Saturday, July 11, 2009

Eye of a storm

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EXCLUSIVE

A woman's blinding in police assault turned Lalgarh against govt

By Rabi Banerjee/Lalgarh

Chintamani Murmu, 55, would not come out of her thatched hut at Chotopelia in Lalgarh, West Bengal. She is blind and has no clothes to wear.
A mother of three, she was blinded by policemen hunting for Maoists following a landmine attack on Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's convoy in November last year. Chintamani's plight turned the tribals against the Left Front government. As the Maoist-backed People's Committee Against Police Atrocities (PSBJC) clashed with security forces last month, Lalgarh became a war zone. The unrest left Chintamani's husband, Gauranga, 65, jobless. A labourer, he sold his wife's clothes to run the family. His sons dropped out of school.

When THE WEEK visited Chintamani's house, some women were guarding it. "Don't go to her. She is not at home. Even if she is in, she will not come out to talk to you," shouted a middle-aged woman. "You have no business to meet her. Let her live with whatever she has," another woman said. I waited for two hours, but the women did not relent. The hut was bolted from inside.

The next morning I met Gauranga at the village square. After much persuasion, he took me to his house. After 40 minutes, Chintamani emerged from the hut. She was wearing a woollen shawl, in 40 degrees Celsius. The shawl was all she had to cover her body.
"I protested the torture by the police. So I was blinded. I was made an issue and a war is being fought between the government and our tribal committee. I have been reduced to a beggar. I have nothing to eat, nothing to wear," she said, her voice choking. "It would have been better if I had kept quiet. At least the war would not have taken place and we would not have had to see more onslaught and torture by the police."

Activists of the PSBJC and their leader, Chhatradhar Mahato, fled after security forces advanced into Lalgarh. But Mahato told THE WEEK that the people's committee had not accepted defeat. "We will fight back when the time comes. Tribals cannot forget the outrageous acts of the security forces towards their women. We will give them a fitting reply," he said from a secret location.

Buddhadeb had sent officials to take stock of the problems of Lalgarh residents. But nobody visited Chintamani. It was on the night of November 5, two days after the landmine attack on Buddhadeb's convoy, that Chintamani's ordeal began. The police raided her house in Chotopelia village, a Maoist hub, after they heard about an outsider staying there. She protested the arrest of her guest. The policemen dragged Chintamani out and thrashed her. She lost her eyesight in the assault. As the other women protested, the police beat them up. Around 15 women were hospitalised.

The police action was seen as revenge for the landmine attack. The people's committee activists chased CPI(M) leaders and the police out of Lalgarh, which the Maoists declared as a "liberated zone". "Tribals could not take the assault on women easy. We had no option but to launch the movement," said Mahato.
The worst is not over for many women like Dumni Murmu, Chintamani's neighbour who was assaulted by the police on November 5. The doctor has advised her rest. "I have no option but to graze cattle as farming has stopped. We hear gunshots across the paddy fields. How can we work?" she said. Kalpana Hansda, 25, suffered spinal injury in the police assault. "I feel pain in my back. The doctor has asked me not to work. Still, I go 10km out of Lalgarh every day to work," said Kalpana.

Many youths have fled fearing arrest. Hundreds of women, who were beaten up by the state police and CRPF during the operation against Maoists, are staying at a relief camp run by the Trinamool Congress at Katapahari in Lalgarh. Among them is Bharati Mahato, who fled Kuldiha village with her three children. "The security forces entered our house looking for my brothers. When they did not find them, they hit me with the gun and wanted to know my brothers' whereabouts. I pleaded ignorance, but they kicked me repeatedly. I fled to this camp," she said. Rashi Murmu, 50, fled her village leaving her ailing husband. "I don't know if I will see my husband alive," she said, her voice choking.

The exodus of youths has raised fears of insurgency, like the one in Kashmir, where youths joined terrorists to escape state oppression. "The West Bengal government is also treating youths of Lalgarh like that. If these youths become terrorists, the government will be responsible," said Chunibala Hansada, local MLA, of the Jharkhand People's Party.

Even children live in fear, as they were not spared during the police raid last year. Three schoolboys-Ebhen Murmu, Buddhadeb Patra and Gautam Patra-were arrested on suspicion of being Maoists. Though they were released following protests, the boys left the village and are staying in the school hostel. "I do extra work to let him study in the hostel. If he stays in village, he will be branded a Maoist," said Ebhen's mother, Janani.
Some leaders of the ruling Left Front have criticised the government's actions in Lalgarh. "More than the police action, we need good governance in the area," said Khshiti Goswami, state PWD minister and RSP leader. A CPI(M) leader said, "The government was more interested in police action than letting development projects run smoothly in Lalgarh."

Narayan Soren of Narcha village has not got his wages under the NREGA despite working for five months under the scheme. "All these are fake promises. I ran from pillar to post, but failed to get the dues," he said. Jataram Murmu, 55, of Beledanga in Lalgarh sees no hope. His son has stopped going to school. His thatched hut could fall anytime. His family survives on a meal of boiled rice. His words point to the danger ahead: "Either we will face government neglect or my son would take up guns."

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