BOOKLET ON POLITICAL VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN WEST BENGAL
The last couple years have witnessed an unprecedented aggravation of political violence in West Bengal. It has increased in intensity in the months before and after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, and has especially affected life, livelihood and property of women living in the JangalMahal areas. With the Assembly elections approaching in 2011, this politics of violence shows no signs in abating. A large section of corporate media is presenting this violence either as the sign of widespread mass discontent against the ruling Left Front—an ‘uprising from below’—or, as ‘state terror’ combined with high-handed efforts by the CPI (M), the major ruling party in the state, to recover slipping control over areas where it had been the predominant political force for a long time; in other words, violence is seen merely as the result of defence of territorial possession by the ruling party in the state. Either way, as they see it, responsibility for all violence ultimately lies with this ruling party. In order to propagate this, facts are being distorted or deleted, stories are being concocted, media images are being manoeuvred at will. At most, in trying to maintain a veneer of neutrality, they are saying that all violence is bad and that the violence of “the people” is more justified than the violence of political parties and the state.
In this way these forces are trying to show that the democratic political system has failed the people and therefore ordinary people have no choice but to react against it. Thus they are trying to delegitimise the achievements and politics of the Left in W. Bengal over the past three decades. It is not accidental that such an attempt is taking place at a point of time when the Left, especially the CPI(M), is the main rallying force to resist the neo-liberal agenda. A section of misguided ‘intellectuals’ are also subscribing to these efforts at disinformation. The truth behind the violence in W. Bengal, however, is far different from what is sought to be projected by these sections.
This booklet provides an account of the ground reality in West Bengal. It is based on the real life experiences and incidents of political violence against women and their families. The analysis presented here shows that the political violence in Bengal is not spontaneous in nature, but represents the coming together of politically reactionary and undemocratic forces to dislodge a popular Left Front government and decimate the cadres of the CPI (M). This is the common aim of both the TMC and the ‘maoists’ who have seized the chance for forming an unholy opportunistic alliance. The Congress on the other hand refuses to acknowledge this alliance even as it calls the maoists ‘the biggest internal threat faced by the country today’.
The impact of this alliance is seen in the fact that more than 120 activists or supporters of the CPI (M) have been killed ( if calculated from the last Assembly elections the number would come to 330), which shows that the CPI (M) is not the cause but the target of the political violence. Prior to the year of the Loksabha elections, in 2008, between 7 April, the day when the Panchayat elections weredeclared, and 20 May, 27 activists of the CPI (M) were killed in 6 districts. Again, in the same year, between 1 September and 16 December alone, 22 such activists were killed by various opposition forces in 12 districts. Also till date, about 5000 people have been rendered homeless in West Bengal because of their affiliation with the Left parties. The tally of the dead also includes 2 Forward Bloc workers, 4 JKP (Naren Hansda) supporters, 2 villagers, a doctor, a nurse, a driver and 3 polling personnel and some others who have no firm political affiliations.
The popular image being created by some civil rights activists, political opponents and the corporate media is turning into a dangerous game not only because it promotes a completely distorted view of reality, but because it is encouraging and reinforcing a form of political terror that West Bengal has not witnessed for a very long time. It is a terror that is being unleashed by the most reactionary political forces in the state, which had remained subdued for a long time, but have been given a new lease of life by the electoral successes of anti-Left forces in the state in recent months and by massive injections of money power and arms which have made possible a congregation of murderous anti-socials of many colours. There can be no doubt that a major factor behind this organized political violence by forces that still constitute the only opposition in the state, is the shift in the electoral fortunes of the Left witnessed in the recent elections, but what also cannot be denied is that this reversal portends the darkest threat to democracy since the Emergency of 1975. The present violence is of a nature that does not remain confined within the public sphere, but affects families as a whole and the private lives of men and women. While specifically targeting the Left, it also creates polarizations within the ranks of the poor including women. Moreover by providing an intellectual justification of the ‘maoist’ violence a situation of confrontation between the local society and the state is deliberately created. This aims to create popular public support for anti-democratic politics that will only lead to the targeting of ordinary adivasi people by both the ‘maoists’ and the security forces.
Women have not been spared in incidents of political murder and other physical atrocities unleashed by the political opposition headed by TMC and Congress(I), reinforced by the ‘Maoists’, the Jharkhand Disham Party and the SUC(I). As early as 2005, Rabindranath Kar, a CPI(M) leader of the Purulia district party had been burnt to death in his own home in Bhomragora in Bundwan Block in a Maoist attack together with his wife Anandamoyee Kar. A similar pattern was replicated in Nakashipara, Nadia on 4 November, 2008, when husband and wife, Mrinal Sarkar and Namita Sarkar, both CPI(M) members, the former a Kisan Sabha leader and the latter a leader of Ganatantrik Mahila Samiti, were brutally gunned down in front of their teen-aged sons allegedly by TMC anti-socials.
In 2007, in the first phase of violence in the Nandigram area, Sumita Mondol, a 14-year old girl from a family with Left sympathies from Sonachura, was raped and murdered allegedly by TMC hooligans; post mortem reports had confirmed rape in this case. The entire family has been since displaced from Sonachura and are now living in shelter camps. Another woman, Kakoli Giri, of Kalicharanpur from the same locality, was also allegedly raped by TMC supporters identified by her by name; she had to escape with her life to a shelter camp in Tekhali leaving hearth and home behind, but did lodge a FIR. Media has been full of stories of ‘hundreds’ of rapes and child-murders on 14 March, 2007 inNandigram by the police and CPI (M) cadres. It is quite true that 14 people died and a number were injured as a result of the most unfortunate and regrettable police action on that day. But reports of child-murder have remained completely unsubstantiated; altogether 2 women lodged FIRs a few days later citing rape by ‘unknown persons’ or police personnel during police action on 14 March, 2007. In the second phase of violence in Nandigram, one woman from Satengabari named Akreja Bibi received plenty of media hype after she alleged that her two teen-aged daughters had been raped and abducted by CPI(M) goons in front of her eyes. Later, the police discovered the two girls safely staying with some of their relatives in South 24-Parganas.
