Theatre of war
Posted by Admin on October 31, 2009
Action. Drama. Sentiments. Tension mounts as Maoists and the state gear up for more battles
By Rabi Banerjee
It was an eventful night. Chilling silence followed an armed Maoist’s shout in a part of Dohomina village in Lalgarh. The Maoist, in his mid thirties, asked the 50 journalists gathered there to sit quiet on the mud floor near a school ground.
“Do not shout. Do not click photos unless you are asked to. Just sit on the floor. We will show you something soon,” said a young gun-wielding rebel whose face was masked. His red eyes gleamed with intensity.
Silence prevailed. A life was at stake. The life of a police officer of the Left-ruled West Bengal. Sub-Inspector Atindranath Dutta had been kidnapped on October 19 after Maoists ambushed a police station, an act unheard of in the state.
About 50 guerillas led by a woman squad member had stormed the Sankrail police station in West Midnapore. They split into two groups. One killed the two policemen on duty, looted arms and ammunition and abducted Dutta, who was in his quarters opposite the station, on a motorcycle. The other robbed Rs 10 lakh from a nearby bank.
Two days later, in a surprise move, the national chief of the People’s Liberation Army and CPI (Maoists) politburo member Koteswara Rao—aka Kishenji—called journalists to his hideout in Lalgarh where he would release Dutta, who was branded as the first ever “Prisoner of War” in the Maoists vs State battles in India.
Kishenji arrived sporting a cap and covering his face with a towel. A self-loading rifle was slung on his shoulders. Minutes later, a relieved Dutta followed him, his hands held by two armed Maoist commanders. A poster on his chest read “Conference to Release Prisoner of War”.
Dutta smiled. He would soon get to see his wife, daughter and aged parents in Kolkata. Perhaps overwhelmed by relief, he continued to smile even as Kishenji criticised Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.
Faced with intense criticism after the beheading of police inspector Francis Induwar in Jharkhand, the CPI (Maoist) was desperate for a face-lift. Moreover, Kishenji saw it as an opportunity to slam the Buddha government publicly for the first time.
“And he was successful in doing that,” said a state minister. “We were shocked to see him humiliate our government for an hour.”
Kishenji had made his points clear. After removing the PoW poster hung around Dutta’s neck, he said: “I am releasing you, poor OC [officer in charge]! But I have a word of caution for you. Look, OC babu, do not torture innocent tribal villagers anymore.
“I am releasing you for now. But, at the same time, I am asking you not to hurt feelings of the tribals, particularly that of tribal women. They are not Maoists. They are poor, they are innocent.
“If you love your parents, wife and child, you should love tribal women, children and aged people. I promised to your wife that I would return you if my small demands are met. I have kept my promise.”
Kishenji said he did not want any concession from Buddhadeb, and that he only demanded the release of 14 women, who “are innocent and have nothing to do with Maoists”.
He then turned towards the waiting journalists. “Have you seen how Buddhadeb used his police to torture tribal people?” he asked. “His cops raped and blinded women. They also sexually harassed young women, often entering their homes at night.This government cannot respect tribal women. It’s a shame.”
His words—like a machinegun’s rat-a-tat—stung the government.
Union Railway Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, too, had slammed the Bengal government’s operation in Lalgarh and the Centre’s decision to send CRPF troops. Kishenji, however, felt Mamata was not sincere.
Then, Kishenji brought forward Kamala Mahato, a sexagenarian woman. “Look at this mother. Buddhadeb’s coward policemen arrested her son while he was returning from Kolkata after buying medicines for his villagers. Can you imagine how far this cop went?” Kishenji asked pointing towards Dutta, who looked back in despair.
Kishenji said he was successful in getting 14 women released from jail, in return for Dutta’s release. The women were suspected of being Maoist sympathisers. Following Dutta’s abduction, the state government did not oppose their bail plea.
Kishenji said the poverty-stricken women were as innocent as Kamala’s son. “But, the frustrated policemen arrested and tortured them,” he said. Dutta had no choice but to concur. He even shook hands with the rebels, including Kishenji, and said: “The Maoists behaved gently with me. I think the government should engage in dialogue with Maoists, as they have some genuine grievances.”
Buddhadeb was stung badly. The next day he flew to Delhi for a party meeting. But, he first rushed to Home Minister P. Chidambaram. Later, a miffed Buddhadeb told the media: “I will teach the Maoists a lesson.”
The statement worried Sudharani Baske, 58, of Bansbere village. She is one among the 14 women who were released. On September 3, Sudharani and other women of the village were drumming and raising slogans against the CRPF and the police. “They were arresting our children. So we decided to protest,” she said.
Sudharani wept, and said they neither blocked any road, nor tried to harm anybody. “But the forces tried to forcibly enter our houses. When we resisted, they kicked us and threw us into a prison van,” she recalled.
Her lawyer Satyajit Sinha said the women were charged with sections under the Arms Act and for sedition (waging war against the state). “But no arms were found from them,” he pointed out.
“Believe me, I have never even seen a gun. How could I possess one?” cried Sudharani. “Waging war against the state? Do we have enough physical strength to wage war? We are people who often miss our daily meals.”
