Lalgarh, West Bengal: Accompanied by wife Lakshimoni, 70-year-old Chunaram Murmu has walked at least 20km braving a blazing sun to reach a health centre in Katapahari village. Set up by the West Bengal state government, the centre is today run by tribespeople who have seized control of the area.
Lalgarh, spread over 300 sq. km under the Jhargram sub-division of West Midnapore district, has been out of bounds for the administration and the police for the past four months.
In early December, tribals who got together under the banner of the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities, or PCPA, drove the law-keepers out, alleging state repression. In the months since, PCPA has established a virtual parallel administration in the region that, from all accounts, is working better than the state machinery ever did.
Parallel administration: 1. Chintamoni Murmu (with dark glasses), who lost vision in her left eye allegedly after being beaten up by the police, being examined by a health worker at the Katapahari health centre, which is run by the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities, or PCPA. 2. The pharmacy of government-run primary health centre in Lalgarh, which has only one doctor and two nurses. 3. A wall graffiti listing demands of the PCPA, which has been asking for compensation of Rs2 lakh for each woman harassed by the police on 5 November. 4. Tribals prepare for night vigil. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
It all started on 2 November when a landmine exploded minutes after the West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s convoy passed and Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan’s arrived. They were returning to Kolkata after laying the foundation stone of JSW Steel Ltd’s West Bengal unit in Salboni—the first major industrial project in this investment-starved part of the state.
Soon after the attack, for which the administration held Maoist rebels responsible, the police combed neighbouring villages, allegedly beat up locals for sheltering Maoists and arrested seven people, who have since been found innocent. The district administration recently applied to the judicial magistrate for the acquittal of the seven.
For the tribal people of Lalgarh, there’s no going back—they have vowed to keep the police out at any cost and are cementing their hold on the area by doing the work that the state government should have done.
Murmu, who has walked for at least five hours with a stick in one hand, is at the Katapahari health centre to get an acute stomach ache treated. Stomach problems are common in the area where safe drinking water is scarce.
On the way to the village, he walked past a state govern-ment-controlled primary health centre that had no doctor on duty at the time. There were three patients and a woman writhing in labour pain in the in-patient ward, and no one in the outpatient ward.
At the PCPA-run health centre—a two-storey building with six rooms, which had almost been converted into a police outpost when local activists seized it three weeks ago—Murmu has to wait for a while but eventually gets the attention of an elderly doctor, and though he has to wait again, he gets the medicines free in the end. That explains the queue outside of at least 300 people even at 3pm, when Murmu sets out for home.
“We distribute medicines worth around Rs7,500 a day… we would have loved to run this centre seven days a week, but the medicines last only four days a week,” says a doctor who refuses to reveal his name. “I live in Kolkata, and it isn’t good to be seen as a Maoist,” adds this doctor, who said he is a retired professor of state government-run Nil Ratan Sarkar Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata.
“We aren’t running a parallel system. We are just trying to demonstrate that even with very limited resources, it is possible to serve the people,” adds the doctor.
Malnutrition, anaemia and gastro-intestinal problems are common in the area where the average weight of the adult population is below 50kg, doctors say.
“Maoists have spread their wings in Lalgarh and adjoining areas such as Belpahari because of lack of economic development,” says a police officer at the Lalgarh Police Station, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a gag order issued by the state’s director general of police A.B. Vohra.
With no perennial river around, irrigation is a huge problem. The land yields one crop a year at best, and most people here work as agricultural labour, earning Rs25-40 a day, according to Tanmoy Chakraborty, Jhargram’s block development officer.
With locals opposed to letting the police in, the Election Commission is not sure how to conduct polling at the 44 booths in Lalgarh, which has some 52,800 voters and falls under the Jhargram Lok Sabha constituency. Polling here is scheduled to take place on 30 April.
The state’s chief electoral officer Debasish Sen has held talks with Chhatradhar Mahato, the leader of PCPA, but there’s no sign yet of the people giving in to Sen’s requests.
The best part of Lalgarh is covered by forest. Road connectivity is poor, and the terrain largely unknown to the outside world. PCPA activists have piled up logs and boulders along roads.
It was almost 8pm when a group of people emerged from underneath a culvert as the car carrying a Mint team to Jhargram town from the interiors of Lalgarh paused to let a cat cross the dirt road.
Faces covered and self-loading rifles slung on their shoulders, these men held flashlights in their hands. Within seconds, they beamed their flashlights into the dark interiors of the car from outside and checked the team’s identity cards. One of them then waved his hand, signalling that the car could leave. That’s as close as you can get to ultra-left militants in Lalgarh.
Surprisingly, almost every household in Lalgarh has guests, or “distant relatives”, as locals describe them, who prefer to stay indoors and look very different from natives. These guests are at the centre of what is happening in the area because it was for harbouring some “distant relatives” that Chintamoni Murmu and her husband were allegedly beaten up by the police during a night raid on 5 November. Countless others in Baropelia and Chhotopelia villages have the same story to tell. Some were left bleeding, some writhing in pain, while Chintamoni Murmu lost her vision after being injured in the left eye.
Almost immediately, the people of Lalgarh, led by Mahato, founded PCPA with the sole objective of laying siege to this tribal-dominated area. Within a month, roads were dug up or blocked with logs, forcing the police to flee.
Almost every household in Baropelia, Chhotopelia, Amdanga, Ramgarh and Murari villages have been stocking arms such as bows, arrows, spears, daggers and indigenous knives, locals say. “We will resist till the last drop of our blood. Our arrows have the strength to draw the guts out,” says Brajalal Duley, a PCPA activist.