There can be no doubt that since 2007, violence has been endemic in the Nandigram area; people living peaceably as neighbours with one another for a long time have turned into deadly enemies, and until such time as TMC gains complete physical ascendancy in the area, there have been repeated incidents of violence. Radharani Ari, a TMC supporter, had been allegedly beaten up in one such incident. It is likely that Akreja Bibi was also injured at a time when displaced left supporters were trying to regain entry into the village, although the story of her teenaged daughters was obviously concocted. One can only condemn incidents of reprisal where women are beaten up or physically abused and threatened in any way in the name of any political party. But how does one explain media completely deleting some of the concrete cases of atrocities against women and hyping the others? Why do Sumita Mondol and Kakoli Giri receive no media coverage? How can one condone the dishonesty of publicizing the story of Akreja Bibi as gospel truth without any investigation, and blacking out the subsequent recovery of the girls? Why are mediapersons silent about incidents of physical atrocities against women still continuing, after TMC gained complete control over Nandigram? How is it that media expresses no outrage about the inclusion of the name of Rupa Biswas, a teenage girl of Nakasipara, Nadia, found brutally murdered and hanged (26.7.09) in the compound of the house of the accused Shyamal Bhattacharya , a local TMC leader involved in many shady deals, in the list of murdered supporters recently submitted by TMC to the Central Government?
A more recent addition to the series of atrocities against women is the incident of the illegal confinement and continuous sexual torture for seven days of Anjali Maiti of Uttar Kalamdan in Khejuri-1. She is an AIDWA activist and the incident was a reprisal for her refusal to divulge the whereabouts of her husband, a CPI (M) worker, whose life was under threat. She was tortured in front of her six-year old daughter. At present, the family is completely displaced. Anjali told the State Women’s Commission team that met her that other incidents of a similar kind might be happening in the interior areas in Nandigram. Even more recently (27.9.09) in Borodighrui, Pursura, in the district of Hooghly, the brutal killing of Sheikh Hasibul, a CPI(M) activist by TMC goons was accompanied by a woman from the neighbourhood, Siddiqa Begum, being stripped naked and molested. The latter’s mother-in-law, Saifunnesa Begum, had been so severely beaten up in the same incident, that it seemed likely that one of her legs would have to be amputated. Yet she and her relatives kept on telling Women’s Commission members that she had no party affiliations and it was only because she was a neighbour of the murdered man that she had been attacked. Saifunnesa died of her injuries in the hospital on 1 November. But the Railways Minister, Mamata Banerjee, pronounced it to be a ‘normal death’ in a public meeting in Hooghly, while her followers abused and beat up participants in a women’s rally that had gathered peacefully near Champadanga crossing to protest the death.
This shows that even apart from Nandigram, horror stories of attacks on women in any way connected with the CPI (M), are not lacking. On 22 February, 2009, in the village of Gobar-ara, in Dhaniakhali, Hooghly, Jharna Mandi and 4-year old Sumana Mandi, wife and daughter of Loncho Mandi, Adibasi panchayat member of Dhaniakhali Block from CPI (M), were soaked in kerosene and set on fire. Sumana died instantly and Jharna succumbed to her burns in hospital a few days later. From her statements before her death, it appears that she had recognized the criminals who are allegedly connected with the Jharkhand Disam Party which has the tacit support of TMC and the ‘Maoists’. Chandana Ghosh Dastidar, woman MLA from Falta in South 24 Parganas, was subject to a murderous attack from TMC goons on the public road while on her way to a meeting immediately before the Loksabha elections. She was dragged out of her car, thrown down on the road, punched, pulled by her hair and kicked in the stomach. She took shelter in a shop which her attackers threatened to burn down; the police appeared much later to the rescue. Aloka Burman, a scheduled caste woman MLA from Toofangunj, Coochbehar, and Mahfuja Khatun, woman MLA from Kumargunj, South Dinajpur, have also had to face physical attacks by TMC goons since the Loksabha elections. Mahfuja was attacked for protesting publicly against TMC leaders extracting money from beneficiaries in the Rajib Gandhi Rural Electrification Scheme. Manwara Khatun, of Samali, Bishnupur in South 24 Parganas, a CPI(M) activist, was hacked and shot to death more recently (2.11.09) after she protested against the activities of TMC goons who had taken over the area after the murder of Mansef Molla, a former TMC panchayat member. Phullora Mandal, a former Karmadhyaksha of West Medinipur zilla parishad and a CPI(M) wholetimer from a family of agricultural labourers had to leave her home in Lalgarh after receiving constant death-threats from the ‘Maoists’. Today such examples are multiplying constantly.
On 8 May, 2009, after the casting of votes in Nandigram was over, TMC workers made a raid into Satengabari from the side of Brindabanchak and in a shooting spree, hit Aleya Bibi and her two and a half-year old daughter as they were running away. The child later succumbed to her injuries. Some of the national newspapers which reported the incident misrepresented it as a case of the mother and child being caught in crossfire between rival political groups. In another incident on 2 June, 2009 following the elections, Sayantika Rakshit, a teen-aged girl who had come to visit her relatives in Bhupatinagar Thana in Nandigram, died of bullet injuries in the head when TMC hooligans opened fire at random to frighten away their political adversaries. These are some examples of atrocities on victims not having any apparent political links; but even then, these were either not highlighted by media or represented as incidents perpetrated by unknown hooligans.
Disruption of Family, Work and Livelihood
Territorial occupation by TMC and the ‘Maoists’ has taken place first in the Nandigram area in East Medinipur and then in the Lalgarh area in West Medinipur. ‘Maoist’ leaders have themselves asserted that they gave armed assistance to the TMC to take possession of Nandigram; the so-called ‘People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities’ ( PCAPA) which operates as the public face of the ‘Maoists’ in Lalgarh, has a TMC activist as their leader. In the territory occupied by them, they do not allow any other political force to exist, and while their major target is activists and supporters of the CPI (M), their intolerance of all kinds of political rivalry is proved by the manner in which, in Lalgarh,
Adibasi organizations like Bharat Jakat Majhi Marwa and some factions of the local Jharkhand Party, that have stood up against terror, have been coercively marginalized. A few of the activists in these organizations have also been murdered as ‘police agents’. Murders, not only in Nandigram and Lalgarh, but wherever this violence is rearing its ugly head, are accompanied by invasion of homes, attacks on women, children and old people, looting and destruction of property and occupation of agricultural land, causing destitution to people who had a settled livelihood, however meagre.
