So, is Mamata Banerjee pro-Maoist or not?
It doesn’t matter. As with her political opponents of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, in West Bengal, it is less about Mao and more about manoeuvring. The cause célèbre of Lalgarh in the area of “Jangalmahal”, the forested, tribal-inhabited patches spread over three districts of West Bengal adjacent to Jharkhand and Orissa, is about turf.
The Lalgarh region has become a symbol of fighting between two political parties while a third, the Maoists, play both spoiler and kingmaker. The script is similar to what opportunistically pans out in other states where Maoists have made inroads.
Lalgarh touched urban India on 2 November 2008, when a motorcade carrying, among others, West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and then Union minister of steel Ram Vilas Paswan was attacked by the Maoists. They were returning after attending the foundation stone-laying ceremony of JSW Bengal Steel Ltd’s proposed plant at nearby Salboni. Maoists exploded a landmine at a spot just 7km north of the district headquarter town of Medinipur.
The ministers survived, but the Maoists had made several points: a protest against JSW’s plant, the Marxist-led government, and their most spectacular assassination attempt since targeting N. Chandrababu Naidu, who was Andhra Pradesh’s chief minister at the time, in October 2003.
The state government’s response was swift and brutal. It turned loose police and local CPM leaders and goon squads—similar to those used in Singur and Nandigram to help acquire land for Tata Motors Ltd and Indonesia’s Salim Group. Rooting out Maoist sympathizers was a collateral damage free-for-all of arrest, molestation and killing of tribal and “scheduled caste” villagers, and destruction of homes and property. Resistance grew in the shape of the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) within weeks, which worked in consultation with Maoists. When I visited Lalgarh in mid-June 2009, PCPA, almost entirely comprising the area’s villagers, had gained enough strength to literally beat back CPM cadres, control impressive territory, and enforce a blockade.
On the 18th of that month, a combined force of paramilitary and police made a move to reclaim the Lalgarh area. Several PCPA leaders and supporters have since been arrested or killed by police, paramilitary and goon squads. Many villagers have, as earlier, been arrested, questioned, threatened, and tortured. A few have simply disappeared. Maoists have engaged in guerilla-style battles, scoring victories and taking losses. A few PCPA members have gone rogue, and are accused of causing the Jnaneshwari Express disaster.
Meanwhile, Banerjee has variously voiced her support for, and criticism of, the Maoists and PCPA—her one constant being to speak in different voices. The other constant has remained her rigid animosity toward West Bengal’s current rulers. Her show of strength at a political meeting in Lalgarh on 9 August, and the PCPA and local Maoist leadership’s support, is a sort of QED.
Thing is: were the Trinamool Congress to win the assembly elections due in 2011 and gain from the Marxist combine the constituencies of Jangalmahal along with influence over village-level political structures, that party will likely be as brutal in maintaining a hold as its arch enemies have done since 1977. The Maoists will continue to remain the third force, along with PCPA or a new militant faction.
I was back in the jungles around Lalgarh two months ago. The dirt-poor residents are even more cut off, under pressure and scared. In the absence of state-run facilities, PCPA has organized a few works such as building packed earth roads, minor irrigation and pond-cutting. It maintains health centres that paramilitary and police disrupt by destroying or taking away meagre stores of medicine. I moved from mud hut to mud hut and village to village because residents were afraid to invite police ire for harbouring a writer—and outsider. Also, because no household could afford more than once to feed me a plate of boiled rice and smidgen of dal; or the luxury of puffed rice soaked with water to trick the belly into submission. When the rice harvest runs out in three to six months, villagers try to gather sal leaf from the forest to weave into plates. A thousand plates fetch Rs.70-80.
This, then, is the battleground for the Marxists, Mamata and the Maoists. The ministry of home affairs may attempt to centralize anti-Maoist operations, but anti-Maoist politics—or not—remains firmly local in West Bengal and elsewhere.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.
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