Lalgarh's missing M- This was the crowd when CM arrived
|ARNAB GANGULY AND PRONAB MONDAL|
August 9, 2010, Lalgarh Ramkrishna Higher Secondary School: As many as 10,000 people stand in rapt attention. Another 40,000 people are stuck on the roads leading to the venue.
The speaker: Mamata Banerjee, railway minister.
April 24, 2012, Lalgarh Ramkrishna Higher Secondary School: Between 2,500 and 3,000 people listen to a speech on peace and development. Some start wandering around before the 30-minute speech is wrapped up.
The speaker: Mamata Banerjee, chief minister.
April 24: Between 2010 and now, what has changed? Many things, including the designation, but the biggest change evident in Lalgarh today was the absence of Maoists and Maoist supporters from Mamata's rally.
Today, under the tarpaulin sheets tied to draw a cover against the scorching sun, most supporters flocked closer to the dais with vast stretches in the back remaining empty.
Sources in the administration and the rebel outfit said that in August 2010, the Maoist-backed PCPA had mobilised around 40,000 supporters from villages like Punnapani, Bamal, Gohomidanga and Lakshmanpur.
Maoist guerrilla leader Kishan had then issued a call to support the rally and frontal leaders like Asit Mahato and Manoj Mahato had led processions to the venue.
The reason for the effort was obvious: as railway minister and Bengal's principal Opposition leader, Mamata had objected to the continued presence of security forces in Jungle Mahal. After becoming chief minister, Mamata launched a peace initiative. The chief minister set up a committee of interlocutors to negotiate with the Maoists but she no longer voiced the demand to withdraw the central forces.
Moreover, the biggest success of the anti-Maoist operation in Bengal, the encounter killing of Kishan, took place after she became chief minister. The peace talks hit a hurdle, the committee is no longer in place and Kishan is dead.
The Maoists have now become vocal critics of the Trinamul-led government. Mamata has proudly paraded Maoist squad leaders like Jagori Baskey and Suchitra Mahato at Writers' Buildings. In her successive visits to Jungle Mahal since last July, Mamata has called for the Maoists to shun their arms.
Today, the Maoists stayed away from the rally and told their supporters to stay away. The district police had pulled out all the stops to ensure that security was foolproof, given the Maoist threat.
Manoj, a former PCPA leader who has recently joined Trinamul, stayed away from the meeting ground.
"I was busy collecting the crop from the paddy field," Manoj said. After a pause, he added: "The new government should release those who were arrested during the Lalgarh movement."
At the venue, Mamata cautioned Lalgarh villagers to ensure that the Maoists were not allowed to re-enter the villages in Jungle Mahal, where they had had the upper hand for nearly a decade.
"If you see people coming to the villages to sing songs — not any famous artistes — run a check on their background. You have to remain alert to prevent any disruption of peace," Mamata said.
Among the crowd, Mamata spotted some "CPM supporters" who were holding placards. "Those who have come from the CPM, I will ask them to sit down and not disturb the meeting. Let others listen. I know all these tricks. I know your party leaders have sent you to do such mischief," the chief minister said.
As in the past, Mamata spoke of a CPM-Maoist nexus. "When I came here the last time, I was branded a Maoist. The perpetrators of the Netai massacre have been provided shelter by the Maoists. So who are with the Maoists? The truth can't be suppressed," she said.
Trinamul leaders cited two reasons for the low turnout. "This is a government programme and not a party event. Otherwise, we would have lined up vehicles on the road to Lalgarh as we had done in August 2010. The weather is also not conducive for such meetings. The afternoons are excessively hot. In the villages, people don't come out during the afternoon," a senior Trinamul leader from West Midnapore said.
Some Lalgarh villagers who had once backed the rebels and then the Trinamul Congress are also getting disillusioned. "The new government gave us new ration cards. We were told that we would be given 2kg rice at Rs 2/kg against each card. We have six ration cards but the ration dealer gives us only 7kg rice. The promises have turned into a bunch of lies," said Manju Mahato of Benasole.
Mamata announced a number of development programmes for Lalgarh and Jungle Mahal. "I have given what you asked for. I have given what you didn't ask for. I am ready to give whatever you want but you must promise to maintain peace. The government will look after those who fight against the Maoists and preserve peace," the chief minister said.