West Bengal elections 2021: In Junglemahal, endemic violence changes colour over the years
The Junglemahal area — of which Jhargram is part — has become the symbol of poriborton (change) in Bengal. It is the state’s tribal heartland, and was once a Maoist hotbed.
Editor's Note: The history of political violence and bloodshed in West Bengal is an election tradition since the 1940s, peaking during the 1960s and 1970s, and enduring till date. This is part two of a multi-part series exploring the origins, process and consequences of politically- motivated violence in the state. You can read the first part here.
Jhargram: “How long did it take you to reach Lalgarh from Jhargram?” Chanchal Kumar Dey asked this correspondent. “Around 45 minutes by road,” this correspondent said.
“Before 2011, there weren’t roads, they were just dusty trails. We couldn’t even cycle on those roads. It took us over two hours to reach Jhargram 15 years ago,” Dey added. Speaking to this correspondent at an old tea shop in Lalgarh, Dey, a contractual worker in the education department, was describing how the Junglemahal region in West Bengal is unrecognisable today. “It is because of Didi,” he said.
Neighbouring Jhargram, another town in the Junglemahal region, infamous for unprecedented violence between Maoists and the police between 2000 and 2011, has a similar story.
“A few years ago, Jhargram would be deserted by 6 pm. There were either curfews or small businessmen in the area would be threatened to keep their shops shut, and eventually people would not leave their homes after sunset. Now, till 10 pm, shops are open, people are in the market, business goes on as usual,” said a local tea seller, requesting anonymity. It was around 9.30 pm when he said this.
Memories of violence
Locals in villages around Junglemahal are haunted by the violence unleashed in the region by clashes between the state (then governed by the CPM) and the Maoists. “There was no peace. Paramilitary forces would constantly patrol the areas. Maoists sympathisers walked around with guns and there was no way to escape that terror. We would be shut inside our homes. We did not have jobs. Our children did not have schools. There were no hospitals or a proper road in and out of Lalgarh. The interiors were worst-hit. The situation got worse between 2005 and 2008,” said Dey, who was in his early 30s and unemployed due to the unrest back then.
Bikram Panda (name changed), a local businessman from Lalgarh said it was impossible to lead a normal life in those days. “Towns and villages were shut for 25 days of the month. Our business suffered. Some political group would call for a bandh and no one had the gall to oppose it. Parents would not wed their daughters and sons into this area, fearing for their safety. The situation was so bad that police stations and administrative offices were shut. The common man had nowhere to go with their problems. The terror was constant,” Panda explained.
Violence in Junglemahal — especially in the villages around Jhargram and Lalgarh — began as a protest against police and state atrocities, but gathered strength by the day, and later transformed into a war of identity. The insurgency started after the 2004 formation of the CPI-Maoists — a rebel group consisting of the PWG (People's War Group) and the MCC (Maoist Communist Centre). The protesters were backed by Maoist sympathisers and the then-formed Trinamool, against the then ruling CPM and the police.
The two neighbouring towns, once caught in the grip of bloody violence, are singing the tune of development today. Locals credit Mamata’s Trinamool for this change. The ruling TMC focussed on then-treacherous Junglemahal region, and transformed it into a developed and safe region. Some voters noted that the chief minister has been mindful of Junglemahal's needs in the past, and ensured that the locals were not drawn into violence.
The lack of proper roads, jobs, basic infrastructure would spark small conflicts across the area before 2011. “It was not just the incidents which made headlines in national media; the locals here have seen the worst: Undeterred killings, abductions; just an environment dictated by terror. That is no way to live. But we have left all that in the past now,” said a local sweet shop owner in Lalgarh.
“Development in the Junglemahal region, especially in Jhargram, Keshpur, Garhbeta, and Shalboni has come at a heavy human cost. Between 2008 and 2011, at least 500 lives were lost due to violence. In the 2011 Assembly elections, Junglemahal voted for peace and Mamata created history,” said Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, author of Lalgarh and the legend of Kishanji — Tales from India’s Maoist Movement.
Violence changes colour: ‘Red’ to ‘Saffron’
The Junglemahal area — of which Jhargram is part — has become the symbol of poriborton in Bengal. It is the state’s tribal heartland, and was once a Maoist hotbed.
Ironically, poriborton (change), which was TMC’s slogan during the 2011 state Assembly elections, is BJP’s slogan in the area these days. “We want to bring asol poriborton (real change),” said Sukhomoy Satpathy, the BJP’s candidate from Jhargram in the ongoing elections and the former district president. The BJP’s vision of asol poriborton is a Mamata-free Bengal.