There has been large-scale displacement of activists and supporters of political parties considered as rivals by the TMC and/or the ‘Maoists’. Foremost among these parties is the CPI (M). Terror results in the destruction of the families of Left supporters. Whenever a political activist is killed, the family very often loses the main earner. In the case of Mrinal and Namita Sarkar, both parents are dead and the young children are left destitute. The murder of 12-year old school student Abhijit Mandal from arrows shot by TMC goons in Satyapirtala in Tehatta-Kantaberia-1 GP in Uluberia, Howrah on 15 July, 2009, has robbed his physically-handicapped parents of their only support. Their political affiliations are not even known. The wives of Khaleque Mallik of Garchakraberia and Abdullah Khan of Jadubarichak in Nandigram, both CPI(M) workers murdered brutally either before or after the Loksabha elections, are now staying in camps with their children. Sarathi Roy, widow of Sasanka Roy a small peasant of Shalboni, killed by TMC-‘Maoist’ violence in West Medinipur, has been forced to leave her marital home with her three children and is staying with her parents. Ashok Kotal of Kharikasuli, Sadar Block in West Medinipur, a CPI(M) activist and a landless labourer of the Lodha tribe, earned a living for his old mother, wife and child by collecting kendu leaves; Shyam Chalak of Keundi, Lalgeria in the same district belonged to the same social category. So did Salku Soren of Kakrachhara, Dharampur or Nabakumar Singh of Goaldanga under Kotwali Thana. All of them had dependent parents and minor children. Agricultural labourers or poor peasants all of them, their brutal murders in the hands of so-called ‘Maoists’ have reduced their families to destitution.
But apart from this, both in Nandigram and in Lalgarh, many families supporting Left parties have been forced to leave hearth and home under threat or because they are unable to pay the hefty ‘fines’ being imposed on them on account of their political affiliation. As has been mentioned earlier, about 3000 people have been rendered homeless in Nandigram and Khejuri alone. In one camp in Haldia alone there are 284 people including 92 women and 72 children; they have been living there for several months and have no idea when they will be able to go without fear to their homes in Nandigram across the river. Even when male members are absconding under threat of their lives, they are constrained to leave behind them their wives and other family members since otherwise, their homes and whatever land they may have are likely to be taken over. This is what has happened to Anjali Maiti and her husband. They are reunited at present in a camp for the displaced, but whatever was growing on their land has been looted and now, whatever agricultural land they had possessed, has been occupied by the forces now dominant in Khejuri-1. According to one estimate, in Khejuri alone, 665 peasants have been prevented from tilling their land this year because they were unable to pay the fine imposed on them by TMC. One can only imagine the degree of economic loss incurred by such families. For example in Lalgarh, Goaltore, Shalboni blocks in West Medinipur, rice on acres and acres of land cannot be harvested because of threats and fines imposed by ‘Maoists’. Rice lies unharvested on a few hundred bighas of land in Binpur-1 block and on about 50 bighas inthe Belatikari area in Lalgarh. In villages like Jhhatibani, Murabani, Gopalpur and Shyamnagar peasants are unable to reap the harvest on their own land as they are being prevented by armed hordes. They are also prevented from sowing potato and other winter vegetables as hefty taxes are imposed on them by the ‘Maoists’ if they do. The negative effect of this on the rural economy is incalculable; women in the area are going to be the worst sufferers.
Where such landed property has been illegally occupied by others, it would be extremely difficult for the legal owners to get it back in the present situation. In this way, displacement for what may be an indefinite time, has led to complete loss of livelihood for several hundred people both in Nandigram and in Lalgarh. Settled householders have been reduced to paupers. Many displaced males from Nandigram have been forced to go away to other parts of the state or even to other states in search of livelihood. The women and the children are left in a completely helpless state. Schooling of the children has been severely disrupted. Inadequate food in the camps is undermining their health. The few women who had any regular jobs like Rikta Das Mondol of Satengabari or Gauri Das of Kalicharanpur, have been forced to turn into absentees. Many of the women are afraid of lodging FIRs with the police although they have suffered from criminal activities like looting of their houses, arson and murderous attacks, since they fear reprisals against their relatives who are still living in the affected areas.
The purpose of this terror is to maintain complete control over the entire area and to destroy the democratic atmosphere in which normal social, political and administrative activities can be carried out. While Nandigram and Lalgarh represent the intensity and tension created by the extreme violence,it should be noted that wherever the rightist forces have gained some political ascendancy (e.g in the last elections) they have unleashed their muscle power and taken recourse to unmitigated violence in the name of ‘popular uprising’. Unfortunately, a section of intellectuals who have very little understanding of the damage being done to the democratic rights of the people through such violence, are warmed by this spectre of ‘popular uprising’ and are tacitly supporting the politics of murder, looting and coercion. If Left political forces had alienated themselves completely from the people, the coercion and the reprisals we are witnessing now, after some advance made by their political adversaries, would not be necessary at all; the violence aims at eliminating whatever contacts the Left possesses with the people. In Nandigram, for instance, the rightists scored a major victory in the panchayat elections. In such a propitious situation, why should CPI (M) members including women, in GPs which the Left had won, be forcibly made to resign from their elected posts by their adversaries, except for the obsessive need to destroy Left influence altogether? What is happening is the total withdrawal of all opportunity for democratic politics through complete subjugation of the people by implementing terror as a policy. Through terror, people are being separated from whatever means they had of organizing themselves against terror. They may have grievances enough against the ruling Left Front; but it is not love for the rightists or the armed extremists that is keeping protest muted.
