West Bengal's 'war on terror': 'Police shoot on sight – and we're all targets'

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India's government calls it a crack-down on Maoist rebels. But to villagers in West Bengal, this 'war on terror' is a land-grab for mineral rights. Andrew Buncombe meets the victims caught between the bullets

According o the two women wearing the white clothes of mourning, Lalmohan Tudu was a well-loved husband and son, a man who only wanted to help his village. They say the farmer, a tribal rights activist, was seized near his home by police who then shot him dead in a nearby paddy field.

But police say the 50-year-old was a dangerous rebel, the head of a Maoist front group that was terrorising the area. He was killed, they insist, in an exchange of fire after his group attacked a police patrol.

"They had been hunting him since last June," said his wife, Lakhimani, stunned and hushed, as she sat outside the family home where chickens pecked in the dust. "He had tried to come to the house that day but he was kidnapped that night. We heard gunshots and feared the worst. We never found out what had happened until the next morning when we heard his body was in the morgue."

The killing of Mr Tudu is a snapshot from the frontline of what the Indian government has called its very own "war on terror". Across a swath of remote rural India, away from the busy cities that boast an economic growth rate of 8 per cent, thousands of paramilitaries and armed police are readying to launch a major military operation against an enemy Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has termed the "single biggest threat to the country's security". So-called Maoist rebels who have been fighting the authorities off and on for four decades stand in the way of economic development and want to overthrow the state, authorities say. The military assault, Operation Green Hunt, the government warns, will be a "long and bloody war".

Yet campaigners and activists, among them the Booker prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy, describe the military operation as the latest in a series of enforced land grabs conducted by the state against India's indigenous tribal people. The proposed "development" the government talks about, is not for the benefit of the local people but for Indian and international corporations securing valuable mineral resources located on tribal, or adivasi, land. The Maoists, they say, have come to the aid of the some of India's most oppressed.

But what a journey into the tribal heartlands and inquiries into the death of Mr Tudu suggests is that the truth may be more complex than either side cares to admit.

The dusty hamlet of Narcha lies 130 miles west of Calcutta, a journey along often single-track, pot-holed roads that takes more than five hours. On the way to the small farming community, set amid fields of potatoes and rice, the vehicle leaps and shakes. In the small communities on route, there are heavily guarded police and paramilitary compounds, with machine-gun posts set behind sandbags and razor-wire. Narcha is just a couple of miles from the town of Lalgarh, which in June 2009 was thrust into the headlines after villagers rose up and protested against police atrocities there. Men were beaten, women were raped and at least one person was blinded, say activists, in a security crackdown after a roadside bomb attack by Maoists on the convoy of West Bengal's chief minister who had just inaugurated the opening of a steel plant an hour away. Although the bomb did not harm the minister, the state responded with a vicious crackdown.

At that point, Mr Tudu, a former police constable, was appointed as one of the leaders of the People's Committee against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), an organisation that villagers in Narcha say was set up simply to protect themselves and which had no links to the Maoist rebels long active in the area. Lalgarh was declared a "liberated zone" and the police stationed there dared not move from their base.

"We formed our own committee and did not get help from anybody," said Labu Kisku, a close friend and neighbour of Mr Tudu. "We formed it against the torture. The committee could not influence anyone to become Maoist. In the eyes of the police, the chickens and cows are Maoists. In this way [Tudu] was described as a Maoist leader." Mr Tudu's mother, Dhanmani, added: "He was a good man, sociable. That is why he was elected."

In Lalgarh, as elsewhere in what the government calls India's terrorist-infested areas, the precise interface between the Maoists – more properly the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) but also referred to as Naxalites – and the tribals, is a grey area.

Much of the leadership of the Maoists, whose 40-year insurgency has lead to the deaths of an estimated 6,000 police, political rivals and civilians, is made up of urban, educated ideologues who recruit their fighters from among the tribal population in states such as Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar. Ms Roy said: "About 100 per cent of armed Maoists are tribals, but that is not to say that all tribals are Maoists."

But campaigners say that in the government's efforts to demonise anyone who speaks out against Operation Green Hunt, its opponents are labelled "Maoist sympathisers". On the ground, it is even more perilous. Sujato Bhadra, a Kolkata-based activist who heads the Association of People's Democratic Rights and who has been investigating the death of Mr Tudu, said: "There is a shoot-on-sight order against the Maoists but nobody knows what a Maoist is. [Police say] everybody is a Maoist, everyone is a suspect. Everyone is under a tremendous threat of death."

A report in Tehelka magazine said Mr Tudu was a moderate member of the tribal committee. Yet last year the group launched its own military wing, with one committee member telling journalists: "We started off with a democratic movement and wanted to resolve all issues through dialogue with the state government. But if both the centre and the state government unleashes terror on innocent villagers through the security forces in the name of flushing out Maoists, we are left with no choice than to opt for armed struggle."

In many of the places where Maoists are active, including Lalgarh, ordinary villagers say they feel trapped between the insurgents and the security forces, unsure which way to turn. At the same time, support for the insurgents appears strongest in those very areas lacking in infrastructure and the provision of basic services such as schools and clinics. Campaigners say even the government's own research has concluded that one of the root causes of support for the insurgents is poverty. In a highly publicised speech last week, the senior official at the home ministry, Gopal Pillai, said: "If you have a vacuum someone will fill it up. It has been the Naxals for huge parts of the country where government has not reached."

Yet Saroj Giri, a professor of political science of the University of Delhi, said while the central government spoke of the need for development in such areas, ensuring it happened were different things. "Locally, the police are very hawkish," he said. "India wants to give a good impression to the world and talks about the need for development [in these areas]. But there is a large discrepancy between what central ministers say and what is happening on the ground."

In recent weeks, Koteswar Rao, the leader of the Maoists in the Lalgarh region and a man better known by his nickname Kishenji, offered the government a ceasefire. This followed an attack by insurgents on a paramilitary camp in the town of Shilda, 20 miles from Lalgarh, in which 24 young soldiers were killed. The government has so far rejected the ceasefire. Activists say the government does not want a ceasefire and that it prefers a military solution.

Back in Narcha, the family of Lalmohan Tudu, beset by grief and fear, have not been able to hold a proper funeral. For seven days the police declined the requests of relatives to return the corpse of the father of three and the family performed a traditional ritual with Mr Tudu's body replaced by that of a dead chicken.

The police deny the family's story. The local superintendent, Manoj Verma, said his officers had repeatedly tried to have his family collect the body. "They did not want it," he said. This is tribal custom."

Last week, with friends, Mr Tudu's widow asked for the return of her husband's body in the police station. Two hours later, the family emerged having signed a document that said they did not, after all, want the corpse. A relative said the police had told them the body had decomposed, the family had come under "indirect pressure" and felt forced to give up its request. Asked why she had allowed police to dispose of her husband's body, Mrs Tudu said resignedly: "What could I do?"

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