IN THE overheated air of Bengal’s summer, grazing cows in West Midnapore district often halt to share the shade of the banyan trees with their impoverished owners, whose expressionless faces display a sense of alienation and frustration perpetuated by decades of denied development. The tribal land of Lalgarh, whose 44 villages form an integral part of the district, is now caught in the treacherous cross-currents created by heightened tensions between its 12,000-odd residents and members of the state’s ruling Left Front.
The story of the tribals, who live on frugal once-a-day meals in mud huts with corrugated tin roofs, is a stark analogy for oppression deeply internalised. As a result, what is unfolding is no easily slotted confrontation between tyranny and freedom. The troubled tribal, armed with machetes and bows and arrows, who wants to remake the region’s political landscape with support from the Naxalites, is facing columns of soldiers of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), dressed in battle fatigues and carrying automatic weapons and rocket launchers. The soldiers, backed by members of the beleaguered state police force, want to re-establish state control over an estimated 1,100 square km area that the tribals aided by Naxalites (CPI-Maoists) ‘liberated’, after they pushed out nearly 75 policemen from four stations in the region.
Stuck in the middle of this confrontation is the Trinamool Congress (TMC). It once took help from the Naxalites to establish its supremacy in eastern Midnapore, but now does not want to get entangled in the current standoff, because it is a part of the ruling coalition at the Centre.
The battle for Lalgarh is both emblematic and strategic. Emblematic, in that it represents a classic struggle between the deprived and the power of the state; strategic because Midnapore is the largest district in India, with 35 assembly and five Lok Sabha seats. “The Left Front is worried by the recent Lok Sabha results and is trying hard to regain control over what it claimed was its base: the grassroots,” says Dipankar Dasgupta, former economics professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, adding, “Lalgarh was just waiting to happen because discontent, fuelled by years of deprivation has resulted in the kind of anarchy that we now see prevailing there.”
Like all tribal battles, this one is also a peculiarly complicated tussle of ambitions and grudges, of accusations and denials, and of the closed doors at the Writers Building which shelter Machiavellian conspirators. “Lalgarh is a troubled area – out of bounds for the state police for nearly four months. There is complete lawlessness there,” West Bengal Chief Secretary Asok Mohan Chakraborty told TEHELKA, justifying the presence of more than 1,500 central paramilitary personnel in the region.
If the intelligentsia takes the initiative, the Maoists are willing to negotiate
But his government is apparently unhappy at the decision of Union Home Minister, P Chidambaram to ban the CPIMaoist (a group formed by the merger of the banned CPI(ML) and the banned Maoist Communist Centre). “This isn’t the right way to handle a crisis. The Maoists need to be brought back to the mainstream,” rued CPI(M) secretary general Prakash Karat, hours after Chidambaram’s announcement.
But in the heat and dust of the actual battleground, Lalgarh’s death toll has already crossed 11 as the soldiers take on both villagers and Maoists in their effort to liberate the area. The security forces are baying for blood and continue to sanitise the area while preparing for the second round of assaults in this nameless operation. However, Maoist leader Sagar told TEHELKA, “If the intelligentsia takes the initiative and operations are withdrawn, we are ready to talk,” referring to the recent Lalgarh visit of a group of anti-Left Front intellectuals led by filmmaker Aparna Sen and theatre exponent Shaoli Mitra.
HOWEVER, THE state government wants Lalgarh back at any cost. West Bengal Inspector General of Police Kuldip Singh has been ordered to clear roads of landmines and gain access to the area, which has been on the boil since last November, when a landmine exploded on the route of the convoy of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and then central ministers Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitin Prasada.
Since then, complaining of police atrocities after the blast, angry tribals backed by Maoists launched an agitation, virtually cutting off the area from the rest of West Midnapore district and establishing a 1,000-sq-km ‘liberated zone,’ comprising 1,100 villages – the second area to be given the name in the last eight months after Dantewada in Chhattisgarh.
