ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

The Lalgarh Story

The Lalgarh story is far more complicated than made out by some urban intellectual groups who have argued the case for the People's Committee against Police Atrocities (more commonly known as the PSBJC), which has found itself in an opportunistic alliance with the Maoists. While the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has indeed failed to fully address the many expectations of the adivasis of the area, the Maoists and the PSBJC have shown that their own agenda is one of exercising control.

COMMENTARY

-

-

-

-–

-

-

-

-

behaved in a very restrained manner. The

The Lalgarh Story

fact that in some TV channels they were

shown as being welcomed by the villagers,

of course, does not necessarily mean that Malini Bhattacharya they had succeeded in winning the hearts

The Lalgarh story is far more complicated than made out by some urban intellectual groups who have argued the case for the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (more commonly known as the PSBJC), which has found itself in an opportunistic alliance with the Maoists. While the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has indeed failed to fully address the many expectations of the adivasis of the area, the Maoists and the PSBJC have shown that their own agenda is one of exercising control.

Malini Bhattacharya (mihirmalini@gmail.com) is currently chairperson, West Bengal State Women’s Commission.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
august 15, 2009

N
o one had expected the Lalgarh story to end after the combined armed contingents of the centre and the state moved into Binpur-1 Block in West Medinipur. This is the area in West Bengal, adjacent to Jharkhand, where the Maoists have entrenched themselves for some time. The forces have succeeded, since 18 June, in setting up camps in this area without much resistance and in making these places accessible to the administration by pushing back the Maoists and removing roadblocks. It was a necessary operation achieved with little bloodshed, one that should have been undertaken months ago to make the basic civic services available to the people; but this does not mean that the Lalgarh problem is solved. The volatility of the situation is indicated by the fact that recently the Maoists have again allegedly committed a number of cold-blooded murders to demonstrate their stubborn presence in the interstices of the territories recovered by the armed forces. It shows that whether by coercion or by other means, the Maoists are still retaining their contacts and their sources of information among the local people. It seems that in spite of efforts among some urban supporters of the so-called Police Santras Birodhi Janasadharaner Committee) (People’s Committee against Police Atrocities or the PSBJC) to prove the contrary, the armed forces have on this occasion

vol xliv no 33

of the latter. How oppressive the Maoist regime was can be gauged from the manner in which people from distant villages flocked to get the minimum relief doled out by a proactive administration once the extremists had been pushed back.

In November 2008, after this phase of violence began, the State Women’s Commission had sent a team to the sub-divisional town of Jhargram to investigate alleged police atrocities on adivasi women in the village of Chhotopelia. Even at that time, it had been reported by organisations working in the Lalgarh area how women agricultural labourers and collectors of tendu leaves were being terrorised by the Maoists and the PSBJC for extraction of levies out of their meagre incomes. A woman named Nasima Khatun had lost her unborn child because roadblocks did not allow her to reach the hospital in time. Doctors were not going to the primary health centres, rendering the latter non-functional, ever since a mobile medical van with the doctor, the nurse and the driver had been blown up in Shalboni.

Till the end of June, 88 people, leaving aside 23 police and CRPF personnel, have been killed by the Maoists in the district of West Medinipur alone. Of these, 74 belonged to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M). Judging by economic standards, 74 out of the 88 persons killed had been poor or landless peasants, and socially, 25 were adivasis. But still, the fact that the villagers are not keen on the armed forces

COMMENTARY

staying on is clear from the momentum gathered by the demand for the latter to vacate the schools where they have set up camps, a demand that the PSBJC and the Maoists guiding them have been quick to capitalise on. The state govern ment, of course, had already announced that the armed forces will be provided with alternative accommodation by the end of July.

Growth of Maoist Control

At least for the last seven or eight years, the Maoists had been penetrating into the Lalgarh area from the adjacent state of Jharkhand and through their frequent visits, had been obviously trying to turn this into a reserve territory where they could take shelter when necessary. It has been said that one of the ways in which they made contacts with the local people was through certain activities of nongovernmental organisations such as setting up partly free coaching classes in the locality where they are very much in demand. They have never been known during this time to have mobilised the poorer sections of the people or to have been involved in any way in basic developmental issues in the Lalgarh area.

In fact, it would be a travesty of truth to say that the labouring adivasi people of the jangalmahal area, forested territories, have not benefited at all from the 32 years of the Left Front government. Land reforms, meaning redistribution of legally surplus land from the landlords to the landless, securing the rights of the share-croppers to the land they till, introduction of local self-government and decentralised planning through the panchayat system, setting up of schools and health centres and other state-run welfare and developmental activities have certainly improved the living standards of the people. It would of course still be correct to say that the spread of these benefits has been inadequate and uneven.