Phulmoni Murmu, 20, had a similar story to tell: “Police started arresting youths. They wanted to know my brothers’ whereabouts. As I protested, they abused me and kicked me in my stomach, and put me in prison.”
Phulmoni and Sudharani were returning to Bansbere, thanks to Kishenji. “We do not know about the Maoists. But, we are grateful to anybody who helped us get out of jail. We are thankful to Kishenji, if he was the one,” said Sudharani.
What if they are arrested again to teach the Maoists a lesson? “We will be helpless then. We will have to go to Kishenji, again,” said Phulmoni.
Kishenji seemed to have emerged as a symbol of hope for such women. Even if the Centre launches joint operations with the state forces of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh and West Bengal in November, the rebels would fight on, as the women of the Jangalmahal area are with them.
“The people of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bengal and Orissa are with us. We will definitely win. Let Chidambaram fight the ongoing war more aggressively,” challenged Kishenji.
A humiliated Buddhadeb wanted the onslaught immediately, but it is not going to be an easy war.
“Merely deploying forces without addressing basic developmental issues will not work. The government would lose the people’s support forever, and it would pave way for permanent insurgency in these areas,” said a senior official in the state administration. Also, he added, the West Bengal Police was not morally fit enough.
“The police itself is not secure enough as Dutta’s abduction has proved. The Maoists have shown how, with people’s support, they could do whatever they want,” he said.
Dutta echoed the official’s words: “Police stations, particularly in naxal-affected areas, are not secure. Policemen live in fear.” When asked whether he would quit his job, the officer said: “Yes, I am giving it a serious thought… I am discussing it with my family and friends.”
In November, with this fear and insecurity, the policemen would have to fight the next “decisive war” against the Maoists.
Just as one wondered when these bloody battles would end, news of Maoist sympathisers taking over the Bhubaneswar-Delhi Rajdhani Express poured in. On October 27, activists of People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities stopped the train near Jhagram station, 20km away from Sankrail where a police station was ambushed, and took two train drivers hostage. They apparently wanted the release of their leader Chhatradhar Mahato. The CPI (Maoist) denied any role.
However, with the arrival of CRPF battalions, the activists fled after brief exchange of fire. Authorities said all the passengers and the drivers were safe, and the situation was “under complete control”. Let us hope so.
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW / KISHENJI, CHIEF OF THE MAOIST PEOPLE’S LIBERATION ARMY
The government is inviting trouble
Koteswara Rao aka Kishenji is the armed squad chief and politburo member of the CPI (Maoist). The mathematics graduate has been with the organisation since 1974 and is currently in charge of operations in Jharkhand, Orissa, Bengal and Bihar. Excerpts from an interview:
Why did you abduct Sub-Inspector Atindranath Dutta and release him subsequently?
He was abducted as part of our plan to ensure the release of 14 innocent women who were illegally jailed. We cannot take atrocities on women lightly. We are not terrorists, but are revolutionaries. So if our demands are met, we have no problems in releasing the abductee.
But the Centre views you as terrorists.
That is up to the Centre. If I simplify, it is the decision of just a few politicians in the government. Our image among the common people has not changed because of it.
Why did you single out the Sankrail OC? The area was not known to be a Maoist stronghold.
We can’t disclose our internal plan.
You showed mercy to Dutta’s family, but you brutally killed officer Francis Induwar in Jharkhand. Why?
It was necessary, as Jharkhand’s political parties and the police work in tacit understanding there to finish off the common people. Every party and every policeman in Jharkhand is corrupt. The situation is slightly better in Bengal. The CPI(M) has become one of the more corrupted parties in India, but there are a few parties that are still honest.
The Union home minister recently said he could not call Maoists for talks unless you stop using words like prisoner of war and armed revolution. He says such talk is needless, as there is no war.
Chidambaram is full of double standards. If there is no war, then why is there thousands of troops in Bengal to fight Maoists? Why is the state paying Rs 1 crore per day to fight us?
As the government is going to launch a major offensive in November, what are your plans of action?
We will continue with our offensive. The government is making a big mistake. It is inviting trouble. It wants to destabilise the Jangalmahal region. The government will be held responsible for the eventualities, as we will have to strike back.
Maoists have decided to stop mining by private firms. You have also decided to prevent the land acquisition for projects. Are you not hindering development?
We will not let anybody mine minerals or coal from Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh regions. Is it their personal property? Thanks to our protests, major players like Arcelor-Mittal and Reliance backtracked.
We will also prevent land acquisition in this belt. Private firms will not be allowed to exploit the land and minerals, which belong solely to the tribal people. We will stop all projects, come what may.
In Bengal, too, we had decided to stop the steel project proposed by the Jindal group at Shalboni. Good that the group itself has backtracked.
Did you play a major role in the Nandi-gram and Singur movements?
Yes. We supported Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram, and she succeeded in stalling the land acquisition. It is unfortunate that she forgot all that after becoming a Union minister. She is practising opportunistic politics now. In Singur, too, we played a role in booting Tata out.
The government wants to nab you at any cost. Forces said they were close to arresting you. How do you keep escaping?
It will be not easy for the police to nab me. The tribal people will resist them. Fire will spread in Jangalmahal if I am arrested. Personally, I do not care about myself. I have told you I am a revolutionary who is going to fight for the tribal rights till my last breath. The Week