Bengal's Red Corridor readies for polls (Election Special)
Junglemahal - for years synonymous with the Maoist movement when bullets held sway - is now readying for the battle of the ballot under a heavy security blanket.
The forested stretches in the three districts of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia will be voting May 7 for the Lok Sabha election.
The Trinamool Congress, riding on its success in the 2011 assembly and 2013 rural government polls, is hoping to unseat the Left Front from its long-held Jhargram, Purulia and Bankura constituencies.
The 'Red Corridor' has not witnessed any subversive activity over the last two years.
But police and the Election Commission are sparing no effort to ensure people come out to vote without fear of Maoists.
Taking on the guerrillas who often call for a poll boycott, police have also put up banners and posters questioning the Maoist violence.
"We have put up posters asking people 'Is violence good?', 'What is the end of this meaningless violence?'" Purulia Superintendent of Police Sudhir Kumar Neelkanta told IANS over phone.
While the ultras have not called for a poll boycott this time, they have urged people to use the NOTA (None of the above) option available on the electronic voting machines this time, he said.
The region, which was hit by Left-wing extremism since 2005, incidentally has not seen a single death of civilians or security forces since 2013.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal maintained by the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, extremist violence in West Bengal since 2005 has led to the loss of 699 lives, including 544 civilians, 65 security personnel and 90 extremists.
While 2010 accounted for the highest 425 killings, including those of 328 civilians, in 2012 only two civilians and two extremists were killed. In 2013, two ultras were killed. There has not been any death this year till April.
Inspector General (Western Zone) S.N. Gupta told IANS strict vigil is being kept at the Bengal-Jharkhand border, with check-posts at strategic locations.
"We will conduct air surveillance and sanitise routes to the polling booths using anti-landmine vehicles," he said.
Attacks on polling personnel in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have claimed 21 lives.
Besides setting up 10 satellite phone terminals in Junglemahal, the poll panel will use roving camera-mounted vans ferrying security personnel for live monitoring of sensitive booths and transmitting the feed to the commission offices in Kolkata and New Delhi.
Polling will end two hours early at 4 p.m. in six assembly segments of Binpur, Bandwan and Jhargram under Jhargram parliamentary constgituency, and in Balrampur, Baghmundi and Joypur segments of Purulia.
The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress is hoping to cash in on what it calls the Junglemahal model of development.
During her campaigns, Banerjee has harped on the development initiatives of her government, which is doling out rice at Rs.2 a kg besides contributing to infrastructure.
The rehabilitation package for surrendering ultras and the gunning down of rebel Koteswar Rao alias Kishenji by security forces in 2011 have played a part in establishing peace.
However, the opposition says the area lacks even basic development.
CPI-M's Pulin Behari Baske, hoping to retain Jhargram, alleges a tacit understanding between the Trinamool and the Maoists, and the party veteran and Bankura's undefeated parliamentarian since 1980, Basudeb Acharia questions the "peace" in Junglemahal.
"If peace has really returned, then why is she still keeping the joint forces?" Acharia told IANS, claiming most of the ultras were now with the Trinamool.
But Trinamool's Jhargram candidate Uma Soren swears by Banerjee's development efforts.
"Trinamool has an alliance with development and not with the Maoists. That is why those who had once taken up arms are now shunning violence and becoming part of the development brigade," says Soren.
Several surrendered ultras are now elected representatives at various levels, mostly from the Trinamool.
However, Maoist sympathisers claim the surrenders were forced.
"With most of the activists being brutally killed, arrested or tortured and compelled to surrender, the movement may have halted for now. But people are still deprived and discriminated against, and this will spur them to raise their voices again," Maoist sympathiser and renowned litterateur Varavara Rao told IANS.
(Anurag Dey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 04-05-2014)