With the life imprisonment of Chhatradhar Mahato, Sagun Murmu, Sukhshanti Baskey, Shambhu Soren, Prasun Chatterjee and Raja Sarkhel under the different sections of IPC, UAPA, Arms and Explosive Acts on May2015, there was concern about the unjust, arbitrary punishment, irregularities in Judgment, filing appeal in higher court etc. They were basically punished for their role in the exemplary struggle under the banner of People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA). Chhatradhar Mahato was the spokes-person and Sukhshanti Baskey was the treasurer of PCAPA. Prasun and Raja of Kolkata, like many others actively supported the struggle. The struggle was mainly against police atrocities that the local people had to face daily in the name of combing for Maoists. No one was spared, old, women and children were frequently bodily searched, beaten, held illegally in police custody, tortured and abused. Along with the demand of stopping of police atrocities, the PCAPA’s other demands included development of their socio-economically backward area.
After the verdict on May 12, 2015, all six were shifted to different jails, hundreds of kilometers away from homes, making it further difficult for the families to have regular access to them and get legal papers signed, etc. Families find it difficult to meet them even once, due to the financial constraints and distance. Furthermore, making the life more difficult in jail, they were stripped off the status of ‘political prisoners’. This was not all, the circular that close family members of the prisoners of political background, could only meet them in jail, added to the complications by denying friends and fellow activists the right to meet them.
As always, there were few in activist circle to think of the families whose major earning members were in jail for more than the last six years with the chances of their securing release from prison remaining bleak. The mothers, wives, the children, the ailing parents of these political prisoners were the invisible casualties of the state’s war on its people. As Prasun and Raja lived in Kolkata, it was easy for us to maintain contact with their families, but what was happening to the others? How were they coping in such a difficult circumstances? Do they have family, friends and neighbors’ support? How were they managing day-to-day life? It was more than six years that these families were left to fend for themselves, along with having to visit the dear ones in jail and courts.
The above was discussed in a WSS meeting and it was decided that a team would visit the families of Chhatradhar Mahato, Sagun Murmu, Sukhshanti Baskey, and Shambhu Soren in their homes in Lalgarh. On 11th October 2015 a three-member team of WSS – comprising Nisha Biswas, Swapna Bandopadhyay and Shukla Bhuimali – went to meet them in Lalgarh. The team took some clothes for the women with them. As the team was nearing Chhatradhar Mahato’s house, they met his wife Niyoti Mahato who took them to the late Lal Mohan Tudu’s house, as according to her the distances were long and it was not possible to visit each home before sun-set and that being centrally located she would ask the others to come and meet the team in Tudu’s house.
Lal Mohan Tudu was killed on February 2010 in his house, when he came to bless daughter Lolita who was appearing for her class X Board exams that year. Lolita did appear for the examination just after four days of his killing, but failed to clear it. She then dropped out of school. The boys Leander and Bhupati, named after the tennis players, were studying in class VIII and IV at that time. The old sick mother, Dhanmoni, has taken bed. The family is in dire straits. Lal Mohan’s wife, Lakhimoni too has become sick and frail. Leander and Bhupati are studying B.Sc (Hons) in Geography and X, respectively. Leander studies from home, whereas Bhupati is staying in a hostel for ST students, where he has to pay Rs 2500/- per year as electric charges. The boys are irregularly getting the scholarship for ST students. Household and educational expenses are mainly born by mother-daughter duo, who collect and stitch leaves. Lolita also does small mending jobs of old clothes. Though the family has 3Bighas of land they grow a single crop and the yield is not sufficient to run the house. Lack of irrigation facilities forces them to leave the land fallow in winter and summer. All of them do farm-labor jobs as and when they get.
Dipali Baskey, 25 yrs old, wife of Sukhshanti Baskey is very sick. She had been married for only a few days at the time of her husband’s arrest. She now lives with her mother-in-law, who along with trying to manage the home by doing petty jobs and collecting leaves, looks after the clinically traumatized daughter-in-law. Dipali is so depressed and under such severe trauma that she has lost all interest in life. She has no interest in food or meeting people to the extent that she does not visit her parents. She spends her days and nights in bed. According to her mother-in-law she says, “Sukhshanti will die in Jail and I will die in this house”.
Shanti Murmu, wife of Sagun Murmu was married for three months when her husband was arrested. She lives with the father and two unmarried brothers of Sagun. A few years back her mother-in-law passed away. Being the only women in the family, her younger sister lives with her. The old and sick father-in-law stays at home. One brother-in-law is studying in college, and the other one is a farm labor. It also needs to be mentioned that because there is no irrigation facilities in the region, most of the land is single crop, which means agricultural laborers get work for only a very small period of the year. Both the sisters collect leaves and do menial jobs so that the family can manage to eat rice with starch or dry rice with salt, occasionally they have vegetables made of creepers and leaves that they can collect.
