Mamata Banerjee inducts former Maoist leader Chhatradhar Mahato into the Trinamool State Committee

Published : July 24, 2020 07:20 IST

Chhatradhar Mahato (left) filing his nomination as an independent candidate for Jhargram Assembly seat in West Midnapore in 2011. Photo: PTI

In a major development that has raised eyebrows in political circles, former Maoist leader Chhatradhar Mahato, who had been in prison for the last 10 years, was inducted into the State Committee of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal on July 23. The move was part of a major organisational reshuffle aimed at revamping the party machinery to take on an ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Assembly elections in the State, which is less than 10 months away.

Chhatradhar Mahato, who was the convener of the Maoist-backed Peoples Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA), was arrested on September 25, 2009, by police officers disguised as journalists at Lalgarh in West Bengal’s Paschim Medinipur district at the height of the Maoist movement in the State. He was charged under several sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, for his links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Mahato, who used to organise violent rallies against the then ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front, was the most visible public face of the Maoist movement in the State. He came into prominence after a failed assassination attempt on the then Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee near the forested Lalgarh area in November 2008. Mahato organised violent protests against arrests made in the region in connection with the crime. It is believed that the prolonged agitation helped the Maoists swiftly take control of the Jangalmahal (the contiguous forested area of the three districts of Paschim Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia). Under the PCPA’s leadership, the tribal people in the area refused to allow the police into the region.

The PCPA’s agitation kickstarted one of the most violent and bloody periods in West Bengal’s recent history that lasted more than two years. According to Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, author of Lalgarh and the Legend of Kishanji: Tales from India’s Maoist Movement, out of the 391 civilians killed by Maoists in India in 2009, 134 were killed in the Jangalmahal alone. In 2010, out of the total 478 people killed, 180 were from Bengal. “As of 2016, 36 people remained missing from the region,” said Snigdhendu Bhattacharya. Most of the people killed were workers or supporters of the Left Front. There was a clear effort on the part of the Maoists to create a political vacuum in the region.

Interestingly, Mamata Banerjee, who was then the opposition leader, had shared a dais with Chhatradhar Mahato in early 2009. However, later she distanced herself from Mahato and the PCPA, leading to a souring of relations between the two. Even after Mamata Banerjee came to power in the state in 2011, Mahato remained in prison. It was only in February this year that he was released.

After his elevation in the party, Mahato said: “I have been with the Trinamool right from the party’s inception. In between, I had given leadership to a mass movement. Subsequently, when the party came to power, it was my dream to help the people under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee. My dream today is fulfilled….”

Political observers see this development as a desperate move by Mamata Banerjee to win back the support of the people of the Jangalmahal. Corruption at the grassroots level and highhandedness of the local Trinamool leadership have alienated the local people, who have switched their allegiance to the BJP. Mahato’s choice of words after being elevated in the Trinamool was also quite significant: “I will try and redeem the lost glory of the party.”

Joyprakash Majumdar, vice president of the West Bengal unit of the BJP, told Frontline: “Trinamool has no support in Jangalmahal. This is an attempt to reorganise the old members of the Maoist movement so that they can target the BJP. Chhatradhar Mahato has lost touch with the people and the politics of the region. This is a very dangerous move. When popular support cannot be won back, Mamata Banerjee is looking for support from the erstwhile Maoists. It is a clear case of quid pro quo between the Maoists and Mamata Banerjee.”

According to CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty, those accused of establishing a reign of terror in Jangalmahal are being rewarded by the present State government. “Those instrumental in bringing Mamata Banerjee to power through a path of blood have been rewarded. With this move, she has proved that it was with the purpose of bringing her to power that so many murders took place in the Jangalmahal,” Chakraborty told Frontline.

Another surprise new entrant in the 21-member State committee of the Trinamool is Ritabrata Banerjee, former Rajya Sabha member of the CPI(M). He was the general secretary of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and was expelled by the party in 2017 because of alleged unethical behaviour.

With the elections looming round the corner and allegations of corruption and faction feuds increasingly weighing the ruling party down, Mamata Banerjee has made some major changes in the party structure, giving greater responsibility to younger leaders and overhauling the leadership in several districts. Mahua Moitra, the articulate and dynamic Lok Sabha MP, has been made party president of the faction-ridden Nadia district and former cricketer Laxmi Ratan Shukla has been given charge of Howrah district.