What is interesting to note is that the poorest of the poor in the area, who come from the Lodha and Shabar communities, are by and large not actively supporting the recent agitations. When I had visited the villages of Bhulabheda, Chakadoba and Dahijuri in the so-called Lalgarh area in 2000-01 on a research scheme on the status of the girl-child, I had been struck by the contrast between the relative economic stability of these villages and the acute poverty of the tribal families in a village like Ondolchua where the family of one Hansa Shabar had nothing but homestead land and a couple of goats. Hansa Shabar was suffering from TB and we arranged for him to be shifted to Jhargram Hospital, but three days later he escaped and returned home to die there. This just shows that the basic amenities of medical treatment were still not accessible to such families.

A mass movement from below starts with people being mobilised around certain basic grievances and issues, which come to constitute the agenda of the movement and it gets intensified when facing resistance and repression from forces opposing it, including the government. Grievances may be many so far as the labouring people of Lalgarh are concerned. But neither the PSBJC nor the Maoists seem to have concerned themselves with raising these demands on behalf of the people. The main thrust of the recent agitations has been to keep the area free from the police and the administration.

Enfeeblement of Panchayats

In many elected panchayats, particularly in those where representatives from the CPI(M) have been in a majority, their strategy has been to terrorise them through kangaroo courts to leave the party and, where they have not done so, to eliminate them physically. This has made the elected panchayats non-functional. Even the Bharat Jakat Majhi Marwa Sangathan (BJMMS), which is an adivasi organisation and which had initially mobilised itself to protest against police excesses in the adivasi village of Chhotopelia, has been marginalised and rendered inactive by the agitators. The Sangathan has subsequently dissociated themselves from the agitation.

In June 2009, when a team from the State Women’s Commission went to the area to investigate a case of witch-hunting in Dumurkota, only 16 kms away from Jhargram, it found that not only was the administration unable to enter the area, but also that the BJMMS, when requested by the block development officer to intervene, pleaded inability to do anything. This showed that they too had no access to the occupied areas. The predicament of

august 15, 2009

the people as a result of this total suspension of all administrative, economic and social welfare activities in the area is not the concern of the Maoists. This is why it is impossible to accept them as representatives of a popular movement.

Some observers have sought to differentiate the PSBJC from the Maoists and are worried by the takeover of PSBJC, seen by them as the focal point of a popular movement, by armed extremists who seem to have no political agenda except territorial control and extortion and murder. But has the PSBJC ever been anything more than an organisation for the activities of the Maoists? There is no evidence the PSBJC has provided the people with any alternative civil and welfare services. One deserted primary health centre is said to have been taken over by them, but this is mainly for the use of the Maoists. Even if some local people got services from it, this does not compensate for the many PHCs and schools that had to be closed down in the last few months because of the extremist terror.

Events of November 2008

Still it is quite true that when the PSBJC was formed in the wake of the Chhotopelia inci dent, it seemed to draw wide popular support. How was this possible? It seems entirely likely that in the far-flung villages of jangalmahal, the tyranny of petty police personnel on the pretext of searching for Maoists had continued for a long time. If the people were harassed by the armed extremists, they could very well have been subject to police harassment too.

As the police entered the village where a small-time contractor supposed to be in touch with the Maoists was spending the night in the wake of the Maoist attempt on 2 Novem ber 2008 to blow up the chief minister’s convoy at Shalboni, they were confronted by the women. In the scuffle that ensued, Sitamani Murmu was injured in one of her eyes. Three or four others got minor injuries. Another woman, Sulekha Pratihar (not a tribal), who was pregnant, was allegedly beaten up and molested. This second incident could not be confirmed as there was apparently no First Information Report, but the State Women’s Commission visited Sitamani Murmu in a government hospital in Kolkata and found that her injury was

vol xliv no 33

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

quite serious and might cause some impairment to her vision.

All the same, the assault of the police on the women as well as the arrest of two high school boys for interrogation (they were released the next day) sparked off a protest which culminated in the newlyformed PSBJC giving the call to ban the entry of the police and the administration into Lalgarh. This gave the Maoists the opportunity to move in and take over Lalgarh and the adjacent areas.

Emergence of New Groups

It would not be wrong to surmise that whatever development may have taken place in the Lalgarh area has led to the emergence of new powerful groups of people such as ration dealers, schoolteachers, contractors and middlemen of various kinds. Some of the adivasi and people from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) who are socially more advanced than the others have taken advantage of these new openings and have become influential members of the community. It is also quite likely that members of these newly-powerful groups would have ties, very often ties of interest, with the ruling party.

