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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 45, October 29, 2011

Stakeholders in Junglemahal and Battle between the Lines


Saturday 5 November 2011



In the wake of the West Bengal Chief Minister’s announcement of a development package for Junglemahal and without mincing words for the Maoists, the debates within the civil rights movements regarding the release of political prisoners and withdrawal of the joint forces from Junglemahal are now rocking the entire political spectrum. It seems that the detention of Chhatradhar Mahato and Manoj Mahato, leaders of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA),1 and several cases lodged against its activists and non-withdrawal of the joint forces have triggered a renewal of this movement in West Bengal even if it is fractious in nature.

The civil rights organisations like the ‘Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights’, ‘Friends of Democracy’, ‘Bandi Mukti Committee’, ‘Nari Ijjat Banchao Committee’, and the ‘Santras, Durniti o Samrajyabadi Agrason Birodhi Ganatantrik Mancha’, an umbrella organisation of various Junglemahal outfits, are on the path of agitation for unconditional release of all political prisoners and withdrawal of the joint forces since both the issues are strongly connected with the urgency to break the deadlock for a rewarding dialogue. They are accusing the Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, of backtracking from the promises she made during the movement for the ouster of Left Front from power. Now the debate is gradually pervading the ranks of civil society groups in the light of the heightened activism of the Maoists in Junglemahal at a time when the joint forces are set to start full-scale combing operations to flush out the Maoist activists from the dense terrains of that tribal hinterland after a lull of several months.

In this tense atmosphere the demands for unconditional release of all political prisoners and withdrawal of the joint forces from Junglemahal are the two key issues to be settled for a lasting peace in that region. Hence, amidst the euphoria as well as anxiety in the aftermath of the passage of the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011 and the subsequent ruling of the High Court in favour of the State Government, and the tripartite agreement with the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha for the creation of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (that could snowball into simmering unrest in the Terai and Dooars region), the agitation against the present government for uncondi-tional release of political prisoners and with-drawal of forces has struck a discordant note which would have far-reaching repercussions on West Bengal’s future political developments.


INITIALLY it looked as if the entire problem over the disputes on the political prisoners’ release, withdrawal of joint forces and cessation of arms would eventually lead to ‘peace talks’. But from the current run of political developments it now appears the chances are very remote that the disputes would be settled through dialogue although the State Government in its own way has started the process to release the political prisoners through the State Level Review Committee, empowered to recommend the cases fit for the status of ‘political prisoner’. It is being said that this would actually ease the administrative process for their release once the cases, recommended as ‘political’, fall within the scope of the West Bengal Correctional Services Act, 1992. But the critics in the civil rights movements contend that even the Left Front Government in 1977 had shown a fair amount of political sagacity by okaying the unconditional release of all political prisoners while the present government lacks the political will to grant general amnesty to or carry out the unconditional release of all such prisoners. They also point out that the grounds for identification of political prisoners are already given in sections 24-27, clause-vi, Chapter VII of the West Bengal Correctional Services Act 1992 which states:

Any person arrested or convicted on a charge of having committed or attempting to commit aiding or abetting the commissions of any political offence, whether or not the act constituting such offence comes within the preview of any offence punishable under the Indian Penal Code or any other law for the time being in force, or any person believed to have been prosecuted out of political animosity or grudge, shall be classified as political prisoner.

It is further added that the said political deeds have to be without personal greed to reflect superior socio-political values; and under section 26 of the Act the judiciary is the competent authority to determine the status of political prisoner or political detenue, or the authority which remands a detenue to a correctional home.

Why then has the Review Committee been constituted by the government? What does the Committee stand for when the conditions for determining political prisoners are clearly stated in the Correctional Services Act, 1992 and the court is the competent authority to make such classifications? Does the government want to prevent the release of some prisoners who are accused of committing crimes during the previous regime of the Left Front and block the release of those undertrials arrested for stockpiling arms and accused of killing the Opposition party workers also during the previous regime (whose skeletal remains are being dug out from underground for investi-gations)? Further, it is not clear whether the government is averse to giving political status to the accused held for the Gyaneswari train tragedy in 2010 and attackers of the EFR camp in Sankrail killing 24 jawans in February 2010. Or is it developing cold feet in defying the Central Government’s regular warnings against the release of front-ranking Maoist leaders who might revert back to their policy of annihilation?

All such theories are now of grave concern as they are integral to the political expediency of the new government and at the same time directly impinge on the ongoing public discourse.

Peace in Junglemahal depends a lot on the release of the ultra-Left cadres and their supporters. But, detractors of the Review Committee argue that the case-by-case examina-tion of the prisoners’ eligibility for political status smacks of the government’s lack of political will which is nothing but a ploy to deny ‘release’ of the political prisoners. Besides, case-by-case examination of the petitions for granting political status to the prisoners means that the government intends to treat the demand as an issue between the prisoners and the state, but not as the central demand of the civil liberty movements. Hence, it leaves ample room for discrimination on grounds of social, political as well as class-based enmities.