The team also met Mangli Soren, daughter-in-law of Shambu Soren. Shambhu was the major earning member of the family. Mangli was married for three years when Shambhu Soren was arrested. Her story is also like the family of Sagun Murmu.
While the team was talking to the above families, they met Gulapi Mandi with her 6-year old daughter Shyamali. Gulapi was 4months pregnant when her husband Lakhinder Mandi and father-in-law Rajaram Mandi were shot dead on the same date at the same place by the armed forces, near their home. She lives all alone in her house and goes to sleep in Lakhinder’s uncle’s house that is next to her home. She is still scared and is afraid of spending the night all alone. She too earns her living by collecting leaves and occasional farm labor.
Seeing the team Pada Baskey, student of class XII, brother of slain Sidhu Soren @ Bhuta Baskey, stopped by. Sidhu Soren, secretary of PCAPA, was the young face of the movement of Lalgarh. He was killed in Metala forest while he was asleep. Pada informed the team that his father Jamadar Baskey is very sick and that they do not have money for treatment. He had Jaundice a year back and probably has some liver ailment now. His mother, Lakhimoni Baskey, is the major earning member of the family. She earns money by collecting and stitching leaves. He, his brother Gopinath Baskey, student of class IX, along with their mother cultivate their nearly 3-bigha land. He said people are scared to talk to them and express their support. He also brought to notice the issue of non-ownership of the land. He said that his forefathers cleared and started farming the portion of forestland, which they still have in their possession. Because the government of West Bengal has not implemented Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, other villagers like him and his family are still denied formal right to their land. They are occasionally asked to get clear papers or the land will come under re-forestation.
Chhatradhar Mahato’s elder son Dhriti Prasad Mahato was pulled out of the finals of football match in 2011, organized by West Bengal police in Midnapore, depriving him of the ten-day trip to Germany. He was once again left out of West Midnapore district team last year after making the cut in the selection trials. Niyoti Mahato, his mother said that Dhriti, a college student, has got his father’s undying love for the game. The family is looked after by Niyoti, which owns a small patch of land. Niyoti also informed the team, that being closer to the forest, the wild elephants destroyed the entire crop, with hardly any chance for compensation. Chhatradhar’s younger son Debi Prasad Mahato too is studying in college. Both the son’s are under tremendous pressure to earn money so as to help Niyoti, their mother. Dhriti is also taking a computer course to enhance employment prospect.
After visit thoughts
1. While the team was visiting Lalgarh, the striking presence of armed forces shocked and surprised them. The old temporary camps are permanent now. Moreover, the employment of local boys as civic police (earlier called special police officers) was very visible. They continuously followed the team’s vehicle. The situation was so intimidating that the team members were asked to leave the place well before sunset.
2. Though the government of West Bengal is claiming that there is peace in Jungle Mahal now, that peace is maintained with the help of arms. Forces with modern guns hanging on shoulders were seen patrolling the area. Civic police in t-shirts and track pants were seen moving around on motorbikes. The ‘peace’ tomtomed by the West Bengal Chief Minister is actually the peace of grave and Jungle Mahal lives in constant terror of state repression.
3. On one hand, huge expenditure is made on armed forces; on the other there is no irrigation for the parched land, which could have improved the economic situation of the people in general. On top of this the wild elephants regularly raid their fields, destroy major portion of crop. This regular destruction is not being compensated. There is no medical facility; the sick still have to be taken to Midnapore for treatment whereas huge permanent buildings are erected for the police. A police-training academy too is coming up, whereas the families are not getting work under MNNREGA.
4. Women, who were going to the forests for collecting its produce early morning, now go much after sunrise and some times have to return empty handed seeing the large presence of armed forces.
5. The families of the arrested are living in severe hardship. There is no fellow feeling. Generally it is seen that whenever women like us have visited any village, lot of curious people gather and participate. But in Lalgarh, though the team spent 3 to 4 hours, no neighbor or passer-by stopped.
6. The non-implementation of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 by the government of West Bengal is depriving the people of their right on the land that they have cultivated for generations.
7. It was really heartening to see the determination of families to provide education to their wards. Children are serious about studies and are doing very well. They are going for higher studies. The boys we met, mothers we talked to, and all were determined to continue studies even under such adversities.
With this sunshine in the heart and darkening sky, the team took the train for Kolkata.