But, unlike anti-Maoist operations elsewhere, the Lalgarh face-off is complicated by several factors. On one side is the state government, which abdicated its responsibilities by leaving Lalgarh in the hands of its opponents for more than six months. On the other side is the TMC, which is ready to sup with the devil — or, in this case the Maoists — in order to harass and humiliate the Left. What has queered the pitch for the Left Front government is the fact that the vacuum in Lalgarh has been filled not only by the Maoists, but also by a “People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities,” set up after the state police bungled, as in Nandigram, in its high-handedness after the landmine blast.
The Maoists have also given an embarrassing reminder to TMC leader Mamata Banerjee to reciprocate the support they gave her in Singur and Nandigram. “If Chidambaram’s advice to politicians to stay away from Lalgarh has evoked little response, the reason is that neither the CPI(M) nor the TMC wants the police action to tilt the scales against its rivals. Yet, given the dismal record of police operations in disturbed areas, giving a free hand to the paramilitary forces can harm the political fortunes of both the Left and the TMC,” says Congress legislator Nirbed Ray, adding, “In such a situation, the only gainer will be the Maoists, who have no stakes other than fomenting disaffection among the people, many of whom are tribals with a long history of deprivation. This is a big mess for the Left Front and a tricky one for Banerjee.”
It’s equally tricky on the ground. Ten kilometres outside Lalgarh, a spot where columns of marching state policemen and paramilitary soldiers are turning the area into a veritable war zone, curious journalists beat the heat and hunger with tubewell water, loads of puffed rice and locally-produced biscuits. At a distance, a knot of reporters crouches behind vehicles and deserted school buildings, listening to the shouts of soldiers taking positions in the near-dry grasslands. They resemble a group of helpless villagers herding cows but those commanding the operations insist that the Maoists are close by.
Political observers say that in the last one-and-a-half years, two virtual states have sprung up in the adjacent districts of East and West Midnapore. East Midnapore, where Nandigram and Khejuri are located, is virtually ruled by the TMC, while a large chunk of West Midnapore is controlled by Maoists. Where does this leave the Left?
Soon after the crackdown began in Lalgarh, Left Front legislators knocked on the doors of state Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, seeking his approval for the offensive. Interestingly, in the 32 years of Left rule, never before have the ruling MLAs walked up the stairs of Raj Bhavan to plead for their safety. But this time, the CPM, the dominant party of the coalition, is bloodied, battered and bruised in places like Nandigram, Khejuri and now Lalgarh. CPM chief whip Syed Mohammad Mosi says 53 CPI(M) leaders and workers have been killed in the state over the last eight months. “We have been hit and our blood spilled,” Mosi told TEHELKA. “The TMC is behind all of this,” remarked party state secretary Biman Bose.
But for decades, the mandarins at Writers’ Buildings and Alimuddin Street, the headquarters of the CPM, have either been blissfully unaware of or have not bothered to find out the conditions in which people live in Lalgarh. There have been numerous reports in the media of how crucial funds offered by the Centre under the Indira Vikas Yojana eventually ended up in the pockets of party cadres. “Otherwise, how do you see doublestoried buildings owned by CPI(M) leaders in an area where there are virtually no basic facilities? The Left is now paying the price for its arrogance and complacency. I would simply say this is nothing but a natural corollary of staying in power for so long,” says Kolkata’s celebrated painter and thinker, Suvaprasanna, the man who coined the slogan Pariborton chai (We want a change!).
Angry tribals backed by Maoists set up a ‘liberated’ zone with 1,100 villages
With that level of neglect, the emergence of ultra-Left groups was natural. The TMC used the Maoists to its benefit in Nandigram and Khejuri. Those Maoists have always harboured ambitions of carving out their own pockets of influence wherever there is mass discontent. “Lalgarh provides them the perfect opportunity. Development does not seem to have even touched the area,” says Debabrata Banerjee, a former state bureaucrat who has worked closely with the state on its much-hyped land reform programmes.
