Photographs: Dipak Chakraborty
Unfazed by criticism that she was wooing them to further her own agenda, Trinamool Congress leader and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee on Monday stormed the Maoists' bastion and appealed to them to halt killings.
Accompanied by a battery of activists considered to be sympathetic to Maoists, the railway minister also made some significant comments, including condemning the killing of top Maoist leader Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad by the Andhra Pradesh police in an encounter in July.
"Let the peace process start from today. Let Bengal show the way for entire India. Let the violence and killings stop. If you have problems with me, social activists Medha Patkar and Swami Agnivesh can take the lead. But let the negotiations start," she told a rally organised by her under the 'Santras Birodhi Manch' (anti-terror platform) in Lalgarh.
The Congress, which was invited to the rally, kept away from it. All India Congress Committee general secretary Keshava Rao instead attended a party rally in East Midnapore district.
'We will also go to Chattisgarh'
Mamata told the Maoists, "If you agree to stop the violence and killings, then negotiations can begin. Joint operations should be withdrawn simultaneously. Let the peace process start from today. I am telling my Maoist friends to ponder who will ultimately benefit from the violence and terror".
"Tell us where and when you want to sit for talks. We want dialogue for peace and the restoration of democracy and to build a terror-free India," she said as gun-toting Central Reserve Police Force personnel kept a watch over the sea of heads.
Criticising the killing of top Maoist leader Azad, Mamata said, "What has happened was not correct. He was trying to begin the process of negotiations. We pray for his soul."
With activists Swami Agnivesh and Medha Patkar beside her on the stage, she said "We will also go to Chattisgarh and Dantewada with a mission for peace.
'You can abuse me if you want'
Banerjee said she would consider setting up a railway factory in the area besides taking measures necessary for the development of 'jungle mahal' (Maoist-affected areas of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia districts) where there were no roads, electricity or schools or colleges.
Making an emotional appeal, Mamata said, "You can abuse me if you want, but you should not kill anyone. For this, tell me what so you want? I am even prepared to give my life. Tell me what you want and stop the killings and violence."
Alleging that it was the Communist Party of India - Marxist which was benefiting from terror, she said "I am telling you with folded hands, let there be no more politics of killings. I don't want politics over deaths."
She also appealed to Maoists not to disrupt railway services.
"If train services are disrupted every day, how will I work? Some do it in your name, sometimes you do it," she said.
'The Centre does not always listen to us'
Mamata also claimed that Left cadres wearing police and CRPF uniforms were perpetrating atrocities on villagers.
"I am not blaming the state and central police for this. The leaders are to be blamed for misguiding them and allowing the CPI-M cadres to unleash atrocities," she said.
Mamata said she will request the Centre to bring a bill to give rights to forest dwellers and tribals.
Pointing out that she was in the government with only 19 Lok Sabha members, Mamata said, "I know my limitations. The Centre does not always listen to us. But I am transparent."
4 PCPA members arrested
Opposing land acquisition, she said that the railway ministry had a policy against acquiring land forcibly. She said similar rallies like today would be held in other places of West Midnapur district including Keshpur, Garbeta and Jhargram and urged Agivesh and Medha Patkar to join it.
Banerjee also promised to return the land to farmers in Singur that was acquired for the now aborted Nano car factory project there.
Meanwhile, four members of the Maoist-backed People's Committee Against Police Atrocities were arrested from near the venue of the rally.
"One of the four, Sushil Mahato was rearrested after he fled from police custody, while three others were taken into custody for extortion and criminal activities," West Midnapore Superintendent of Police Manoj Verma said.