People residing in the areas in Lalgarh which the ‘Maoists’ have penetrated and where they are acting in cahoots with other rightist forces like TMC under cover of the so-called ‘People’s Committee against Police Atrocities’ are living under an extremely oppressive regime. No programmes forredressal of people’s grievances have been taken up; the sole objective of the Committee has been to keep the police and the civil administration out of the area so that law and order is totally in their hands. Food security, livelihood, health and education services were completely at their mercy in the months when all normal communication was snapped by digging roads and planting mines and cutting trees to create blockades. The streams of people coming to the block office to get government relief once the armed forces had entered the area and restored administrative activities, is a sign of the deprivations they had gone through during the blockade. Even after the armed forces moved in, this terror and deprivation continues in areas where the ‘Maoists’ are still in control. Where combat is going on, the constant possibility of people residing there being caught in between can never be ruled out. Media generally portrays such incidents as ‘excesses’ indulged in by armed forces, but it is also necessary to find out the extent of coercive tactics used by armed extremists on the local people.
Reports show that even in 2008 before the operations began, while the people had been aggrieved by some incidents of police harassment, they were also being oppressed and harassed by the ‘Maoists’ and the ‘people’s committee’. Women could not go to the forest to collect ‘kendu’ leaves for fear of the armed extremists; levies were being imposed on them and on women agricultural workers. They were also being pressed to provide shelter to and to act as contacts for the ‘Maoists’. Failure to do this would lead to their being suspected as police agents. The extremely brutal murders perpetrated by the ‘Maoists’ and the kangaroo courts set up to punish such suspects had initiated exodus of males from the villages even during this period; so the process of displacement in Lalgarh did not start with the entry of the army, as sometimes propagated by media. Levies and fines imposed on school teachers and anganwadi workers naturally affected these services. The blowing up of a mobile medical van in Shalboni causing the death of the doctor and the nurse (both Adibasis) as well as the driver led to the near suspension of medical services in the area. The family of the young nurse was shattered and her mother committed suicide a few months later. According to one report, because of the blockade, 6 persons including 4 children died without treatment in Lalgarh. A young woman, Nasima Bibi, lost her unborn child because she could not be taken to hospital in due time. Administration being in abeyance, police could not take measures even in cases of ordinary crimes against women. In June, 2009, before the armed personnel entered the area, the illegal confinement and torture of an Adibasi woman, Sombari Mandi, after she had been branded as a ‘witch’ by some villagers in Dumurkota near Jhargram, could not be stopped by the administration or the influential Adibasi organization in the area because the area was in the grip of ‘Maoist’ terror. The woman was ultimately helped by some other villagers to escape. By preventing the police and the administration from entering the Lalgarh area, the ‘Maoists’ and their allies were thus also helping crimes against women to flourish. It is likely that the schoolgirl, Mamoni Kisku, for whose fever and subsequent death Sombari had been held responsible might have been saved by being taken to the District Hospital if the blockade and the terror had not been there.
The message of terror spreads pretty fast. It does not remain confined to Nandigram and Lalgarh. It becomes a message for further territorial occupation, particularly when a MP elected from the state in the last Loksabha elections gives the call that not one person should be left to hold a red flag within his constituency. The SC-dominated village of Sholbaga ,in Uluberia, Howrah, which was known to have largely voted Left both in the panchayat and Loksabha elections, knew it to their cost on 17May, 2009, when the entire village was burnt down by 300-400 TMC hooligans armed with lathis, choppers and revolvers. They descended on the area from the other side of the river which forms a boundary to the village, at a time when mostly women and children were there. The women put up a stiff resistance but had to retreat and to watch from a distance all their houses and whatever movable property they had being destroyed. Even the house of a TMC supporter got burnt down in the melee. Suchitra Dalui, a woman in the last stage of her pregnancy, was helped by her neighbours to hide behind some bushes nearby and gave birth to a child on the same day. However, they did not leave the village and received police protection and relief from the district administration.
The troubles in Mangalkot in Burdwan, which got so much press coverage after some Congress(I) MLAs had to beat a retreat in the face of the resistance of the villagers, started when following the murder, allegedly by anti-socials in cahoots with Congress(I) and TMC, of a very popular CPI(M) district leader, Phalguni Mukherji, attempts were made by the two opposition parties to take over the area. Such disturbances are going on in many places and increasing the fear of violent displacement. Arambagh in Hooghly, which is traditionally a left stronghold, is another area where disturbances are being created to capture villages as also the gram panchayats. In Pursura alone, 6 CPI(M) workers have been killed. 170 houses have been looted and razed to earth, 7 gram panchayat members and one panchayat samiti member have been forced under threat to resign. In Udna in Khanakul, a makeshift arms factory and arms training centre is being operated by TMC. 187 Left activists and supporters from various places in Arambagh have been displaced. 29 TMC supporters are also absconding, but most of them are charged with criminal offences. In Khanakul, on 26 November, a non-political villager, Ananta Dalui, was killed by a bullet when TMC hordes were out to capture a village, Chandraban. The TMC entered the village and torched houses of Left supporters. But later they refused to be present at the all-party meeting for peace called by the administration. In a recent meeting with a central team, DMs from 9 districts informed the former that when all-party meetings are called to restore law and order and allow displaced people to return home, TMC leaders invariably boycott these meetings, showing that they have no intention of respecting democratic norms of functioning.
In a normal situation, citizens would be living more-or-less amicably with neighbours of other political persuasions from day to day; there might be skirmishes during election time, but things would settle down again. Law and order problems would surface, but the situation would be within the control of the administration. Elected panchayats of whatever political colour would be allowed to function normally. But in areas under occupation by TMC/ ‘Maoists’, the situation is not the same. The atmosphere of terror, mutual suspicion and hatred hangs thick. Those who have no active political affiliations or even those who have expressly supported the dominant political force in the area have to constantly demonstrate their continuing allegiance, sometimes by reporting against their neighbours or by joining in their persecution, for instance when search for alleged arms caches in their residences by armed gangs goes on. Sometimes when their neighbours are displaced through persecution or threat, they are given the opportunity of assuming occupancy on the latter’s property and this strengthens their ties of interest with their benefactors. But then again, more returns are expected of them. In other words, by driving out the supporters of the Left parties from the territory the security of the common man does not increase.
