Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lalgarh battle

SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY


In a massive operation, the Central security forces and the West Bengal Police bring to an end the Maoist terror in Lalgarh.





A. ROY CHOWDHURY

A State police team backed by a CRPF battalion chasing supporters of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities on the road between Pirakata and Lalgarh on June 18.

AFTER a reign of terror that lasted close to eight months in and around Lalgarh in West Bengal’s West Medinipur district, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and the Maoist-backed People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA) are cornered and on the run, with the combined force of Central security forces and the State police launching a massive operation to cleanse the region of Maoist militancy.

Lalgarh has been on the boil since late last year after a failed assassination attempt on Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee on November 2, 2008, at Kalaichand in West Medinipur near the forested Lalgarh area. In protest against a number of arrests that took place in the course of police investigation in the region, tribal people of the area, at the instigation of Maoists, began a violent agitation, refusing to let the police enter the area or the administration to function. It was a clear sign that the Maoists were attempting to establish a “Muktanchal” (liberated zone) as they had successfully done for nearly a year in Nandigram in the neighbouring East Medinipur district.

The Left Front government in the State, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had to tread a thin line to avoid a repetition of Nandigram where 14 people died in police firing and subsequent violence on March 14, 2007. What began as an agitation over rumours of land acquisition for a proposed chemical hub in Nandigram turned into a bloody turf war between the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress-led Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh (Land Eviction Resistance) Committee – a grouping of Maoists, Trinamool supporters, the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), and others. As in Nandigram, the agitators in Lalgarh refused to enter into a dialogue with the State government. With the police out of the way, the PCPA and the Maoists began a programme of killing CPI(M) leaders and supporters and systematically destroying CPI(M) offices and police stations in an attempt to establish a parallel administration in the region.

However, unlike in Nandigram, where the conflict was essentially political, the situation in Lalgarh is far more serious. The Maoists succeeded in making the unrest in Lalgarh resemble a social uprising. Moreover, with the Aditya faction of the Jharkhand Party, which supports the Lalgarh movement on the basis of the demand that the tribal belts of Bankura, Purulia and West Medinipur districts be merged with Jharkhand, the agitation acquired a separatist dimension.

ANTI-CPI(M) VIOLENCE

The latest wave of violence in Lalgarh, which prompted the deployment of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (Cobra) and the State police, began on June 11 this year when CPI(M) supporters clashed with members of the PCPA. That very evening, CPI(M) member Salku Soren, 50, was abducted, allegedly by Maoists, from his house in Kankrachhara village in Lalgarh block, taken into the forest, and killed.

More violence followed, with the Maoists widening their area of influence and undertaking a programme of killing CPI(M) leaders and members. On June 14, the Maoists took control of Dharampur. In the ensuing violence, three CPI(M) members and a PCPA supporter were killed. With the administration forced to pull out the police stationed in Dharampur and neighbouring Belatikri, Koima and Ramgarh, the people of Lalgarh, led by the Maoists, went on the rampage, burning down police stations and CPI(M) party offices and demolishing the house of CPI(M) zonal secretary Anuj Pandey. Supervising the whole operation, with an AK-47 defiantly slung over a shoulder, was CPI (Maoist) leader Bikash, who was supposed to be the commander of the Maoists’ militant operations in Lalgarh. “We are now extending the ‘liberated zone’ we have carved out in the region,” he said to presspersons gathered there. Seizing control of Dharampur was a victory of sorts for the Maoists because this CPI(M) stronghold had once put up the strongest resistance against Maoist activities in the region.

The Maoists’ plan to expand their area of influence in the region through violence became clearer when on June 15 police apprehended six persons in Kolkata carrying a consignment of arms meant for Lalgarh. Of them, four were PCPA supporters from Lalgarh.

KILLING SPREE


AFP

PCPA supporters attack the CPI(M) office in Lalgarh on June 16.

