Lalgarh (West Bengal): Until a few months ago, Naru Singh and Debnath Singh of Chandabila village were part of the local folklore in Maoist-overrun Lalgarh, in the interiors of West Bengal’s West Midnapore district.
Active supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, the Singh brothers were known in this economically backward area, where many people survive on starch and leaves, for their wealth. They controlled at least 50 acres of land and a three-acre mango orchard; what they called home was a mansion.
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But now they have lost everything. They have been driven from home, their properties seized and their mansion vandalized by the Maoist-backed People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA)—a less than two years old tribal political outfit founded to protest police incursions in the villages of Lalgarh following an attack on the convoy of West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.
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Backed by the Maoists, PCPA focused until lately on raising a militia that could match security forces in fire power. Because of their better knowledge of the terrain and strong local support, the tribal militia soon became a stronger force than the state police. Though central forces were called in to flush out the insurgents some 13 months ago, Lalgarh remains out of bounds for the state administration.
Amid this void, the PCPA has slowly expanded the scope of its activism and emerged as a political party with a “pro-tribal” agenda, which could contest the crucial assembly elections in West Bengal next year, notwithstanding close ties with the Maoists who shun parliamentary democracy.
Over the last few months, the PCPA has been “redistributing land” among landless tribals, seizing estates from people such as the Singh brothers, who, people say, have fled Lalgarh.
That isn’t a new phenomenon in West Bengal. It is what the CPM did in when it came to power in the state in 1977. The only difference is it did so with legislative sanction; the PCPA is using firepower.
Until now the PCPA claims to have redistributed 300 bighas of land, or around 100 acres, in three districts—Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore, most of it in the last.
In Chandabila village alone, land seized from the Singh brothers has been distributed among some 80 tribal families, according to Manoj Mahato, a fugitive PCPA leader. He is among the people accused of damaging train tracks that led to an accident on 28 May, in which at least 148 people were killed.
“I hope we can now earn enough to eat two square meals a day,” says Ilabati Sith, who now tills two bighas of land. A bigha is one-third of an acre. Until lately, she used to make wicker baskets, and would earn hardly Rs600 a month selling them. “With seven to feed, we have lived for months on starch and leaves.”
The PCPA has even begun distributing seeds and fertilizer, and harvesting rainwater because water in these areas is scarce.
Across Lalgarh, the PCPA has created small rainwater reservoirs by digging up tracts of barren land and erecting embankments around them, Mahato says, pointing to a sizeable one fed by the Baghghora canal that until recently remained dry almost all year round.
“Our hope is, some day, our people will reap at least two crops a year,” says Mahato, adding the plan is to grow vegetables, besides rice. “Vegetables are scarce here, and most people can’t afford them.”
Alongside, the PCPA is also ramping up healthcare infrastructure across the region it controls. It runs some 36 so-called health centres, or basic dispensaries, out of abandoned or rundown schools, with the help of doctors mostly from Kolkata. Besides medical attention, people receive free medicines at these health centres.
“Some of these centres spend over Rs1 lakh a month each only on medicines,” said a doctor, who did not reveal his name. “It is obvious that we are able to run these centres only because we have donors, who do not claim tax exemptions for charity.” It seems the PCPA has no dearth of benefactors. It has even begun constructing a hospital. “If all goes well, we should be able to build at least two floors,” says Mahato.
All these initiatives are completely “unlawful”, according to Manoj Verma, the superintendent of police of West Midnapore district. “We have been cracking down on them, and will continue to do so.” The administration and the CPM allege that the PCPA is extorting money from the local people in “the name of development”.
“It’s an eyewash,” says Dipak Sarkar, a key CPM leader from West Midnapore and one of its state committee members. “It’s not going to be long before their reign of terror ends, and all these projects would immediately fall flat.”
Mahato says the PCPA raises money through “local collections and donations”. Though he claims “collections are entirely voluntary”, people in Lalgarh have so little surplus that it is impossible for them to make any meaningful financial contribution to these projects.
The Maoist movement in West Bengal gained strength from the “lack of socio-economic development” in the tribal areas, according to Abhirup Sarkar, professor of economics at Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute. It’s different from other neighbouring states, where the movement is in reaction to “displacement of tribals because of industrial development”.
“The tribals in West Bengal are doing the right thing: after years of neglect, they are building civic infrastructure on their own, but I don’t like the way it is done—by use of force and extortion,” Sarkar says.
From the political standpoint, these initiatives have given the PCPA a new identity: that of a political party with a symbol, which, in less than a year, could become a poll symbol.
And though the area under its control is shrinking, the PCPA could still decide the outcome of at least 18 of West Bengal’s 294 assembly seats, according to some estimates. In a close battle, these 18 seats could make a huge difference.
“We will take a call on this within this month,” says Mahato. “If we eventually decide to support to any party in the assembly, we will make sure it supports us in the seats here.”