Typically in ‘Maoist’-dominated areas, whenever there is occasion for confrontation with the police or armed forces, women and children in the locality are recruited and used as ‘human shields’. This tactics was effectively used in Nandigram by the TMC on 14 March, 2007, in the face of police action. Now we know from statements by ‘Maoist’ leaders that they had been in the area to advice and aid the TMC. In Gohomidanga in Lalgarh, when the armed forces were camping in schools, the ‘Maoists’ and the PCPA capitalized on the entirely justified popular demand to release the schools as soon as possible and mobilized the students and some teachers to go on an indefinite hunger strike demanding immediate withdrawal of armed forces from Lalgarh, in spite of the fact that the State Government promised to find alternative accommodation for the armed forces by the end of July. When the police lathi-charged the aggressive crowd, the girl students were put in the frontline of attack. Fortunately, any major confrontation was avoided. That ‘Maoists’ are also recruiting minor boys and girls into their squad is proved by the case of Sulekha Mahato of Banspahari in Lalgarh who was inducted into their group by ‘Maoists’ after she quarrelled with her mother and ran away from home. She was rescued by the police in 2006 and has recently returned home after spending 2 years in Liluah Home under the supervision of the Juvenile Justice Board.
In a situation of terror, mobilization of this kind happens not just through coercion, but by spreading an atmosphere of fear and mutual suspicion. Mass-hysteria is whipped up against the ‘adversary’ to be confronted. After 14 March, 2007, people, including trained psychologists, who had visited the women victims of police action in Tamluk District Hospital or SSKM Hospital in Kolkata, were struck by the fact that their trauma resulted not only from having actually faced police action, but also from being fed continually with rumours, a lot of it unfounded, of the atrocities of their ‘adversaries’, ‘CPI (M) harmads ( pirates)’ as they would inevitably be called. Visitors, not local people all of them, would bring them the latest from the locality and excite the patients with these rumours; the patients would also keep on mouthing these rumours among themselves and adding new embellishments so that each time the story would be reconstructed. What someone had heard from a neighbour would turn into eye-witness account, until the atmosphere of the ward itself became highly charged with paranoiac fear. It is not that the women victims alone were prone to this paranoia, but they were very effective, often unconscious, agents of its transmission. They genuinely believed that they had to be in the frontline of the battle to protect their near and dear ones from the harmads. This whipping up of fear and hatred makes ordinary villagers, men and women, suspicious and intolerant of their neighbours and helps the terror to continue.
Attacks in Panchayats: An Assault on Local Democratic Rights
Panchayats, the instruments of local self-governance in the rural sector, were strengthened and activated during Left Front rule. Regular elections in which people could vote in accordance with their own choice became the order of the day because of the legal and administrative curbs on the power of big land-owners or jotedars. The financial autonomy of the panchayats was ensured and more than 50% of developmental expenditure in the state was done through the panchayats. Studies have shown that a fairly large section of panchayat members, particularly at the block and village panchayat level, are from the poorer sections of society, including scheduled castes, tribes and minorities. Through reservation for women in panchayats, women’s representation in panchayatsgrew steadily and came to be more than 40% ( In the 2008 panchayat elections it is slightly less than 40% in all three tiers combined, GP-38.69%,PS-37.33%,ZP-39.47%).
The situation changed with the panchayat elections in 2008. The Left Front suffered reverses in all three tiers of the panchayat system and lost 4 zilla parishads out of 18 and a good many blocks and gram panchayats particularly in South Bengal. This can happen in the course of the electoral process where people are free to choose their own representatives and is a condition of democratic governance. But what happened in the areas where the anti-Left Front alliance won was quite unprecedented. This happened not only in South 24 Parganas and East Medinipur where the zilla parishad has been won by the alliance, but even in places in Hooghly, Nadia, Birbhum, Murshidabad and other southern districts where majority in the highest tier of the panchayat is still with the Left Front.
What is being noticed is that gram panchayats where the Left are in majority are not being allowed to function; there is one report from Birbhum according to which NREGS is being subverted in some places by beneficiaries being promised part of the wages even without doing any work, provided they shift their allegiance to TMC members. Left panchayat members are also being systematically threatened and coerced to disown their political affiliations. This is most widespread in ‘Maoist’-infested areas, where the forms of violence are most acute, but is happening in other districts too. Not only that, violence is being unleashed in panchayat areas where the voters are known to be pre-eminently left-leaning and they are being subjected to torture and harassment. Earlier, people living in the same village, but having different political affiliations, were at least able to co-exist; now instances of displacement as a result of political antagonisms are no longer uncommon and in the majority of cases, it is Left supporters who are at the receiving end. Examples are given below.
In 5 block panchayats in Khejuri, East Medinipur, which have been strongholds of the CPI(M), TMC which has become the dominant political force in the district is using open terror tactics to make panchayat members resign. Firstly, the member’s house is being visited in full force by TMC hordes and a deadline is being given for submitting his or her resignation. Sometimes the houses are being searched to recover ‘hidden weapons’. Anyone trying to resist the pressure is either under death-threat or being forced to pay a hefty fine. Neither men nor women are escaping this persecution and resignations are being forced even at gunpoint. This has happened in Tekashi, Kalagecchia and Jahanabad gram panchayats, to name a few, in Khejuri-1 Block. Terror was unleashed in all the five block panchayats including Khejuri-1 that are under Left control. On 8.6.09, the village of Kalagacchia was attacked by armed TMC activists on motorbikes; they entered houses of Left supporters on the pretext of recovering arms;15 houses including the house of Subrato Kar, panchayat pradhan of Kalagachhia, and Prajapati Das, karmadhyaksha of Khejuri-2 Block were set on fire. In Panskura, Govinda Samanta, a panchayat member of Keshapat, was murdered by TMC goons for refusing to bow down to their demands.
Many panchayat members, including members of the zilla parishad, have had to escape from their homes to avoid this persecution. In Bhajachauli gram panchayat in Kanthi-3 Block, East Medinipur, where CPI-(M) members predominate, terror started immediately after the 2008 elections. TMChordes entered village after village and engaged in attacks on property, looting and arson, forcing even ordinary supporters who had voted for Left parties to leave their homes. Fines are being imposed on anyone not toeing their line. The elected parliament member from the area (TMC) is known to have announced publicly that not one red flag will be left flying in East Medinipur. Panchayat representatives from Khejuri gave a deputation to the panchayat minister on 23 November where they have given detailed account of the coercive methods by which panchayat members have been forced to resign, the manner in which various schemes for the poor like NREGS, Indira Awas Yojna and Old Age Pension Scheme are being misused and the threats which are being employed to keep members away from panchayat offices.
