27 January 2010

Report On Killings At Netai Village

[A report by Debjit Dutta]

I visited Netai, a village under panchayat no. 7 of Binpur-II block, 2.5 km. approximately from Lalgarh in the district of West Medinipur, on 8 January, 2011 along with a journalist of a magazine of repute. As we were about to enter the village, we faced the angry resistance of a crowd at Bhim Chawk, some of whom were determined not to let in any journalist from 24 Ghanta (Chobbish Ghanta- a TV channel that has earned the notoriety of distorting facts in favour of the ruling Left Front major, CPI(M). Upon being convinced that we were not from 24 Ghanta, they started opening their mouths and cooperated. 

We entered the village at around 8-15 am and carried out an extensive interview, interaction and discussion, backed by a number of circumstantial evidence, for more than six and a half hours in different localities of the village, such as, Bhimchawk, Baganpara, Palpara, Janapara, Dandapatpara, Battala Chawk, Ghoraipara and a few other places- sometimes with the journalist and the photographer, but most of the time individually (the purpose being not to just make a story out of the prevailing situation but to stand by the hapless ,distressed and terrorised villagers at their hour of need). What transpired was substantiated by numerous discussions over phone subsequently, over the past few days, with the villagers - irrespective of their political faiths and colours. 

An account of what happened on the morning of 7 January, 2011 at Netai and the background needs to attract the attention of the human rights activists, concerned citizens’ groups, individuals and all so-called saviours of democracy along with the people, in general. I try to detail, as far as possible.

A brief background

According to a source (who prefers to remain unnamed), well conversant with the politics that dictated the fate of the villagers over the years, Maoists had entered the village about a year back. They tormented the village and asked the licensed arms to be deposited to them. They resorted to repression, collection of money from the well-off villagers for some time over a period of a few days .The Maoists insisted that the villagers must take steps to protect themselves against CPI(M) as well as the state repression. The villagers decided to unite and face them. They gathered and surrounded the Maoists (in the same manner as they gathered in front of the CPI(M) camp on the morning of 7 January). Upon being asked as to why they had resorted to such violent tactics, the Maoist leaders replied that this was what they do in general, i.e., they admitted that this had been their usual modus operandi. But they realized that there was no need to adopt the same tactic in Netai as the villagers had been united enough all along and they could put up a brave resistance to the CPI(M) attacks .Apparently, they were apologetic and left the village. What is important to note here is that almost all over the village, the villagers, more or less, were unanimous in supporting this version - even to the extent that they said that the Maoists were far better than the brutal leaders of CPI(M). They had been much more humane and sympathetic- a fact that is much contradicted in some other areas of jangalmahal.

After the Maoists left, the CPI(M) cadres organized themselves and started threatening the villagers and showing their strength in different ways on a regular basis. Rathin Dandapat, a CPI(M) stalwart – having his two-storeyed house at Dandapatpara and who had shifted to Jhargram some months back  with his family but used to visit the village off and on – let his house be used as a camp(about one and a half months before the incident ) for armed cadres of his party entrusted with the task of gaining control over the villages and bringing the innocent, poor villagers to their fold by coercing them at gunpoint. Notices and lists were hung/ pasted all over the village (specimens of which – were attempted to be destroyed – I have with me) detailing the name of the villagers who were ‘required’ to serve in the camp as cooks and night guards. A point to note: these written orders were well-drafted by educated and well-informed persons- as appeared from the language, hand writing and systematic scheduling. These were no work of illiterate/uneducated armed killers. 

The villagers had to accept their ‘destiny’ of serving their self-declared guardians. They had to send their sons (between the age group of 18 and 25) for arms training even after these youngsters had to toil and exhaust themselves at their lands or work as agricultural workers in others’ fields. We have met several such young men who cried their woes and even demonstrated the ways in which they were made to carry loads on their shoulders and, often, run if they failed to carry out the commands. Before the trainings commenced, they had to stand in rows for selection by the trainers. These trainers used to push out the ones whom they considered to be unfit or over aged.

The exercises, as demonstrated, were nothing short of and apparently no less rigorous than guerilla commando training. Many of these unwilling youngsters had been hit and tortured even after they could not help vomiting as a result of the inhuman excesses. Dilip Jana (24) and Siddhartha Shankar Ghorai (25) were summoned before three days and were made to run and even beaten up with stick. They were forced to join the arms training by armed harmads. 62 young and healthy young men were selected from 500 villagers forced to stand in four rows in the local football ground.     

Subrata Pal, another young villager taken for arms training, wondered, “Why do you need schools and colleges if the villagers have to take up arms?”  

