Lalgarh, West Bengal: As Maoist guerrillas and the West Bengal government square off for a protracted war in the forests of West Midnapore district, the tribals who launched the agitation eight months ago in protest against alleged police atrocities are facing starvation and fleeing homes.
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Bhadar Murmu, a sal leaf gatherer from Chhotopelia village in Lalgarh, said he hasn’t worked since Thursday, when the state government sent in the police and Central paramilitary forces to recapture Lalgarh. “It’s too risky to go to the forests…you wouldn’t even know whose bullets you’d fall to,” explained Murmu, who on a good day earns up to Rs35 selling the leaves he gathers to traders.
Like most others in Chhotopelia—the epicentre of the agitation—Murmu’s family has been conserving food, but they are soon going to run out of stock. Even the neighbourhood shops are shut.
“For the past three days, we have been eating only one meal a day to make sure our four grandchildren don’t starve,” said Murmu’s wife Poornima. “But who knows how long this siege will go on?”
The stand-off in Lalgarh started after the police in November allegedly beat up locals on suspicion of offering shelter to the Maoist guerrillas who had tried to blow up a convoy carrying West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and then Union steel minister Ram Vilas Paswan.
Villagers stand in line to collect rations at a government distribution centre in Lalgarh on Monday. Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP
Backed by Maoists, the tribals retaliated by driving the police out of Lalgarh in December and established what they called a “liberated zone”.
When, seven months later, the state government decided to forcibly regain control of Lalgarh, the area had been overrun by Maoists. In the last 10 days, Maoists have killed at least three party workers and vandalized offices of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Lalgarh.
With locals allegedly being forced by the police to detect explosive devices reaching Chhotopelia and its neighbouring villages, people are fleeing their homes. Several villages such as Amdanga, Hariharpur, Bhalukhola and Amelia are already deserted. Locals say some people in these villages return to their homes at night but leave before daybreak.
“If we are caught in our homes, the police will beat us up,” said a resident of Amdanga, who refused to reveal his name. “Spending the night here is relatively safer because it is very unlikely that the police are going to turn up at night.”
Some 1,000 people are staying at a nearby relief camp run by the Trinamool Congress—the state’s main opposition party. But even at the camp, people said they were starving and that they were desperate to return to their homes.
At the Lalgarh block development office, the district administration on Monday distributed 6kg of rice each to people who had fled their homes. The move was a recognition of the intensifying human crisis at Lalgarh, but it benefited very few people.
Tribal leader Chhatradhar Mahato, who spearheaded the agitation, admitted that people were fleeing the villages and “the movement had weakened”. “It is true that our support base has considerably weakened because people are scared of being tortured by the police, but we are not giving up.”
Mahato’s People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, or PCPA—a forum launched to unite the tribals of Lalgarh— claims it isn’t connected to the Maoists in any manner, though Communist Party of India (Maoist) leader Koteshwar Rao has said his guerrillas helped PCPA seize control of Lalgarh.
Villagers of Jara on the road to Midnapore after fleeing their homes fearing they would have to face police action after a mine exploded in the area. Indranil Bhoumiik / Mint
“Maoists have sympathizers in Lalgarh because they help in resisting state oppression,” admitted a PCPA leader who did not want to be identified. “But we aren’t Maoists waging war against the state—we don’t believe in their ideology.”
A message signed by locals and posted on a billboard at Bhadutala police outpost near Lalgarh makes it evident that caught between the police and Maoists, the tribals of Lalgarh are giving up their fight, at least for the time being. The message pleads with Maoists and the police to withdaw and let the tribals live in peace.
In Delhi, Union home minister P. Chidambaram said on Monday that the situation continued to be tense though security forces had regained control of Lalgarh town.
The National Human Rights Commission issued a statement on Monday saying it was concerned about reports of tribals being forced to detect landmines for the security forces. The commission threatened to take action against the administration if the reports were found to be true.
PTI and Bloomberg contributed to the story.