Jhargram (West Bengal): Chhatradhar Mahato, a tribal leader until recently seen as the public face of the Maoists in West Bengal, is contesting an assembly election for the first time. This may persuade the ultra-left rebels who denounce parliamentary democracy as useless to be a little less aggressive with implementing their traditional poll boycott call.
Mahato was detained in September 2009 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and is currently in jail facing charges of murder and sedition. He’s contesting from the Jhargram assembly constituency in West Midnapore district as an independent candidate. Elections are to be held on 10 May in the area, with results to be announced on 13 May.
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His late decision to file nomination papers came after talks with the Trinamool Congress, the state’s main opposition party, over representation of the tribal people failed, according to Mahato’s close aide and campaign manager Manoj Mahato, who faces similar charges but was recently released on bail.
Chhatradhar Mahato shot to fame in early 2009 for leading the agitation by the tribal people against alleged police harassment. A landmine attack by the Maoists in November 2008 against chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s convoy sparked police action against rebels said to be hiding out among the villagers in the area. Bhattacharjee escaped unhurt in the attack.
Backed by Maoist guerillas, the Mahato-led tribals managed to drive out the police and laid siege to large areas for months.
They even drove out local Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, workers from the area—many were alleged to have been killed by the Maoists.
“We wanted the Trinamool Congress chief to leave at least three seats for us, but the party disagreed,” said Manoj Mahato. “I have not had contacts with the Maoist leaders after being released on bail lately, but my impression is that they too are supportive of Chhatradhar Mahato’s decision to contest the election.”
The state government sees Chhatradhar Mahato as the face of the Maoists. His People’s Committee against Police Atrocities, or PCPA, is one of the organizations used by the rebels to communicate with the public, according to Surajit Kar Purkayastha, West Bengal’s additional director general of police (law and order).
While the Communist Party of India (Maoist)’s central committee has called for a boycott as usual, local administration officials said it may not be rigorously implemented.
“The threat perception is low this time,” said a local police official, who did not want to be named. “This is not only because the Maoist movement has weakened following police action in recent times, but also because one of their own is contesting the election.”
Mamata Banerjee, Union rail minister and Trinamool Congress chairperson, was critical of the Centre’s decision to provide specially trained forces against the Maoist rebels in West Bengal. She alleged that CPM supporters were using the forces as a cover to make inroads into villages from which they had been ousted.
Still, the confidence of a large section of the local tribal population in Banerjee may have been shaken because of her inability to pressure the Central government into withdrawing forces from what was known as the “liberated zone” until their arrival. Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress is one of the Congress’ biggest allies at the Centre.
“The Trinamool Congress is one of the principal allies of the Congress, which mobilized forces against us,” said Manoj Mahato, while campaigning for Chhatradhar Mahato in Chhotopelia and Baropelia villages—the epicentre of the tribal movement against the administration—under the constant watch of the Central forces.
“What is more, she has been alleging lately that we are hand-in-glove with the CPM —we have to fight our own battle,” he added.
The CPM has maintained from the beginning of the unrest in late 2008 that the Trinamool Congress was tacitly backing the Maoists and their front organizations to weaken the state ruling party’s support base in districts such as West Midnapore and Purulia.
Mistrust is now breaking up an opportunistic alliance and this will benefit the Left Front, making an impact in areas formerly controlled by the Maoists, said Dahareswar Sen, a prominent CPM leader from West Midnapore district.
That apart, the Trinamool Congress has traditionally had very little presence in these areas, according to Asok Bhattacharya, a key CPM leader and the state’s minister for urban development and municipal affairs. “They managed to make some inroads because of some specific issues,” he added.
Banerjee had given the tribal people an opportunity to raise their voices from a democratic platform, according to Abhirup Sarkar, professor of economics at Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute. “She created for them an alternative to joining the extremists, which wasn’t earlier available,” he said.
Meanwhile, Chhatradhar Mahato’s decision to contest the election has put many of his close followers in a quandary, particularly those who do not want the Central forces to come knocking on their doors again.
It’s a difficult situation for the tribal people, said Gour Chand Murmu, 60, whose wife Chintamoni Murmu lost her eyesight in late 2008 after allegedly being beaten up by the police and died a year ago for want of treatment.
“We can neither support Chhatradhar openly for fear of police incursions nor turn our back on him. I don’t know whether his decision to contest the election will land us in more trouble,” he said.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint