Kolkata: It’s just about five months since Chhatradhar Mahato, the poster boy of the Maoist-backed tribal-movement in Lalgarh that drew national attention during 2008-2011, returned home after spending 10 years in jail. And he is back in the news.
In February, he returned home and started hobnobbing with the state’s ruling party, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC). In March, the Union ministry of home affairs asked the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to reopen an 11-year-old murder case in which Mahato was one of the accused. After getting permission from the NIA’s special court in Kolkata to reinvestigate the August 2009 murder of a Communist Party of India (Marxist) worker, a group of NIA officials paid a visit to Lalgarh on July 20. On July 23, TMC announced Mahato’s formal induction in the party, appointing him as a secretary of the state unit.
Mahato’s induction happened along with a slew of organisation changes that saw TMC bringing to the fore young and ‘taint-free’ leaders to prepare for the assembly election of 2021. However, it was Mahato introduction that drew the greatest attention.
Political analysts see in these recent developments hints of a greater political battle – with the TMC trying to use his image to regain votes lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), not only in Mahato’s native district of Jhargram but also in neighbouring areas of Purulia, West Midnapore and Bankura districts that share historical, geographic and demographic similarities, and with the BJP-led Centre trying to put him under pressure by getting an old case reopened.
Coming after the land agitations in Singur and Nandigram, the Lalgarh movement was considered to have struck the final nail on the coffin of the Left Front’s 34-year-old regime. The movement’s influence was spread across 10 assembly constituencies in four districts. Going by the 2019 Lok Sabha election trends, the TMC is trailing the BJP in all these seats.
The Legacy that Mahato carries
Chhatradhar Mahato was a small trader of forest produce when a public agitation broke out in Lalgarh area of Jhargram (earlier West Midnapore) district, protesting ‘police excess’ in the aftermath of a landmine blast that hit the tail car of chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s convoy on November 2, 2008. The blast was engineered by the Maoists, who had been active in the area since 1998.
Following the police’s witch-hunt in search of the perpetrators, the local people formed the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), with Chattradhar Mahato as its spokesperson. Chhatradhar had a different identity too. He was the elder brother of Shashadhar Mahato, one of the architects of the Maoist organisation in the arid and forested areas in the districts of West Midnapore, Jhargram, Purulia and Bankura, popularly called Jangalmahal.
The PCAPA’s movement soon got the open backing of the Maoists and the locals forced the administration out of an area of about 100 sq km, with the police remaining locked up in their stations, until the Centre-state joint forces started operations in June 2009.
As the spokesperson of PCAPA, Mahato had emerged as an articulate and aggressive speaker. Thousands used to gather to listen to him blasting the government for underdevelopment and suppression of protesting voices. PCAPA had also started initiating development projects – running health centres, digging ponds and irrigation canals, building roads. After some of Bengal’s top intellectuals met him in Lalgarh, Mamata Banerjee too shared a dais with him in February 2009.
It took a dramatic and daring operation to arrest him – CID officers who posed as journalists picked him up from a press conference at Bansber village on September 25, 2009. Gradually, he was named in 39 cases and charges under myriad sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Between November 2008 and November 2011, Lalgarh and its surrounding areas stood witness to a bloody battle between the Maoists, security forces and the armed militia of CPI(M) cadres popularly referred to as Harmad Bahini. As a result, the Lalgarh movement went down in history as one of the bloodiest phases of armed conflict in India, recording the deaths of 355 civilians and 53 members of the security forces at the hands of the Maoists. About 80 Maoist leaders and activists were also killed by the security forces and CPI(M) cadres.
During 2009 and 2010, the Jangalmahal region accounted for more than one-third of India’s civilian deaths at the hands of the Maoists – 314 of the 869 deaths across nine states.
Since the change of regime, Jangalmahal was the region that attained the highest priority in Mamata Banerjee’s development agenda.
The turning of the wheel
The jailed Mahato’s decision to contest the May 2011 assembly elections as an independent candidate from Jhargram irked Mamata Banerjee, who wanted her own nominee to win the seat. Mahato lost and the TMC candidate won, riding the state-wide pro-TMC wave. After the change of regime in 2011, a committee appointed by Mamata to scrutinise the release of political prisoners – a key electoral promise – recommended the release of Mahato, along with some others. But Banerjee, still angry with Mahato, did not heed. In May 2015, a district court convicted and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
The wheel started turning in favour of him after the TMC received a massive blow from BJP in the 2018 panchayat elections in Jangalmahal. The results came as a shock to Banerjee, as she had made developing the backward region one of her prime focuses. The areas, indeed, stood witness to a slew of development projects since she took over as the chief minister.
In an intriguing change of stance, during the second half of 2018, when Mahato appealed before the Calcutta high court against the lower court verdict, the government lawyer supported his plea. The state’s advocate general Kishore Dutta had argued that “there were glaring illegalities in the way the prosecution was conducted.”
“In this case, the State itself chose to question the validity of the judgment and the order of conviction and sentence,” reads the high court order dated August 14, 2019 that reduced Mahato’s punishment to 10 years’ rigorous imprisonment, a term that Mahato had already completed.
From end-2018, Mahato was released on parole several times and stayed mostly in hospital and at a rented place in Kolkata along with his wife, under the watch of the police.
He was finally released in January 2020 after obtaining bail in connection with a case at Chakulia police station in Jharkhand.
