TUSHA MITTAL in Lalgarh, West Bengal
|Stunned Lalmohan Tudu’s family memrs say the well-read and soft-spoken farmer was no Maoist|
PHOTOS: PINTU PRADHAN
ON THE night of February 22, 2010 the nation was stunned by a 72-day ceasefire call made by Kishenji, a Politburo member of the banned CPI (Maoist). Endless debate followed. How serious were the Maoists? Could we trust them to refrain from violence? No one asked ‘How serious is the State? Can we trust them to abjure violence?’
This was followed hours later by the equally stunning account of a Maoist attack on a CRPF camp at Lalgarh in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district. Local channels reported that Maoists had attacked the Katapahari camp, a heavily guarded CRPF base in the heart of Lalgarh. A rumour ballooned into a lie which was immediately picked up by local and national media. By the next morning, it had been spun into a fact on which policy decisions would be made. Union Home Minister P Chidambaram said he could not trust the Maoists because they had “fired on the police hours after declaring a ceasefire”.
But what if none of this happened? What if it were the State forces that had killed one of its own citizens? If you began to separate fact from fiction and followed the blood trail into the potato and paddy fields of Lalgarh, you would chance upon the irony — the State expects the Maoists to abjure violence, but will not do so itself. Rather, it is operating at the same level as an outlawed group, collectively declared to be terrorists.
Consider the facts: On the morning of February 23, news agencies quoted Manoj Verma, the Midnapore Superintendent of Police, as saying: “Maoist-backed People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) members assembled near the Katapahari camp and fired, prompting the jawans to challenge them.” He added that a PCAPA member had been killed in retaliatory fire.
TEHELKA travelled to Katapahari to verify Verma’s claims. Says Raghav Pratihar, one of the 200 locals who had assembled at the neighbourhood temple for a village festival on the night of February 22: “We were at the mandir from 6 pm to midnight. There was no attack.” The temple is barely 10 metres from the CRPF camp.
Another villager, Deepak Pratihar, switched on the television after being informed by a friend in Midnapore of the “attack”. He says: “I was stunned to see TV reports of an attack. I went out to the road from where I could see the camp. It was quiet and dark.”
CRPF officials patrolling outside the Katapahari camp themselves admitted that there was no attack and that they had no knowledge of any firing. When TEHELKA spoke to Superintendent Verma on 24th morning, the official version had changed significantly. “I never said there was an attack on the camp. There was firing on a police party 1km away from the camp by around 15 to 20 Maoists,” he said. “We recovered one body, weapons, ammunition and Maoist literature… He is definitely a Maoist.”
The man killed was Lalmohan Tudu, 50, the son of a retired Lalgarh police constable. Tudu was a farmer cultivating paddy and potato until November 2008 when he was made president of the PCAPA, formed after security forces tortured a villager and arrested 13 others on false charges of triggering a landmine blast in West Bengal a few days earlier.
The PCAPA says Tudu was killed in a fake encounter. “Tudu was coming home to collect documents for his daughter’s Madhyamik (Class X) exams,” PCAPA spokesperson Asit Mahato says. “The police picked him up from his house and killed him.”
Sujatro Bhadro of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights alleges the police have only recovered one rifle from the spot. “TV shots show he was wearing a vest. Will a man go with one rifle and a vest to attack the police?” Bhadro adds that Tudu’s family is being threatened not to identify and collect his body from the morgue. “They have been told they will be arrested if they go to the police station,” he says. “All we know is that he’s dead,” his sister Rathamani Kiske says. “Has the world become more peaceful by killing my son?” cries Tudu’s mother Dhamoni. “We are too scared to ask for the body.” Tudu’s final rituals were performed in the courtyard of his empty house. A chicken filled in for his body.
ASKED FOR the sequence of events and proof that Maoists fired on the police, Superintendent Verma only says: “The matter is under investigation,” but admits that the police “were engaged in anti-Maoist operations” at the time of the incident.
Eyewitnesses told TEHELKA they saw more than 100 policemen surrounding Tudu’s Narcha village, around a kilometre from the CRPF camp, the evening he was killed. They had been stationed outside his house for an entire week. Tudu was killed in a clearing behind the paddy fields, 250 metres from the village. TEHELKA walked the trail to find military boot marks and blood splattered all along the path. No empty cartridges were found on the ground, as is common after crossfiring. It is highly unlikely that Maoists would attack a policy party, clearly ready in anticipation, especially at a time when police were on high alert after the recent Silda attack in West Bengal, where 24 jawans were killed.
|POLICE SWIFTLY CHANGED THEIR VERSION OF EVENTS AND CRPF OFFICIALS THEMSELVES ADMIT THERE WAS NO ATTACK|
Since the Lalgarh joint operation began in June 2009, Tudu had gone underground. His family left their house following repeated harassment from security forces. They last saw Tudu for a few hours in December 2009. That Tudu, the leader of a democratic people’s movement — see box — was forced into hiding is a commentary on the Lalgarh operation. It was no surprise then that the PCAPA declared itself an armed militia in October 2009 after the arrest of its leader Chhatradhar Mahato.
But for Verma “there has never been any difference between the Maoists and the PCAPA”. Reason that Maoists do not hold protest marches across Lalgarh, and he counters that they were “armed with weapons — arrows, swords”. Mention that Adivasis customarily sport these “weapons” and he points you to the Indian Arms Act. It is such branding that has perhaps helped the Maoists take advantage of a local people’s movement. By turning a deaf ear and alienating the villagers further, the police have allowed the Maoists an entry point. More than a year later, the myopia continues.
A visit to Narcha village reveals the counter narrative. Samvari Mandi, 35, who lives opposite Tudu’s house says the joint forces barged into her house a week before he was killed. They knocked a door off its hinges, grabbed her husband Kamal and took him inside Tudu’s house. “Where is he? Where is the family?” they demanded.
|‘IF TUDU IS A MAOIST THEN WE ARE ALL MAOISTS. THE STATE IS MAKING MAOISTS OF ORDINARY MEN. NOW THERE WILL BE MORE FIRE,’ SAYS DARU|
At 7 am, the day Tudu was killed, another villager, Lokhimoni Kisku, 27, saw around 50 policemen huddled under a tree outside Tudu’s house. “It was as if they expected him to come,” she says. Around 7.30 pm, Jatin Kisku, 45, saw the joint forces ride seven to eight motorcycles past Narcha village towards a canal. Around the time, another villager, Daru Kisku, was listening to the radio; there was talk of an elephant stampede. An hour later, when Daru heard sounds outside, he thought the elephants were coming. As villagers headed to the fields to protect their crop, they saw the police scouring the area with searchlights. It was around 9 pm, when “suddenly, I heard gun shots, around six to seven bullets, and ran back inside my house,” Daru says.
A source who has seen the post-mortem report told TEHELKA that exit wounds made by the bullets are larger than the entry wounds. According to experts this suggests that the dead man was shot at close range, contradicting the police claim of a gunbattle.
The timing of the incident is significant — it comes when sympathy for the CPI (Maoist) is perhaps at its lowest point. With splinter groups forming even as the Maoists staged ruthless attacks, there was an opportunity to wean the sympathy of civil society and tribals away from the Maoists. By misrepresenting facts and killing a local leader, the State has shot itself in the foot.
“If Tudu is a Maoist then we are all Maoists,” says Daru. “It is the State that is making Maoists of ordinary men. Now that Lalmohan Tudu has been killed, there will be more fire.”