At the bleeding edge of the battle for control of one of India’s poorest belts, it’s red versus rebel red. And rebel red is losing. Maoists and their frontal organisation—the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA)—are on the backfoot in large parts of West Midnapore, a district bordering Jharkhand in the western part of West Bengal where the red rebels’ writ ran large till a few months ago. This is not because of the joint Central paramilitary and state police forces that launched operations against the red rebels in June last year, but the efforts of a private army trained and armed by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM). Known popularly as the Harmad Bahini, this militia is armed with sophisticated weapons, most procured from the illegal arms bazaar at Bihar’s Munger.
A deadly force, the Harmad Bahini has been able to ‘liberate’ many areas that Maoist rebels and the PCAPA had a free run of till recently. The most widely reported such gain has been the ‘recapture’ of Lalgarh earlier last month, when local CPM leaders and activists, who had been driven out nearly a year-and-a-half ago, marched back into town with militiamen of the Bahini in tow.
This private army is stationed in nearly 40 ‘camps’, many of them CPM offices apart from primary and high schools, across the district. Well fortified, these camps house scores of heavily armed cadres, most of them from neighbouring districts, whose job is to protect party members, activists and leaders in the surrounding villages. This could mean anything from thwarting attacks by Maoists and PCAPA activists to helping the joint forces with intelligence inputs and carrying out operations against the rebels.
The Harmad Bahini has several different groups operating under local CPM office-bearers—typically local committee secretaries who oversee operations and ensure logistical support. This is done in broad daylight, even as CPM leaders in Kolkata and Delhi vehemently deny the very existence of the Harmad Bahini. That denials are needed at all is largely because of the fuss created by Trinamool Chief Mamata Banerjee, who has been crying herself hoarse over the militia operating under the aegis of the joint forces.
“There is no truth in this allegation. We don’t have any private army. People, fed up with Maoist torture, have formed resistance groups which are slowly driving away the Maoists,” says the CPM’s West Midnapore district secretary Dipak Sarkar.
To find out the truth, we took an extensive tour of parts of the district. An eye-opener was a 38 km drive down a narrow road from Midnapore town to Jhargram, via Dherua. The CPM office at Enayatpur is said to house about 100 Harmad soldiers. To any passerby, it looks like a small fortress—sandbagged pillboxes on the terrace, bandana-clad men keeping a watch of passing vehicles, and barricaded doors and windows. This party office was attacked by Maoists about a year ago; the ferocious attack was repulsed by the soldiers inside, who even killed four rebels and injured a few. “This incident proved beyond any doubt that well-armed cadres were inside this party office. Maoists attacked with sophisticated weapons like Insas rifles, SLRs, mortars and AK-47s. Staving off such an attack can be no easy task, and the fact that the Maoists had to retreat with casualties makes it very clear that there were men inside the CPM office who were armed equally well if not better,” says a senior police officer posted in the district.
The security is war-time like. Any vehicle which stops anywhere near this party office is surrounded by CPM cadres for instant inspection. “They are suspicious of passersby and passing vehicles only because they have a lot to hide,” contends Trinamool Lok Sabha MP Subhendu Adhikari, who has been in the forefront of his party’s battle against the CPM in this district.
A few kilometres from Enayatpur lies Chandra village, where we come across another Harmad Bahini camp. This is a large tent on the terrace of a house, and, here too, we see rifle barrels poking out of sandbagged pillboxes and men with their faces covered tracking our movement. Even attempting to photograph this, or any other camp, is fraught with grave risk, as camerapersons whose equipment has been damaged, film seized and limbs broken have discovered over the past year.
We decide against being adventurous. Another couple of kilometres ahead, we reach Malbandi village. It has three camps—again, large tents on terraces of three separate houses on two sides of the road. “These three villages adjoin the Kalshibhanga and Gurguripal villages that are infested by Maoists, and hence the Harmad Bahini concentration in this area,” explains a state intelligence officer in the know.
On reaching Jhargram town, we go to the CPM’s Block Rural Zonal Committee office there. Rabi Sarkar, the local committee secretary, tells us that this office shelters more than 50 party activists from villages in that block who have fled their homes in fear of Maoist attacks. Could we go upstairs and speak to them? We ask. No, we are told. Instead, some of them are brought down, but only to be photographed, that’s all.
According to sources, many of these party activists in this party office have arms and are sent out on missions to interior areas all over the district. In fact, apart from the Harmad Bahini, many regular CPM activists and leaders have received arms training and possess illegal arms, as we find out later. “The CPM office in Jhargram is an armoury and has huge stockpiles of illegal weapons. It also houses harmads. Local people have complained against the presence of armed cadres in the office,” says Subhendu Adhikari of the Trinamool.
Local police officers confirm these allegations. “Most offices of the CPM, especially in Goaltore, Salboni, Sadar and Jhargram blocks of this district, have stockpiles of weapons and house armed cadres,” whispers a senior police officer. The CPM’s harmads, he adds, are from East Midnapore and Hooghly districts. “The harmads hail from CPM strongholds like Garbeta and Khejuri in East Midnapore and Arambagh in Hooghy. Many are also from Keshpur and Nandigram, from where they’ve been driven out by Trinamool activists. A number of them have serious charges like murder and rape pending against them. They’re well trained and can handle sophisticated arms. Many are sharpshooters. The arms are mostly from Bihar, and some are also from Bangladesh,” the officer says.
