The battle line in Bengal’s tribal heartland of Jangalmahal has been drawn. It’s extreme right versus radical left. The Trinamool Congress on Thursday (July 23) inducted in its state committee Chhatradhar Mahato, a former leader of a Maoist-backed organisation to counter the extreme right-wing leaders such as Swami Aseemanand, who are helping the BJP’s growth in the area.
Aseemanand, BJP’s grassroots agent?
Just two days before Mahato’s induction, West Bengal police allegedly forced Aseemanand to leave the state. The radical Hindu leader, who was indicted in a series of terrorist attacks including the Ajmer Dargah blast and Samjhauta Express blast, had been camping in the area since the first week of June, according to police sources.
He had reportedly visited several villages in Jangalmahal area, spread across four contiguous districts before being “asked” by the cops from Bagmundi Police Station in Purulia district to leave the state on July 21.
“A person who identified himself as officer-in-charge of the Bagmundi Police Station threatened to arrest me though there is no case against me. Later the police said that I should leave Purulia as there could be an attack on me on the night of July 21. They said I should immediately leave the state. Police arranged for my passage to Ranchi,” Aseemanand told a local newspaper over the phone from an ashram in Jharkhand’s capital on Friday (July 24).
The police though deny the charges of him being forced to leave the state, admit he had been staying alternatively at a tribal hostel and an ashram in Purulia since his return from the Andaman Islands soon after domestic flight services resumed operation by the end of May.
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Since his acquittal by an NIA court in the Mecca Masjid blast case in April 2018, Aseemanand, whose real name is Naba Kumar Sarkar, has been frequently visiting the tribal villages of the state and covertly helping the growth of the BJP in the area.
Several BJP leaders privately admit the important role the former activist of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) played to help the party expand its base in the 10 tribal dominated assembly constituencies of the Jangalmahal since 2018 panchayat elections.
In the last Lok Sabha elections, the BJP pulled a surprise by sweeping Jangalmahal and its adjoining area wresting Jhargram, Medinipur, Purulia, Bankura and Bishnupur constituencies.
Aseemanand started working for “Adivasi Kalyan Ashram” of the RSS in the state’s tribal districts, way back in 1977. He had been instrumental in setting up of several tribal hostels and ashrams in the area.
Though he was never seen overtly campaigning for the BJP, immediately after he had gotten the reprieve from the court, the BJP state president Dilip Ghosh at a public rally said he would be happy to see Aseemanand’s return to Bengal, where he was born, to work for the BJP.
TMC answers with Naxal leader
To regain its lost ground, the TMC roped in Mahato. Unlike the BJP, the party is not hush-hush about its association with the former convenor of the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), who was convicted by the court for sedition. It has rehabilitated Mahato politically by giving him an important post of one of the secretaries of the party’s state committee.
“It was my dream to help the people under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee. I am happy that my dream has been fulfilled. The Trinamool will make the comeback in Jangalmahal,” Mahato said reacting to his new role.
The induction of Mahato did not come as a surprise as he had been attending TMC’s political programmes in the area since his release from jail on February 1. But it has definitely raised many eyebrows as the man was accused in an abortive attempt on the life of former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee near Lalgarh in November 2008.
After that attack, police launched a massive crackdown in the erstwhile Maoist stronghold areas of West Medinipur, Purulia, Bankura and Jhargram that comprise the Jangalmahal area. To protest against the alleged police high handedness, Mahato organised a mass movement under the banner of the PCAPA and rose to prominence.
Mamata Banerjee then as an opposition leader had extended moral support to the people’s movement and even shared a dais with Mahato in early 2009.
Soon in the region, he became the most popular face of resistance against the then CPI (M)-led Left Front government. His movement helped the Maoists to gain control of the area as people under the PCPA’s leadership violently resisted police’s entry into the region. His brother Sasadhar Mahato, who was killed in a police encounter in March 2011, was a top leader of the proscribed Communist Party of India (Maoist).
Chhatradhar Mahato was arrested by police officers disguised as journalists when he was addressing a press conference at Lalgarh in West Midnapore district in 20009 and was charged under several sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967.
A district and session court in 2015 sentenced Mahato to life imprisonment after holding him guilty for sedition. Then Public Prosecutor Rajkumar Das had pleaded for life imprisonment of Mahato for being associated with Maoist movement.
“Those who are ruling the state today were associated with the people’s movement in Jangamahal before 2011. They (TMC) reaped the benefit of the movement but are convicting those who were behind it,” Mahato told journalists while he was being taken away from the court premises after his conviction.
After the TMC’s dismal performance in the panchayat elections in Jangalmahal, the party started mending its relation with the former PCPA leader, hoping he could rejuvenate the party in the area using his old charisma. His son Dhritiprasad Mahato was given a job in the Lalgarh branch of Vidyasagar Central Cooperative Bank in June 2018.
Last year, the Calcutta High Court commuted Mahato’s life sentence to 10 years of imprisonment as the prosecution failed to prove that he had waged a war against the state. Interestingly the government lawyers themselves questioned the validity of the lower court’s judgement in the high court.
He was released from the jail earlier this year having already served the sentence. After his release, the Centre pulled out two 11-year-old cases against Mahato and asked the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to re-probe them. Interestingly, in one of the cases (GRP PS case No 06/09), pertaining to the abduction of two drivers of the New Delhi-Bhubaneswar Rajdhani Express in October 2009, Mahato was not even named in the original chargesheet. He was in police custody at that time.
The other case, registered under Lalgarh police station (Case No 111/09), was related to the murder of a CPI (Marxist) activist in 2009. The NIA has already served notice to Mahato to appear before the investigating officer.
Mahato said the revival of the cases was politically motivated and he would fight the challenge politically.
Mahato’s return to active politics though has enthused the TMC supporters, the local tribal leaders fear the region will now be caught in the crossfire of “two extreme ideologies.”
“By making Chhatradhar Mahato an important leader of the party, the TMC made it clear that to win the next year’s assembly elections, if need be, it can even take the help from the Maoists,” said Ratanlal Hansda, a senior leader of the Bharat Jakat Majhi Pargana Mahal (BJMPM), an influential apolitical tribal organisation of the state.
“Already in the area, we have been seeing the growing influence of extreme right-wing politics of the BJP and now if the Maoists make a return with the help of their old aide, it will be disastrous for the area,” he added.
He said the organisation would like to appeal to all political parties not to encourage any extreme ideology.