By SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADYYAY
FRONTLINE, Volume 27 - Issue 18 :: Aug. 28-Sep. 10, 2010
West Bengal: The PCPA's support of Mamata Banerjee's Lalgarh rally points to a covert Trinamool Congress-Maoist understanding.
UNION Railway Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee's rally in the Maoist stronghold of Lalgarh in Paschim Medinipur district of West Bengal on August 9 could not have come at a better time for the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). At a time when its influence was seen to be waning in the forested Jangalmahal region spread across the three districts of Paschim Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia, it found a sympathetic friend in the Trinamool Congress, a key constituent of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. Mamata's “apolitical” rally calling for peace and development in the region becomes significant when viewed in the backdrop of the recent reverses the Maoists received at the hands of the Central forces and increasing resistance to them from the local population.
Addressing a large gathering on the Ramkrishna Vidyalaya grounds in Lalgarh, with social activists Medha Patkar and Swami Agnivesh sharing the dais with her, Mamata appealed for an end to the violence in the region and asked the Maoists to come to the negotiating table. “I want you to give me a date for talks. Let this politics of terror stop. If necessary, the joint operations [of the Central and State forces] will also cease during negotiations,” she said at the rally, which had the full support of the Maoists and the Maoist-backed People's Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA).
This was the first time in over one and a half years that a mainstream political leader had held a rally in the trouble-torn region, and the first time that Mamata openly admitted to the presence of Maoists in West Bengal. Not long ago, she had even refused to attribute the violence and murders in the region to the Maoists, claiming it was activists of different factions of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) that were killing each other.
CHANGE OF STAND
From openly supporting the PCPA and even sharing the dais with former PCPA convener Chhatradhar Mahato in February last year, Mamata was seen to be distancing herself from the organisation as the violence perpetrated by it in the region began spiralling out of control. Initially, she did object to Central and State police forces carrying out joint operations in Jangalmahal, but her subsequent silence on the situation, supposedly out of political compulsions, led to considerable resentment among the Maoist leadership. However, on August 9, for the first time she publicly acknowledged their hand in the violence. “I appeal to everyone, including Maoist friends, to abjure violence and come to the dialogue table,” she said.
Mamata's reference to Maoists as “Maobadi bandhu” (Maoist friends) is significant. Koteswar Rao alias Kishenji, polit bureau member in charge of the CPI (Maoist)'s operations in West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa, had earlier exhorted Mamata to “choose a side”. He had at one point even accused her of indulging in “political opportunism”, pointing out that the Trinamool Congress accepted the Maoists' help in fighting the CPI(M) in Nandigram and Singur and turned its back on them when Mamata's political fortunes soared after a series of electoral successes in the State. But things have now changed between the two parties, with Kishenji welcoming her initiative for “restoring peace” and extending his full support to the rally and Mamata in turn resuming her call for the withdrawal of the joint forces once the Maoists declared a ceasefire.
Apart from the irony that the very perpetrators of violence have now welcomed the process of peace, there is also the matter of Maoist strategy to be considered here. Violence is central to the Maoist political ideology. “Prepare for peace during war, prepare for war during peace, because war and peace are essential parts to the art of war,” a military manual of the Maoists says, quoting from Sun Tzu's “The Art of War”. The call for peace at a time when their hold on the region is seen to be weakening may have come as a welcome breather to the Maoists and allows them valuable time to regroup and reassess the situation. “They do not believe in renouncing violence. Experience shows that they are very unlikely to lay down arms, and all this talk of peace and negotiations may be tactical measures, perhaps to buy time or create confusion, as their military manual suggests,” A.K. Maliwal, Additional Director General of Police and Director, Security, told Frontline. The fact that Maoists killed six people in the region in less than a week after the rally serves as an indication of the little regard they have for Mamata's call for peace.
The turnout of around 40,000 people at the rally may not be truly reflective of the political mood in the region, if police reports are to be considered. “We had information three days before the rally that PCPA and Maoist activists were mobilising villagers at gunpoint,” said a source in the police.
The people of Dalilpur Chowk, Chhotopelia and Boropelia, the villages where the PCPA movement originated, refused to attend the rally, while a procession of barely 20 people came from Mahato's Amelia village. “It is clear that the Maoists are under tremendous pressure as people are fed up with them and want to come out of their influence. The number of villages that were once with them and which now did not join the rally is a pointer in that direction,” said Manoj Verma, Superintendent of Police, Paschim Medinipur. Though there have been reports of armed Maoists and members of the PCPA, including its new chief Manoj Mahato and spokesperson Asit Mahato, roaming the interior villages of Lalgarh, marshalling people and leading processions on the day of the rally, they were conspicuous by their absence at the venue itself.
Another shot in the arm for Mamata's “Maoist friends” came when she, in her speech, denounced the killing of top Maoist leader and spokesperson Azad in a supposed encounter with the police in July in Andhra Pradesh. She called it “khoon” (murder), a point that did not escape the CPI (Maoist). “There is no doubt that Azad was killed in a fake encounter. Mamata Banerjee spoke the truth and there is no reason for the furore over the issue in Parliament,” Kishenji reportedly said. The “furore” in Parliament that he referred to, putting the Congress in a very uncomfortable spot, was the offensive launched by the Opposition parties, including the CPI(M) and the Bharatiya Janata Party, in both the Houses against Mamata's statements.
Though the State-level leadership of the Congress has lauded Mamata's endeavour to “create an atmosphere for negotiation”, it has been guarded in its response to certain comments by her pertaining to the withdrawal of the security forces and Azad's “khoon”. “It is certainly somewhat embarrassing for us, and the leadership is a little concerned where this is heading and whether in the long run it will help the Maoists to spread their influence or actually persuade them to come for talks,” a senior Congress leader in the State told Frontline.
On August 18, Kishenji reportedly suggested a ceasefire for 72 days and indicated the Maoists' willingness to sit down for talks with Mamata as mediator. “The President and the Prime Minister in their Independence Day speeches have appealed to the Maoists to abjure violence. We are never for violence, but the government has instigated us to take up arms,” he said.
However, he made it clear that if the government was keen to end violence and establish normality in the disturbed areas, then it would have to take the initiative and withdraw the joint forces and order a judicial inquiry into Azad's murder. Kishenji also apparently demanded the resignation of Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram. Asked Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member: “When the Trinamool and the Maoists are in collaboration, how can one party serve as a mediator?”
While it is true that Mamata was careful not to have any Trinamool colours flying at the Lalgarh rally in order to emphasise the “apolitical” nature of it, in truth it turned out to be yet another exercise in vitriol against the ruling CPI(M). The speeches of Medha Patkar and Swami Agnivesh sounded more like an election campaign; Medha Patkar accused West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee of “playing the politics of bloodshed” and Agnivesh announced that the time had run out for the CPI(M)-led Left Front government in West Bengal and that “the new era is that of Mamata Banerjee”. Mamata too, after showing initial restraint, lapsed into her usual aggression and warned the CPI(M) that it would not even get one seat from Jangalmahal in the Assembly elections due next year.
The inconsistencies were glaring. On the one hand she acknowledged the killings by the Maoists and implored them to lay down their arms. On the other, she said, “Who is benefiting from these murders? CPI(M) cadre are taking advantage of the situation and murdering people and blaming the Maoists.”
Police statistics tell a different story. “So far, of the 200-odd people who were murdered, three or four belonged to the Trinamool and around 180 were from the CPI(M),” said Manoj Verma. “The killings have served to set an example to others to fall in line or be eliminated. It is clear that there is a design to create a political vacuum.”
Whoever fills this vacuum will politically benefit from it.