We then travel to Chandri, off National Highway No 6 and about 190 km west of the state capital, in Jhargram block of the district, on the invitation of a CPM local committee secretary there, Prashanta Das, who has invited us to spend the night at his village and see for ourselves how they keep vigil against possible attacks by Maoists. The invitation, very rare for a mediaperson to get, was a jackpot of sorts—as we discover.
VIGIL SQUADS UP CLOSE
Chandri is a large gram panchayat area with a population of over 30,000. As instructed, we report at the local party office, where a band of activists, some armed with muskets and rifles, meet us and take us to Das’ village—Auspal—down mud roads snaking through paddy fields. Das, a sharp and well-to-do man, confides easily in us. “It is not possible to resist the well-armed Maoists with non-violence. So we have had to organise ourselves and procure arms illegally,” he says. The joint forces, he adds, are of no help. “We have to protect ourselves and cannot depend on the state forces,” reasons Das.
Chandri, he says, has seen off many attacks by Maoists even as neighbouring areas fell to the red rebels. “They have tried hard since early last year to capture this area. We knew this would happen and took steps right then,” says Das. The ‘steps’ included sending party members for arms training, procuring country-made and sophisticated arms from Bihar, and forming local resistance groups to keep a round-the-clock vigil on vulnerable parts of the area that adjoin thick forests frequented by Maoist guerillas.
The plan for the evening, Das says, is to take us to the spots where villagers and party members keep watch. While Das chats with us on the terrace of this two-storied house, he keeps receiving calls from party leaders he had informed of our visit—all asking him to be careful and ensure that our cameraman doesn’t take photos of party members with arms. “It’ll show the party in bad light. Please don’t take any photographs of anyone with arms,” Das requests us, promptly asking the ‘watch parties’ to conceal their weapons under shawls. “Take photos only of people armed with bows and arrows and other traditional weapons,” he advises.
We agree. We have no choice. It’s no point arguing with a man with three automatic pistols and an automatic rifle from Munger that he says cost Rs 75,000. There’s also an improvised mortar device in Das’ house. “There’s more,” he says with a smile. It’s the smile of a man accustomed to weapons since childhood; his father, he says, had licenced arms. But he still needed weapons training, which he got at the Enayatpur camp last year. “Other party members have also got weapons training at Enayatpur and other places,” he discloses. Such training is usually a one- or two-day affair. “All it needs is guts to handle weapons. Proficiency is gained through regular practice,” he says, a trifle boastfully.
Das is enjoying the impression he’s making. Two of his comrades, both local committee members, then take us to the spots where their ‘watch parties’ are stationed. We get into our SUV and stop at the Auspal primary school. A group of about 20 men, young and old, armed with bows and arrows, are keeping watch. It’s 10 pm and they’ll be on duty till 3 pm, when another group will relieve them. Some of them don’t have any bows—they, Das tells me, have arms. Every such party, he says, has a couple of people, always party men, with long-range rifles and a mortar weapon that’s known locally as Voxol. They also have small crackers that they burst at regular intervals; this is done to announce their presence and ward off attacks.
We are taken to Khasjangal, Kumardoba, Chandri, Marai Khuti, Bira, Phulchandi, Ektal, Nayagram. Salgora, Gokulpur, Chatarpara, Dhanshola and Jamira villages, where we see more of these ‘watch parties’. Yes, nearly all of them are local villagers. But there are also party members who have modern weapons. “Our cadres form the backbone of these local resistance groups. They know when and how to launch attacks and counter attacks, and can handle weapons,” beams Das.
At Bira, a group of women, mostly Adivasis, form part of the 30-member vigil group. “We don’t want Maoists to come and torture us, and so we have come out of our homes at night to keep vigil. Of course, the party (the CPM) is the main force, but we also have to help our own safety,” says Mamoni Munda, a young housewife.
Das asserts that while his party members have arms, there are no militiamen in his area. “Harmads are those who come from outside, and are engaged by the party to help fight Maoists. We don’t need harmads here, we can take care of things ourselves,” he says. While there is no way we can independently verify the presence, or absence, of harmads in Chandri, it is certain that Das and his comrades don’t really need external help to keep Maoists at bay. But this, says Das and other party leaders of the district who prefer anonymity, is not the case with most other areas of the district where the local party leadership failed to take steps in advance (like Chandri did) against the Maoist menace it was faced with.
The system of vigil squads is well-oiled and meticu¬lously planned. Prashanta Das is clearly the brains be¬hind this. Every household has to send one male mem¬ber to a watch squad every evening from 6 pm to 3 am. A duty roster is made a week in advance and everyone fol¬lows it strictly. Generally, this night duty comes only about once a week for a person. But he or she can also be allotted day vigil duties for shorter durations. “During the rest of the day also, there are smaller watch parties patrolling the entire area. But we have permanent guards at many strategic points along the outskirts of Chandri,” says Das, who ultimately allows our photog¬rapher to take photos of his rifle and pistols.
Das and his close comrades travel for a few hours eve¬ry night on motorcycles to visit all the watch parties. “We communicate over cellphones and through signals. In case of an attack, word spreads very fast and I can gath¬er at least 4,000 people at a spot in under half an hour,” he says. We nod, suitably impressed Maoists have made at least a dozen attempts over the past one year to capture areas in and around Chandri, but have been repulsed each time—without any help from state forces. As we leave, Das and his comrades are planning measures to thwart any attack by Maoists on Diwali, a time when most villagers would be in a cele¬bratory mood and Chandri would have let its guard down. Or so the red rebels might think.
Courtesy Openthemagazine, Nov. 6th 2010