November 9, 2009

What made Chhatradhar Mahato a political fugitive

by Monobina Gupta
1 November 2009, Times of India ‎

The Delhi-bound Rajdhani Express, held up by Maoists for seven hours in West Midnapore, had this emblazoned on it: 'Chhatradhar Mahato is a good man. He is not a criminal'. Mahato, chief of the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA), was imprisoned just months ago, in the aftermath of the violence that followed West Bengal's election results. The slogan on the train reinforced speculation that the PCPA wanted Mahato's release - by fair means or foul.
In general, there is enormous curiosity about Mahato, who till a few months ago, did not seem to fit the bill of a gun-toting Maoist. He can certainly talk the talk. When i met Mahato in Lalgarh in March, he spoke a democratic language far removed from guns and killings. When i arrived, Lalgarh was abuzz with news of the police having picked up three villagers (supposedly Maoists), and the murder of a PCPA activist.
Mahato was under a tree in verdant Lalgarh, busy with an organizational meeting. A smartly dressed, lanky man, he wore sunglasses and sat with comrades stuffing envelopes with hand-written notices for the PCPA's next public meeting. Mahato's brother is Sashadhar, a Maoist fugitive. But Mahato himself was a political non-entity till the mass uprising in Jangalkhand following brutal police attacks on common villagers and tribals in the wake of a Maoist plot against chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in November 2008. The sudden political upheaval catapulted Mahato to the position of PCPA chief.
He said he would talk to me after lunch. The PCPA ran a community kitchen inside a mud hut and activists ate rice and vegetable curry there. This was where i met a relaxed Mahato. For a man who had been relatively unskilled, till recently, in the art of communication, Mahato talked with clarity and precision, dissecting issues, separating the strands of violent Maoist politics from the PCPA. He appeared to be getting used to his new public profile - addressing press briefings at the Kolkata Press Club and engaging with Mahasweta Devi and other intellectuals in the city. His political trajectory began with Congress.
Born in 1964, the eldest of three brothers, Mahato studied at Ramakrishna Mission Vidyapeeth and Midnapore Day College, where he had his first taste of activism as a member of Congress' student wing, the Chhatra Parishad. Those who know him well say he was a follower of Mamata Banerjee, then a Youth Congress leader. Mahato never finished college.
Later, he would join the Trinamool Congress. In 2001, when the police began randomly picking up tribals on the charge of being Maoists, Mahato's political beliefs underwent a drastic change. By 2009, even as much of the media conflated the PCPA with the Maoists, Mahato and initially the Maoists themselves, continued to insist they were distinct organizations and had different agendas.
It is true Lalgarh barred police from entry, in line with the PCPA's diktats, but the movement remained democratic, Mahato claimed, insisting the protest could not be grounded merely as a form of resistance to police atrocity. "We cannot make it the sole cause. There are development concerns - access to drinking water, more tube-wells; the issue of autonomy of Jangalkhand," he said. In addition to their original 13-point charter of demands, the PCPA later adopted a nine-point programme seeking community rights over forests and land, recognition and promotion of the Santhali language, development of the Santhali script and autonomy for the Jangalkhand area.
Mahato was clear about the extent of influence Maoists had on the PCPA. He admitted "the Maoists are there" but claimed "they are not controlling the movement. PCPA is an autonomous body. We take our own decisions after consulting village-level committees." Ten-member committees, half of which were men and the other half women, were active in the villages.
He emphasized the movement's principled refusal to allow political parties to enter Lalgarh with banners. The rallying symbol was the PCPA, the ultimate authority, he said. Did Mahato believe in 'revolutionary violence' as preached by today's Maoists? He did not seem to fit either mould - that of the founding fathers of the 1967 armed insurrection and that of their contemporary 'progeny', the Maoists.
First, Mahato never explained the Lalgarh movement in the language of Marx or Mao. 'Class struggle' and 'armed insurrection' were never the spine of his arguments. Instead, he emphasized the need to resist police repression and bring long-delayed development to the tribal backwaters.
Second, unlike the Maoists, Mahato never spoke of capturing the Indian state through insurrection. Interestingly, the PCPA and Maoists fundamentally differed in their approach to the 2009 general elections. Mahato said the PCPA was not calling for the elections to be boycotted as this would benefit only the CPM. It was a position at odds with that of the Maoists. The PCPA demanded the elections be held without a police presence. Mahato shared his comrades' apprehension that forced police entry could trigger a violent confrontation in Lalgarh. But the violence after the elections appeared to elide the distinctions between the PCPA and Maoists. Mahato and his comrades condemned state violence but seemed to turn a blind eye to Maoist killings. This is how Chhatradhar Mahato became the 'Most Wanted', a political fugitive.
Monobina Gupta's book on contemporary Left politics in West Bengal will be published next year.

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