Amid Maoist boycott call, Jangalmahal goes to polls on Monday

Kolkata, April 2 (IANS) Amid reports of a regrouping by Maoists, the Jangalmahal area in three Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-hit districts of Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore go to the hustings in the first phase of the West Bengal assembly polls on Monday.

Thirteen constituencies of the three western districts go to the polls. They were not long ago the hub of red ultra activities, that peaked between 2006 and 2009.

Remaining largely dormant since the killing of top Maoist leader Koteshwar Rao alias Kishenji in a gun battle with security forces in November 2011, the Maoist rebels now have given a poll boycott, castigating the state’s Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government of “unleashing a reign of terror” in Jangalmahal – the forested stretches of the LWE districts.

The joint forces comprising central paramilitary troopers and crack state police teams are posted in the areas since mid 2009.

Lalgarh, 200 km west of Kolkata in West Midnapore district, was the seat of the pro-Maoist tribal group Peoples’ Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), which was the public face of the red rebels for several years.

Most of the PCPCA leaders have either been killed in encounters with the police or are in jail now. Some have joined the Trinamool after laying down arms.

PCPCA convenor Chhatradhar Mahato and some of his comrades are serving life sentences following their conviction under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, as also sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) dealing with murder, criminal conspiracy, waging war against the state, and the Arms Act and Explosives Act.

Lalgarh was on the boil for over two years since November 2, 2008, when a landmine exploded on the route of the convoy of then state chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and central ministers Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitin Prasada.

In June 2009, joint forces comprising central paramilitary troopers and crack teams of state police reclaimed the areas. The left extremist movement gradually died down after the widespread arrests and encounter deaths.

This time, the security forces are extra cautious because apart from the calls for boycott, the police have also seized large number of arms and ammunitions from several areas suspected to belonging to the rebels.

Even as it preferred not to reject the possibility of the Maoists regrouping, the administration is confident of not only conducting peaceful polls but also prevent the resurgence of the rebels.

“There have been reports of some elements trying to disrupt the electoral process but the administration is fully geared up to counter any kind of challenge. Our confidence building measures with the masses have borne fruit, and even if there are attempts the Maoists will not be able to create any grounds here anymore,” an IPS officer told IANS.

Besides ensuring elaborate security arrangements, including employing choppers for aerial surveillance, the Election Commission has also announced reducing the duration of polling by two hours in the constituencies. Polling will end in these areas at 4 p.m.

The Trinamool and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have put up candidates in all the 13 constituencies, while the Congress and the Left have together put candidates for the seats.

Holding dozens of rallies, road shows and public meets across the three districts, the chief minister has been hard selling a “smiling Jangalmahal”, crediting her development schemes for turning the once “bloodied” red zone into a “most sought after” tourist destination.

According to a report by the union home ministry, not a single death has been reported in West Bengal’s LWE districts between 2012-2015 – in sharp contrast to 2010 when 258 such deaths were reported, while in 2011 the death toll was 45. Ending the 34 years uninterrupted rule of the Left Front, the Banerjee government came to power in the state in May 2011.

Besides doling out sops like subsidised food grains, scholarships for girls and students through her pet schemes like Kanyashree, Sabuj Sathi and the Khadya Sathi, the Banerjee government’s attractive financial and rehabilitation package led to a number of the rebels, including Kishenji’s close aide Suchitra Mahato, laying down arms and returning to the mainstream.

“Irrespective of the Congress Left tie-up, in Jangalmahal, there is no fight. On the sheer basis of the development ushered in by the state government the Trinamool will not only sweep entire Jangalmahal but come to power with more than 200 seats,” Trinamool’s Sukumar Hansda, who is defending the Jhargram seat, told IANS.

The BJP, whose star campaigners included Prime Minster Narendra Modi, party chief Amit Shah and union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, derided the Banerjee regime for its “all pervasive” corruption, including a recent sting operation in which several Trinamool leaders were “caught taking bribes”. Ridiculing the Left and the Congress, the saffron party has urged the people to give the party a chance in Bengal.

The Congress and the Left, which have tied up with the sole motive of ousting the “despotic” Banerjee government, claim the Trinamool’s “so called development is only cosmetic”.

“Doling out food grains or bicycle is not development. The root causes – unemployment, lack of infrastructure, which had led to the Maoist insurgency, continue to exist. There is not a single family in the entire Jangalmahal, where its members have not migrated to others states for employment,” Jhargram’s Congress nominee Subrata Bhattacharya told IANS.

Among the 13 Jangalmahal constituencies are Nayagram, Gopiballavpur, Jhargram, Salboni and Binpur in West Midnapore, Bandwan, Baghmundi and Joypur in Purulia district and Ranibundh in Bankura district.

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