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.