We learnt from different sources that there had been no trace of either the police or joint force after the departure of the Maoists.  Incidentally, Lalgarh police station, Nachipur police camp and Shilapara police camp are roughly 3.5 km, 6 km and 3 km respectively from Netai.     
The residents of Baganpara also reported that CPI(M) leaders of Lalgarh – Khalil and Jaydeb Giri – came with local Krishak Sabha (the peasants’ wing of CPIM of which Binay Konar is a stalwart) leader Abani Singh some 10 days back and threatened the villagers of Baganpara of dire consequences if they failed to send at least 70 villagers for the mass meeting of the notorious district leader and a minister of the LF government, Sushanto Ghosh at Lalgarh held on 31 December, 2010.

Sequence of events   

Between 6 and 7am on the morning of 7 January, the CPI(M) cadres stormed different areas of Netai and ordered that young and able men – of the age group of 18 to 25 years approximately – be sent to their training centres for exhaustive arms training, as had been the practice for a long time apparently to protect themselves against the wrath of the Maoists (the villagers have not felt the need at all, however, as they feel more unprotected and insecure in the presence of these harmads). Ironically, the two persons - who came to threaten the residents of Baganpara and some other localities – Sanjay and Dulu Das had been innocent youngsters of the village, forced to join the ‘camp’ of CPI(M) earlier for arms training and were sent to terrorize their own friends and relatives.

The dissatisfaction and furore of the unwilling Netai villagers had been accumulating over a long period. It was clear from different versions of residents of different localities of the village that despite their reluctance and disgust, they had been serving the harmads, obeying their orders and cooking, washing their clothes along with working as night guards. But they found thoroughly distasteful the idea of sending their children (the young bread earners for the families after their painful toil in the fields) for arms training. 

Clearly, they could not accept the insult inflicted upon their self-esteem, apart from being unable to tolerate the physical and mental distress of their own people. The entire village, irrespective of their political beliefs and allegiances united and decided to rally to Rathin Dandapat’s house-turned-harmad camp. Various statements and testimonies confirm beyond doubt that there was no political provocation from any quarter whatsoever and, evidently, none of the members of the assemblage carried any firearm or explosive. On the contrary, a team consisting of members belonging to different political identities, went to discuss and resolve the issue of the villagers’ dissatisfaction with the Krishak Sabha leader cum leader-in-charge of the Dandapatpara camp, Abani Singh – a fact that, perhaps, has not appeared in the media or otherwise. According to a source who was active in organizing the demonstration, the team consisted of Durgesh Roy (former panchayat pradhan from CPI), Chitta Das (former panchayat member from CPIM), Krishnagopal Roy (retired teacher and ex-Congress member–turned-TMC supporter), Dwarkanath Panda (formerly a teacher), Shaktipada Singh (ex-panchayat member from Congress) and others. We spoke to Shri Krishnagopal Roy (whose version was supported by the villagers all over).
According to him, the team carried out a detailed discussion with Abani Singh and was somewhat able to impress that matters were being stretched a bit too far. Yet, Abani was unable to assure them of any relief. Instead, he insisted that his party leaders from Lalgarh required to be consulted. To us, it appears that Abani resorted to a time-killing tactic - as he apprehended that the outrage of the crowd of 2,000 odd (as seems from the statements) villagers was too difficult to contain, even with the arms and ammunition in possession of the harmads of the camp. This was amply clear from the incidents that followed. The demonstrators, not convinced by the explanations produced by the team alone, wanted Abani to come out. 

Shri Krishnagopal Roy explained that Abani came out for a while and, after trying to convince the agitating villagers that mustered outside the camp in vain, went inside and was seen to call up busily, reportedly for help and support. The gathering was made to wait for almost two hours under the pretext that senior leaders would arrive from Lalgarh. The villagers were also determined not to leave the place unless the leaders came and held a discussion with them.  All the while, armed cadres equipped with modern and long-range weapons (as those of the commandos of the joint force, according to some of the villagers) were seen on the rooftop of Rathin Dandapat’s house- turned- harmad camp of CPI(M), where discussions were being held. What followed represents the destructive strength, brutality and unbridled violence of a state-backed private army of the ruling party. Armed harmads, reportedly from Birkar camp in Lalgarh were said to be dropped by the CPI(M) party workers from their Lalgarh office near the village. As they approached Dandapatpara, they fired rampantly from their modern rifles in a bid to scare the villagers away as well as providing a ‘cover’ to the outnumbered harmads led by Abani. Upon being assured of their arms power backed by their counterparts against the unarmed, agitating villagers, Shuben Mandal opened fire at the gathering from the rooftop along with Jaydip Giri, Tapan Dey, Ashwini and others at about 10 am. 

