rained down. His sister-in-law Latika Sen pushed him into the house. “He was dragged out of the house and shot,” she says.

When TEHELKA reached Netai about 20 hours after the killings, bloodstains and bullet holes were still visible. There were a few pieces of flesh, a lock of hair stuck to a wall on which Saraswati Ghorai’s head had burst open, and something that villagers pointed to as a piece of brain. Nothing had been sealed or cordoned off. A few hours later, when TMC chief Mamata Banerjee arrived to address Netai, villagers thronged around her, unwittingly trampled on evidence and sat on the drying blood of their own people.

In her speech, Mamata evoked comparisons to Nandigram — where 14 villagers had been killed in police firing in May 2007. “This was also part of a calculated strategy. That is why despite your repeated calls, the police never came,” she said. “We are the shanti vahani (peacekeeping forces). We are taking care of the injured. We are preparing for the cremation of the dead,” she said. The villagers expressed fear of another attack. “If they do rallies, you do counter rallies. If you allow yourselves to get scared, the Harmad would have won. The sacrifices of your people will be in vain. You must stay united,” she said. “We are with you.”

Netai is only the latest flashpoint. It is the tipping over of the desperation of a regime at the tail end of power, of an establishment that has lost control and turned into its own worst enemy.

Most significantly, the Netai killings are proof that the CPM has armed its cadres, that Harmad camps do exist, and that a Salwa Judum-style force is being readied in West Bengal. The Judum, which the government claims was a spontaneous, peaceful upsurge against the Maoists, is widely acknowledged as a State-sponsored militia responsible for the forced displacement of 60,000 people and the burning of 644 villages in Chhattisgarh.

In August 2010, TEHELKA first reported on the build-up of Harmad camps in West Midnapore. IB documents exclusively accessed by TEHELKA showed a list of CPM camps — schools, party offices, and panchayats stacked with AK-47’s and grenades.

“The public is fed up with the Maoists. They are with us. We have decided that this has to be fought two ways — ideologically and by mass mobilisation,” a CPM source had then told TEHELKA. “If we go to the people and campaign against the Maoists, the people will raise their voice. We are mobilising people through daily rallies across villages.” But this “mobilisation” was, and still is, happening at gunpoint. TEHELKA revealed how the CPM was recapturing villages, forcing hundreds to declare loyalty to them. “Surrender or face the consequences,” they had been told. It was the first sign that a Salwa Judum model may be replicated in West Midnapore, creating hostages and refugees, taking West Bengal towards a possible civil war.

After TEHELKA broke the story, Mamata raised the issue with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister P Chidambaram. The latter then first questioned West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya on CPM’s armed camps. The CPM denied all such allegations.

By September, it became clear the CPM camps had expanded across the state. TEHELKA reported on 25 political murders in one week and the imminent recapture of Lalgarh by the CPM. Days later, the CPM returned to Lalgarh, and it seemed like many more recaptures were close at hand.

It is now January 2011. There are many more ghost-villages, refugees living in poultry farms, and mothers singing elegies for dead sons. Huddled around a lantern in Burdwan district, the family of a dead man whispers: “We cannot escape from Rajneeti.” (See case studies: Dilip Ghosh.) It is as if the civil war has arrived.

“Yes, there are conflict areas,” admits CPM Central and State Committee member Mohammed Salim. “But the frequency has reduced. More murders happened after the 2008 panchayat polls and the 2009 General Election.”

He places the blame squarely on the TMC. “People must say ‘If you kill, I will not support you’. That is what we have been campaigning for in the past three years but for that we need a democratic environment of dialogue and debate. But the TMC has created an environment where they do not talk to us and do not even share public space. This attitude creates an environment of intolerance and violence.”

ACCORDING TO calculations made by D Bandyopadhyay, former West Bengal Land Reforms Commissioner and former Secretary to the GOI, there have been 55,408 political killings in West Bengal between 1977 and 2010.

According to Sujato Bhadro of the Association for the Protection of Civil Rights, at least 10,000 opposition members have been killed by CPM while it has lost about 2,500 of its own cadres. Civil rights group Bandhi Mukti Morcha (Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners) says there are at least 2,500 political prisoners in West Bengal at present.

Abraham Lincoln described the American Civil War as a situation in which “murders for old grudges and murders for pelf proceed under any cloak that will best cover for the occasion.” Anthropologist Stanley Aschenbrenner describes the Greek Civil War, in a Greek village, as “a sequence of action and reaction that politicisation of private life ultimately leads to the privatisation of politics.” Both could be describing the reality of West Bengal.

“Until a year ago, we did not know what theft is,” says Deepak Rai of Pappatpur village near Lalgarh. “Now, every night there is a theft in our village. Men with masks and rifles barge into huts, break open almirahs, and take whatever they want.” A student of hotel management, Rai returned to his village after he couldn’t find a job.

“I never wanted to be in politics. But here, even to file an FIR you have to name a CPM leader. Somehow, fighting the CPM, I found myself in politics. God won’t be able to save us. So I joined TMC,” says Rai.

Red or green, it as if you have to have a flag outside.

(With inputs from Partha Dasgupta)