BY PARTHA DASGUPTA, tehelka
THE COLLISION of the Jnaneshwari Express with a goods train just after midnight on 28 May near Jhargram killed 148 passengers and dealt a severe blow to the public image of the Maoists. The West Bengal CID named Monoj alias Bapi Mahato and Umakanto Mahato, members of People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), as the prime accused. Sections of the media claimed that Bapi had confessed to masterminding the incident.
TEHELKA has now obtained exclusive possession of handwritten notes which Mahato has written from Midnapore Central Jail, in which he denies the CBI charges. To establish his innocence, his ‘Open Letter’ gives a blowby- blow account of what unfolded on 28 May.
In a second letter titled ‘Plea to the Inhabitants of Jangalmahal’ Bapi denies having given any testimony to the CBI, which lauded the West Bengal police for arresting him. TEHELKA cannot independently verify the authenticity of the letters, signed in both English and Bangla. But the contents of the letter may lead investigators to an entirely different narrative. Here are the translations in full.
AN OPEN LETTER FROM A PRISONER TO THE PEOPLE OF WEST BENGAL
Prison blues Bapi Mahato at the time of his arrest soon after the 28 May tragedy and (below) facsimiles of the handwritten notes in which he gives blow-by-blow accounts of his movements
In our village, the PCAPA was formed on 25 December 2009. Around March this year, I was made responsible for 20 villages. The primary objectives of this committee were [establishment of people’s] rights, non-cooperation with the fraudulent-murdererrapist- liar (West Bengal) government and an all-round development of the rural society with mass support and mass involvement. It is this development work that irked the local Harmads (armed CPM cadres) and powerful CPM leaders and they planned to harm the committee.
As our committee grew in strength and number, the atrocities perpetrated by the Joint Forces increased proportionately. I was exasperated at the regular complaints by villagers against Joint Forces’ atrocities and could not take it anymore after the torture became unbearable around three days before the train tragedy. So, I took stock of the situation in the villages of Guimara, Sitabhuna, Shalpatra, Murabani, Amrashol, Baimanabandh, Indrabani and Barbigha with 8-10 of my comrades from the PCAPA. We found that around 3,000 members of the Joint Forces and 117 Harmads, who came from Chandra, unleashed horrible torture on the villagers. Angry at this, I organised a meeting with my comrades at Murabani [on 27 May, the eve of the Jnaneshwari tragedy]. From there I telephoned my leader (Umakanto) and conveyed the problems that we were facing. Umakanto suggested (on my phone, which was on loudspeaker mode) a bandh or road-blockade or damaging of government property.
On hearing this, the local leadership, comprising Samir, Manik (from Murabani), Tapan (from Amrashol) and Altaf (from Shalpatra) gathered the villagers and asked me for direction. The meeting was mainly conducted by Manik, Samir, Tapan and others. An estimated 1,500 villagers attended the meeting. I suggested felling of logs with hacksaws [to put up a rail blockade with those]. Hacksaws were collected. But a little later, the plan was rejected. Then the villagers suggested that the CPM party office at Sardiha and the local committee office be ransacked. This was also rejected.
Suddenly, a few people from the audience stood up and said, “We’ll do whatever needs to be done. You people don’t bother.” They got busy in collecting tools [sledgehammers, pickaxes]. When they were equipped with these tools, Manik [Manik Mahato, ex-CPM cadre, who joined the PCAPA recently but had not made it public through a poster, as is the norm] asked me to get a pick-up van. Without further delay, I called for a pick-up van. I, along with eight others (none of whom were known to me) and Khagen [the owner of the pick-up van], was sent to Indrabani from the ‘Shib Mandir’ [the Shiva temple in Murabani where the meet-ing was held]. Around 250 villagers had already gathered in front of Indrabani School (Indrabani is my area). Around half an hour later, Samir and Manik led a 1,000-odd strong contingent [from the earlier meeting] on foot to Indrabani.
I was made a sentry at the meeting point of Barbigha, Murabani and Indrabani. Manik, with around 20-25 people from his area boarded the van and they went off via Sitakula and Barbigha. I had no clue who they were, where they were heading and for what purpose. All of us waited till midnight for them to come back, but the Joint Forces came instead for patrolling. Seeing their big searchlights, we dispersed. [Curiously, no one was arrested from such a large gathering in an area which was under Section 144]. Around 12.30 in the night, I got a call on my phone saying the mission has been accomplished [TEHELKA has come to know who made the call — a resident of Barjudihi, he is popularly known as the ‘Jamai’ — son-inlaw of Murabani. Strangely, the police and the CBI are silent about the number from which the call was made and about who made the call].
Later, we came to know that our wait was futile because no one from our village (Indrabani) went there. Next day, on hearing the news of the accident, I tried to find out who were there at the site and were responsible for the tragedy, but could not get hold of anyone. No one was at home. 20-25 villages were devoid of male population. Everyone had fled for fear of the Joint Forces.
