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India: Before the storm broke [in Lalgarh]

by Monobina Gupta, 9 July 2009

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Express Buzz, 1 July 2009

As recently as two months ago Lalgarh, now poised on a dangerous cusp of violence, was just a sliver of land, nestling among luminous green fields, hillocks and a gently flowing Kangasabati river. Had I not travelled in April to this tiny corner of rural Bengal, I could have been taken in by reports of protracted Maoist violence wracking the tribal outpost for months. Surprisingly, Lalgarh was not even a fleck on the horizon of the Left government as late as last November. A Maoist ambush targeting Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee on November 2 yanked the villages out of their dusty oblivion, pitching them suddenly under the scanner of the public and the ruling Left. Hauled up by the administration for failing to detect an ambush wire snaking through acres of fields, a red-faced police launched a vicious attack at the crack of dawn on sleeping villagers, touching off an agitation that spiralled into a challenge more formidable than the decisive resistance at Nandigram-Singur.

Without visiting Lalgarh I would have remained unaware of the complexities, the outer and inner textures of the movement led by the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities. Concerned family members and friends in Kolkata warned me about gun-toting Maoists ‘lurking’ around every corner of this troubled land. The outside world, even then, believed Lalgarh, lawless and violent, was firmly under the thumb of Maoists. In truth, despite their presence, Maoists had not been able to propel the movement towards violence, till the stunning election results pushed more than three-decade-old ruling Communist Party of India(Marxists) to the edge. Seizing the moment, the practitioners of violence, suddenly ran amok, setting ablaze CPI(M) offices and houses of its leaders, killing them. In less than 72 hours they set the stage for a bloody confrontation with the state and the police, derailing the seven-month long peaceful agitation.

At the time of my visit the People’s Committee-sponsored police boycott in the Lalgarh villages was well into its fifth month. But the air was clean of violence. The villagers were adamant the police would have to apologise for their brutality before earning the right to enter the villages. By the time of the November ambush the Left had lost its credibility and in place of an earlier loyalty there was seething anger. The story of Lalgarh’s impoverished people, at one time stout supporters of communists who left them high and dry, was not new. Even before I entered the villages a bone-rattling one-hour drive from Medinipur station over jagged roads was enough of a pointer to a nonchalant administration — continued slight towards the people, sowing the seeds of Maoist support. Inside Lalgarh villages a brand new health centre constructed three years ago stood stark without facilities and staff. Parts of the road leading to Lalgarh were still broken where activists had dug up the path in the first phase of the agitation.

The first thought that struck me as I entered the path hemmed on both sides by luminous green fields was the quiet and tranquillity of the place. Nothing corroborated the fear perception that danger would stalk every step once you stepped inside Lalgarh with your heart in your mouth. That horrifying transformation took place recently as Maoists ripped apart the upsurge from its democratic moorings, shoving people into the jaws of death. Suddenly they seemed to have taken over a movement, of which till yesterday, they were only a part.

Even in April, Maoists or Maoist sympathisers were among the people I spoke with; a veiled hint of suspicion did hang in the air; at the receiving end of the police since the late 90s, villagers did seem more than keen to sniff out possible police informers masquerading as visitors. But overriding all of this was a sense of optimism. General elections were approaching and apprehension was on the rise of a possible forced entry by security forces. The People’s Committee was going around villages in neighbouring areas trying to evolve a consensus on strategy. I found its members drawing up plans for the next meeting. Chhatradhar Mahato, committee chairperson, was relaxed, full of hope. Though only five-month old in this critical post, Mahato communicated with a great deal of articulation and clarity, separating the strands, often conflicting, in the movement. We sat in a mud hut, speaking of the road ahead, the plans of the People’s Committee; above all the influence and the hold of Maoists over the movement.

Will the movement travel along this democratic path or was there a danger of Maoists pushing through their primary agenda — violence? “It is a spontaneous movement. I would not deny Maoist influence. But the movement has now assumed a truly democratic, participatory character. Lots of people are helping us — but they are not coming as political parties. They are helping us as people,” replied Mahato. He pointed out never before had Jangalkhand witnessed a movement like Lalgarh. “In the 90s the Jharkhand movement had some kind of impact on us. But ordinary people could not really connect with it. We could not stop police repression. After 2000 we found ourselves with our backs to the wall as the police began upscaling terror, branding us Maoists,” he added.

Villager after villager, women and men angrily spoke of the harassment they have had to endure in the hands of the police. “They would pick up our men any time, label them Maoists and throw them in jail. This has been going on for years,” said Poornima Murmu, a woman leader in the Chhotopeliya, the first village the police attacked in the aftermath of the November ambush. Two adolescent boys returning at night from a soiree of Bauls were picked up as Maoists. The arrests and the tortures on grounds of suspicion rankled more because Maoists, unlike in the rest of the country, were not outlawed in West Bengal.

Contrary to the perception that without the presence of police Lalgarh was a picture of anarchy I found life there normal; villagers sitting around tea stalls by the side of the road, poring over newspapers, chatting, women doing their usual chores, cyclists leisurely pedalling down the road.

While discussing poll strategies Mahato stressed the committee was not calling for a poll boycott; it was solely a Maoist tactic. In fact the committee was keen that the people go out and vote against the CPI(M). But I do recollect a sense of disquiet among some insiders who believed Maoists were raring to take control and drive the movement towards a violent confrontation. Mahato and his comrades were resisting, knowing that killings and bloodshed would write the epitaph of the movement. Post general election these fears were vindicated, as Maoists with AK-47s emerged from the shadows in full public glare, executing the only agenda they know — violence and giving the state an opportunity it was awaiting only too keenly..