While the country bellyaches about the Naxal menace, who speaks for the poverty-stricken victims out there in the wilderness?
The annihilation of ‘class enemies’ is justifiable, going by Maoist ideology, but what would explain the death of those who cannot be so categorised? The blast in Dantewada that killed passengers on a bus that was also carrying special police officers (SPOs) is not the first instance that Adivasis, unconnected with the conflict and untainted by an alien ‘ideology’, have died at the hands of Naxals. Every month for some two years now, this story has been repeated away from the headlines in the three districts of West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura, West Bengal.
Almost all the victims, as Open discovered after extensively touring the interior areas of these districts for a few days, were killed to terrorise people into submission and foreclose the possibility of dissent or opposition. The families of those killed don’t even fall under that loosely applied category of ‘police informers’, which often serves to justify so many killings.
Take Kaushik Dutta of Manikpara, a small town in Jhargram. Kaushik, 35, who’s left behind his ailing parents, wife Rupali and five-year-old daughter Oishika, worked for a contractor with the state electricity board. “His job was to take meter readings and deliver electricity bills, and he used to get Rs 2.50 for a reading and Rs 2 for a delivery. He could never have been an exploiter. His sole concern was catering to his family, and there was no time left for politics or anything else. He could never have been a police informer also. I challenge the Maoists to produce even a shred of evidence against my son,” says Sukhen, who retired as a railway mechanic and still suffers from serious neurological disorders.
Kaushik had gone out with his colleague Pawan Mahato, who ran a small paan (betel leaf) shop in the town market, on 9 April morning to take some meter readings in neighbouring villages Rasua and Lalgeria. That was the last people saw of them; somewhere along the way, they were accosted by Maoists and taken away. “Maoists had called a bandh that day, but people were moving around and my son thought taking meter readings could never be construed as defiance of the bandh,” says Gita, Kaushik’s mother. “When he didn’t return for lunch, as he usually does, we started calling him on his mobile but it was switched off. By late afternoon, we started panicking. But I was of the firm belief that if Maoists had caught my son, they’d release him since he was an innocent man. I kept saying this to everyone. We didn’t sleep the whole night. Early next morning, we heard two bodies were lying on the road at Bandgara, about 10 km from here. I was benumbed, my world came crashing down,” wails Sukhen.
Kaushik’s death has left the family wondering where the next meal will come from—most of Sukhen’s pension goes towards his treatment and what’s left isn’t enough for the rest. “The bodies (of Kaushik and Pawan) bore horrible injury marks. They were beaten, their faces smashed, they were repeatedly stabbed and then shot. It was difficult to recognise them. It was horrific, it looked like the work of beasts,” says a neighbour.
People of Manikpara vouch for the innocence of the two men. “They never attended even a rally or meeting. They had no time for anything other than earning the little that they did. After their killings, we live in fear. We are scared that any of us can be picked up and killed. We now know that Maoists need no reason to kill,” says Mrinal Bera, friend and neighbour of Kaushik. Abhijit Ghosh, station superintendent of the electricity office at Manikpara, tells Open: “The two were nice, decent, honest and hardworking. I could never have imagined that they would be killed by Maoists.”
Pawan is survived by his wife Aparna and two daughters, three-year-old Arpita and six-month-old Anindita. They live with Pawan’s elder brother and his family in a small mud house that’s in urgent need of repair. The Mahatos are Adivasis, and even by tribal standards, very poor. But at least the Mahatos and Duttas had the consolation of cremating their dead. Most of the families of those killed by Maoists have to suffer seeing the bodies of their loved ones rot for days before being taken away by the police for postmortem examination and a perfunctory cremation.
In Chandabelia, a village in Belpahari area, four young men from families that would easily qualify for the Below Poverty Line tag, were picked up by Maoists on the night of 13 May and killed after being brutally tortured. The victims—brothers Ashok and Sanatan Ahir and their first cousin Swapan and Nazrul Mir—were all daily wage earners engaged in a battle against poverty and with barely any worldly possessions of their own. The entire village resembles a ghost town; most houses are shuttered and nearly all the menfolk have fled the village. “We fear Maoists will return and take away more men. If they could kill four men who were totally innocent, they can kill more. We’ve realised that they simply don’t need any reason to kill. They kill to create terror, so that people accept their dominance without a murmur,” says a villager who would not give her name. Such was her terror. It was palpable.
Swapan Ahir’s grief-stricken mother Pramila, whose sari isn’t long enough to cover her upper torso, recalls the night her son was taken away: “They were dressed in olive green uniforms and came around midnight. I begged with them not to take away my son, but they abused me and pushed me away. They put guns to my head and asked me to keep quiet. The bodies were found in a jungle 15 km away. I couldn’t bear to look at the bodies; my son and his cousins must have suffered terribly before they were killed. What kind of demons are these that kill people like this?” cries Pramila.
Fearing Maoist retribution, the villagers refused to help in cremating the bodies as per custom. “Along with a few of our relatives, I dug a pit and dumped the bodies of my son and nephews into it. I couldn’t even cremate them properly and I’ll regret this for the rest of my days,” she sobs. Pramila and husband Golok, who can barely walk, hadn’t eaten anything for over two days when we met her because there’s nothing to eat at home. Basera Bibi, Nazrul’s widow, also hadn’t—the little that was at home has fed her four unmarried daughters.
These are not isolated stories. They are recurring events in the entire area where Maoists hold sway. Typically, the victims are soft targets. They are to no one’s liking, they do not serve the interests of those who champion the Naxal cause. The state government, in turn, could not care less, caught up as it is in protecting its own CPM cadre. The rhetoric on all sides is louder than ever, but it does not help the dead here. And those who live feel they would have perhaps been better off if they had died at the hands of the State; someone then may have held a press conference for their sake, someone may have spoken of the injustice of it.