Why Mamata Banerjee’s Induction Of Former ‘Maoist’ Into Trinamool May Not Yield Expected Dividends
The face of the Jangalmahal agitation, Chatradhar Mahato, has been inducted by Mamata Banerjee in a bid to check BJP's growing influence in the region.
But given the changed dynamics of the region, the loss of faith among the adivasis in the Trinamool and the local party unit worker's displeasure over this imposition, this move may not do great good to the TMC.
When Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee formally terror-accused Chatradhar Mahato into her party last week, not many were surprised.
Speculation had been rife for quite a while about Banerjee deciding to use Mahato to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party which had emerged as a strong force in Jangalmahal. Banerjee is banking on Mahato to check the BJP, which won five of the six Lok Sabha seats in Jangalmahal last year.
In accordance with this plan, the Bengal government did not oppose Mahato’s petition seeking a review of the life sentence awarded to him for terror activities before the Calcutta High Court in August last year.
The High Court the life terms awarded to Mahato and three others to 10 years’ imprisonment.
As Mahato had already served a decade behind bars, he walked out of prison earlier this year. Since then, the Trinamool leadership has been negotiating his entry into the party.
Who Is Chatradhar Mahato?
Mahato was the face of the Maoist-backed People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) in Jangalmahal — the forested areas of Purulia, Bankura, Jhargram and Paschim Medinipur districts — from November 2008 to end-2011.
The Jangalmahal agitation was the most violent chapter in Bengal’s recent history; 355 civilians, 53 security personnel (state police and central forces) and 80 Maoists were killed in the three-year period.
Many of those killed by the Maoists were innocent, and the killings were carried out with the sole objective of creating terror (read ).
The agitation, directed against the CPI(M)-led Left Front, proved to be the final nail in the Left’s coffin.
The PCAPA came into being as a popular resistance against police excesses against the adivasis of Jangalmahal following a Maoist-triggered that damaged a vehicle in then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s convoy on 2 November 2008.
The blast occurred at Salboni in Paschim Medinipur. Bhattacharjee, along with his senior cabinet colleagues and then Union Steel Minister Ram Vilas Paswan had gone there to lay the foundation stone of a steel plant.
The blast triggered largescale raids and arrests of scores of people by an overzealous state police force.
Egged by the Maoists, the local adivasis launched a protracted struggle and established a ‘liberated zone’ spread over a 100 square kilometre area.
This zone became a ‘no-go’ area for the state police and the administration.
The PCAPA, with Chatradhar Mahato as its most prominent face, became the de facto administration in the area.
Mahato, a fiery speaker, was suspected of having strong links with the Maoists, who enjoyed a free run in Jangalmahal for many months.
After repeated proddings from the then UPA government at the Centre, the Left Front government agreed to launch joint operations by the state police and central forces in June 2009.
Chatradhar, a college dropout who was a small trader in forest produce, eluded the police for many months.
He was ultimately by a team of state CID officers from a place near his native Amlia village who went there posing as journalists.
He was named in 39 cases under the IPC, CrPC and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA.
Mahato was convicted, along with three other PCAPA activists, by a lower court in 2015 and lodged in prison.
Mahato’s Maoist Links
Despite his ambiguous denials, Mahato’s links with the Maoists who had been active in Jangalmahal since 1998 were well-known.
His younger brother, Sasadhar, joined the terror outfit in 1995 and underwent arms training.
Sasadhar became a key member of the CPI-Maoist operations in Jangalmahal and was behind the on an Eastern Frontier Rifles camp at Silda in Paschim Midnapore in February 2010 that killed 24 jawans of the state force.
Sasadhar’s wife, Suchitra alias Sulekha, was also an active armed cadre of the terror outfit.
Both were also behind the horrific that led to the deaths of 148 passengers of the Jnaneswari Express in May 2010.
The sabotage derailed the train, and a goods train speeding down the opposite tracks then collided with the passenger train, leading to the horrific deaths.
Sasadhar was ultimately killed in an encounter with the joint state-Central forces at Binpur in Jhargram in March 2011.
Chatradhar was also said to be in close and constant touch with CPI-Maoist politburo member Mallojula Koteswar Rao alias Kishen.
Kishen was the architect of Maoist activities in Jangalmahal and was behind all acts of terror committed by his outfit.
The PCAPA itself was backed by the Maoists.
Despite many denials by Chatradhar Mahato and other PCAPA leaders, police had unearthed a lot of evidence about the PCAPA being the overground force of the CPI-Maoist in Jangalmahal.
In fact, the PCAPA used to help journalists get appointments with top Maoists like Kishen.
Chatradhar Mahato himself helped many journalists, including this writer, get interviews with Maoist leaders in 2009-2010.
The Trinamool Connection
Chatradhar Mahato joined the Chatra Parishad, the students’ wing of the Congress in Bengal, when he was a student at Midnapore Day College.
He says he was “inspired” by Banerjee.
Later, when Banerjee broke away from the Congress and formed the Trinamool in 1998, Mahato too joined the party.
Mahato eventually became the vice-president of the Trinamool’s Lalgarh unit before he got involved with the PCAPA.
After his induction into the Trinamool last week, Mahato told reporters: “I have always been a huge fan of Mamata Banerjee since her days in the Congress. It will be a privilege to work for the Trinamool and revive the party in Jangalmahal”.
Mahato had shared the dais with Mamata Banerjee at a public meeting organised by the PCAPA at Kantapahari in Lalgarh in February 2009. That triggered angry allegations of a secret alliance between the Trinamool and the Maoists from the CPI(M).
Many political observers say that the Maoists systematically targeted functionaries and supporters of the CPI(M), the dominant political force in Jangalmahal at that time, in order to create a political vacuum there.