Interestingly, the CPM and TMC candidates from Jhargram are childhood friends. And so are the two senior leaders from BJP and TMC. Thirty-seven-year-old Birbaha, a Santali actor, is pitted against the BJP’s Satpathy, and CPM’s Madhuja Sen Roy, who was Birbaha’s classmate in primary school in Jhargram. However, their politics are now very different.
“Violence has just changed colour here. Earlier it was ‘red’, now it is 'saffron’,” says Dr Phatik Chand Ghosh, a professor at the Midnapore College and a resident of Jhargram. From kidnappings for ransom, violent killings, and rampant looting, atrocities were unleashed on the locals depending on which party they supported. Violence, in general and largely, has helped parties maintain a hold over the “party-society” culture in West Bengal — a system where political parties dominate every strand of life.
“Fear and violence are the two tools that politicians in Bengal have used to consolidate their respective vote banks. Public service is not on their mind. No matter which party one is attached to, their way to power is to instill fear in voters that if they don’t tow the line, they will face consequences. It is a barter system -- safety comes in exchange for party loyalty. And that loyalty is very easily bought and sold. You cannot be party-neutral in Bengal -- you have to either be a Muslim hater, or a CPM loyalist or a so-called liberal — these are your only choices. People don’t have their own voice,” he said.
The BJP’s Jhargram candidate, Satpathy — who is also a well-known artist from the area with a fairly clean image — admits that violence is initiated and abetted by the “party in power”, but also says that it is inevitable. According to Satpathy, when locals in rural Junglemahal started voicing their support for the BJP, the ruling TMC attacked the supporters in a bid to silence dissent.
“We cannot refuse help to those who come to us. Trinamool rose to power in this region with violence. They sided with the Maoists to uproot the Left government and the region witnessed tremendous unrest,” he said.
So will the BJP replicate the model? “BJP does not believe in an eye-for-an-eye,” Satpathy said, “but we will not sit quietly either. We will defend ourselves.” Satpathy believes that the voters in the region know who is the “asol goonda (real hooligan) by now”. According to Satpathy, the TMC is fanning tensions in the area by creating a false narrative that their members are bearing the brunt of the violence. “The TMC leaders they claim the BJP has attacked, are actually BJP members now. They shifted from the TMC to the BJP. People will respond to TMC’s culture of violence on 2 May,” he said.
Trinamool leaders played down the conflict. “Political conflicts are a constant, but we coexist peacefully. We are all friends and our addas go on despite the electoral battles that we fight on the side. What is paramount for Trinamool is the development and upliftment of the people,” said senior TMC leader Debjeet Manna, who happens to be a close friend of Satpathy.
An election of aspiration
With development and infrastructure on track, voters are now asking “What next?” Locals in the Junglemahal region, while being mindful of Mamata’s work in the past, are now demanding jobs and industry in the area. Since violence is “not as bad an issue as it was before 2011”, voters are not buying political campaigns focused on vilifying the Opposition.
After 2011, politics and related violence in the Junglemahal region has become intricate and complicated, given the steady rise of the BJP. Religious polarisation, which is new to politics of Bengal, has exacerbated the situation — but not as much in the Junglemahal region as in other parts of the state. Societal and political awareness — and the violence — are intricately woven into the state’s politics. “People in Bengal have historically questioned and demanded their rights, their identity, their self respect. This process causes friction between parties vying for their votes. It is also important for the elector to be conscientious and challenge their political overlords from time to time,” said Ghosh.
Kobad Ghandy, a Maoist ideologue, who spent the last decade behind bars on sedition charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), wrote an article about how the world had changed for the communists: "Very often, communists have a crude understanding of the term “class struggle”, totally negating the individuals who comprise the ‘class’. This sort of thinking results in economic determinism on the one hand, and, on the other, it sees only the forest and not the trees. It tends to reduce people into mere instruments of change, forgetting that change is for those very people.” What Ghandy noted rings true even in the regime of Didi.
True to most of rural Bengal, villages and towns in Junglemahal are no exception to demanding “more” from their government now. Voting for the third phase of the 2021 Bengal Assembly elections is currently underway. Jhargram voted in the first phase on 27 March. “Bikaash hoye gelo, shontrash cholchei, ebar ki (Development is done, terror is ongoing, what is next?) — this is what we are asking,” said Panda.
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