Tragic denouement (Left) Aftermath of the train derailment, which left 148 dead and many more injured. (Right) Villagers and paramilitary forces came to the rescue. Later, villages nearby were abandoned for fear of reprisals
Four days after the incident, Sanjay, Joydeb [Bapi’s neighbours] and I were taken [by the Maoists] inside the dense forests of Chandri on the pretext of a meeting. We were tied up for four days and were interrogated. I told them exactly what I have written above. No one was in a mood to believe me. After four days, we were untied by a sympathetic member of the squad. We were spared our lives. I was asked to stay in the forests for six months, but for fear of dear life, and taking advantage of their weaknesses, I fled. My family and studies were also on top of my mind. I took a trekker from beside Raj College to Gidhni, and from Gidhni I went to Tatanagar to my brother-inlaw’s place. I was arrested from there. The police beat me up mercilessly in the SGM and Adityapur police stations. Even my elder sister and brother-in-law were not spared. We were also subjected to tremendous mental torture. They threatened to shoot me. The police kept on asking which political party I supported.
The police have arrested only the members of opposition like Bholanath, Hiralal, Gokul and Sudarshan from my village and have tortured them. Hiralal [a Class IX student] was tortured the most.
• I put Umakanta on loudspeaker of my phone and it was for everyone to hear, including the new committee formed under Manik Mahato. I also asked them to take action.
• I used my phone to call the pick-up van. Another phone was used to organise sledgehammers.
• I let the others supersede my decision of rail blockade by logs. I also never enquired about the alternative plans that were being hatched and who would be involved in the execution (since the people were not from my area, I was not concerned).
• I and my folks from Indrabani could not imagine in our worst nightmares that an incident of such a scale would occur. I can assure one and all, not a single person from my area boarded the van.
I am ready to accept a death sentence by hanging in front of the audience present in that day’s meeting if I am really guilty of masterminding the incident.
A FEW ARGUMENTS IN SUPPORT OF OUR INNOCENCE
• Not a single person who boarded the van was known to me.
• In spite of patrolling by the Joint Forces, the van was allowed to go scot-free and was not intercepted [the van had many people, they were supposedly ‘armed’ and the entire stretch is under Section 144 — again, a curious thing].
• The pick-up van was sent back 1 km from the accident site.
• The Jnaneshwari driver has testified that he saw 10-15 big torches after the accident. PCAPA members would never light torches in the night.
• Nobody returned [to Indrabani] after the incident. I still don’t know what happened.
• I believe the tools that were taken from Murabani were not adequate to engineer an incident of this scale.
• And finally, I am confident that this is a planned conspiracy.
VERY IMPORTANT INFORMATION
On the eve of the tragedy, a ‘Harmad training camp’ was inaugurated in Barjudihi Primary School [Barjudihi is the hamlet nearest to Sardiha, where the tragedy occurred] by minister Susanta Ghosh. Senior party functionaries from the locality like Dahar Sen, Hiralal Mahato (of Manikpara), Dhruba Sannigrahi, Arjun Mahato (of Lalitashol), Karuna Mahato (of Jaljali), Tarun Dey, Hari (who runs a radio repairing shop in the station) and Rocky (who runs a tailoring shop in School Bazar) were present. The meeting was also attended by around 50 young persons [age group 15-25 years] from Lalitashol and Barjudihi. The meeting took place from 9 to 11 in the night. One of my class friends present in the meeting [TEHELKA has come to know his identity — a mason, who stays in Barjudihi] later told me that they had planned the train sabotage in the meeting to harm Mamata [Banerjee]. I have learnt that a few leaders of PCAPA were also present there. The [panchayat] pradhan of CPM Palit babu and Bimal Das, the moneylender from Lalitashol promised to finance the sabotage. (If Bimal’s house is raided, one would find at least 500 passbooks, 500 ‘fund-books’ and plenty of valuables including gold chains).
C/o Sudhir Ch Mahata
Vill Rasua [Kuspara]
PO Jhantibandh — 721513
Dist. Mednipure [Paschim]
PLEA TO THE INHABITANTS OF JANGALMAHAL
I AM AN active member of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA). I have not given any testimony to the CBI. And neither have I given any interview to the media. Whatever is coming out in the media in my name is untrue. The report that came out in Ekdin [a Bengali daily] on 25 July [a Maoist internal investigation report with the heading ‘We want Bapi’s punishment’] is utter nonsense, as it has hinted at my meeting with Dahar Sen [a senior CPM leader and husband of ex-minister Nandarani Dal, three-time MLA from the infamous Keshpur]. I left for Tatanagar by the Gidhni Local on 8 June. So, where did I meet Dahar Sen? Besides, even today, I do not know what he looks like, let alone have a discussion with him. The decision to shift us from Midnapore to Kolkata is just another ploy of the administration.