He was the face of the alleged Maoists-backed tribal movement in Bengal’s Jangalmahal from 2008 to 2011. He launched the Lalgarh movement under the banner of People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) after police conducted raids at several tribal homes and arrested a large number of locals allegedly without any evidence. Under his leadership, he had turned Lalgarh into a “liberated zone" till his arrest under UAPA on September 26, 2009.
In September 2012, the Calcutta High Court granted the status of political prisoner to him. On February 1, 2020, he was released from jail after remaining behind bars for 11-years. Following his release, Mamata Banerjee announced his name as a key worker to look after the welfare of tribals in Jangalmahal area. Many felt that Mamata roped him in the party considering the 2021 assembly polls as the party could not perform well during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in Jangalmahal.
Meet Chhatradhar Mahato, who is not only capable of giving the TMC an edge in the upcoming state polls, but is also part of Mamata’s strategic move to regain lost ground in tribal turf.
You were arrested when the Trinamool Congress was in power in Bengal. After your release from jail, what prompted you to join Mamata Banerjee’s team and not other political parties?
During my movement for the welfare of tribal people in Jangalmahal from 2008 to 2011, I was with the TMC and I never changed any party. Some differences of opinion happened but that is in the past and I don’t want to remember those brief periods of differences. In Bengal, no other party except the TMC can think for the welfare of the tribal people. BJP only considered them (tribal people) as its vote bank and is selling forests and mountains belonging to the tribals to the industrialists in the name of privatisation. During my jail term, I got to know from the media that ‘Didi’ (Banerjee) is actually concerned about the tribal people. She did a lot of work for them. She announced several government schemes for their welfare and now it’s my duty to take this forward.
If Mamata Banerjee has done so much for the development of Jangalmahal, how did the BJP manage to perform well there in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls?
The ground reality is people didn’t vote for the BJP. There is no BJP wave in Jangalmahal. They gained their presence in Jangalmahal due to some lower-rank TMC workers who indulged in wrong practices. They detached themselves from the tribal community, which was not liked by the tribal people. The party has taken action against them and now the tribal people have realised that the BJP fooled them in the name of vote. They have realised that these are the same BJP leaders who once actively worked for the CPI(M).
See, tribal people are very emotional and they are not greedy. They are not hungry for power. All they expect is respect and a dignified living. In 2019, they felt insulted and we all know what happened in 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Now I am actively meeting with each and every tribal community and clearing their confusions and doubts. They have become aware of the tribal welfare schemes launched by Mamata Banerjee. Many people who disassociated with us are back in the party from Bankura, Jhargram and Purulia. In the assembly polls in 2021, we are certainly going to perform well in Jangalmahal.
What is your strategy to secure a favourable position for the ruling TMC in Jangalmahal?
In Jangalmahal no strategy works. People here are only hungry for respect and love. If you respect them, they will shower everything on you. Ever since I was released from the jail, I was actively involved in interacting with the various tribal communities. In the past 11 years (during the jail term), I tried to understand the problems they faced in the past one decade.
Most of them said they want to become self-reliant and alleged that they are finding it difficult to avail government schemes as there is no one to guide them. Taking note of their problems, I met the representatives of 13 tribal communities including Kurmi, Santhal, Lodha, Sabar, Mahali, Munda and others to create an umbrella body. The target is almost achieved. Some work is left as I could not visit Purulia and Bankura as I was tested positive for the coronavirus. Soon, I will visit these two districts and as of now all the tribal communities are with the TMC.
How are you going to convince the Kurmi community? With a nearly 40 per cent vote share, they could be a game changer in Jangalmahal. In the previous Lok Sabha polls they backed the BJP with the hope that they will get the status of ST.
Kurmis are with us because they felt cheated. The BJP used them for vote with a promise that they will be given the status of ST. But even after winning the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, BJP did nothing for them. The Centre has not yet fulfilled their long- pending ST status demand. In 1913 (during British rule), Kurmis were listed in the ST category as per the Shimla notification. However, they were dropped from the ST list on September 6, 1950. Presently, they are in the OBC (B) list.
Now it’s been almost 69 years, the Kurmis are still fighting for their demand but nothing has been done despite submitting memorandums to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in recent years. I personally met the leaders of the Kurmi community and they are very angry over BJP leaders who used them. They promised to support us this time.
Recently, suspected Maoist posters were found in Jhargram. What do you have to say on this? Is it true that Maoists are regrouping in Jangalmahal?
This is BJP’s propaganda to deploy additional central forces in Jangalmahal. No Maoists are there in Jangalmahal; the BJP understood that this time it will not be able to win the assembly elections as people are angry and therefore it is trying to portray that Maoists are there in Jangalmahal and in the name of central forces they want to win the tribal-dominated seats. BJP wants to create hurdles before us ahead of the polls. This is the reason the NIA is dragging in a 10-year-old case and has requested a court that I should be put in house arrest.
In the past we have seen enough central forces in Jangalmahal, and I would like to tell them that people are not scared of them. The equation here in Jangalmahal is different as people want peace and development. They don’t want to get into any kind of unwanted issues but it is also a fact that they know how to secure their territory. There is a Mamata Banerjee wave in Jangalmahal and we have already regained many areas where the BJP performed well in the last Lok Sabha polls. Not only in Jangalmahal, everywhere in Bengal, people are fed up with the BJP. They are dividing the people in the name of caste and religion. This is bad for our country.
You said the BJP is doing divisive politics and is dividing people in the name of caste and religion. What do you mean by that?
Yes, they believe in divide-and-rule policy and indulged in ‘dharma parivartan’ of tribal people. In the recent past, they claimed that some of their tribal workers were killed by TMC goons. This is not true as TMC doesn’t believe in violence. Not the least, they took their family members to Kolkata for offering ‘tarpan’ (libation) at River Ganga amid slogans of ‘Jai Shree Ram’.
Actually, the ritual of ‘tarpan’ is not present in the tribal community and not among the Kurmi people. Kurmis believe in ‘Jai Guram’ and the BJP is asking them to shout ‘Jai Shree Ram’. What does it mean? Those who are trying to fool the tribal people don’t even know the tradition and culture of the tribal people in Bengal. They only want votes, but for us the respect and dignity of tribal people is much more important.