Lalgarh, Media and the Maoists: Monobina Gupta


[As this report is filed, reports have come in that the CPI-M has finally managed to enter Lalgarh and hold its first public meeting since 2 November 2008, when the police first arrested seven young students from Lalgarh, sparking off a revolt. No machine guns were fired, no mines were blasted – even though we are supposed to believe that the area is a ‘liberated area’ of the Maoists. See our earlier report, written soon after the revolt began. Even as we post this, more reports – mostly from West Bengal government and police sources, are being suddenly being published of ‘unrest’ spreading to ‘more Maoist areas’, and an atmosphere is sought to be created for an eventual justification of government and party sponsored violence.]

Assembly in Lalgarh - Armed Maoists? Photo, courtesy
Assembly in Lalgarh – Armed Maoists? Photo: courtesy

For five months now Lalgarh has been practicing a unique form of democratic politics. To the ruling CPI-M in West Bengal and the big media however, it has been nothing but a Maoist-sponsored agitation with portents of Maoist style violence. Except Bengal media, national print and television, have by and large kept Lalgarh out of their ambit of coverage. If at all news has trickled in, it has come tagged with ‘Maoists’ and ‘violence’; as if tribals in this forgotten part of Medinipur, the past five months, have been stocking up arms and laying ambushes to wage a war against the state.

A front-page article in the Times of India (TOI) today (April 22, 2009) sticks to this format describing Lalgarh as “Nandigram II, a liberated zone” where an explosive situation is building up with elections scheduled for April 30 and the Pulishi Santrash Birodhi Janashadharaner Committee (People’s Committee against Police Atrocities) refusing to allow the police to enter Lalgarh. “The police can’t enter here. Nor are other government officials welcome. This has been the situation for the last six months.”

The article continues: “During this period, tribal villagers in this 300 sq km area have been quietly sharpening their sickles and bows and arrows, ready to repulse any police entry. Some have sneaked in sophisticated firearms while others have manufactured indigenous ones. If the police do enter Lalgarh is ready for war.” By labeling Lalgarh a ‘liberated’ zone and providing unsourced information of villagers piling up arms and ammunition the TOI news report ‘confirms’ the stereotype that the Lalgrah movement is being masterminded by gun toting Maoists.

It is true People’s Committee has made it clear that they will not allow security personnel to enter Lalgarh unless the police apologise for the brutality they had unleashed on villagers of Chhotopelia and neighbouring areas, following the ambush set up by Maoists in Salboni on November 2 last year, targeting Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. It is equally true the Committee is stressing that the movement is not calling for a poll boycott. All the tribals want is prevent the security force from entering Lalgrah where they have been terrorizing villagers since 2000, rounding up them up as Maoists, slapping on them charges of anti-national subversion. Yes, the situation in Lalgarh on the eve of the polls, with the police refusing to apologise is veering towards a confrontation that could be violent, if the security personnel force an entry. More importantly I think, untapped and ignored by the media is Lalgarh’s unique search for an alternative democratic, political discourse that goes way beyond Maoist violence or cynical electoral calculations of mainstream political parties.

It would be a travesty of truth to treat the movement in Lalgrah, essentially a quest for reclaiming dignity, pride, by a people humiliated, as just another violent Maoist prank, a bloody misadventure.

Having visited this defiant corner of Medinipur earlier this month I do find the assumptions in the TOI report dangerous, since the character of the movement defies any such simplistic and vulgar nomenclature. I would like to tackle the first visible and glaring difference between Maoists and the People’s Committee on the immediate issue of elections. While Maoists have not only called for a poll boycott but are also enforcing the diktat through violent means, the People’s Committee is urging tribals to consolidate their votes against the CPI-M. At a press conference in Kolkata, Chhatradhar Mahato said, the Peoples’ Committee will ensure polls are conducted smoothly but will not allow police entry. “We are enjoying freedom in Lalgarh in the absence of the police. We can move around freely. The panchayats and blocks are also functioning smoothly. We will provide full security to polling officials but we don’t want the police in our areas,” Mahato told mediapersons at the Calcutta Press Club (Indian Express, April 6,2009).  In Lalgarh, villager after villager told me how peaceful the last five months have been without the presence of police.  At the press conference, Mahato voiced his apprehension that CPI-M is working on Nandigram ‘blueprint’ for Lalgarh. “Wearing police uniform, CPM cadres will capture polling booths. They had already driven several people out of Lalgarh. We will also not allow any Central force to visit Lalgarh since it works under the guidance of the state government,” he said, a day after the state home secretary spoke about getting forces in. “We asssure the officials they will not face any trouble on polling day. We will provide them with adequate security,” said Mahato.

His statement was a direct counterpoint to Maoists’ violent politics; their armed operations on the first day of polling. Attacking security men in Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh Maoists put to death at least 18 people, making good their warning and threats of stalling polls and creating disruption. Seventy-two hours before the elections they had set the stage with an attack on NALCO’s bauxite mines in Orissa, killing at least 8 CISF jawans and injuring scores of others.  Mentioning this is important. Had the Lalgarh movement been firmly under the Maoist central leadership’s control, it would have unhesitatingly issued a poll boycott call; poll boycott is one of the fundamental premises on which Maoist politics rests. Instead, the language Mahato used was democratic, unthreatening.