Above all, this move for case-by-case examination might identify a particular category of the prisoners as anti-national which would make their release very difficult without the government’s clemency. Therefore, case-by-case examination will cause differential treatment from the side of the government instead of equivalence and the Review Committee might be used as a shield for the government’s half-hearted recognition of this perennial problem that needs to be countered by putting up persistent pressure through agitations and movements.

IN this polemical backdrop the proponents of the ‘release process’ through the Review Committee unequivocally reject the argument that the existing rules under the Correctional Services Act, 1992 provide ample scope for uncomplicated release once the accused and convicted persons are classified as political prisoners/detenus by the court. The task, according to them, is not in anyway easy if the government is stubbornly opposed to their release. This is evident from the fact that there are now only 90 political prisoners as per court rulings while the actual number is far more.

Under the circumstances the principal task of the Review Committee is to identify those political prisoners who are languishing in jails and are waiting for justice. Therefore, being in the Review Committee is actually an important part of the entire struggle which calls for an engagement with the government machinery. On this rationale, the civil liberty movements cannot afford to bypass or boycott those exercises through the Review Committee because boycott as an extreme step should be resorted to when there is no room for dialogue. Boycott would deprive them of seizing the opportunity to overcome the legal encumbrances and bureaucratic manoeuvrings that complicate the process of the prisoners’ release.

They argue that the cases require a lot of strategic interventions, negotiations and exerting pressure on the government to fight against unwarranted imprisonment of the political workers. Hence, the task is exceedingly critical, and is made more complex by the Centre’s frequent warnings to the State Government against the unconditional release of or general amnesty to all, despite the subject ‘law and order’ being in the ‘State list’.


IN this setting the simmering political controversy might snowball into a major political crisis especially when the Chief Minister has hit out at the Maoists although without closing the doors for talks with them through a group of interlocutors. Meanwhile, the civil rights movements continue to be sharply divided on the question of the ‘conditional’ and ‘uncondi-tional’ release of the prisoners, withdrawal of joint forces and a ceasefire to facilitate talks between the two major stakeholders. But, the demand for the withdrawal of joint forces by the civil rights groups and creating conditions of ceasefire instead of laying down arms to start a dialogue has also hit the divider.

The government alleges that the activities of the Maoists are completely contrary to what the government has been doing to give a fillip to the peace-process since coming to power by keeping the joint forces in the barracks. But, during this breather the Maoists have regrouped themselves, murdered people and are intimida-ting those who do not kowtow to their directives. They have altered the ground situation to spread a ‘reign of terror’ and the government in charge of people’s security cannot fail to assert the ‘rule of law’ in that region. In this scenario the government would not retreat from its pledge for ‘talks’, but at the same time would not in any way budge from its fundamental responsibility to save the lives and property of the people. Thus in the current conditions the withdrawal of the joint forces makes no sense.

At this moment ‘ceasefire’, a proposition coming of late in the wake of the cross-fires due to the hard-line positions on both sides, seems to be a viable alternative in order to let the idiom of peace prevail over the power of the gun. But doubts remain, since the demands are not on ‘development’ and fulfilling the bare minimum needs of the adivasi people alone; they tend to take unequivocal political overtones too, and these are not easy to handle.

Chalking out a roadmap for peace, which substantially hinges on removing hunger, malnutrition, illiteracy, and unemployment, is a compelling necessity, but the unsettled question of the local people’s self-respect and dignity is also strongly connected with the ongoing struggle on the ground. During the previous LF Government the local adivasi people were furious as police atrocities wounded even the womenfolk; that had led to the subsequent formation of the PCAPA. Now it seems that the question of dignity is linked to their demand for the release of Chhatradhar Mahato to Manoj Mahato, and also the government’s response to the charter of demands consisting of 23 major points mentioned in the ‘Dalilpur Dalil’.* All those issues seem to have come to the foref once again.

The situation is getting murkier by the day and the government’s effort to attend to the basic needs and demands of the poor people of Junglemahal, like foodgrains supply, running of hospitals/health centres for medical services, opening of schools, maintaining law and order and prevention of violence, might get a severe jolt in the days to come. At this moment it is to be seen how the present State Government under huge pressure from the North Block for restarting the joint operations and forced with the critical political balance and mounting Maoist actions in the region responds to the grand reality as also the major demands like the political prisoners’ release and withdrawal of the joint forces and so on, and how the civil society movements and the Maoist leadership react to the government’s moves. The situation is too fluid to warrant any knee-jerk step like exchange of sharp words and employment of retaliatory acts without judging their consequences. It demands, above all, a far-sighted political strategy on the part of the State Government.

*The People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) was formed in Dalilpur Chowk near Lalgarh on November 8, 2008 at a gathering of thousands of adivasi people; it presented a 13-point charter of demands to the then State Government, and this is known as the Dalilpur Dalil. The new 23-point charter of demands has been prepared in tune with that Dalilpur Dalil.

The author is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Kidderpore College, Kolkata.

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