There is no doubt that the bullets that took the lives of many villagers were fired from long- range rifles capable of killing people waiting at a playground of Agrani Sangha Palli Pathagar -at least some 250 to 300 metres away on the northern side of the camp, as well as at almost the same distance in the other direction (south), where Saurav Ghorai was shot at the back -which testifies that he was fleeing - to death (at adjacent Janapara). This conclusion could further be substantiated from the statement of one of the unfortunate villagers who had been serving at the camp. He said that a greater massacre could have ensued, had one of the powerful guns not been jammed for some reason and in spite of their best efforts, the harmads could not overcome the obstacle. The subsequent news reports confirmed that a ‘small cannon’ was found upon a search by the administration on a later date, as per police reports.                 

Seven villagers including two women (Fulkumari alias Fulka Maity and Saraswati Ghorai) were killed either on the spot or while being carried to hospitals, health centre etc. No less than twenty were injured and shifted to Lalgarh health centre, Medinipur  Sadar hospital and SSKM hospital, Kolkata – some of them were in critical condition. It may be noted here that according to the villagers, the media persons were informed about the demonstration beforehand. But at the time of the incident of firing, none of them was there as they were not being allowed to enter the village, as reported.
The frightened villagers, caught unaware, tried to flee or hide themselves in the houses or behind the walls, shops or any available cover from the bullets. Dhiren Sen (40), brother of Mira Mandal, was pushed inside a room, while the harmads were about to shoot him, by his sister-in-law, Latika Sen and others. Shubhen Mandal of Ghoraipara, the CPI(M) killer, dragged him out and shot him between the two thighs and killed him on the spot. The incident, as described by Latika, clearly points out to the fact that it was not the firing from the rooftop alone, but also a one-to-one attack by the killers.  

Saraswati Ghorai (28 and a mother of three children), was shot to death on her skull on the other side of the camp near Agrani Sangha. We saw the shattered bits of her skull, hair and bloodstains all over the place, almost or more than 24 hours of the killing. The spots remained unguarded, even unmarked by the authorities. Let alone the legal or ethical compulsions, it was, indeed, painful to see that during the rush of the media and the people alike, that followed while the TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee interacted and addressed the villagers in the adjacent field, people had to stamp and even sit or stand over the remains of Saraswati, killed only a day before. The indifference, defiance and inhumanity of the rulers were, thus, evident. Likewise, none of the bloodstained spots was marked or guarded.

What needs to be mentioned here is not just the callousness but the deliberate indulgence, if not assistance or leadership (to put it mildly), of the administration to turn a deaf ear to the gunshots, repeatedly reported by the villagers to Lalgarh police station and remaining a silent onlooker to the slaying spree of the ruling party’s armed forces resulting in the loss of lives of the law-abiding, peaceful yet ill-fated villagers. Even after the terrible disaster perpetrated in Netai by the lone armed forces of CPI(M),there was no trace of any joint force over a period  of more than four hours after the firing, as was evidently asserted by the villagers of all localities. Also, we did not see a single police personnel while we entered the village in the morning of the 8th. Armed commandoes  ‘staged an entry’ at about 10.45 on the 8th morning, reportedly remaining absent from the village for almost 12 hours since 7th evening, the day of the criminal mass assassination of Netai - the police station being at some three and a half kilometers away, if not less.      
We learnt that arrangements were made, with the local grocer’s shops and the sweet shop owned by Paltu Dandapat of Dandapatpara, by Abani to ensure regular and smooth supplies to the harmad camp. Dipak Patra was made to hire out his generator set to ensure ‘emergency’ power supply to the camp. 

We tried to have a look into the camp on the 8th, deserted by the killers. They were reported to have fled on the 7th in a scurry and crossed over to the other side of nearby Kansai (Kangshabati) river - where their nearest and ‘safe’ shelter at Sijua camp was located - after the panicked villagers dispersed in a bid to save their lives- clearly apprehending that, in no time, the media and the people of Lalgarh could arrive and it would not be possible to face them in spite of all the support of either the cadres or the authorities. They did not have to face the least resistance – a fact that was proved beyond doubt- an instance, or rather, a rule (a thumb rule at that) of the day enforced by the recent ‘pro-people LF governance’, an undisputed example of state backed party violence.

