The lines between reality, facts and opinions are blurred in Lalgarh, which remains trapped in a vicious circle of oppression and retribution, finds Sanchari Bhattacharya
Naina Sharen (name changed), a diminutive woman in her mid 30s, works as a farm labourer in the remote village of Banshber in West Midnapore district in Bengal. We found her sitting on a frayed chataai in front of her neighbour's house, surrounded by a protective group of women from her village. She has a 12-year-old son and a husband. But she is reluctant to share their whereabouts or even her real name.
For, according to the local police, Naina is a Maoist. She was arrested months earlier while participating in a protest at a Central Reserve Police Force camp. She was released on bail after spending three months in jail and still has to make regular visits to the court in connection with her case. Naina doesn't know what the charges against her are or who her State-appointer lawyer is.
Hers is the story of hundreds of men and women across the district, young and old, who have been thrown behind bars for months for allegedly being members of the banned Communist Party of India-Maoist. Most of them are eventually let out on bail as the State has little or no evidence against them.
Words like 'chargesheet', 'arms', 'court case', 'trial', 'demand', 'rights' and 'protest' have become part of the local vocabulary. These words are everyday realities for the people of Jungle Mahal.
Naina is suspicious of strangers and answers most of our questions with a sullen silence. The women sitting around her are more forthcoming; they inform us that 14 women from Banshber village had been arrested for their 'Maoist' links.
They tell us that some months back -- nobody here is sure of exactly when -- a woman from this village was accosted and beaten up by security forces on the suspicion of being a Maoist. Nearly 250 women from Banshber had congregated at the CRPF camp at nearby Kaatapahari to protest the incident.
Instead of listening to their grievances, they claim, the CRPF personnel used tear gas and lathi-charge to disperse them.
"One of them held my by my hands and beat me up," said Maloti Sharen. She pointed to another woman in a threadbare yellow sari -- Chintamani Hansda -- whose legs were allegedly broken by the forces' baton.
Banshber is located deep inside Lalgarh, the 'Maoist-affected' region of West Midnapore, which was taken over by the Left-wing ultras for eight months in November 2008. Though the chastised state government hurriedly laid roads and arranged water supply in the region after Lalgarh was recaptured by the security forces, many interior villages were overlooked in the process.
"Even the Maoists don't come here; they know they will find nothing," observes Shikha Hansda (name changed).
But the security forces have already made their presence felt. The women talk loathingly about how members of Jautha Bahini (joint forces) barge into their homes with shoes on and ransack the granaries.
"They think we hide arms there. They even take away our livestock," says Chintamani.
These women agreed to talk to us only because we were accompanied by a local activist who assured them that we were merely reporters.
"But how do we know that you will not brand all of us Maoists in your report, like the police have done," asks Shikha Hansda.
In Boropeliya, a village located nearly 3 km away, Shayamal Mahato narrates a similar tale, but with an amused smile. He has been arrested twice for his Maoist links, imprisoned for a few months each time, and released on bail. "Shaat ta case lagiyeche (they have slapped 7 cases against me)," he says nonchalantly.
Shaymal, an activist of the newly launched committee against terror, corruption and imperialism, tells us that he has been charged under the Arms Act, among others.
"They pick up anybody and throw them in jail, accusing them of being a Maoist. This is our land and our jungle. They want to take it away from us, and that's why they are doing this," he says.
Shyamal and his friends maintain that the 'Maoist takeover' of Lalgarh was a myth perpetrated by the government and the media.
"It was a mass movement, not a forcible takeover. The people here, fed up after years of injustice and poverty, had taken matters into their own hands. We only boycotted the police; we didn't try to stop anybody else," says one of them.
The lines between reality, facts and opinions are blurred in Lalgarh. The government and the security forces maintain that the Maoists had terrorised the restive region and their subsequent crackdown was justified. A section of moderate thinkers slam the administration for its high-handedness, but believe that most of the youngsters here enjoy close links with Naxals. The locals refute these allegations and evade queries about whether they have ties with the Left-wing ultras.
Nearly 50 per cent of the youth in every village here have been charged with a serious crime. This completely disrupts their life as they are farm labourers who lose out on an entire day's pay if they have to make a court appearance," says Partha Sarathi Roy, a biologist who has been fighting for the rights of local tribals.
To counter the growing influence of Maoists, the ruling Left Front had allegedly tried to raise its own homegrown militia, along the lines of Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh.
Armed cadres of the Communist Party of India-Marxist had allegedly set up base in Netai, another village in Lalgarh. But their attempts to encourage the villagers to receive arms training, to fight Maoists, had ended in disaster.
During a confrontation with angry villagers on January 7, the armed men had opened fire, killing nine of them. The armed cadres or harmads, as they are called, have fled the village.
The Central Bureau of Investigation has now taken over the case. In its chargesheet, the agency has named several CPI-M leaders, leaving the ruling government red-faced.
"We are like footballs, everyone just kicks us around -- the government, the police and the Maoists," says Prashant Jana (name changed), a resident of Netai.
He goes on to complain that much before the harmads made an appearance, Maoists had bullied the villagers into providing them food. "They even made us wash their dirty clothes," recalls Jana with disgust.
His statement is in sharp contrast with those by the majority of the inhabitants of Lalgarh -- who claim never to have set their sight on a Maoist -- in the district worst affected by Naxal violence in Bengal.
"Who says there are no Maoists; then what are we doing here," asks a senior commandant of the CRPF's 184 Battalion, which is in charge of maintaining peace in Lalgarh.
He strongly believes that the fragile peace in the area will be shattered if the government decides to withdraw the security forces.
"The administration couldn't contain the situation, that's why we were called in. If we leave, who will handle the breakdown of law and order," asks the CRPF official.
When queried about allegations of brutality, an assistant commandant of the same battalion retorts, "We are used to being maligned by the media. People can say what they want to. We are just doing our duty and we know that, so these things don't bother us. You can write tomorrow in your report that I misbehaved with you, when I didn't, so what can I do,"
But neither of them have an answer for the questions posed by Jyotsna Mahato, a feisty 18-year-old from the remote village of Shonamukhi. Jyotsana is the president of Nari Izzat Bachao Committee, a panel formed for the protection of local women.
The committee was put together after a group of armed men barged in one night and raped several women in Jyotsna's village. The men belonged to the joint forces and the ruling Front's armed militia, claims Jyotsna.
I don't even know what a Maoist is properly. And even if we are all Maoists, like the police claim, how does it give them the right to rape our women," an agitated Jyotsna told rediff.com over the phone.
She had led a group of women from her village, including the rape victims, to the state secretariat in faraway Kolkata. The women wanted to meet Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, but he was not around.
"We want justice, we want the culprits to be punished. But who will listen to us?" says Jyotsna.
Her query is among the many poignant questions that remain unanswered in Lalgarh, which is stuck in a vicious circle of oppression and retribution.