Even as villagers began to flee their homes in fear, the Maoists continued their cold-blooded, systematic killing of CPI(M) leaders and members, not just in Lalgarh but also in other places in the region. On the morning of June 17, Maoists riding motorbikes gunned down three CPI(M) workers near Lodhashuli in nearby Jhargram. Anil Mahato (50), Niladri Mahato (27) and Abhijit Mahato (22) were killed outside a tea stall. They were part of a team of villagers who were up all night keeping a vigil against Maoist attacks. The same day, Maoists abducted four CPI(M) workers from Pingbani in Jhargram. Their bodies were found the next day about one and half kilometre from the village. All these killings took place more than 40 km away from the Maoist stronghold in Lalgarh, an indication of their expansion in the region. Even as they were cornered by the security forces, their liquidation programme continued, as was evident from the killing of a tribal CPI(M) supporter in Lalgarh on June 23. In fact, since November last year, 26 CPI(M) leaders and workers in and around the region have been killed by the Maoists and the PCPA.

OPERATION LALGARH

With the situation spiralling out of control and the Maoists proclaiming that that their next expedition would be to “liberate” Keshpur and Garbeta (where the Trinamool Congress and the CPI(M) have been waging a bloody turf war for years) in West Medinipur, two companies of paramilitary forces were moved to the district headquarters on June 16. But it was not until June 18 that operations to restore normality in Lalgarh got under way. The State administration also announced that the operation would not be restricted to just Lalgarh but would cover 18 police stations affected by Maoist activities in the western part of the State, including the three neighbouring districts of West Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia – all sharing a border with Jharkhand.

On the afternoon of June 18, five companies of CRPF, two companies of the State Armed Police (SAP) and one company of the Border Security Force (BSF) commenced operations from Pirakata (around 16 km from Lalgarh), while another team took an alternative route through neighbouring Bankura district.

All along the route, the forces had to remove roadblocks in the form of felled trees and other obstructions set up by villagers. They also formed human chains along the way – the largest being near Malida village about 1 km from Pirakata, where over 2,000 people, including women and children, blocked the route of the forces. The police had to resort to teargas shelling and lathicharges to disperse them. Human resistance was also seen to be diminishing with the progress of the police, and by the evening, the PCPA stronghold of Bhimpur (about 8 km from Lalgarh) collapsed. Choppers from the Indian Air Force were kept on standby and were used to drop pamphlets in the villages prior to the entry of the forces, urging the people not to cooperate with the Maoists.

The following day, the Maoists struck back, and areas that the forces had overrun the previous day became their targets. Obstacles were once again placed on the road to Malida. An IED (improvised explosive device) blast in Nimtala severely injured three policemen, and a bridge in Belatikri linking Jhargram to Lalgarh was destroyed. The Maoist ploy ostensibly was to prevent reinforcement of police forces and to delay the rapid advance they had made the previous day. Heavy exchange of fire between the CRPF and the Maoists took place in various places, including Kuldiha (about 12 km from Lalgarh) and in the forest areas near the Lalgarh police station. Commandos of the elite Cobra force, which is used specifically to tackle Maoist menace, began combing operations in the surrounding forest areas.

On June 20, for the first time in eight months, police presence was established at the Lalgarh police station. More than 33 policemen had been practically imprisoned in their own police station by the PCPA since November last year. But the operation was far from over as violence persisted around the region. A police contingent approaching from the Goaltore end was waylaid by Maoists, and five policemen were injured in the attack. Three Maoists were also reportedly killed in the shoot-out that followed.

TALK OF DIALOGUE





With the forces closing in on them, the Maoists began to talk of dialogue. “If the State government wishes to hold discussions with the people of Lalgarh, then they will have to call off the security forces. The Chief Minister should go to Dalilpur Chak and talk to the people there, instead of dancing to the tune of the Prime Minister or the Union Home Minister,” CPI(Maoist) polit bureau member Koteswar Rao (alias Kishenji), who is in charge of the outfit’s operations in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa, told a local television channel. The State government, however, ruled out any talks. “How can the government hold discussions with those who are killing innocent people?” Chief Secretary Ashok Mohan Chakraborty said at a press conference.