According to a top West Bengal bureaucrat who did not want to be named, the government waited for the fall of the BJP-led government in Jharkhand so that the succeeding government could be requested to see that the public prosecutor in the Jharkhand court did not oppose Mahato’s bail plea. Till then, bail petition in connection with Mahato’s last case in West Bengal had not been moved, so that the state government could keep him in its own custody in case Jharkhand’s BJP government sought his custody.
On his return to Lalgarh on February 2, Mahato received a hero’s welcome, with scores of TMC workers, including his former associates who had joined TMC over these years, felicitating him at different places en route his home. It was construed that he too would soon join the party.
Mahato called his new assignment a ‘homecoming’ and ‘a dream come true’. In a sense, this marks a full-circle for him. He was the vice-president of the TMC’s Lalgarh bloc unit before he got involved with the PCAPA. Now, he is one of the four leaders from Jhargram district who made it to the state committee – the three others being MLAs serving their second term.
“I always wanted to work under Mamata Banerjee. I have been with TMC since the birth of the party in 1998. And there is no reason why I should I oppose her now, as the areas have undergone a massive transformation under her rule,” Mahato said over phone from his Lalgarh residence, speaking a few hours after getting the news of his appointment.
“There is no hunger. The scarcity of drinking and irrigation water has been addressed, electricity has reached every corner and the road network has greatly improved. Health and educational infrastructure have undergone massive uplift,” he said.
Political analysts, however, think Mahato is going to face a herculean challenge. First, the BJP dealt the TMC an even ruder blow in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, winning all seats that represent the Jangalmahal area – Jhargram, Purulia, Bishnupur and Midnapore. And second, from being a stringent critic of the existing Left government in 2008-2009, he would now have to defend the existing TMC regime that has also earned certain disrepute.
Mahato seemed to be well aware of his challenges. Asked what he considered the principal reasons of TMC’s dwindling support in Jhargram, Mahato said, “People voted for the BJP not because they were inspired by its ideology. They simply voted against the TMC because they were angry with the highhandedness and malpractices of a section of grassroots level workers.”
According to him, the people’s anger was against a section of local TMC leaders and not against Mamata Banerjee. “Besides, there were gaps in organisational coordination.”
Political analyst Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, agreed on Mahato’s assessments. He, however, pointed out three major challenges that Mahato would have to face.
“First, he has less than a year in hand. Second, as he is being imposed on the local leaders, and the TMC being a non-regimented party, he is most likely to face non-cooperation, and even sabotage, from the leaders whose influences would be curbed. And third, due to the COVID-19 situation, he would get little opportunity for making direct contact with a large number of people,” Basu Ray Chaudhury said.
One TMC leader who did not want to be named sounded apprehensive. “Mahato may no longer enjoy the same reputation, as the government’s role behind getting him released had created a public perception about a secret deal between Mahato and the party,” the leader said.
Maidul Islam, who teaches political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, however, called this move ‘Mamata Banerjee’s best bet’.
“She needed to change local faces but had few choices. TMC also lacks prominent faces from the backward communities (SCs, STs, and OBCs) in its leadership and Mahato hails from the OBC community. Besides, the supporters and activists of PCAPA had joined TMC en masse since 2011-2012 but a majority of them became inactive over the past few years and some even voted for BJP out of anger for TMC. Mahato can pull this section back,” Islam said.
Islam cited another reason why Mahato became so crucial for TMC in the high-stake game battle for 2021. According to him, “The BJP’s growth in Jhargram, and the entire Jangalmahal region, is also because of the groundwork of various organisations affiliated to the RSS. Mahato, and his band of former PCAPA organisers, are gritty people. The TMC needs gritty people to take on the RSS.”
The move elicited varying reactions from former PCAPA leaders who are now with the TMC. Shyamal Mahato, the party’s Lalgarh block president who was one of Chhatradhar’s closest aides, sounded jubilant. “With him leading from the front, we are confident of scripting a turnaround story. What could be better than Mamata Banerjee and Chhatradhar Mahato working together?” he said.
Chudamani Mahata, a former PCAPA leader who won two terms from Gopiballabhpur Assembly seat in Jhargram district and had served as a minister for two years, did not sound as enthusiastic as Shymal Mahato. “The party has taken the decision with certain plans. Let’s wait to see how the people accept it,” he said.
The saffron party hinted on Thursday that it would launch a campaign accusing the TMC of harbouring Maoists. “The decision exposed the TMC’s tie-up with the Maoists, which was being alleged since 2008-09. TMC is now trying to bring back the reign of terror of those days. The decision will leave local people in grave anxiety,” said Sukhamay Satpathi, BJP’s Jhargram district unit president.
For the record, Maoists no longer have any armed squad active in the state. The last batch of Bengal’s Maoist guerrillas have been based in Jharkhand’s districts bordering Jhargram and Purulia for the past few years and are led by Akash, the former Bengal state committee secretary of the CPI (Maoist).
Chhatrahar Mahato does not disown his past with PCAPA, which the state police and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had dubbed as a frontal organisation of the Maoist party.
“It is because of our movement that Jangalmahal became the focus of the new government’s development agenda,” he argues.
Speaking on the reopening of the 11-year-old murder case by the NIA, he also showed some perseverance. “The BJP is using the NIA to intimidate me. I am accepting the challenge and will fight it out. I will keep opposing their communal politics,” said the 57-year-old.
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based journalist covering politics, security, environment, socio-economic and cultural issues. He authored Lalgarh and the Legend of Kishanji: Tales from Indian’s Maoist Movement.