New Phase in Struggle for Release of Political Prisoners in West Bengal: Biswajit Roy
Guest post by BISWAJIT ROY
Civil society, including human rights groups, in Bengal are now divided on Mamata Banerjee government’s ‘open and hidden’ conditions regarding the release of political prisoners who have been jailed during the Left front rule as well as talks with Maoists and Maoist-backed Peoples Committee against Police Atrocities in Bengal’s tribal hinterland, known as Junglemahal.
Mamata and her ministers have rejected the demands for unconditional release of all political prisoners, immediate withdrawal of joint forces from Junglemahal and public announcement on non-enforcement of the draconian central law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Maoists and PCPA have accused Mamata of eating up her pre-poll words on those demands. A large section in the human rights movement including the intellectuals and activists who actively joined the Mamata-led campaign for regime-change now supported these demands. But some of their fellow travellers have differed on political and legal grounds.
The differences revealed contradictions between the pre-poll and post-poll positions of Mamata as well as chinks in the armour of human rights groups on the attitude to the new government, Maoists and PCPA. Tension among all the stakeholders in the process— Mamata, Maoists, human rights groups and individuals— was well-known within the concerned circles for quite some time. But none of the stakeholders dwelt on it in public before the assembly polls when they had made common cause against the CPM, particularly, the atrocities by CPM-joint forces combine.
I would like to dwell on post-poll dilemmas and fissures in the pro-Paribartan civil society in Bengal later. But this piece is primarily aimed at reporting the increasing manifestations of the hitherto latent tension.
Mamata’s Twin moves
After the election, the new Trinamul-Congress coalition government has constituted two panels involving a few prominent civil rights activists; first one to review the cases of political prisoners and second to initiate peace talks in Junglemahal. The first one has government and police representatives among its members. The government order on the terms of references for the ‘state level legal review committee’ included following functions—identify the ‘politically motivated FIR’ and the prisoners, both under-trial prisoners and convicted, who have been prosecuted and sentenced ‘for the offences pertaining to political movement as per section 24 of the West Bengal Correction Services Act 1992’. Also, ‘the nature/characteristics’ as well as ‘background leading to the commission of such offences’ will be probed.
The controversial part of the review committee’s brief comes later. The GO signed by the state chief secretary also wanted the panel to ‘examine the conduct of the prisoners in the correctional homes (jails), ‘ascertain the probability of their reverting back to the commission of the offences’ as well as to ‘examine the probability of instigating others to commit the offences’. It asked the committee to submit its report within three months.
In the meantime, Mamata announced her intention to release 43 undertrials, out of around 90 who have got judicial recognition as political prisoners. The government has submitted a list of 267 such prisoners to the committee while the human rights groups listed around 450. According to them, the number will go up to more than thousand if the undertrials released on bails are counted together.
The second panel, though formally not called a government-appointed committee, came into being after the chief minister’s meeting with her chosen representatives of civil society at the state secretariat. Later, Mamata and members of the second panel jointly met the media and released a joint statement issued by the state home secretary and those signed ‘on behalf of the civil society’. The chief minister as well as the joint statement assured new government’s developmental initiatives in Junglemahal including basic amenities, food, health, education and jobs. The ‘return of democracy’ and ‘probes into the complaints of ‘all atrocities and injustice during the tenure of earlier regime’ were also promised.
But at the same time, Mamata and the joint statement made it clear that centre-state joint forces would be withdrawn only after the recovery of illegal weapons and return of peace. Without naming CPM or CPI (Maoist) and PCPA, both Mamata and those ‘civil society representatives’ converged that ‘all sides would have to agree for ceasefire and government would take legal steps to recover arms’. Without naming the Maoists, both sides virtually repeated the earlier Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government’s position by promising economic package and social rehabilitation to those who would surrender arms. The CPI (Maoist) and PCPA members, though not mentioned as such, were ‘requested to take part in developmental activities of the government and stop intimidation aimed at disruption of development’. It was also made clear that government would take ‘lawful steps to ensure peace and protect lives’.
The ambits of both panels are clearly complementary and mutually overlapping as both have common members and the joint statement assured to ‘expedite the work of committee on the release of prisoners’. Maintaining that the government is ‘always sincerely interested in dialogue for peaceful solution of problems of Junglemahal,’ six members of the civil society were requested to take initiative to facilitate the talks.
