Ranjit Pal is in charge of rebuilding Maoist cadres in West Bengal. Pal is popular among villagers, thanks to his Robin Hood image.
Although Maoists denounce electoral democracy, they are taking keen interest in the assembly elections in West Bengal. According to a report of the intelligence branch of the police, Maoists are campaigning against the ruling Trinamool Congress in remote areas of the state. The report informed the government that Maoist leaders held nightly meetings in the border areas of Bankura and West Midnapore districts and told people not to vote for the Trinamool.
Maoists apparently want to punish the government that killed their politburo member Kishenji in an ‘encounter’ in November 2011. While the government has maintained that the encounter was not faked, Trinamool leaders have admitted otherwise. Last year, Abhishek Banerjee, MP and nephew of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, said it was Mamata who had “finished off” Kishenji and brought about peace in Junglemahal. In February this year, Planning Minister Rachpal Singh said, “Mamata took initiative in gathering intelligence on Kishenji and, in three months, had him killed in an encounter.”
Maoists had helped Mamata fight the Marxists, and Kishenji had said in 2010 that he wanted to see her as chief minister. In the five years of the Mamata regime, Junglemahal has changed a lot. Roads have been built, the police have kept the peace, poor people are getting rice at 02 a kilo.
Grievances, however, remain. Few villages in Junglemahal have electricity. In the villages of West Midnapore, there has been a big fall in the number of beneficiaries of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). For the past few years, many villagers have been denied payment under this scheme.
“I last worked in 2014,” said Basudeb Sabar of Binpur village. “My wages for 10 months have not been paid.” Dilip Mahato, the panchayat member from Sabar’s area, said the panchayat had not received money from the government. “How can I pay them? We cannot give them money from our own pocket,” he said.
Maoists have reportedly asked villagers to register their anger by voting against the Trinamool. Former Binpur MLA Chunibala Hansda, however, played down rumours of a Maoist resurgence, saying the people themselves had become disgruntled and that they would teach the Trinamool a lesson. “In one panchayat, there are about 2,000 people who have not yet been paid for their work. Nobody in our villages now wants to work under NREGS. They are living in extreme poverty,” said Hansda, who is contesting polls from Binpur this year as a candidate of the Jharkhand Party (Naren).
Binpur is known as a CPI(M) bastion. The party won the seat even in 2011, when it was voted out of power in the state. This time round, the CPI(M) has decided to support Hansda, who won the seat in 2006, defeating a party candidate in a close fight.
The electoral understanding between the Congress and CPI(M) has gone awry in Binpur, as the Congress refused to accept Hansda as consensus candidate. The Congress has fielded its own candidate. According to Hansda, if she wins Binpur, West Midnapore and two other districts of Junglemahal (Purulia and Bankura) can become Mamata’s Waterloo.
The Maoists, who began campaigning against the Trinamool three months ago, are cashing in on the understanding between the CPI(M) and the Congress. Ranjit Pal, member of the eastern regional bureau (ERB) of the CPI (Maoist), is in charge of rebuilding cadres in West Bengal. Pal is popular among villagers in Giridi and Ghatshila, thanks to his Robin Hood image and his fight against the wood and coal mafia in Jharkhand. According to officials, people living on the Jharkhand-Bengal border believe it was he who put an end to extortion by the mafia.
Pal was groomed by two politburo members, Prashanta Bose, who is in charge of ERB, and Amitabha Bagchi. He has made inroads into the lost Maoist territories in Junglemahal by capitalising on the anger against the Mamata government.
After the arrest of Bhaskar Chakraborty by the Jharkhand Police last year, Maoists had been looking for the right person to reorganise the party in West Bengal. Pal was chosen, and he became the most wanted Maoist in the state, even though he is yet to be a member of the politburo or the Maoist military commission. “A network has been spread to catch Pal,” said an intelligence officer. “But, like the Jharkhand Police, we are also failing. Pal is so popular that it is very difficult nab him.”
After Kishenji’s death, Mamata adopted a carrot-and-stick approach towards Maoists. Sedition charges against several leaders of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, the political arm of the CPI (Maoist), were dropped. Senior PCAPA leaders Manoj Mahato and Asit Mahato were released from jail and drafted into the Trinamool Congress.
“After coming to power, Mamata made it clear that all who were part of agitations in Lalgarh and other areas would have to come to the Trinamool. Else, they would be branded as Maoists and put behind bars. Chhatradhar Mahato did not agree. So he is still in jail facing sedition charges,” said Hansda.
It is an uneasy peace that prevails in Junglemahal. Maoists are taking advantage of the growing resentment against the Trinamool to rebuild their base in the state. “Maoists have told villagers that they are ready to help the deprived,” said an intelligence officer. “They have urged the villagers to reorganise themselves against the ruling party.”