Pathardanga, June 22: Brokering peace under a banyan tree, a group of artistes from Calcutta today discovered a people caught in the crossfire in Lalgarh.
The group also extracted a public appeal from Chhatradhar Mahato, the secretary of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, to both the state and the Maoists to shun arms and opt for a ceasefire till July 14.
But the weight, sincerity and resonance of the appeal are doubtful, for each of the parties in the conflict is gearing up for the worst.
The security forces are bringing in reinforcements and planning their next move. The Maoists are pledged to expanding their influence beyond Lalgarh. Mahato, who the police have said will be “arrested on sight”, is himself unsure whether his word will have the gravitas without the muscle of the Maoists.
Artistes Aparna Sen, Kaushik Sen and Saoli Mitra, poet Joy Goswami and others drove from Calcutta to Lalgarh and then they trudged two-and-a-half km in the blazing sun from the point where the committee had felled trees to block the road to reach this village, Hariharpur-Pathardanga, where Mahato lives.
Without waiting to catch their breath, they came straight to the point. Aparna Sen asked Mahato if the movement was willing to sever ties with the Maoists.
Kaushik Sen emphasised: “We have been in support of people’s movements for the last two years and the CPM-led government has called us many names. We will have to face questions when we return. Can you ask the Maoists to leave you alone?”
Mahato was diffident at first. “This is a people’s movement,” he told them. “We have welcomed the support of all democratic forces. If you support us, I am not going to look at what is good or bad in you. It is enough if you support us as long as the leadership of the people is accepted.”
Discussions between the group and Mahato continued in that tenor. They sat down under the banyan tree by the side of the road at the entrance to the village. The artistes insisted that Mahato distance himself from the Maoists till a point when Mahato said: “I live among my people and they (the Maoists) are also here. You have to understand.”
Kaushik Sen accepted that Mahato might be under a threat. Mahato still insisted that the state government “must stop the repression first”. Aparna Sen suggested that Mahato make an appeal to the Maoists and the government that since a date for discussions with the state was due on July 14, all sides should hold fire.
Mahato agreed. “Given the situation in Lalgarh where the people are getting beaten up, the villagers are homeless and where the environment is fearful, and given that there are so many well-wishers offering us advice, I appeal to all parties to ensure peace.”
He said the people were “facing danger from both sides”. But he clarified that he was not in a position to convince the Maoists.
The group left for Calcutta after saying that they would take the appeal to Union home minister P. Chidambaram and also to the state government.
In Lalgarh town, where security forces did not advance along the road beyond the police station, there was little evidence that such appeals will be taken up.
The appeal has thrown up two possibilities, however: First, after this point, unless the committee backs down and allows the police into its territory, moving all obstacles like felled trees and desisting from blockades, action by the security forces against it is likely to gain legitimacy for “civil society”.
Second, if the state government wants to look for a line to pick up from which it can settle for at least a tenuous peace, it is in Mahato’s fragile appeal.
Four days into the operations, there are two compelling reasons why the state and the Maoists can sue for peace.
The state has clearly underestimated the depth of popular resentment against the presence of security forces in this region. In village after village, people look at the police with suspicion. Before November 2008, they say, the police were here and their conduct forced the uprising.
The committee and the Maoists may have overestimated the intensity of their movement. The human walls that were planned have not been in evidence in the last two days. They may have disappeared because of the display of strength by the security forces.
Committee president Lalmohan Tudu admits: “We did not expect the Centre to come and fight the state’s battle.”
If the intensity of the popular movement wanes, chances are the rebellion will increasingly manifest itself through armed action by Maoist squads. That in turn will foment a crackdown by the security forces.
Already, Lalgarh is taking in larger and larger contingents of the police and the paramilitary, sucking up more resources from the state’s coffers. Inside the Jhitka forest today, CRPF platoons were standing guard all along the road.
This is already looking like yet another insurgency to live with.