Similar incidents of intimidation and persecution are taking place in other districts where anti-Left forces have achieved victory in the zilla parishad. In Keoradanga gram panchayat area under Bishnupur Thana in South 24 Parganas, where TMC has wrested the zilla parishad from the Left Front, on 22.5.09, a murderous horde attacked the house of Nityananda Naskar whose wife Sabita had contested a block panchayat seat, and killed Manoranjan Naskar, Nityananda’s father who intervened to save his son’s life. In Malda, Congress won the zilla parishad as they had done earlier, but they lost in Duishatabighi under Kaliachak Thana and Arabinda Mandal, a Forward Bloc activist, one of the architects of the Left Front’s victory, was attacked brutally by Congress goons on 17.05.09 inside his small mobile servicing shop, as a result of which he died. In Jadupur, Kaliachak in Malda, Russel Sheikh, the son of a CPI(M) activist, was killed by Congress goons who wanted to prevent the growing influence of the CPI(M) in that locality as a result of which the latter did well in the panchayat elections.
Even in districts where anti-Left forces do not have the same ascendancy, they are taking recourse to terror tactics wherever they can. One of the most glaring instances of this is the murder of Phalguni Mukherji, a member of Burdwan zilla parishad and the karmadhyaksha of the Electricity Division and a very popular CPI(M) activist of the district. On 14.06.09, as he was going on his motor-bike from Dhanyarukhi in Mangalkot towards Khudrun, he was set upon by three people and shot to death at close range. He was able to identify his murderers before his death as Congress and TMC workers. This caused so much anger in the area that some houses of TMC supporters were torched, and some had to leave the area. The corporate media highlighted this incident and also the fact that Congress-I leaders and MLAs were chased by the women in the locality when they went there, but not the fact that they were accused by the villagers of coming with the alleged murderers in tow. The fact that TMC did not attend the all-party meeting called by the administration to allow all displaced persons to come back to their hearth and home was also ignored in the biased reports in the media. In Khanakul, Hooghly, where TMC is desperately trying to gain political ascendancy, a woman member of Khanakul-1 Block panchayat, Mita Das, was harassed and manhandled by TMC supporters and then handed over to the police on the trumped-up charge that a revolver recovered from a nearby pond had been in her possession. In Borodighrui and Gholdighrui in Pursura, Hooghly, where the murder of Hasibul Sheikh took place and there was massive looting and arson by TMC goons, seven panchayat members from Pursura Block and Shyampur gram panchayat including women members Antesa Begum, Chhabi Hajra, Shikha Bag and Banasree Samanta were all forced to resign under threat of death. The residence of Sabita Malik, vice-chairperson of Shyampur Panchayat was also attacked.
In Murshidabad, where in the last panchayat elections, the Left Front had recovered the zilla parishad, Mirajul Sheikh and Ajmat Sheikh, CPI(M) supporters, were killed by Congress anti-socials and several others were injured after one village in Kapashdanga in Beldanga block, where the gram panchayat is under Left control, was surrounded and attacked by armed hordes (4.9.09). The aim was to intimidate the villagers and wrest control of the gram panchayat from the Left. On 11.9.09 and 27.10.09 respectively, in two similar separate incidents, where Congress had not been able to win in Manikchak, Lalgola, and in Mahisail-2 gram panchayat, Suti, they killed party workers Ramen Ghosh( Manikchak) and Jaiphal Mandal and Dhajen Mandal( Suti). On 20.9.09, Zikria Sheikh, a CPI(M) activist was murdered on the festive day of Eid itself, in Sundarpur, Barean, to avenge the victory of the party after a long time in the gram panchayat. Marzina Begum, a block panchayat chairperson and karmadhyaksha in Murshidabad zilla parishad, was attacked by Congress anti-socials along with her married daughter. The widespread arson committed by TMC hordes in the village of Sholbaga, Howrah, mentioned earlier, was motivated both by revenge and intimidation because while TMC had won the gram panchayat this time, the particular booth in the village still voted overwhelmingly for the CPI(M) candidate. This is the extent of vengefulness that is demonstrated by the Opposition in West Bengal. Padma Santra, a panchayat member from Panchla Block in Howrah was forced to sign a paper by local TMC leaders saying she was giving up her association with CPI(M); later she went to the thana and complained of this coercion. She is now getting death-threats from the TMC, and was forced to abscond from home for a while.
The situation is worst in the Maoist-dominated areas in the Lalgarh Block in West Medinipur. The panchayats there are not being allowed to function at all, so that development work since last year has been severely hampered. Over and above, kangaroo courts are being set up in villages to coerce elected panchayat members from Left parties, both men and women, to publicly resign from their posts and to disaffiliate themselves from the party of their choice. This is being done in the name of ‘popular anger’ although everyone in Lalgarh knows that it is ‘Maoist anger’ that villagers are frightened of and that is what compels them to attend these ‘courts’. In one horrifying incident, the school-going daughter of a CPI(M) panchayat member in the Lalgarh area was forced to write posters announcing that her father had dissociated himself from the party. ‘Maoist’ terror has targeted the Belpahari Block in particular because in spite of their threats the CPI(M) won in the block panchayat election handsomely in 2008. Similarly retributive violence in going on in Shalboni where the influence of CPI(M) had been on the increase. Several murders have taken place in these areas in the last year ; the murders of Shyam Chalak, Sambhu Mahato and Kartik Mahato, a school teacher killed inside school premises in front of the children, are cases in point. In Shirshi, Dherua-1, a CPI(M) stronghold where they won the last elections, a ‘Maoist’ squad entered the village, attacked the house of the local CPI(M) leader Gurucharan Mahato, brutally beat up his wife Sulekha Mahato and when Gurucharan came to rescue her, they carried him off into the forest and killed him by slashing his throat. Still more recently,on 28.11.09, Karuna Mahato, a pradhan in the Shalboni area, was dragged out of his home at night , taken to the nearby forest and shot dead, while Tulsi Singh, a woman member of the same gram panchayat was abducted. She was able to return subsequently.
