Chhatradhar Mahato, an influential tribal leader and an active worker of West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Jangalmahal, was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on Sunday in a case related to the hijacking of the Bhubaneshwar-Delhi Rajdhani Express in October 2009, an official of the agency told News18.

Mahato, a former Naxal leader, “was arrested around 4am from his residence in Amliya in Lalgarh police station”, the official said.

The case involves 500 suspected Maoist cadres laying siege to the premium train on October 27, 2009, near the Banstala station in Jhargram, demanding the release of Mahato, who was then behind the bars. The train was under their control for around five hours, before Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel and state police commandos reached the spot and forced the hijackers to retreat.

NIA is likely to produce in court photographs of graffiti written on the train in support of Mahato, alongside other pieces of evidence. The agency’s first information report (FIR) includes Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 121 and 121A (waging war against India), 506 (criminal intimidation), 341 (wrongful restraint) and 148 (rioting), as well as charges under the Railway Act.

The TMC raised questions over the timing of Mahato’s arrest, which came a day after the first phase of elections in West Bengal. While several seats in the Jangalmahal area went to polls on Saturday, some are yet to vote. Observers feel that chief minister Mamata Banerjee has roped in both Mahato, who has actively campaigned for the TMC in Jangalmahal, and his wife Niyati to strengthen the party in tribal dominated-areas, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gained a foothold in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“He was evasive during questioning”, and therefore the decision to arrest him was taken, the NIA official told News18. “NIA allowed him to exercise his democratic right to vote. He also continued his electioneering process uninterrupted,” the official added.

Mahato is also under the scanner for the murder of a Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI(M), leader in Lalgarh on June 14, 2009. Back then, he was the convener of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), believed to be a frontal organisation of the outlawed CPI(Maoist).

TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said: “The matter is sub-judice and I will not be able to comment on this…But yes, the timing of his arrest is questionable as polling in all the Jangalmahal seats are not yet over.”

Mahato was the face of an alleged Maoist-backed tribal agitation in Bengal’s Jangalmahal from 2008 to 2011. He launched the Lalgarh movement under the banner of PCAPA after police conducted raids at several tribal homes and arrested a large number of local residents, allegedly without any evidence. Under his leadership, Lalgarh turned into a so-called “liberated zone”, posing a challenge to the then Left government, until Mahato’s arrest under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, in 2009.

BJP leader Samik Bhattacharya said: “There are several charges against him…I don’t see any political angle behind his arrest.”

Mahato was first arrested on September 26, 2009 by the state’s CID (criminal investigation department) from Jhargram for an alleged attempt on the life of then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya on November 2, 2008. In September 2012, the Calcutta High Court declared him a political prisoner. On February 1, 2020, he was released from jail after remaining behind the bars for 11 years.

After his release, CM Banerjee announced his name as a key worker who would look after the welfare of tribal people in Jangalmahal. His wife Niyati welcomed the decision. During her husband’s jail term, Niyati was actively involved in social work in Jhargram. Later, the state government nominated Niyati as a member of the Commission for Protection of Child Rights in West Bengal. She is also the member of Rajya Samaj Kalyan Parishad in Jhargram district that tackles Corona-related cases.

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