By Ajitha Menon, Womens Feature Service
Mangala Mal and Savitri Murmu are on two opposing sides of the ongoing conflict between the administration and the indigenous adivasi (tribal) population supported by the Maoists in Lalgarh, in West Midnapore district of West Bengal. They are divided by age as well as by ideology, but the consequences for both are eerily similar. Both have been abused and tortured, both have lost their homes and both are worried about their children’s future. Today, both yearn for just one thing – lasting peace.
A fight for social justice, which started as a peoples’ movement against police atrocities last November, has evolved into a Maoists versus State war. Alleging police abuse following a landmine blast targeting a VIP convoy in nearby Salboni, the local adivasis formed the Peoples’ Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA). The Maoists soon took control of Lalgarh using the PCAPA as a front, turning it into a fight between the adivasis and the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) cadres and the administration.
For Mangala, 26, the nightmare started in December, when Maoists supporting the PCAPA entered her village of Pirrakuli and started recruiting reluctant villagers for their cause. “They announced that there was a police boycott. They wanted the men to join their force, apparently to protect villages. But men were taken into jungles and forced to fight the police and the administration. My husband, a CPI (M) cadre, was taken away. I have not seen him since. I was beaten and molested when my husband refused to go with them. He had no choice,” she recalls.
Savitri, 60, on the other hand, willingly joined the PCAPA after she was tortured by the police following the landmine blast. “I wanted to take revenge for the abuse. I took part in all PCAPA rallies. I was there when the police camp at Shirish was set on fire,” she says. However, with central forces taking control of the area once again, Savitri is back on the police hit list.
“The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) came looking for my son Dulal on June 18 when they launched operations. They called him a Maoist. They threatened to kill me if I did not inform them about his movements. I have been hiding in the jungles at night since then. During the day I come to my village where people offer me protection,” says Savitri. “I don’t know if my son is alive. I just want this violence to end.”
In any conflict, the consequences for women are the same, whichever side they are on. Kamala Mal, 48, has been forced to flee with her family of six from Pirrakuli village on foot as transport has been erratic on the highway ever since the security operations. “We lived in terror. The Maoists came and forced the men to go with them. When my husband Gopal refused, he was beaten. Then the armed men turned on me and my daughter-in-law, who was breast feeding her three month old baby. They left only after we gave them Rs 50 and two kilograms of rice. But we knew they would return. We are going to a relative’s house in Midnapore,” explains Kamala.
The Mal family has left behind their home, eight bighas of land, paddy stock and Gopal’s 84-year-old mother. “She can hardly walk. How can she cover the distance to Midnapore on foot?” asks Gopal. He explains that almost every family in her village has left the old, the infirm and the cattle behind. “No one knows what will remain when we return, if ever,” adds Gopal.
Mangala also left her village when the central forces took control of the highway in June. For her, paying the Maoists their daily collection of Rs 20 (US$1=Rs 48.13) and one kilogram of rice was a huge burden. But the last straw was when, recently, they wanted her to join them and fight. “They use women and children as a frontline resistance force. Refusals lead to severe beatings. I have to think of my six year old daughter,” she says.
About 35,000 people have already fled the Pirakata-Ramgarh-Goaltore triangular war zone in Lalgarh. Many have taken shelter in state relief camps; others have found temporary accommodation in the homes of relatives. Schools, scheduled to open from June 22 after the summer vacations, remain closed.
With violence a constant threat livelihoods have been badly affected. “The women collected Sal leaves from Anandapur forest and made leaf plates to earn money. We were unable to go into the forests for months when the police camp was here. The policemen harassed and often molested us,” says Sandhya Manna, 34, of Shirish village. It was the resultant anger that had led to the recent burning down of a police camp here by a mob of over 1,000 adivasis. “We have our traditional weapons like bows and arrows, the spade and sickle. If necessary we can fight for ages to safeguard our rights,” says Esha Mari, 58 of Shirish. She adds, “However, prosperity for our children will only come with peace. We just want both sides to recognise our right to live decent lives.”
But Shantilata Mahato, 68, from Koima village is not optimistic. She voices her worse fears, “The markets are closed. The men have no work. Paddy fields are being patrolled by security forces, searching for land mines. The sowing season is here but we haven’t been able to access the fields. We won’t have any paddy stocks for next year. Children are missing school. The Maoists are masters in guerilla warfare. We don’t think this conflict will end any time soon.”
The active participation of women has been a conspicuous aspect of the Lalgarh movement. Monglee of Chotopelia says, “Many young women like me voluntarily joined the PCAPA. We are peace-loving but we won’t be treated like second-class citizens. Our demands are simple – we want safe drinking water, water for irrigation and an end to corruption in the administration.”
As forces fan the area in search of Maoists, Bedona Mahato, 68, blames the police for the current situation. The mother of Chatradhar Mahato, the leader of PCAPA, says, “The police used to pick up young men from our villages, accusing them of being Maoists. They never returned. Their mothers and wives can only feel hatred towards the police. My son is in hiding but I keep up the resistance despite the repeated raids and torture.”
Even those claiming to be on neutral territory are suffering. In Koima, the villagers reiterate that they welcome the police. “Administration is essential. We did participate in the PCAPA rallies under duress but we didn’t support the violence,” says Shantilata.
By way of relief, the administration is handing out six kilograms of rice per family, which is hardly adequate. “I walked five kilometres to get the rice. Now I have to return all the way with this sack. But this will not feed my family of six even for two days,” says Bani Mal, 36, of Malida village who had come to the Pirakata block office for the rice.
Alhough the forces have taken control of the worst Maoist affected areas like Pingbani, Tentultala, Katapahari and Boropelia, the hardships for women continue. While Jharna Mal, 25, still waits for her husband Manoranjan, who was picked up by the police one night, two kilometres from Lalgarh, in Pathardanga village; Lakshmi Soren of Pingbani says her family has nowhere to go while her husband and sons are being threatened by Maoists for not joining them. For women on both sides of this conflict, life remains uncertain. It’s only their will to protect and feed their families that keeps them going.