An encounter with Chhatradhar Mahato: Monobina Gupta

This guest post by MONOBINA GUPTA is the original of the article published in The Times of India today.

Monobina’s book on Left politics, Postcards from the Margins, is in press with Orient Blackswan, forthcoming in 2010.

The Delhi bound Rajdhani Express held up by supposed ‘Maoists’ for seven hours in West Medinipore had emblazoned on its body: Chhatradhar Mahato is a good man. He is not a criminal.

People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA) Chief Mahato was put behind bars in the aftermath of waves of violence lashing West Bengal post 2009 general election results. There was speculation that the PCPA was demanding Mahato’s release. Equally, there was curiosity about Mahato who till a couple of months ago, did not seem to fit the bill of a gun-toting Maoist, a cold-blooded executioner.

When I met Mahato in Lalgarh on the eve of general elections in March earlier this year, he spoke a democratic language far removed from guns and killings. On my arrival that day I found Lalgarh abuzz with news of police picking up three villagers supposedly Maoists, and a murdered PCPA activist.  Mahato was in the midst of an organizational meeting under a tree in Lalgarh’s sublime, verdant surroundings. A tall, lanky man, smartly dressed, with a pair of sunglasses to beat the piercing July sun he was sitting with his comrades putting inside envelopes hand-written notices for PCPA’s next public meeting. Brother of Sashadhar Mahato, a Maoist fugitive, Chhatradhar was catapulted to the PCPA leadership virtually overnight, following a brutal police attack on villagers in the aftermath of a Maoist plot targetting Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.
Mahato said he would talk to me after lunch. The PCPA was running a community kitchen inside a mud hut where activists had their meals – rice and vegetable curry. This was where I met Mahato relaxed, lying down on the refreshingly cold mud floor.

For a man till recently unskilled in the art of communication, Mahato talked with precise clarity, dissecting issues, separating the strands of violent Maoist politics from the PCPA. He was getting used to his new public profile – addressing press briefings in Kolkata’s Press Club, engaging with Mahasweta Devi and intellectual in the city. Back in Lalgrah Mahato would travel village to village on a motorbike, chalking out plans of action.

His political trajectory, however, began with the Congress. Born in 1964, the eldest of three brothers, Mahato completed his Higher Secondary from Ramakrishna Mission Vidyapeeth. He went on to join Midnapore Day College, where he had his first taste of activism as a member of Chhatra Parishad, Congres’ student wing. Those who know him well say he was a follower of Mamata Bannerjee, then a Youth Congress leader. Mahato did not finish his graduation.  Later he joined Trinamool Congress. In 2001, when the police was randomly picking up tribals as Maoists Mahato’s political beliefs underwent a drastic change. By 2009, even as the media at large collapsed the PCPA and the Maoists as one, both Mahato and initially the Maoists themselves claimed they were distinct organizations with different agendas.

Under PCPA leadership Lalgarh had barred the entry of police. But the movement was still democratic. Mahato admitted the agitation could not be grounded solely in resistance to police atrocities. “We cannot make it the sole cause. There are development concerns – access to drinking water, more tube wells, bore wells; the issue of autonomy of Jangalkhand,” he said.  In addition to PCPA’s original 13-point charter of demands the committee had adopted a nine-point programme, seeking community rights over forests and land, recognition and promotion of Santhali language, development of Santhali script and autonomy of the Jangalkhand area.

I asked him about the extent of Maoist influence over the movement. “Maoists are there but they are not controlling the movement. PCPA is an autonomous body. We take our own decisions after consulting village-level committees,” said Mahato. Ten member committees, including 5 men and 5 women were actively functioning in the villages among them two, a man and a woman, were part of the central coordinating committee. The central committee could not take decisions independent of village committees.

He emphasized one of the high points of the movement was not allowing political parties entry into Lalgarh with party banners. The rallying symbol was PCPA, the ultimate authority. Not even security personnel accompanying political leaders were allowed inside. Mamata Bannerjee had to leave her security outside Lalgrah before she could address a meeting.
Did Mahato believe in ‘revolutionary violence’ as preached by Maoists today? In more ways than one he did not seem to fit either in the mould of the founding fathers of the 1967 armed insurrection or their contemporary ‘progeny’– the Maoists. Firstly, Mahato never explained the Lalgarh movement in the language of Marx or Mao. Neither ‘class struggle’ nor ‘armed insurrection’ constituted the spine of his arguments. The PCPA chief underlined the need to resist police repression and bring long-delayed development to the tribal backwaters. Secondly, unlike the Maoists, Mahato never spoke of capturing the Indian state through insurrection. In fact, the capture worked the other way round: the Maoists wanted to exert absolute authority over the PCPA. In the end they did succeed in the volatile aftermath of 2009 general elections.