Differences in the human rights movement
The government’s twin moves have evoked mixed reactions in the human rights groups. Questions are being raised about the manner new government has picked up civil society representatives on its own and the chosen activists’ decision to join the government-initiated process without consulting the larger community. The latter’s agreement with the government on terms of references for the review committee and conditions for withdrawal of joint forces drew flak more.
A convention on 11 July, called by Association of Protection of Democratic Rights, Lalgarh Manch and likeminded organisations ‘disapproved the agreement issued in the name of civil society’. The meeting demanded unconditional release of all political prisoners, withdrawal of ban on all political and mass organisations, resumption of talks with the PCPA after unconditional rollback of joint forces operations. Speakers criticised the government and those who joined its panels for latter’s apparent nod to the government’s order to examine the prisoners’ ‘probabilities of reverting’ to violence and ‘instigation to others’ before recommending their release. Describing it as the new government’s design to obtain ‘undertaking’ from political activists about their future moves, they cited traditions of civil liberty movement in the country since colonial period to justify their demands for unconditional release of political prisoners.
In this context, they referred to the post- emergency phase and first LF government’s policy of general amnesty that was announced despite initial reservations in the front about Naxalites in 1977. It was demanded that the new government must declare a ‘principled stand’ on unconditional release of political prisoners in stead of resorting to the ‘discriminatory and delaying tactics’ by forming a review committee. The human rights movement articulates its demands on the basis of its moral moorings as well as humanitarian and democratic ethos and it should not be subservient to any government’s political game and bureaucratic ploys to trivialise the core issues by citing procedural and legal nitty-gritty, they said.
The wife of jailed PCPA leader Chatradhar Mahato castigated Mamata for forgetting her pre-poll support to the demands for withdrawal of joint forces and release of PCPA leaders. They will resume their anti-government movement if their demands are not met shortly, she warned. In the meantime, Lalgarh Manch, a forum for pro-PCPA activists, has initiated a plan to hold a march to state secretariat and send deputation to Mamata demanding the same.
The tenor of the second convention on 14 July, organised by Bandi Mukti Committee, an umbrella body that included all anti-CPM forces including SUCI, was conciliatory to Mamata government. It tried to iron out differences between those who joined the government’s move and their critics. A prominent member of both the panels admitted that the governmental order to examine probable future activity of political prisoners amounts to asking for ‘undertaking’. He insisted that he had opposed it in the committee meeting and appraised Mamata of his reservation.
But he denied any sellout, justified their decision to join the government-initiated process by insisting that human rights movement cannot afford to boycott government moves if it wants to use present legal-political avenues to attain its objectives. He pointed out the political-legal distinctions between Jyoti Basu government’s policy of general amnesty and demands of unconditional release, then and now. According to him, it took much time to release all political prisoners even after the policy announcement in 1977. Referring to the jail law, modified during LF rule in 1992, he said that it recognised political prisoners on certain grounds but left it to the court to decide a prisoner’s status. The law has empowered administration to accord such status to prisoners on temporary basis but the LF government did not invoke the provision.
A Naxalite leader, earlier known as close to Mamata, reminded that Trinamul had stood for unconditional release of political prisoners during parliamentary polls in 2009. But the party changed its stand before assembly polls this year as its manifesto assured formation of a review committee. Other speakers including prominent pro-Paribartan intellectuals and activists insisted on underscoring their opposition to the CPM and support to Mamata government while appealing for unity in the human rights movement and suggesting changes in law etc to expedite the release of political prisoners.
Friends of Democracy, a forum for like-minded civil society members including those who have joined Mamata’s twin moves accused the latter’s critics of indulging in politics in the name of human rights. Maintaining that the Trinamul’s poll assurance was as ‘a step forward’ in contrast to CPM’s refusal to accept presence of such prisoners in West Bengal during LF rule. What would have happened had the CPM returned to power, the forum asked. Citing ‘unresolved debates’ both at international and national level on unconditional release of political prisoners, particularly those believed and practiced counter-violence, the forum accused its critics of intolerance to different ideals and opinions in the human rights movement.
Nevertheless, the convention ended with the demands of unconditional release of leaders and workers of CPI (Maoist) and PCPA as well as SUCI and others anti-CPM political forces. It also asked for judicial enquiry in fake encounter deaths in Junglemahal and withdrawal of joint forces and UAPA.
