Updated: March 26, 2021 12:22:15 pm
A gamcha over his vest, Chhatradhar Mahato sits on a cot behind his two-storey mud house at Lalgarh in Jhargram district, surrounded by booth-level Trinamool workers. Only the two guards are a giveaway that the 57-year-old is no ordinary party man but the former convenor of the Maoist-backed People’s Commi- ttee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), who was charged under the UAPA and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009.
Since he came out in February 2020 after 11 years behind bars, Mahato has been working to win back for the Trinamool the former Maoist belt of Jangalmahal — comprising West Midnapore, Purulia, Bankura and Jhargram districts — whose majority tribal population favoured the BJP in 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
“The BJP divided the tribal community after its win. They pitted Kurmi (OBC) against Santhal Adivasi (ST) for political gains. But people of Jangalmahal want peace and no more bloodshed. They were misled into believing that the BJP is working for their rights,” Mahato says.
The face of the PCAPA agitation against the state government between 2008 and 2011, Mahato was captured by the police posing as journalists in September 2009.
Mahato says a lot of people are back with the Trinamool due to his efforts. “Several panchayats in Jhargram area have returned to the party from the BJP. People in these panchayats had supported me when I was the PCAPA convenor. This shows people still have faith in me.”
The 2018 panchayat polls though had been marred by allegations of strong-arm tactics by the Trinamool, including in Jangalmahal, with Opposition candidates stopped from filing nominations. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had won five out of six seats in the area.
Mahato admits there were transgressions, but claims the anger is past. “I have been travelling to Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore districts and focusing especially on the Assembly segments where the BJP led in 2019. People were angry against the Trinamool for not treating them with respect, but the anger was with local leaders and not Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Even Left leaders would meet people. The Trinamool did so till 2016 but then stopped. Now people are coming out seeing me,” he says.
Mahato says voters are also impressed with the Mamata government’s work. “It has addressed the social demands of the tribal community. A public holiday has been announced on the birth anniversary of tribal leader Birsa Munda. The government set up Raghunath Murmu College and built a Raghunath Mahato bridge. Stipends are being provided to local artists.”
Mahato claims the Trinamool would now do well in Assembly seats where the BJP led in 2019. All these constituencies vote on March 27.
The meeting with booth-level workers over, Mahato pops inside the house to put on a blue kurta, drape a white scarf and don a party cap with Mamata’s photograph and the slogan ‘Didir Dhoot (Didi’s Messenger)”, before heading for a road show.
How does it feel to leave the Left’s red behind for the Trinamool’s colours? “When I was spearheading the PCAPA movement in 2008-09, I was fighting for everybody… not treating people differently… Local Left leaders, feeling the Trinamool pressure, have joined hands with the BJP. But people need to understand that these BJP leaders will come only during the elections and distribute money. They need a government which will stand by them for five years,” Mahato says.
Arguing why the Trinamool government is best for tribals, Mahato adds, “Mamata Banerjee believes in ‘Jal, jangal (water, jungles)’ and ‘Jaminer adhikaar (land rights)’. The Trinamool came to power on the back of anti land-acquisition movements. They do not believe in forceful acquisition of tribal lands.”
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