Matters became more complicated for the State government on June 21 when a group of leading artists including film director Aparna Sen, and theatre personalities such as Shaoli Mitra and Kaushik Sen, ignoring a government request and defying a ban under Section 144 CrPC, visited the affected area “to discus the situation” with PCPA chief Chhatradhar Mahato. They appealed for a ceasefire until July 14. Meanwhile, the security forces and the Maoists – both apparently prepared for a showdown – seemed to follow a wait-and-watch policy. The Maoists declared a 48-hour bandh on June 22, which brought life to a standstill in the adjoining disturbed areas of Bankura, Purulia and West Medinipur. According to some sources, both Kishenji and Bikash have apparently given the police the slip and escaped to Jharkhand.

RELIEF CAMPS


SHUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Mamata Banerjee at a procession against "state-sponsored terrorism", in Kolkata on June 22.

The violence had compelled thousands of villagers in and around the area to leave their homes. More than 3,000 families, most of them from the blocks of Lalgarh, Salboni, Goaltore and Jhargram, have been living in relief camps outside the area of operations. The State government has been providing each family with 6 kg of rice and drinking water.

The Chief Secretary Asok Mohan Chakraborty, who had gone to oversee the operations in the troubled areas and meet the district administration on June 24, said: “The objective of the operations should not be viewed as one aimed at occupying the area, but providing protection to the victims of the violence and instilling in them a sense of security.” According to him, a large section of the population had even agreed to cooperate with the security forces.

MAMATA IN A FIX

Trinamool Congress leader and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee found herself in an uncomfortable situation when Kishenji proclaimed that she should break her silence over the Centre sending security forces to Lalgarh and called on her to choose a side. In February this year, Mamata Banerjee went to Lalgarh to express her party’s solidarity with the tribal movement there. She not only shared the dais with Chhatradhar Mahato, but also acknowledged him as her “former party colleague”. “I am all for his cause even though he has left my party,” she said then.

Kishenji himself recently admitted to his organisation’s involvement in the Nandigram episode. The CPI(Maoist) has also supported the Trinamool in its opposition to the proposed chemical hub at Nayachar in the same district.

When Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said at a press conference in New Delhi after meeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Home Minister P. Chidambram that the Trinamool had “strong links” with the Maoist-backed PCPA, Mamata Banerjee demanded that he withdraw the statement within 48 hours and threatened to “hit the streets [of Kolkata] demanding the dismissal of the government ”. She maintained that the problem in Lalgarh was caused by two CPI(M) factions fighting each other. After the assassination attempt on the Chief Minister on November 2, 2008, she had alleged that the incident was a “stunt” that the CPI(M) had orchestrated. Soon after that, the CPI(Maoist) claimed full responsibility for the attempt. Mamata Banerjee has also expressed her annoyance to the Centre over not being consulted on the deployment of Central troops in Lalgarh.

BAN ON MAOISTS

As the security forces closed in on the Maoists, the Government of India decided on June 22 to include “CPI (Maoists)” in the Schedule of organisations banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Left Front parties, led by the CPI(M) in the State, were, however, averse to banning the outfit, wanting instead to deal with the problem politically and socially. CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat said in New Delhi, “Our stand in Bengal has been that Maoists have to be countered politically. We can’t do it with security and police measures. We have to isolate them. Banning them does not help because they will emerge in some other nomenclature.”

However, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee cleared the confusion at a press conference on June 23 where he said, “This is a Central Act. It is applicable in all States. We cannot just say we do not accept it. However, the decision of when to apply and how apply this Act is left to the discretion of the State.” The State government set all speculation at rest and by implication accepted the legality of the Central Act on a State subject by arresting Gour Chakraborti, the CPI(Maoist) spokesperson in West Bengal, in Kolkata under the Central Act the very same day.

As on June 25, there was a lull in the violence for two days. But the operation of flushing out the Maoists from the region was far from over. The real challenge before the State government after the operations is to try and win back the trust and confidence of the tribal population of Lalgarh.

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