Monday, March 30, 2009

Left faces acid test in red terror zone

30 Mar 2009, 0336 hrs IST, TNN

Cross the Jharkhand-Bengal border at Katin and enter Purulia's Bandwan around 400 km from Kolkata and some 65 km from Purulia town and there's an
oddity that strikes you immediately. There is nothing to show that barely a month from now voters are supposed to be queuing up in the largest democratic exercise in the world.

Walls in Bandwan under Jhargram Lok Sabha seat are free of poll graffiti, except for a small patch near the police station. Forty kilometres away, in the interiors of Belpahari, the scene is the same. The reason? Since 2003, Belpahari and Bandwan have seen numerous attacks by Maoist guerrillas, who killed 57 CPM leaders and supporters and made a dent in the CPM votebank.

Lok Sabha elections 2009 is going to be an acid test for CPM which is fast losing ground in the 15,000-sq km Jangalkhand. For CPM, it is a deja vu. In the early '70s, party leaders were forced to hold small group meetings in villages in the light of a single lantern. In 2009, the dim-light huddles are back, thanks to Maoist fear.

Pulin Behari Baskey, CPM candidate for Jhargram, admits that campaigning is yet to start in the interiors of Belpahari and Bandwan. "How can we go there when the police cannot? The situation is not normal. The poll process has not taken off there. If police can make a move by next week, we expect to get a month for campaigning," he said.

Campaigning is tough in Jangalkhand. At least 30 CPM leaders have been provided with police bodyguards in Binpur I & II blocks, Bandwan, Balarampur, Barabazar and many other parts of the Maoist belt. Uddhav Mahato, CPM's Silda local committee secretary, couldn't wait for police security and has hired private guards. Prashanta Das, local committee secretary of Jhargram's Aguiboni and an employee of Jhargram Municipality, has stopped going to office. "I have asked police for security. They are yet to accept my appeal. I feel threatened every moment," Das said.

Police patrols are ambushed, CPM leaders hacked to death, traders terrorized Maoists have struck fear in everyone's heart. They even blew up a medical van in October 22, 2008, killing a doctor, a nurse and their driver, and ambushed the chief minister's convoy 10 days later.

For years, Jangalkhand has been a CPM stronghold, yet the 2008 panchayat polls showed an erosion in its support base. In Bandwan, Left partner Forward Bloc, too, sided with the Opposition. CPM holds only three of the eight panchayat samiti seats. In Binpur-I of which Lalgarh is a part Jharkhand party (Aditya) is at the helm. In Binpur-II, CPM could win only three panchayats and retained the majority in the panchayat samiti with the margin of only one seat.

The Maoist-backed People's Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA), too, is getting ready to take on security forces and the CPM. "If they come with police or security guards, we won't allow them to campaign," said PCPA leader Chhatradhar Mahato. CPM leaders, too, know it well that they cannot enter Maoist areas without security. "Many party workers have been hounded out. In some places, they cannot step out of homes after sundown. Thankfully, we still have an organisational back-up in every village," said Amiya Sengupta, CPM's Belpahari zonal committee secretary.

In Balarampur, Barabazar and Ayodhya Hill (Purulia Lok Sabha seat), the situation is better. Despite the attacks, CPM and FB workers have been able to paint graffiti. The standing instruction to party leaders and workers is to keep changing vehicles and never to stay in the same house for consecutive nights. But in Balarampur, CPM faces problems. Similar is the situation in Ghatbera-Kerua panchayat, a CPM-controlled one. The office was closed for three days by the Opposition. Panchayat chief Latika Hembram wouldn't admit she has ever been threatened but says some workers are under threat.

Congress candidate Shantiram Mahato denies Maoists are backing the Opposition against CPM. "People here want change and this is the best opportunity," Mahato said.

Unlike in Jhargram, leaders in Purulia are confident of taking on the Maoists' increasing strength. "They will not make any difference to us. Purulia is turning around. There has been development on many fronts. Industries are coming up. Agriculture has improved with rainwater harvesting," said Narahari Mahato, sitting Forward Bloc MP re-contesting from Purulia.

CPM state committee member Manindra Gope, who is also under threat, refuses to give much credence to the Maoists' impact on polls. "Where are their leaders? We have never seen them address any meetings. Supporters of Opposition parties and criminals have got together against us. We have asked our party workers to visit every household. This has been our stronghold and will remain so," Gope said. Gope's optimism could be misplaced since the ground reality here is different. If PCPA is successful in preventing the division of Opposition votes in Jhargram, CPM's poll prospects might be adversely affected.

CPM leaders are now waiting for a vote boycott call from the Maoists which may work in their favour.

CPI (Maoist) spokesman Gaur Chakraborty, meanwhile, said his party is still sticking to its vote boycott call. "It's always there. We have never withdrawn it."

It doesn't matter to the Maoists in whose favour the call works, he said. "It's always the same old bottle, only the cap changes. None of these ruling parties does anything for the common people. And there is another thing I would like you to highlight. There central government this time has taken away the people's right of not casting a vote. It's a conspiracy," he added.

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