The Trinamool easily stepped into that vacuum and won handsomely from that region in the 2011 Assembly elections and the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
Political scientist Sabyasachi Dasgupta, who has researched the ‘Lalgarh Movement’ (as the Maoist-backed PCAPA’s resistance was popularly known), feels that the events leading up to the launch of the movement were well-orchestrated by the red terror outfit.
“The Maoists had the capacity to carry out a major blast (at Salboni) that could have easily damaged (then) chief minister Buddhadeb Bhatacharjee’s car. Instead, they planted only a weak mine that caused only minor damage to the tail car of the convoy. So the intention was not to assassinate Bhattacharjee, but to provoke a police crackdown that would trigger resentment amongst the adivasis who were already upset with the state government for decades of neglect and under-development, and their resultant poverty,” surmised Dasgupta.
That is exactly what happened and things played out to the script prepared by the Maoists.
The Maoists took advantage of the indiscriminate raids, arrests and excesses committed by the police following the Salboni blast and quickly birthed the PCAPA.
In hindsight, says Dasgupta, it was only the Trinamool that benefited from the ‘Lalgarh movement’.
In Nandigram, too, the Trinamool’s links with the Maoists have been repeatedly exposed (read and ).
Fallout with Trinamool
Chatradhar Mahato decided to the 2011 Assembly elections from Jhargram as an Independent candidate.
This irked Mamata Banerjee, who thought that Mahato would scupper the prospects of her own candidate.
Mahato, who was in prison, got 20,000 votes and secured third place.
Even though the Trinamool candidate won, Mamata Banerjee nursed a grudge against Mahato.
Releasing political prisoners from jail was one of the pre-poll pledges of the Trinamool.
After its win in May 2011, Mamata Banerjee constituted a commission to look into charges against all political prisoners and recommend the release of deserving ones.
This committee prescribed Mahato’s release, but Banerjee ignored the recommendation.
After coming to power in mid-2011, Banerjee distanced herself from the Maoists.
This distancing process culminated in the of Kishen by security forces in Jhargram in November 2011.
Even senior Trinamool leaders, including Banerjee’s nephew and party MP Abhishek Banerjee, that the Trinamool supremo had ordered the Maoist leader’s killing.
The BJP’s Rise In Jangalmahal
The Trinamool captured power in Jangalmahal, as in the rest of the state. But disillusionment set in very soon since most of the party leaders at the local level started indulging in corruption and nepotism.
Local Trinamool leaders became arrogant and alienated the people.
Widespread public disenchantment with the Trinamool facilitated the rise of the BJP.
The RSS and its affiliates had been doing a lot of good work among the adivasis, and that also helped the BJP.
The 2018 panchayat polls provided a good indication of the rise of the BJP in Jangalmahal.
Despite widespread intimidation and rigging of the polls, the BJP bagged 42 per cent and 33 per cent of the panchayat seats in Jhargram and Purulia respectively.
In the Lok Sabha polls the next year, the BJP swept all five seats of Jangalmahal.
That set alarm bells ringing in the Trinamool, and Mamata Banerjee decided it was time to bring back Mahato and use him to counter the BJP.
Banerjee’s Calculation And Why It May Not Work Out
Mamata Banerjee felt that Mahato's release from prison would make the OBCs, who constitute 33 per cent of the electorate in Jangalmahal, happy. Mahato belongs to the Kurmi community, which is listed as an OBC.
The OBCs had gravitated towards the BJP over the past two years.
While Mahato has been given overall charge of the party machinery in Jangalmahal, a number of other tribals (or STs, who form 28 per cent of Jangalmahal’s electorate) have also been drafted and given minor positions within the Trinamool.
Many of those who have been brought in to the Trinamool are ex-PCAPA cadres.
“They are very good organisers and know the entire area very well. They have very good connect with the masses from their days in the PCAPA,” said a senior Trinamool leader.
However, the Trinamool tried the same formula and even created an ‘army’ of former PCAPA activists and Maoists to counter the BJP before last year’s Lok Sabha elections (read ).
But that desperate measure did not bear fruit.
That’s because disillusionment with the Trinamool among all sections of the electorate in Jangalmahal is complete.
The PCAPA cadres who joined the Trinamool after 2011 have all benefited and have enriched themselves.
They have, thus, lost credibility and are largely looked upon as opportunists.
Chatradhar Mahato is also viewed with suspicion even by many of his former associates who have not joined the Trinamool.
His two sons and his wife have got government jobs, and people view his release from prison as a ‘compromise’ he has struck with the Trinamool for his own benefit.
Many of the welfare measures announced by Mamata Banerjee for Jangalmahal remained only on paper, while the remaining suffered from faulty implementation and endemic corruption.
And the institutional apathy towards the adivasis and OBCs remains unchanged.
Also, Chatradhar Mahato has got less than a year to set the Trinamool’s house in order and regain lost ground for the party.
His task has been made more difficult by the pandemic which precludes any mass contact programmes where he could have made an impact.
Mahato has also been somewhat cornered by the NIA investigations into his past activities (as PCAPA convenor) by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.
This investigation is bound to hang like the proverbial Damocles’ sword over Mahato, who is widely accused of having close links with Maoists.
And the imposition of Mahato on the Trinamool party unit in Jangalmahal will not go down well with local party leaders whose interests and turf will be adversely affected now.
The Trinamool is not a regimented party and leaders at the district, sub-divisional and block levels function as virtual satraps.
Many such local Trinamool leaders who are resentful of Mahato being imposed on them will work against him and that will damage the party’s prospects.
But for Banerjee, this was the last desperate gamble to stave off the threat to her position from the BJP.
Jangalmahal accounts for more than 45 Assembly seats, and if the BJP wins a majority of these next year, there would be little hope for Mamata Banerjee to retain Bengal.
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