| Brothers in arms
The narrow stretch along the Jharkhand-Bengal border presents a contrasting picture. On the side of Bengal, the hills are lush, flecked with varying shades of green — an indication that the monsoon has been fulsome. But on the side of Jharkhand, the slopes are rugged, with motley patches of vegetation. This is in the rain-shadow area, and hence the aridity.
The bleakness of the terrain adds to the sense of social disquiet. The tribal villages tucked away in the wooded foothills are a cauldron of unrest. On August 7, nine suspected People’s War activists were “lynched” by armed members of a citizens’ resistance group at Lango village in the Dumuria block of Ghatshila subdivision. The slain rebels included two women People’s War activists from West Bengal’s Midnapore district.
Reports say tension has been simmering in the villages after the People’s War activists warned three members of the Nagarik Suraksha Samiti against tilling their land and cooperating with the police. The samiti members protested and continued farming. Things reached a flashpoint three days later, when an extremist belonging to a 14-member People’s War hit squad active in the area threatened to kill a samiti member for defying the rebel diktat. The enraged Nagarik Suraksha Samiti members chased the People’s War activist out of the village and informed the police.
Later in the day, the samiti members were tipped off that a 50-member People’s War squad would attack Longo at night. Armed to the teeth, they waited for the marauders. Narrating the incident, one Gourango Mahto, who is spearheading the resistance, said as soon as the rebels knocked on the door of the villager whom they had threatened, the resistance group members overpowered and disarmed a large number of them. The rebels were subsequently tied up and beaten with clubs and sticks. “There were 11 of them, including the headman’s son. They pleaded for mercy but we did not spare them, barring two minor boys.”
As the news spread, villagers from neighbouring tribal settlements thronged Longo to get a glimpse of the “dead rebels” and bask in the glory of the common man’s triumph against terror. The East Singhbum police reached the spot within a couple of hours and heaped praises on the villagers. Pictures of nine mutilated corpses and copious stories made it to the front pages of newspapers and were splashed across the screen. From obscurity, Longo shot to fame overnight.
Going by the euphoria in the corridors of power in Ranchi and the statements of the director-general of police, Longo seems to have heralded the beginning of a new battle against extremism — a people’s uprising against terror. “The people in the villages are gradually realizing the futility of aligning with the radical forces,” said a Bharatiya Janata Party minister from Jamshedpur.
Is it really so' Viewed from a conventional perspective, the people’s uprising at Longo is definitely a positive trend. For any kind of social churning involving the masses is a prelude to a change of order. But what if the movement is carefully orchestrated to serve a particular interest group' The idea, though seemingly far-fetched, acquires credence after a careful analysis.
The Dumuria block is traditionally an economically-backward area on the Jharkhand-Bengal border inhabited by Munda and Ho tribals and a smattering of other backward caste groups like the Mahtos, Gopes, Deshwali-Manjhi, Tantis and scheduled castes. Development has bypassed these areas and farmers subsist on micro-cropping. Till last year, the block was ravaged by drought and successive crop failures till the East Singhbum district administration stepped in and decided to provide high-yield variety seeds to farmers.
But the administration was six years too late. In 1996, the People’s War from the adjoining Midnapore district in West Bengal started making inroads into the block and mobilized the villagers against the local police and block officials. The socio-economic conditions provided the extremist outfits enough reason to wean the local youth away from the mainstream. The outfit struck roots by driving a wedge between the land-owning (mainly the backward Mahtos) class and the marginal tribal and backward groups. Absence of land reforms and grinding poverty polarized the ethnic society, helping the outfit consolidate base in the remote villages.
Dumuria and the adjacent Ghurabandha block were used by the People’s War as a training ground and recruitment base. It used intimidation and sometimes persuasion — in the form of anti-establishment propaganda— to lure the tribal youth. As the Bengal government intensified its crackdown on Naxalite strongholds in Midnapore, the cadre spilled into the Ghatshila subdivision, making Dumuria their base.
Trouble, however, started last year when the outfit tried to force through crude land reforms to benefit its support base and decided to till surplus land. It resulted in a clash of interest. The landed class retaliated by setting up a citizen’s resistance to safeguard common interest.
The need was mutual. The Nagarik Suraksha Samiti needed the administration’s support to counter the rebels and the administration was in dire need of an extra-constitutional weapon to tackle extremism. With the tacit support of the police, the samiti went about its task of weeding out the rebels from a handful of villages in the block. The arrangement could not have been better for the police, as it was floundering in its attempts to bring the brigands to book. Subsequent raids since 2000 have not been able to yield anything significant, barring a few busted bunkers, stray arrests, recovery of arms and occasional surrender of middle-rung rebel leaders.
Though honorable in its intention, the samiti, over the past one year has time and again exhibited a startling resemblance to the numerous upper caste landlord militias in Bihar like Ranvir Sena, Sunlight Sena, the now defunct Brahmarshi Sena and so on. These private armies, primarily guarding land belonging to particular caste groups, have been covertly supported by upper caste politicians and officials alike in their battle against the ultra-left forces.
Is Singhbhum taking a leaf out of central Bihar’s experience with its killing fields' Observers concur. With the rebels baying for the blood of the East Singhbhum deputy superintendent of police, three officers-in-charge and the Maoist Communist Centre drawing up a hit list of top police officers in West Singhbhum, the stage seems set.
Caught in the crossfire are innocent villagers. Says a villager from Ghurabandha adjoining Dumuria, “If we say no to the People’s War, they will take away our sons, daughters and might even kill us and if we do not cooperate with the administration, they will brand us rebel sympathizers. As it is life is difficult here.”
The administration does not seem keen on a direct confrontation. It prefers someone else to do its dirty job. The government’s reticence points to only one thing — that it has not been able to solve the lingering problems like surplus land redistribution among the landless, economic backwardness and the non-implementation of development schemes. Had it been able to provide welfare at the grassroots level, then Dumuria would perhaps have witnessed bloody encounters between the keepers of law and the outlaws. But people are being encouraged to take law into their own hands, a trend which could prove socially dangerous in the long run.
At Gumla, a similar experiment went bust when the Shanti Sena set up and armed by the police to counter the MCC, started acting as a bunch of criminals. In West Singhbhum, a mundi kaato (beheading) campaign in the Eighties by the Gram Raksha Dal, comprising traditional village chiefs, failed similarly. In fact, it almost led to a civil war between non-tribal contractors, businessmen and district administration officials on the one hand and the Kolhan (as the region is known as) tribals on the other in their crusade against corruption. The East Singhbhum district administration should look into the past to work out an effective strategy in its war against terror.