Nirbed Ray, however, refers to an opinion piece he read recently by Lieutenant General AS Kalkat, commander of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka, on the defeat of the LTTE by the Sri Lankan armed forces. Kalkat had said the LTTE committed the mistake of forgetting that it was basically a guerrilla force and tried to take on a regular army in a traditional war. The Maoists would be committing a grave blunder if they confront soldiers in a conventional war. The troops will not go soft on the Maoists. Now that the Centre has banned the Maoists, the Left has started panicking because a large number of those who have infiltrated the villages are their own men, says Ray.
Ultra-Left groups would naturally emerge, given the level of neglect prevalent
He is surprised that the Left is keen to take on the Maoists politically. “For those dismissive of the Indian Constitution, for people who only believe that power flows from the barrel of a gun, their guns must be silenced before bringing them to the table,” says Ray, adding, “The chief minister should realize that once he takes away reasons for complaint, these very Lalgarh residents will drive out the Maoists. Lalgarh residents don’t need doles. What they crave is economic empowerment so that they are equipped to address their own problems. They need roads, health centres, schools, electricity and water.”
But the work of decades cannot be done in a few weeks. Worse, the mandarins at the Writers Building do not even have a roadmap or timeline for implementation of such programmes. Banerjee, who is personally uncomfortable because she is now a part of the ruling UPA, is, for a change reserved in her comment: “The Left Front is too arrogant to admit its mistakes in the state.”
‘Many who have infiltrated Lalgarh are actually Left cadres,’ says Nirbed Ray
A PART FROM Nandigram, Khejuri, Singur and the nightmare Lalgarh is turning out to be, there is more bad news from Bengal. A census of the urban rich conducted by a mainstream newspaper found that Kolkata, with a population of 1.5 crore, had less than half the number of affluent people that Chandigarh could boast of. Of course, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his comrades- in-arms will dismiss with false pride the proposition that Kolkata isn’t rich enough but the truth is that let alone wealth and investment opportunities, the state is not even creating employment for its people. “Anyone watching Bengal’s decline will lay the blame squarely on the politics the state has come to understand and the ideology it has grown to adopt; a brand of politics that fosters sloth, decay and, if truth be told, degeneration,” said Aman Soondas, a writer.
After detailed research, Professor Amartya Lahiri of the University of British Columbia and economist Kei-Mu Yi found a direct link between economic prosperity and the openness of the political environment. No wonder then, that the per capita income (2007-08 figures) of West Bengal after 30 years of Marxist rule stands at just Rs 21,050, much below even states like Sikkim.
It is high time that Kolkata’s red brigade realises that Lalgarh, Khejuri, Singur and Nandigram and the census of the urban rich are two ends of life’s spectrum. Travel across the state and you will realise that large parts of Bengal are decades away from anything like an economic boom, let alone an IT revolution. Often, regional writers have drawn parallels between the people in the state and the extras filmmaker Yash Chopra picked to shoot the 1979’s Kaala Patthar: faceless, hungry, shorn of comforts. The Left’s battle cry for decades, ‘Cholbe Na, Lorte Hobe!’(This cannot be, we have to fight!) is now a trigger to the poor man’s wrath. No wonder then, that the Frankenstein’s monster that Lalgarh is has sprung to life to haunt the red brigade – a group more than happy to keep the state and its people perennially bound in poverty. It has blithely obstructed progress — from banning English in junior school to banning MNCs in the state — because a well-off population would start to yearn for the comforts that only a more capitalist outlook can provide.Perhaps that’s why industrialisation is investment are welcome in any other state of India but are taboo and sinful in Bengal. After all, it’s far too easy to call for and wreak crippling strikes and block people from reaching offices, schools and factories.
Lalgarh is a visible metaphor for a failed experiment, a failed enterprise. Until that changes, the tragedy of West Bengal will continue to play on.