A million mutinies within

Photo: Reuters

If past experience is any guide, the attempts to physically eliminate the Maoists will produce more and more Maoists by the day. The ruling CPI(M) in West Bengal should know this better, for it was precisely the indiscriminate state violence that goes with generalised repression which made the defiant youth of yesteryears turn towards the party.

Manoj’s story is a classic example. In another time, it could have been the story of the rise of the CPI(M) itself. This young, 25-year-old Maoist leader of Lalgarh told the Times of India recently about how, during rains, villagers are forced to drag themselves and their cattle through the muck. He spoke of the non-availability of clean drinking water, which forces people to drink “filthy, yellow water”. He spoke of the absence of electricity and of jobs. “We got tired of being treated like rodents,” he says. And so, in 2002, the villagers got together and demanded development. This infuriated the local CPI(M) bosses. The police and Marxists, he says, slapped false cases on them, accusing them of working for the People’s War Group (PWG). “They branded us Maoists. So we began to think we might as well join the Maoists.”

Manoj’s was a family of Congress supporters who shifted loyalty to the Trinamool Congress when the TMC was formed in 1998. Once branded ‘Maoist’ and thrown into jail, there was no way left for him but to become a Maoist. It was in jail that he met a Maoist leader and converted to Maoism.

This is a classic story of a failed democratic process and police repression pushing people towards Maoist politics.

As a matter of fact, Chhatradhar Mahato, a key leader of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA) himself used to be a TMC supporter till about a year ago. Today, he is branded as a Maoist and the PCPA, a Maoist front. This is a story that suits both the ruling CPI(M) and the complexity- shunning mainstream media.

Current media discussions miss out a crucial fact. The PCPA was formed in November 2008 after the police let loose violent reprisals for the bomb blast in Salboni when Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was on his way from a public meeting to inaugurate a steel plant. The police went berserk and arrested seven people, including three schoolgoing teenagers on ‘suspicion’ of having engineered the blast. For many, fed on stories dished out by the mainstream electronic media, the Lalgarh story begins here. But for the people of Lalgarh, this was the last straw. The tribal people of this area, long subject to neglect, destitution, exploitation by forest contractors and police harassment, rose up in a revolt that recalled the Santhal hools of the 19th century, digging up roads and ensuring that they became inaccessible to the police and the CPI(M).

All this was not Maoist activity, and the fact is that in Lalgarh, till some time ago, it was difficult to tell who is a Maoist. You could be a Congress or TMC supporter and still be with the PCPA – the ostensible ‘Maoist front’. Incidentally, this was what sent sections of the electronic media into a spin as they reported in horror that ‘the Congress and TMC had been playing with fire and had been supporting the PCPA’. Once the PCPA was painted as a Maoist front, every other fact could then be presented in that light.

However, contrary to media representations, Lalgarh was not a Maoist fortress. In fact, it was a place where a new kind of democratic politics was being put into practice. Maoists were certainly present, but they were constrained to go along with the mood inside Lalgarh. Lalgarh ‘Maoists’ were recent converts who had turned towards the CPI(Maoist) for ‘protection’ from the state-turned-predator. Their objectives were not quite those of the Maoist organisation. They were in no mood to form roving guerilla squads. Even senior Maoist leaders of the area like Koteswara Rao (alias Kishanji) only spoke about the non-implementation of central government schemes by the state government.

Over three decades, the CPI(M) has set up a machinery of totalitarian power with no avenue of redress

FOR OVER six months, the PCPA, with popular participation, built reservoirs, dug tanks and tube-wells, revived irrigation canals and built roads in different villages of the area. The Kolkata-based Lalgarh Sanhati Mancha collected money and helped set up a health centre in Katapahari. A committee with five men and five women would take decisions on a daily basis. Compare this with any other place where Maoists are active and the difference is immediately apparent. The Maoists, known for their impatience towards any open public activity and their allergy to any kind of developmental work, had to actually put up with all this.

The tribals of Lalgarh experienced the last six months as months of freedom from police harassment, of new developmental activity, as months of new hope. That is why, when the security forces were advancing, they were resisted not by armed Maoists with their landmines and AK-47s but by ordinary tribals with their conventional bows and arrows forming a ‘human shield’. And it was an entirely peaceful resistance by all accounts.

With the security forces marching in, all this will very soon be in the past. There will be just two forces – armed Maoist gangs and the armed state forces. Maoists themselves had wanted this all along. This is, after all, their preferred mode – the Andhra or Chhattisgarh model. For it is only then that their extortion economy and the cult of the gun can flourish. All possibilities of peaceful democratic politics and all developmental activities will be made impossible. The brief spring of popular democracy will fade from memory.

It is necessary then to put what happened in Lalgarh in perspective. Mass anger against the CPI(M) had burst forth earlier in Khejuri where there were no Maoists in the picture. Khejuri, which preceded Lalgarh by a few days, had been the CPI(M) bastion from where the operation to ‘liberate’ Nandigram had been launched by Lakshman Seth and his brownshirts.

There had been outbreaks of violence in Khejuri earlier in May as well. Once the election results were out, with Lakshman Seth and the CPI(M) defeated, mass anger accumulating over years burst forth. Then came Lalgarh, and the anger also spilled over to neighbouring Bankura. And lest we be carried away by fairy tales spun by sections of the electronic media and the CPI(M) propaganda machinery, we also need to remember that mass anger, directed specifically against the CPI(M), had also burst forth earlier in October 2007 in a number of districts — Bankura, Birbhum, Murshidabad and Burdwan — centred on the widespread corruption and nonavailability of food in ration shops. Then too, the riots had assumed exactly the same form.

If the past is any guide, attempts to physically eliminate the Maoists will only produce more Maoists

The reason is simple. Over three decades, the CPI(M) has set up a machinery of virtually totalitarian power where there is simply no avenue of redress. The police, the administration, the panchayat representatives and above all of them, the ubiquitous party – these together constitute today one of the most frightful instruments of control. In addition, in West and East Midnapore in particular, it is well known that CPI(M) cadres have stockpiled arms in every nook and cranny of these areas. These are seen as a threat, as people fear that these will be used to browbeat them into submission once again. Today the CPI(M) is only reaping what it has sown. It has spawned a political culture of violence which is now spinning out of its control.

As mass anger against the CPI(M) burst forth, the Maoists saw their opportunity and came out in true form. Theirs is a politics that thrives on secrecy and violence and abhors any kind of public, mass activity. The answer to the CPI(M)’s politics of violence and desire for totalitarian control cannot be Maoist politics, which is itself a cult of violence. However, as Mahasweta Devi said on reaching Lalgarh, close on the heels of the security forces, what places like Lalgarh need most of all today are the provision of basic necessities like drinking water, irrigation facilties, schools and solar electricity.

But that is not enough. Lalgarh is also about the failure of the democratic promise. Any solution therefore must be based on energising democratic processes and politics so that armed struggle does not appear as an attractive option to frustrated and marginalised people of the area.

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