The CPI(M), while it is generally lagging behind the Jharkhand Party and its factions in this area electorally, has nonetheless a strong presence here. But in the last few years, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has also made notable advances and Chhatradhar Mahato, the leader of the PSBJC, has retained his original ties with the TMC. Just as some of the newly-powerful people would seek the patronage of the CPI(M), there would be others who would have ties of interest with the other political parties as well. These would also be shifting allegiances, with people moving over to different political camps when the original support is found to be not bearing fruit. The Maoists themselves, when they penetrate a geographical area, evolve such ties of interest with some powerful groups, such as the forest mafia who benefit from the felling of trees on a mass scale.

The partial loss of the CPI(M) grassroots contacts with the more deprived sections of the adivasis and OBCs has been admitted by its leaders themselves. This may have been caused to some extent by its identification with these newly-powerful groups that are

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
august 15, 2009

seen as exploiters by ordinary people. This would affect the CPI(M) more than other parties because this is not expected of them. But this is certainly not to say that CPI(M) leaders and workers who have been brutally killed or persecuted in the last few months were the ones who had been thus alienated. More likely than not, it is the ones who had more contacts with the grassroots and were more active among the people who have been murdered or hounded out of the area with the specific objective of diminishing the political influence of the CPI(M)

Murder of Committed Workers

One stark instance of this is the very recent murder of Phagu Baskey, a small peasant and a popular local leader of Madhupur, an adivasi village, who had earlier organised the people against the Jharkhand Party-dominated gram panchayat when it was trying illegally to get some NREGA work done through contractors. The people so mobilised by Phagu Baskey succeeded in making the gram panchayat retract. Obviously he had to die because of his popularity in the locality. It is these complex political factors which generate a feeling of terror amongst the people and their leaders, and this is what almost immobilises the Left parties and their mass organisations, rather than the spontaneous anger of the people at the lack of development.

Cultural Organisations

Another factor which has been crucial in Lalgarh and other adivasi localities is the emergence in the last decade or so of powerful cultural organisations of some of the more advanced tribal groups such as ASEKA and BJMM. They have been mostly concerned with issues of language, script and cultural identity, and in some cases they have also been arguing for adivasi traditional panchayats as opposed to three-tier elected panchayats. The desire to retain self-respect as adivasis and the quest, as articulated by these organisations, for community-based identity in a situation where such identity is in a crisis, has a very strong hegemonic influence over tribal groups in general. At the same time, such influence does nothing to counteract ghettoisation, which is indicated, for instance, by the continuing bane of witch-hunting in some of the adivasi areas,

vol xliv no 33

a bane that these cultural organisations have not so far formally repudiated or resisted.

It can be said unequivocally for the West Bengal government that, from its early years, it has had a very positive approach about the linguistic and cultural autonomy of adivasi communities. Even before a separate department with a separate budget had been set up for these and the OBCs, there had been a budget under the Department of Culture and Information for the promotion of folk and tribal culture. Small as this budget was, it had provided a positive impetus in the state to these cultural forms. The government also accepted a long time back the demand to introduce the Santali language as a medium of instruction in schools and has promoted the use of the Alchiki script as reconstructed about a hundred years back by Pandit Raghunath Murmu from the original lost script of the Santal tribe. But it is obvious that policy measures alone cannot counteract the sense of alienation, that is one factor in the Maoists being able to retain their contacts among the population.

Patient, consistent and continuous communication at the grassroots with the people in the area and mobilisation of the masses on issues that are of primary interest to them has to go on to prevent the bureaucratisation even of positive policy measures when implemented from the top. Before something can be given to the people, a movement has to understand and empathise with them in order to articulate what they “want”. There must also be attempts, wherever possible, at dialogue with the adivasi cultural organisations that have such an influence on the communities, in order to ensure that the issues of cultural consciousness that constitute their main agenda enter the public domain.

There can be no doubt that it is the weakness of the organised Left in the state since the end of the 1980s in spearheading such mass movements and its shortcoming in addressing the consciousness and the lived experience of the people, which has encouraged the divide. In the present situation, attempts at recovery of contact can only be made in the face of tremendous odds, and may involve high costs. But there seems to be no other way of coming out of the bloody impasse which the opportunistic alliance of the Maoists and the PSBJC is feeding on.

To read the full text Login

Get instant access

New 3 Month Subscription
to Digital Archives at

₹826for India

$50for overseas users

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top