July 22, 2009

Sweets & smiles for jawans

RAMGARH: As the security forces approached Ramgarh after fighting off Maoist ambushes, they saw hordes of villagers mostly women gathering at the
outskirts. The jawans tensed for another human shield. When they marched closer, however, they saw smiles on the villagers' faces, and tumblers of water in their hands.

A cheer went up as the forces entered the rain swept lanes of the village. Every policeman was served a glass of water, food and sweets by villagers. And, there was no trace of the PCPA.

It was the huge number of women gathering in the fields that set the forces on the edge as they approached Ramgarh. Resistance with the use of human shields was, after all, too fresh on their minds, having encountered such situations during operations in Kadashole, Amladanga and Shiartola. Not liking the prospect of fighting villagers yet again, they advanced cautiously for the last 1 km, with an obvious show of strength, hoping to scare the mob' into retreating.

Only when they came to within 200 metres did the security forces realize that none in the waiting crowd was armed. Instead of resisting them, the villagers welcomed them with open arms. People lined rooftops, waving and cheering at the forces. The water, food and smiles were a welcome relief for the weary and hungry police and paramilitary personnel.

They were surprised because the people of Ramgarh were initially with the PCPA. Its leaders lured them to their cause with the promise to fight against lack of development. Chhatradhar Mahato and other PCPA leaders rallied the villagers with the call to liberate Ramgarh from government's control'.

"When the PCPA first asked us to fight against economic deprivation, many in Ramgarh voluntarily participated in their movement," said a villager. But the people soon realized that there was no difference between the Maoists and the PCPA. They even accused PCPA of unleashing the Maoists on them.

People are now very angry and disillusioned with PCPA, but none would divulge their names while speaking to TOI, fearing that Maoists would target them. Seventy-year-old Satya Ray, the lone villager who spoke on record, accused Chhatradhar Mahato of amassing money. "He (Mahato) extorted huge sums of money from traders, government officials and even poor villagers and helped Maoists get a foothold in Ramgarh. We have been living in fear for eight months. Many PCPA activists moved around with arms," said Ray.

The people PCPA allegedly targeted for extortion were given handwritten notes Rs 10,000 for government employees and Rs 50,000 for traders. When the owner of a fertilizer shop at Barapelia refused to pay up, he was brought to a meeting at Sarasbedia where he was forced to hand over the money.

Now, villagers have stopped paying money to PCPA voluntarily, though its leaders continue with their extortion activities, Ray added.

What turned the tide against PCPA were the murders of two tribal youths in Kharanutu village in mid-May. The incident created panic across Ramgarh and no one would venture out for over a month. Even schools and markets rarely opened. Ramgarh was completely cut off after Maoists captured the phari on June 15. Teachers of Ramgarh College were threatened not to report to work.

The arrival of the forces has been a huge relief.

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