The ‘Maoists’ are trying to spread these same terror tactics in Purulia and Bankura where the Left parties are particularly strong. In Chatuhasa gram panchayat in Arsha, Purulia, Lbeen winning consistently. Last year, just before the elections, the ‘Maoists’ made a murderous attack on Rambishnu Sing Sardar, the zilla parishad candidate from CPI(M); but in spite of their efforts, victory went to the latter. Then on 29 August, a squad gunned down at close range Lakshmikanto Kumar, a popular local leader of CPI(M) at Chatuhasa who had stood up against their intimidations and had played a major role in ensuring electoral victory. In Tatari village in Pooncha, Purulia, Brihaspati Mahato, husband of Chhabirani Mahato, an elected panchayat member, was visited in his home at night by a murderous horde, who did him to death even while he was in his bed, for the sole crime that he was a CPI(M) member. While in the Lalgarh area, most panchayat members from the Left parties are staying away from their constituencies as they are under death-threat so long as they do not give up their political affiliations, in adjoining Purulia and Bankura too , they continue to be in danger. Alaka Tudu, a member of Bankura zilla parishad lost her father, Gatilal Tudu, a local leader of CPI(M) to ‘Maoist’ violence; but the family has not changed its affiliation.
Thus violence is disrupting the entire panchayat system in some parts of the state. Women panchayat members from the Left parties are under the same threats as their male counterparts. But it affects them all the more because it was only through a long struggle against patriarchy both at home and in society that women were coming forward to take their share in panchayat elections and panchayat administration. Continued violence would make it impossible for them to contest elections and to work within the panchayat structure. As holding meetings of gram samsad and formation of gram unnayan samitis becomes more and more hazardous, the possibilities of grassroot participation and continuous public scrutiny of panchayat work would recede, reducing all the more the participation of women in villages in local self-administration. Violence at the panchayat level, disrupting development programmes in the area, would also severely affect rural economy thereby causing more distress to the rural poor, particularly the women among them. The state has won the second position in the country for panchayat work this year in spite of all disruptions, but it may soon begin to pay the price of widespread violence.
In official reports sent from South 24 Parganas zilla parishad, where TMC has won massively, there are 76 panchayats, with 14 lac population, where not a single day’s work has been generated under NREGS this year, while on the whole the state is in the fourth position in the country in generating work under NREGS. In Tamluk block panchayat , which is completely dominated by TMC, the chairman and his group has brought a no-confidence motion against the woman vice-chairperson after both sides traded charges of corruption stalling all developmental work.
Resisting Reactionary Political Violence
Suspicion and fear works both ways and this often leads to actual confrontations between two groups of people. Resisting violence of the kind that is spreading in West Bengal today needs not just bravery, but a great deal of political maturity. It cannot be done without maintaining contact with one’s neighbours and winning their confidence; it has to be done by raising common demands from the ground to the administration for basic civic needs which are being hampered by the proliferation of violence. Displacement must be forestalled because once Left activists leave an area as they have been forced to do in Nandigram or Lalgarh, it is difficult to retrieve the ground. It must be eft parties haveremembered that in spite of threats and attacks, we do actually find people continuing with organizational activities in affected areas at great risk to themselves. Phullora Mandal is staying away from her home in Lalgarh, but she has not given up her political activities. The father of Alaka Tudu of Bankura was killed by ‘Maoists’, but she is continuing her work as an elected member of the zilla parishad. Indrani Mukherji an ICDS supervisor and a local leader of GMS from Indas, Bankura, was severely beaten up so that her arm was broken in a TMC attack in which 82 houses of CPI(M) supporters were torched, but she continues to be politically active.
In Sholbaga , it is good to see that the TMC supporter whose house was mistakenly burnt down on the day of the attack has not left the village, but is sharing his woes with those villagers who are politically on the other side. But two other houses which also belonged to TMC supporters and which had escaped the torching are now deserted, because these families are suspected of having sheltered the attackers. Ideally, when the situation returns to normal, these families too should be able to come back. This would be a test of whether terror has been finally exorcised from the village; but the wounds are still too raw. The resistance being offered by Sholbaga against terror lies in the fact that the women of Sholbaga do not want doles; they want restoration of their houses at the earliest. The women expressed their determination to fight any future attacks by anti-socials. They want that the administration should not delay in giving them duplicates of their EPIC and ration cards and of birth certificates of their children which were burnt to ashes after the village was torched. They demand that they should be helped to form self-help groups, a facility of which they have been deprived since the GP was captured by TMC. These are the healthy voices of people who refuse to be cowed down by violence. In Sholbaga, the other sign of resistance is that apart from the support provided by the district administration, mass organizations like CITU, Krishak Sabha and AIDWA have expressed their solidarity with the villagers and are providing them with relief and rehabilitation materials.
In Mangalkot, after the heinous murder of Phalguni Mukherji, there were allegations of some houses of TMC supporters in the village of Dhanyarukhi being torched. Following this, the district administration called an all-party meeting to restore law and order. TMC did not attend it; on the contrary, some of its state level leaders and elected representatives and on another occasion, some Congress(I) MLAs, tried to enter the area accompanied by some anti-socials accused of being involved in the murder of Mukherji. On both occasions, the women of Mangalkot played a crucial role in preventing them; they said they would not be allowed to enter so long as they were accompanied by persons accused of a brutal murder. Even after TMC supporters returned to their homes with administrative intervention and Section 144 was imposed in some villages to ensure that cultivation might start without further law and order problems, these opposition leaders and elected representatives are still going on trying to create trouble in the area by violating Section 144 and helping anti-socials to infiltrate the villages.
