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From behind bars, a folk hero campaigns

Last updated on: May 8, 2011 18:55 IST

From behind bars, a folk hero campaigns

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Sanchari Bhattacharya in Jhargram

In the increasingly bipolar West Bengal, Rediff.com's Sanchari Bhattacharya encounters a different campaign rally in Jhargram -- that of jailed leader of disbanded PCPA and alleged Maoist sympathaiser, Chhatradhar Mahato.

According to some, Chhatradhar Mahato is a tribal hero who has dared to speak up for the thousands of faceless, voiceless members of his community. For others, he is a man who started out with the right intentions but has succumbed to the lure of manipulative politics. A less kind school of thought believes that he is an agent of a political party, who has sold out to make the criminal charges against him go away.

Complete Coverage: Assembly Elections 2011

Mahato, a leader of the now disbanded People's Committee against Police Atrocities, was arrested on September 26, 2009, for his role in the Lalgarh movement in West Bengal. The government had slapped several criminal charges against him, including the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

The state administration is trying to stifle the voice of dissent by arresting their leader, believe his supporters. Many human rights activists have decried the manner in which Chhatradhar had been arrested; he was nabbed by police officials pretending to be journalists.

The state government has long claimed that the PCPA is a frontal organisation for Maoists and Chhatradhar had close links with Left-wing ultras. In October 2009, members of the PCPA allegedly halted a Rajdhani Express at Banstala in West Midnapore district and abducted two of its drivers, to demand the release of Chhatradhar.

His brother Shashadhar Mahato, allegedly the most prominent Maoist leader in Bengal, was killed in an encounter in March this year. Chhatradhar's chief election agent, Bhagwat Hansda, was arrested on Thursday in connection with a 2008 murder case.

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Image: A poster showing Chhatradhar Mahato in jail
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
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His wife, friends are leading the campaign

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Therefore, his decision to contest the assembly elections from Jhargram in West Midnapore against his former party Trinamool Congress and arch rival Communist Party of India -- Marxist, has foxed politicians and political observers alike. His motives for entering mainstream politics after years of spearheading an anti-establishment movement are being viewed with suspicion

But for hundreds of his supporters, who turned up at a rally organised by Chhatradhar's supporters in Manikpara locality in the constitution recently, their leader's integrity is beyond any doubt.

They had come to show their support for the newly constituted Santrash, Durniti, Shamrajyobadi Agrasan Birodhi Mancha (Committee against terror, corruption and imperialism), which is fielding Mahato.

On April 19, Mahato, who is lodged in Midnapore Central jail, filed his nomination. His supporters have filed an appeal for his bail, so that he can lead his campaign. For now, his trusted lieutenants like Manoj Mahato and his wife Niyoti Mahato have taken to the streets, asking people to vote.


Image: A rally organised by Chhatradhar's supporters
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
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'We can walk, that is enough for us'

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"I take his advice on how to lead the campaign. We may not have the resources and funds other political parties have, but we surely have more manpower," Niyoti told rediff.com.

She was alluding to the fact that her husband's popularity had managed to draw scores of people to the rally.

Before they gathered at the rally ground to hear her speak, these villagers had participated in a grueling padayatra that started at the committee's office and continued for hours under the merciless midday sun.

"We don't have big cars and motorcycles like them. But we have bicycles and we can walk, and that is enough for our campaign," says Niyoti.


Image: Niyoti Mahato
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
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'People need to hear what we have to say'

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Their leader might be in jail on sedition charges, but the padayatra is no sober affair. In fact, it could be mistaken for a wedding procession as some of its members show off their impromptu dancing skills to the beat of the drums.

The slogans, detailing the atrocities allegedly faced by the locals and slamming both CPI-M and Trinamool, continue relentlessly.

Leading from the front is Manoj Mahato, a former PCPA activist. Arrested in connection with a case in September last year, he was released on bail on April 26 -- a week after his leader and cousin Chhatradhar filed his nomination.

Video: Dipak Chakroborty



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'If it's a question of your life and death, will you care about the govt?'

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"We want to take our issues to a wider platform, to the state assembly as people need to hear what we have to say. We believe in democracy and our Constitution and we want to set things right," he says.

He is on the defensive when asked for Chhatradhar's open support to the Maoists who had taken over Lalgarh for nine months in a blatantly undemocratic and unconstitutional move.

"You have to understand. The people there were facing tremendous torture; it was a question of their survival. If it is a question of your life and death, will you care about the government?" he asks.


Image: Manoj Mahato
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
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'The election is a battlefield'

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Chhatradhar also enjoys the active backing of a number of prominent personalities dominating Kolkata's cultural scene, including artists, actors and musicians.

"The election is a battlefield for the marginalised people there. The mass movement had almost lost its voice, Chhatradhar is trying to make their voices heard," says Shumit Chowdhury, a documentary filmmaker and activist.

Amrit Moira, a local social worker, says that Chhatradhar had been working tirelessly to change the appalling condition of the tribals long before political parties took up poriborton (change) as their election slogan.

"They just talk about change. Chhatradhar has actually worked for change for years," he says.


Image: Drummers were part of the rally
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
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'Of course we will win'

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But the folk hero has his share of detractors; plenty of them. Like the state government, many locals believe that the PCPA was a frontal organisation for the Maoists and Chhatradhar has close links with the left-wing ultras. They fear that he has decided to join politics as a last option after he had a fall-out with the Maoists.

Trinamool members openly call him an 'agent' purchased by the CPI-M while a member of the Left Front party scoffs at these allegations, saying, "Why will we bother doing that? He is a fraud."

But does he have any chance of winning the elections for a little-known organisation, as he is pitted against the local bigwigs fielded by major political parties?

As he prepares to get on stage to address the rally, Manoj Mahato gestures towards the people trooping into the ground, some of them still dancing.

"This is the reaction we have received at every place we have campaigned so far. Of course we will win," are his parting words.

 


Image: Many are rooting for Chhatradhar
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
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