West Bengal

West Bengal Assembly Elections | A battle for political revival in an erstwhile Maoist bastion

Chhatradhar Mahato and Mamata Banerjee at a rally in Jhargram.  

As over 20 seats in the Jangalmahal region of south-west Bengal go to polls on March 27, the spotlight is on two leaders on opposite sides of the political spectrum, staking claim to political control over the sensitive area.

Chhatradhar Mahato has been tasked with reviving the fortunes of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Jangalmahal, where the BJP made significant inroads in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections winning all four seats, while Sushanta Ghosh, contesting from Salboni on a CPI(M) ticket, has been given the job to revive the Left to the pre-2011 days.

Both leaders who once “controlled the politics” of the area, have spent time in jail for various misdemeanours and are now out on bail. While Mr. Mahato was slapped with a number of cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Mr. Ghosh was arrested in August 2011 after half a dozen skeletons were recovered from a pond near his house. Investigations revealed that the skeletons were remains of TMC supporters who had gone missing.

The region is set for a tough political contest with flags, banners and posters of the three major political groups visible even in remote villages.

Road through Lalgarh

One of the roads from Jhargram — where the 57-year-old Mr. Mahato wields considerable influence — to Salboni passes through Lalgarh, which was a ‘liberated zone’ of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) from 2009-2011. In those two years, hundreds of civilians, Maoists and security forces were killed in violence that gripped the area around Lalgarh, including Jhargram, Binpur, Bandwan, and neighbouring constituencies of Paschim Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia.

After its rout in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in Jungalmahal, the TMC inducted Mr. Mahato, who was the convener of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, the frontal organisation of CPI (Maoist) during the Lalgarh movement, into its State committee last July. He has been supervising the campaign of Birbaha Hansda, the TMC candidate from Jhargram.

At the makeshift TMC election office inside a quaint, single-screen cinema hall Roopchaya, in Jhargram, Mr. Mahato spoke about his agenda.

“The movement then (in 2009) was against the Left Front government and its excesses. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had also contributed to the movement. We were fighting for a dream, and now we are trying to project the success of 10 years under the Trinamool regime and protect it from false promises the BJP are making,” he said.

Years in jail have made Mr. Mahato, now guarded by men with semi-automatic rifles, a man of few words. But his organisational skills are sharp, and he explained in detail how tribal Jhargram society is divided between Adivasi Santhals and Adivasi Kurmis and his efforts to unite them.

Uneasy divide

About 68 km from Jhargram lies Salboni, which unwittingly got caught in a spiral of violence post 2008. A landmine blast on the convoy of then Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in November 2008 while he was on his way back to Kolkata after laying the foundation stone of the Jindal steel project at Salboni, triggered police action and violence.

Within days of being nominated as a Samyukta Morcha candidate, Mr. Ghosh walked through a village and announced his return.

“The forefathers of the Maoists and Trinamool and BJP know who Sushanta Ghosh is. When I was not there, they could do whatever they wanted. Now if they lay hands on you, I will break their bones and arrange for their treatment,” the former minister of the Left Front government said at a village in Salboni.

The remark, not surprisingly, triggered strong reactions from his political rivals. The CPI(M) veteran spent nearly eight years behind bars and was not allowed in Garbeta, the constituency adjoining Salboni, from where he hails.

Mr. Ghosh has a favourite place to speak to the media — next to the portrait of veteran Marxist leader and former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu.

“This time, the wind is different, the people are not going for the TMC or BJP,” he said, when asked about his prospects in the polls.

Shadow of fear

For the local people of the area, who suffered during the years of violence, the return of both Mr. Ghosh and Mr. Mahato sparks unease.

Chiranjib Maity, in his 30s, remembers the day when his father Sudhanshu Maity, a former local committee member of the CPI(M), was shot dead at home in May, 2010 as he watched in horror.

Pointing to the men in white T-shirts, managing traffic in Jhargram, Mr. Maity says they are former Maoist cadres reinstated by the State government as special home guards. About 70 of them were given jobs months before the polls, he said.

Mr. Maity lives at Lodhasuli in Jhargram and is part of the network of about 417 families whose kin were killed during the violence.

“There are many still missing; we know of 68 people who never returned. Those who were behind the violence have got jobs and those at the receiving end are still suffering,” Mr. Maity said.

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 8:38:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/west-bengal-assembly/a-battle-for-political-revival-in-an-erstwhile-maoist-bastion/article34161195.ece

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