In Khanakul, Hooghly also, resistance is going on. People are joining in rallies and street meetings, defying terror. In Prasadpur under Sonarpur thana in South 24 Parganas, on 21 November,villagers resisted TMC goons who were trying to loot the harvest from the fields and chased them away, although Minati Mandal, Mato Mandal and Becharam Mandal were severely injured by bombs thrown by the culprits. In Arsha, Purulia, on 20 November, Jagabandhu Mishra and Dayal Garaiwere saved from a ‘Maoist’ attack right in the middle of a marketplace when unarmed villagers gave chase to the armed killers who had attacked them. Even in Lalgarh, the dreaded hunting ground of ‘Maoists’, the people of Sijua, Shalboni, and of nearby Garbeta and Chandrakona, are organizing to beat back the ‘Maoists’ in spite of threats to their lives. Abhijit Mahato of Bankshol, Jhargram, Salku Soren of Dharampur, Ramkrishna Duley and Krishna Kundu of Sarenga, Bankura, or Madar Ali Molla( Canning), Aburali Mandal and Hossain Mandal( Baruipur) of South 24 Parganas, were brutally killed precisely because they were trying to build up resistance against violence. Such activists are still holding their ground. To refer to a lighter incident, on 15 August, 2009, at dead of night, Gourhari Thunder, a TMC supporter of the village of Kherua, was caught red-handed by his own son and daughter-in-law while trying to set fire to the thatched roof of his own residence by dousing it in kerosene. He confessed that his leaders had instigated him to the act by promising him money, so that CPI (M) might be accused of arson. His son and daughter-in-law refused to have anything to do with this plot. It is through such deliberate instigations that the underhand attempts to perpetuate violence are going on. Women are playing an important role in resisting this wherever they are able.
According to a recent report sent by the State Government to the Central Government, in the ‘Maoist’-infested areas in West Medinipur, in spite of all obstacles, development work has not been altogether stalled in the disturbed blocks. Under NREGS upto October this year, 22 lakh 19 thousand labour days have been created by spending 26 crore 56 lakh rupees, whereas last year the number of labour-days created had been 13 lakh 79 thousand by spending 16 crore 99 lakh rupees. 723 ponds have been dug in the area. The Forest Department has been involved in NREGS work. The BPL list has been revised to bring 54,195 more families within it, more than 80% of Adibasi families are now covered by the list. 11000 additional people have been included in the Old Age Pension Scheme and 6200 more women in the Widow Pension Scheme. Cooked mid-day meals are being provided in 3128 schools and meals for 500 destitutes per day under the Sahai Scheme. 8 additional medical camps have been set up in tribal areas and there is no village in the area without supply of drinking water, tap water as well as tubewells. Schools are being vacated by the armed forces and necessary cleaning and repair has been under way. That some development work is possible in these circumstances is perhaps partly a positive effect of the much-debated presence of the armed forces. But the other important factor here is that if the people had been completely alienated from the administration, even these small advances in the social sector would not have been possible. The administration is also continuing with relief work, as for instance during the recent indefinite bandh, Jhargram Municipality distributed 22 quintals of rice among 600 families affected by the stalemate.
Interpreting the Ground Reality
Thus, the ground reality in West Bengal is quite different from what the one being projected by the aggressive widespread campaign of the TMC /Maoist combine, some civil rights activists and the corporate media. This is not a spontaneous upsurge or a no-confidence motion by the adivasi people but the result of an organised “political vendetta” by right wing and reactionary forces. It is the deliberate and ruthless attempt to capture the space occupied by those belonging to a particular political dispensation, through direct killings, and by preventing the functioning of democratic institutions. This booklet reveals the ways in which the activists, and sympathizers of the Left are targets ofviolence unleashed by these forces to reverse the democratic political processes and development that has resulted from the long period of Left Front rule in the state
The accounts of experiences from the affected areas clearly show how democratic institutions like panchayats and the grass root level leadership that has emerged from within the adivasi society have been systematically undermined. In the course of their effors at decimating this leadership, the anti Left opportunistic alliance has slipped into also becoming a confrontation with the Indian state. The casualty of this will naturally be the ordinary adivasi whose welfare and survival is dependent on positive state interventions. Above all, these forces do not want peace to return, rather, they want the violence to continue.
The methods of political violence have resulted in subjecting women and other vulnerable sections of society to a great deal of misery and suffering. On the one hand women have been targeted directly and physically, they have been victims of assault and violence. They have become the “internally displaced” as they have been forced to leave home and hearth to save themselves, and their families. Their livelihood has been badly affected, and they have lost even what meager assets they possessed. Their access to health, education, and Govt. support schemes has been severely eroded. And the plight of the widows, and fatherless children whose numbers are growing by the day is a stark reminder that the fallout of this merciless killing is being borne by the women and children.
The absolute control that the TMC Maoist combine wants to establish, in defiance of the rights of common citizens under the law, is indicative of their character, and the degree of violence shows how far they are willing to go. It also shows that these forces do not stand for the interests of the ordinary tribals but for their own political interests and the vested interests that stand behind them.
The challenge before the nation, and society today is to understand the truth behind what is going on in West Bengal, and to raise their voices in defence of democratic rights and the rule of law. The government in West Bengal and every level of local self government is legally and democratically constituted to provide articulation and space for every shade of opinion and every section of the people. This cynical disruption of all these institutions and mechanisms in the name of change, would only signal the return of the semi-fascist state of the early seventies or worse.
Let us unite with the people of West Bengal who are resisting this onslaught bravely, and send out the message that they are not alone in their fight to safeguard democratic rights, AIDWA pledges its support to the people of West Bengal, and calls on all forces committed to democracy to join hands in this struggle.
CPI (M) candidate won from the Jhargram (ST) Lok Sabha constituency, securing 59 per cent of the polled votes and winning by a margin of nearly 3 lakhs, in an election where the Left and the CPI (M) had otherwise suffered electoral reverses.
LET US SEE HOW TRIBALS HAVE FARED:
l Condition of the tribal people in that region is better compared to the tribal areas of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh or Orissa where the Maoists appear to be more deeply entrenched.
l Over the last 31 years, the land redistributed in West Medinipur district has benefited 57 per cent of the tribals and other backward communities. Upto November 2008, 176668 tribals have received pattas for 197350.49 acres.
l Similarly, 7829 tribals have received house sites and 23452 of them have been recorded as bargadars (secured tenants).