Maoist in the net

Print edition : April 06, 2012

Suchitra Mahato, a symbol of the Maoist movement in West Bengal, surrenders.

in Kolkata

Standing by the side of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Maoist leader Suchitra Mahato speaks to the media at Writers' Buildings in Kolkata on March 9.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

THE Maoist movement in West Bengal suffered a major setback when Suchitra Mahato, a senior leader of the Bengal chapter of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), surrendered to the State government on March 9. One of the most dreaded names in Jangalmahal (the forested areas of the contiguous districts of Pashchim Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia), Suchitra, apart from having numerous cases against her for extortion, abduction and murder, was a key planner in the massacre of 2010 in which 24 personnel of the Eastern Frontiers Rifles were mowed down while resting in their camp at Silda, Pashchim Medinipur.

Announcing her surrender in the presence of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at the State Secretariat in Kolkata, Suchitra said, For so long I have believed in Maoist politics. But today I want to leave it behind.

According to Manoj Verma, Superintendent of Police, Counter-insurgency Force, she was a symbol of the Maoist movement in the State. Of late she did not have much utility in the Maoist movement mainly because her identity was exposed to the general public, but as a symbol of the movement she was very important. This surrender may make a lot of other Maoists decide to come back to the mainstream, Verma told Frontline.

After joining the People's War Group in 1999, Suchitra rose up the ranks of the Maoists to become one of its most prominent leaders in West Bengal. Rank-wise, she stands at the same level as Akash [Maoist State secretary in West Bengal] and Bikash [Maoist squad commander], said Pravin Tripathi, Superintendent of Police, Pashchim Medinipur. The widow of Sashadhar Mahato, one of the most influential Maoist leaders of the State, she was known to have been very close to Maoist polit bureau member Koteswar Rao (alias Kishenji).

Kishenji was the head of the extremist outfit's military commission, which is carrying out operations in Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha and Bihar. Suchitra was by the side of Kishenji when he was killed in a shootout with the security forces on November 25, 2011.

Controversies

Suchitra's surrender comes with its share of controversies. She was reportedly injured in the gun battle in which Kishenji was killed but apparently managed to escape. Since then rumours have been rife about her being apprehended either by the police or by a Trinamool-backed anti-Maoist outfit and of her being treated under a different name in a Kolkata hospital for bullet injuries. It was also rumoured that she had given birth and was willing to quit the Maoist life.

This whole surrender episode has been staged mainly to suppress the Trinamool-Maoist nexus. How could she have escaped when she was seriously injured and the police had completely surrounded her? said the Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, Surya Kanta Mishra of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Said CPI(M) State secretary and Polit Bureau member Biman Bose: Anybody can see that she did not come straight from Jangalmahal. She was in police custody.

Suchitra, however, denied being apprehended earlier. No, I was not caught. I surrendered today, she told the media. Prabir Gorai, whom she married this February, also surrendered along with her, and this was cause for much speculation. Police sources have confirmed that he had never been a Maoist, though he was at one time an activist of the Maoist-backed People's Committee against Police Atrocities and subsequently, as claimed by some people, a Trinamool Congress activist. This development has really taken us by surprise. It appears to be part of a well-thought-out plan and not a sudden development, said a senior police source.

Gorai's cryptic statement to the media added fuel to the controversy. Her reasons for surrender are manifold and cannot be summarised in one statement in a day. It is not solely for the State's development. But it will be better if she were to say that, he said.

The police are finding it difficult to believe that it was a change of heart that prompted Suchitra to surrender. She is not the kind of woman who would suddenly have a change of heart. She was far too important a leader among the Maoists. There are probably other factors, including personal security and her medical condition, that prompted her to surrender, a senior police source operating in Jangalmahal told Frontline.

According to informed sources, fissures have surfaced within the Maoist camp in West Bengal, and certain sections blame Suchitra and Akash for Kishenji's death. She may have thought it wise to surrender if she felt she was being blamed for Kishenji's end. Also, though she was a big name in West Bengal, it is unlikely that she would be accepted at higher levels in other States. So she could neither leave West Bengal, nor continue to live here, a police source said.

Whether she has indeed had a change of heart, according to the police, will be ascertained in the coming weeks when she is interrogated. Those Maoists who have willingly surrendered have helped us out immensely with information. The level of her cooperation will indicate how much of a change of heart she has had, said Verma.

The last time Suchitra was seen before her surrender was during the shootout that killed Kishenji on November 25. Verma, who led the operation, confirmed that she was injured in the firing. We have enough evidence to believe that for the first five to six days after the shootout, Suchitra was in West Bengal. After that she most probably escaped to Jharkhand as that was where most of Kishenji's core team (including Akash, Bikash and Bikram) had gone. She may have also been in Odisha, said Verma.

Both Verma and Tripathi have dismissed the allegations that Suchitra was caught long before her so-called surrender. We were constantly searching for her, but she was very elusive. She knew the region extremely well and was very clever in constantly giving us the slip. We could get to know where she had been hiding only after she left the place, said Tripathi.

Blow to Maoists

Following Kishenji's death, Maoists have been on the run in West Bengal. At a time like this, Suchitra's surrender is being viewed as a particularly hard blow to the movement. However, they have not abandoned attempts to regroup in various parts of Jangalmahal. Belpahari, Gopiballabhpur and Nayagram in Pashchim Medinipur district are some of the areas where Maoists still have a presence. While Belpahari is near the Jharkhand border, Nayagram and Gopiballabhpur provide easy escape into Odisha.

Since Kishenji's death, there has been a leadership crisis among the extremists in West Bengal. His replacement is believed to be Sabyasachi Panda, the top Maoist leader of Odisha and CPI(Maoist) central committee member. Though we know for certain that Sabyasachi is behind the recent Maoist activities in Nayagram and Gopiballabhpur, we cannot be certain that he has officially taken over the outfit's West Bengal chapter. Moreover, he has also been spotted by local people outside the border areas as well, said Tripathi.

However, according to sources in Jangalmahal, though Sabyasachi Panda has a formidable reputation in Odisha, he does not know the Bengal terrain as well as Kishenji did.

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