None of the speakers criticised Maoists/ PCPA or dwelt into the changed realpolitik equations between Maoists and Trinamul in Junglemahal. But many of them reminded that Mamata had assumed office with a massive popular mandate and her young government should be given time. In the earlier convention, a Naxalite leader had vaguely criticised PCPA/Maoists, without naming them, for imposing their hegemony on other anti-CPM forces in Junglemahal when it was in absolute control. The human rights groups in Bengal, however, never criticised Maoists/PCPA for indiscriminately killing CPM and non-CPM leaders and their supporters suspecting them as police moles, except issuing ambiguous press notes in some cases. Some of the concerned activists may have expressed their disapproval and indignation in private, their forums refrained from condemning the Maoist killings arguing that their primary role was to oppose the state terror. Long divided on the question of legitimacy of non-state terror, particularly, revolutionary violence, both individuals and their forums feared that their criticism of Maoist follies would strengthen the ‘enemies’.
PCPA demands to Mamata
PCPA has already put forward an updated list of its demands to the new government. It has rejected the government’s review committee as an effort to put the issue on backburner and demanded immediate release of Chatradhar and other leaders of Junglemahal movement, withdrawal of ‘false cases’ as well as talks with them. It also demanded judicial enquiry into fake encounter killings of prominent PCPA leaders, formation of special tribunal to probe and punish those police officials and CPM leaders who had been involved in ‘massacres and mayhem’. Insisting that the PCPA members had no role in Gyaneswari express sabotage that had claimed 154 lives, they asked for enquiry by ‘impartial intellectuals’ into it in stead of ongoing CBI probe.
The charter called for an autonomous council for Junglemahal covering Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia districts. On economic-industrial issues, PCPA chided Mamata for being ‘silent’ on return of land, acquired by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government for Jindal group’s steel plant in Shalboni that was later turned into an SEZ project. Bhattacharjee had allotted around 5000 acres to the group, partly vested by government earlier and partly acquired and purchased later. The vested land was originally meant for distribution among landless or government projects. PCPA also wanted the new government to nullify the state’s agreement with Japanese on construction of a hydro-power project in Purulia’s Ayodhya hills and return forest land to local tribals. It asked to ensure political-administrative space for PCPA-led people’s initiatives in developmental activities, approval of gram sabhas on deciding the priorities for government’s development projects to ensure corruption-free implementation etc. Needless to say, Maoists have made similar demands.
Trinamul- Maoist/PCPA changing equations
Mamata and her party leaders are evidently not pleased with this pressure-building. They refused to equate political situations in post-emergency days when Bengal jails were full of thousands of political prisoners and the current one when number is much less. Privately, they argued that general amnesty or unconditional release would free the CPM ‘harmads’ sentenced or accused in massacres, from Nanoor to Netai.
Formally being open to talks with Maoists and PCPA, Mamata and her men are quite angry with the rebels and their supporters for refusing to leave political space to Trinamul, which has bagged larger share of 40 seats in the districts of Purulia, West Midnapore and Bankura which covers Junglemahal and seven out of 14 constituencies where Maoists have more presence. According to them, the rebels and their PCPA frontal men have degenerated into self-serving extortionists who are eying their share of the booty including government fund for panchayats, other local bodies and government. They are disrupting the government’s move to distribute subsidised food grains at gunpoint and stalling developmental plans with the aim to turn the zone into its fiefdom once again. The insistence on the withdrawal of joint forces is aimed at achieving that goal, they argued.
Even though Mamata had supported PCPA-led Lalgarh movement against CPM and its government earlier and attended rallies in presence of Chatradhar Mahato, their relation soured after Mamata denied electoral berth to Mahato in recognition of his and PCPA’s role in Lalgarh movement that became a catalyst for political change in the wake of Singur and Nandigram. Mahato contested the assembly polls as independent candidate against both the CPM and Trinamul candidate, only to finish as poor third.
Sensing the prevailing popular mood and to garner Maoist/PCPA support, Trinamul candidates in Junglemahal had echoed the PCPA demands during their poll campaigns. Now that government and Trinamul has changed their tune, PCPA is asking local Trinamul MLAs to issue statement demanding withdrawal of joint forces and release of top PCPA leaders to put pressure on Mamata. One such MLA has issued such statement, allegedly, under pressure while some others had to flee to safety to avoid Maoists, the party leaders complained.
With CPM humbled at the hustings and its cadres on the run, Mamata has decided to follow a carrot and stick policy to contain the Maoists/PCPA. She has refused to comply with demands of the Maoists/PCPA and human rights groups sympathetic to them. Clearly, she would like to use the demands for withdrawal for joint forces and immediate release of political prisoners for bargaining with the Maoists/PCPA. The new labour minister, a former Naxalite leader himself, publicly threatened that the government would counter armed ultras with guns if they refuse to allow developmental activities. On the other hand, ministers and civil society members close to Mamata claimed in private that she had told the state police not to use UAPA freshly and asked central forces not to do ‘excesses’ in the name of containing ultras. But government would change its mood if Maoists do not come to terms, they warned.