The entry points of the camp were meticulously locked, reportedly by the police/so-called joint force that apparently arrived at the village hours later of the 7th incident although they preferred to turn their backs while the assassination took place and did not bother to mark the bloodstained or other places where the evidences of the slaying lay. Since the morning of the 8th, efforts of the media and the people, to have an idea about the trails and traces of the harmads, proved to be futile. After much toil, with the help of the hushed signals of a few reluctant, ill-fated neighbours of the camp (fright and apparent sense of insecurity writ all over their faces), we managed to throw open and peep through a window at the back of the house. We could see a huge bowl containing not less than 20-25 kg of cooked rice (more than enough to feed at least 50 heads), a sack containing more or less 20 kg muri (a   popular fast bite of West Bengal), a few scattered blankets, an empty and open suitcase, two overturned TV sets and a few other testimonies of hurried desertion.         
We visited the house of Saurav Ghorai and the houses of some others shot to death. The whole family of Saurav (28) was dumbstruck except his widowed wife, Shampa (22)- mother of a 3 year old son, Saumyadeep. The groaning and wailing of Shampa was heart-breaking, to say the least, and reminiscent of their lamenting counterparts of Nandigram after the genocide of 14 March, 2007 upon whom widowhood had been forced, as was done in the case of Shampa, by armed killers- the harmad troupe of CPI(M). Saurav’s father, Shaktipada Ghorai (69) had been serving the Viswakarma Battalion of National Volunteer Force (NVF) and retired as a sub-inspector in 2002. He said that his youngest son Saurav (the other to work in the land owned by the family) could just repay the bank loan he had taken to purchase the tractor with which he was happy and satisfied enough to till their own land as well as the fields of other villagers on a contract basis. 

Fulkumari Maity (Fulka), mother of two children, Krishna (14) and Ananta(12), of Baganpara was also shot dead. We learnt from the villagers of this locality that the police arrived hours later at 2-30 pm. on the 7th.   Sandip Mandal and Khokan Pal of Baganpara were beaten up by the force and ordered to show the bodies of the victims - a fact that was subsequently confirmed when we visited thes two young men at Medinipur Sadar hospital.
The condition of the villagers of Baganpara was, indeed, wretched – most of the villagers are agricultural workers. We were told that Palpara, another locality of Netai is also dominated by agricultural workers. It was reported that there has been almost no job in any of the villages under NREGS. The workers get work in the fields of the better off landowners only during planting and harvest seasons, often irregularly against maximum Rs 50 as wages. There is only one tubewell in Baganpara for supply of drinking water,  set up by the villagers themselves at their own cost.

Our visit to Medinipur Sadar Hospital

The injured victims of the bullet-rain by the CPI(M) killer-cadres (harmads) were taken to Lalgarh Health Centre, Medinipur Sadar Hospital and SSKM hospital of Kolkata- depending on the seriousness of their injuries. Mostly, they were carried by the villagers assisted by the party workers of TMC, who stepped in after being informed about the incident of firing. After Netai, we went ahead to meet some of the victims transferred to Medinipur Sadar Hospital at about 4-30 pm on the 8th. What surprised me initially (I realized later, however, that this was how the hospital authorities function) was the ease with which we could walk into the various wards of the hospital which remained practically unguarded or almost unnoticed, even after the criminal chaos that preceded a day before.  It was clearly evident of the indifference, callousness, neglect and arrogance of the administration, if any - to an extent- that there was none to even question our identities or purpose while we spoke to the injured villagers. 

A few other facts and observations

The villagers who gathered outside Rathin Dandapat’s house consisted of innocent, aggrieved men, women, youths and children from almost all corners of the village. It appears that there was a hurried planning by the villagers - after the harmads who had been threatening the villagers and ordering them to send the young men for arms training left- on the 7th morning. It does not appear that there was any planning, instigation or prompting from any political party or others – a fact that was further substantiated from our conversation with a few villagers who admitted that they had been supporters of the Left Front but were in no mood to tolerate their violent excesses any further. They also submitted that there was no provocation from any anti-left (anti-CPIM, to be precise) political force - it was the villagers who decided to unite and try to bring an end to their nightmarish slavery of the CPI(M) harmads. 

The villagers were totally unarmed and there was not a single outsider in the gathering, as claimed by them. Otherwise, a bigger massacre could have ensued.
In recent past, there has not been a single incident where 4 innocent housewives were shot to death.

There was not a single official statement of the chief minister about the Netai incident on the 7th.
In sharp contrast with the false claims of CPI(M) leadership, the villagers strongly affirmed that there had been neither any trace of  Maoist activities in the village over a year or so nor was there any presence of any Maoist in the crowd that gathered near the harmad camp.

The presence of joint forces for almost two years all over jangal mahal   under the leadership and guidance of the state home department was never meant to provide any protection to the poor and helpless villagers. The Netai incident also points out to the fact that Section 144 imposed over a vast area of jangal mahal, seemingly to prevent entry and assembly of armed political activists, was illegally utilized as a cover/shield for regaining and strengthening the ground of the ruling CPI(M) under gunpoint while preventing the concerned citizens, individuals and activists from entering Lalgarh and other affected and attacked areas.

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