Interestingly PCPA and the Maoists differed fundamentally in their approach to the 2009 general polls. Mahato said PCPA was not seeking a poll boycott since it would only benefit the CPI-M – a position drastically at odds with Maoists who threatened to disrupt the polls through violence. The PCPA was demanding the polls be held without police since their entry into Lalgrah was barred. He shared his comrades’ apprehension that a forced entry by police may trigger a violent confrontation in Lalgarh. The violence post 2009-poll however washed out distinctions between PCPA and Maoists. Mahato and his friends in the civil society while condemning state violence seemed to turn a blind eye to Maoist killings. Chhatradhar Mahato in that turmoil became the ‘Most Wanted’ political fugitive.

4 thoughts on “An encounter with Chhatradhar Mahato: Monobina Gupta”

  1. yes the maoists are capturing everything and destroying democratic movements – run run run. nobody, chattradhar or anyone, even kobad gandhy is going to tell u in your face that yea i am a maoist. if you go around asking people then nobody will claim to be one. you want to look at a banned underground party with organic links with the people, as though its members will be card-carrying members – the way elite kids would become members of communist parties. so what mahato told the present writer is multi-layered. it was something he told for you, considering who you are, your subject-position and so on. he is not going to tell you the ‘truth’. the way lot of people go to the field, or no matter how you go to the field, since you carry your subject-position you will never get the point – the maoist movement is ‘underground’ and inaccessible in that sense. and the ‘ordinary villager’ is smart enough to see through ‘city people’. they know how to keep you overground! please stop writing anything about the maoists. take it easy. even arundhati roy, with all her incisiveness, is overground, difference being she seems to realise that and hence does not transpose nonsense on the maoists.

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  2. When people say they are Maoist it is true, and when they say they are not Maoist, they are lying.
    There is only one People, and the CPI-Maoist is its Prophet.
    The rest of us must “please stop writing anything about the maoists” because only what they say about themselves is true. They can “transpose” anything they want on to “The People” (whom they own) and on to “middle class intellectuals”, but nobody can say anything about them.
    Yes, we get it, we get it. The problem for you, Srinivas, is really that many of us – including large sections of The People – do get exactly what you mean.

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  3. Most of us learn about PCPA from various sources. Some would like one to believe that PCPA was a democratic movement caught in the crossfire between state and maosist.Some would project PCPA as an(other) front organization of Maoists.
    Some would project PCPA as a grass roots response to the governments apathy to their needs and later the brutal intervention.My (limited) understanding is that PCPA started off as a grassroots movement with an agenda but was
    caught in the whirpool of events and found it too
    difficult to sustain as an independent movement.
    State is responsible for that to a great extent.
    ‘The violence post 2009-poll however washed out distinctions between PCPA and Maoists. Mahato and his friends in the civil society while condemning state violence seemed to turn a blind eye to Maoist killings. Chhatradhar Mahato in that turmoil became the ‘Most Wanted’ political fugitive’
    Perhaps this was what the CPI(M) wanted.

    It would be interesting to know how the left governments in Kerala and WB have responded to such non-party grassroot movements and whether their response is different from that of
    other state governments.

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  4. It never stops to amaze me, that how far collective denial can go. All political parties are armed. They are all grabbing power by violence. Look at CPIM. Who are Harmads? They are gandhian cadres? Why did CPIM backtrack in Nandigram? They did so facing a non-violent movement? No, CPIM was armed, so were the locals. Arms were supplied by TMC in Nandigram. If it hadn’t been so, Nandigram would have been “recaptured”.
    Yes, PCPA was a spontaneous formation, they were armed albeit with traditional weapons.
    And then in June, CPI(M) harmads fired upon a peaceful rally by the PCPA, near the village of Dharmapur. PCPA retreated, but regrouped and retaliated, resulting in the death of CPIM harmads. This was the turning point. They regrouped and could retaliate because now they were armed with fire-arms.

    PCPA came up with a 13 points charter, demanding some very basic rights. Why didn’t anyone from the WB ministry sit down with it? When senior police officers can offer apologies to some intellectuals for an incident that occurred in Nandan, the cultureal hub in Kolkata, why can’t they do so to the adivasis whom they have been brutalising for years? Why could not the ministry make them do so?
    It is very convenient to put the blame on maoists saying they are the one not allowing any space for peaceful movement. Really? Why is it then all democractic non-violent movements are being brutally repressed by the mainstream political parties?

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