Mamata herself was totally silent on Maoist/PCPA demands at her recent public rallies in Junglemagal while making her developmental promises to the tribals and other poor in the area. Her only concession to the victims of police atrocities during the Left regime was the announcement of financial assistance to those tribal women who had sustained severe injuries during police crackdown following Maoist mine-blast to kill Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in 2008.
Leaders close to her made it clear that she won’t release those accused in Maoist raid in Silda camp of Eastern Frontier Rifles in which 22 jawans were killed and Gyaneswari express sabotage that claimed 154 live. She cannot afford to antagonise Gorkha community in general, and Gorkha Janamukti Morcha in particular, in the first case and larger public opinion in the second, they said.
Mamata’s plan to recruit special police constables: aping Chattisgarh model ?
The situation has been further vitiated as Mamata announced her plan to recruit 10000 boys in Junglemahal as ‘special police constables, home guard and NVF jawans’ to provide jobs to unemployed youth. Despite her calls for peace and talks to ‘friends who have misunderstood’, her repeated appeal to local youth ‘not to fear those who are still intimidating with guns’ and take up ‘weapons for the country and the government’ led to the suspicions about her real motives. Maoists and many in civil society/human rights groups have found a chilling similarity to Chattisgarh’s infamous Special Police Officers of the state-sponsored armed anti-Maoist Salwa Judum campaign. Mamata has obviously taken a leaf from Chidambaram-Raman Singh’s book as the SPOs are to be regularised as policemen after the apex court rapped the Centre and Chattisgarh governments for their ‘unconstitutional’ exercise, they felt.
Mamata, in her new avatar, has urged joint forces and people of Junglemahal to be friendly to each other and ordered for distribution of subsidised rice from police stations and BDO offices, apparently, as part of public relations drive. Amid the unconfirmed reports between Raman Singh and Mamata on Maoists during latter’s recent visit to Delhi, her ministers and minions are denying imitation of Chhattisgarh model. Some of them have claimed that the new plan rather resembled the Left-ruled Tripura’s raising of a regular police force by recruiting tribals, thus wining the young hearts in insurgency-prone areas of the state while taking their help in containing the insurgents. It is another matter that Mamata is following the Marxists to tackle the Maoists. But the CPM which has preferred to raise its own armed groups in addition to helping the joint forces for its turf war with the Trinamul and Maoists, now criticised Mamata for trying to imitate Chhattisgarh’s Salwa Judum.
In the meantime, Maoist leaders are sending mixed signal, if not a blow-hot-blow-cold message to Mamata. One of them who issues regular statements to media after the CPI(Maoist) politburo member Kisanji has stopped his high profile media interaction in Junglemahal, welcomed Mamata’s offer for talks and asked her to release few state-level front-ranking party leaders jailed in Bengal to prepare the ground. Others, if media reports are to be believed, ruled out talks before the release of the jailed rank and file including Chhatradhar, withdrawal of joint forces and judicial inquiry in fake encounter killings etc. Mamata was peeved at the report that Maoists had tried to prevent people from Lalgarh area from attending her post-poll public rallies in other parts of Junglemahal.
She now wants Maoist leadership to offer specific proposals for talks and the members of government-appointed panels are scheduled to meet the jailed Maoist/PCPA leaders to expedite release of political prisoners as well as to pave the ways for talks. In the meantime, some civil society interlocutors close to Mamata suggested a governmental move to facilitate a meeting of senior Maoist leaders including Kobad Gandhi, Narayan Sanyal and Sushil Roy, now lodged in different jails across the country. They pointed out that Mamata government should take the initiative since there has no major killings in Junglemahal so far. But Mamata is not likely to request Chidambaram to arrange the meeting, they felt, unless Maoists come to terms with her. Another section close to Mamata, however, is sceptical about Maoists’ sincerity about peace talks as they cited failed dialogue in Andhra earlier. According to them, Maoists were interested in talks that time after being cornered by the Grey Hounds.
Given this scenario, Junglemahal will witness more topsy-turvy relations between Mamata and Maoists and consequentially, between the government and human rights groups. This in turn, will affect the larger civil society and likely to lead to fresh ruptures.