In fact, curiously enough, the situation on ground zero is not going exactly in accordance with the plans of Maoist central leaders who favour stepping up violence. Insiders talk about a growing discordance between the central leadership and the ‘Maoist villager’, active in the movement. With the agitation forging ahead, Maoist central leaders want to have a firmer grip; they want landmines, killings, terror, systematic targeting of informers. But the grassroots ‘Maoist’ worker is unwilling. “They realize any such violent action will lead to their isolation and the death of the movement. But Maoist central leaders believe they made the movement and should have the right to control it,” said an insider. “One of the reasons villagers are sympathetic to Maoists is because they know them intimately, not as some distant commander, but the youth next door, who works for and with the poor. But violence would find little endorsement,” he said.  Nobody denies Maoist influence, least of all Chhatradhar Mahato. When I asked him whether the movement is remote controlled by Maoist commanders, Mahato replied, “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”. He pointed out that never before has 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 as Maoists,” he added. This is a little-known fact outside West Bengal, but the year 2000 is seen as the watershed, when the ruling CPI-M and the Left Front government started its open and indiscriminate repression in search of ‘Maoists’ – mostly imaginary, sometimes real. The more they resorted to repression, the more Maoists they created.

Mahato said the movement is guided by a well-defined rule, which does not allow political banners inside Lalgarh. “If politicians wish to participate in rallies or address them they have to come without party banners. They come on their own will. We do not invite them”.  They also have to lave their security personnel outside Lalgarh. No leader, however high-profile is given any concession. Mamata Banerjee could enter Lalgrah only after she agreed to leave her Z category security behind.

Here lies a significant difference between Nandigram and Lalgarh, their styles of engaging with politics and political parties. Nandigram’s Bhumi Uchheed Pratirodh Committee (Commiitte Against Land Acquisition), controlled by political parties, filled by leaders of Trinamool Congress, SUCI, Naxal groups, Siddiqullah Chowdhury’s People’s Democratic Conference of India (PDCI), eventually turned into a forum lobbying, jostling and playing dirty for electoral gains. Nandigram’s panchayat election results moved the CPI-M out and brought in Trinamool Congress, both employing same mechanisms for transacting politics.

As far as Lalgarh is concerned, it seems to be in the throes of a different democratic experiment, not tied to a goal post of winning elections. The People’s Committee is a loose knit organization spreading horizontally, allowing the micro-level village committees, space and autonomy to take their own decisions. Here fiats from the top do not work. Ten member villages committees, 5 men and 5 women meet on a regular basis to take decisions. To me this does not bear much resemblance to a top-down Maoist brand of politics with little respect for autonomy or dissidence. Neither does the passionate involvement of Lalgarh activists with the health centre. Lalgarh Sanhati Mancha (Forum in Solidarity with Lalgarh), a Calcutta based group of intellectuals, activists, artistes and civil rights organizations has taken over a medical centre, lying vacant and unused three years, since the building was constructed. The Forum activists have operationalised it. It is now being run twice a week with doctors and medicines from Calcutta.

I made my trip to Lalgarh with Rangta Munshi, member of the Association of Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), a key person in running the medical centre. She told me of the overwhelming response of the people to the clinic. Before the clinic opens at 7 in the morning almost 200 men, women and children, starved of medical attention, queue up. They want the clinic to run, and its part of the democratic upsurge. I am struck once more by the absence of any mention of the clinic in media reports. The enthusiasm of the activists as well as the people ensuring that the medical centre endures, does not point to a Maoist agenda. If anything, it points to the contrary.  Maoists are not known to have an overriding concern with welfare of the people. They have a reputation closing down schools, preventing access of government agencies to areas under their control, destroying roads and communication. In their report Death, Destruction, Deprivation: The War in Dantewada, Human Rights Forum says, “Destruction of school buildings is another objectionable act which Maoists have tended to make light of. The Maoists have blasted and destroyed 37 school buildings in Konta tahsil during the month of February and March this year. In fact March was the worst month. They blasted 28 educational institutions between 4th and 8th March. To the question posed by the Independent Citizens’ Initiative in this connection, the Maoists have answered that neither the people nor our Party thinks it is wrong”.

In a way Lalgarh poses a more formidable challenge than Singur, Nandigram to the state, by questioning the dominant political discourse, its application and execution through mainstream political parties, bureaucracy and the police. “No doubt Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh ar bound by a continuity, a resistance, but Lalgrah is hurting the state in a more fundamental manner,” says Sumit Chowdhry, a filmmaker and president of Lalgarh Sanhati Mancha.

Whether or not a violent confrontation between tribals and security personnel takes place on election eve, Lalgarh, I believe, has earned its place of distinction not by practicing Maoist violence but for its engagement with participatory democracy.

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