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July 4, 2009

Liberation of Lalgarh

The Left Front’s hold over West Bengal faces a bloody challenge

OVER THE past three decades, the Left Front’s Red fortress in Bengal had acquired an aura of impregnability based on the Party’s stranglehold over rural Bengal. While anti-incumbency, outrage at lack of development, atrocities like Bantala and Birati might have led to the loss of a few seats in Kolkata and some impassioned editorials in Anandabazar from time to time, these remained so insignificant in the electoral scheme of things, that the Politburo merely shrugged them off as not something worth getting their tea cold over. This confidence stemmed from the strategic infiltration of the party into all the institutions of rural life—panchayats, police, business and district administration– all of which could be expected to work synergistically to keep the rural populace “in line”.

Most importantly the confidence came from the strength of the Left Front’s cadre. Drawn initially from the sarba-haras (those who have nothing) and provided sustenance through aggressive land reforms achieved through a combination of legislative and extra-constitutional means—armies of landless labourers putting up red flags on the land they cultivated shouting slogans like “Langol jaar jomi taar” (he who ploughs the land owns it)—the party apparatchik became the Left front’s eyes and ears on the ground as well as their muscle. A quick way to identify the party bosses is to look for the shiny pukka houses in the countryside standing out amidst the thatched huts. Over the years, the old feudal order in the village was replaced by this cadre raj, many of whom had graduated from being peasants to “contractors”, who lorded over the population with their rule backed by the extra-legal immunity granted to them by the compliant state administration.

The recent incidents at Lalgarh (which ironically means “the red fortified town”) should be seen primarily as a desperate attempt by those outside the ambit of the Left Front’s patronage network to lash out at the oppression unleashed over the decades by the cadre-police combine. From violent targeting of party offices and party “key men” to the insistence of the villagers that the superintendent of police rub his nose in the ground in front of everyone  their intent is obvious—pay-back for the humiliation, the summary arrests and brutality.

This is of course not the first time that villagers have tried to revolt against the Party. But in 2009, with the twin blows of Nandigram and Singur, the consequent migration of a significant part of the Party’s strong-arm to the Trinamool, the ceaseless attack on the Party not only by its traditional opponents but also by its long-time intellectual support-base for whom Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and his cavorting with capitalists has been anathema and finally a series of electoral setbacks , the Left government is at the weakest it has ever been in the last three decades.

Add to that the steadily growing power of Maoists who have brought AK-47s to a region where the cadre have traditionally fought with machetes, country-made revolvers and home-made bombs and the opportunistic support provided by the Trinamool Congress and only then one begins to realise why the local population, manipulated by the Maoist leadership, have backed themselves to declare a revolt against the state government and the party infrastructure, which essentially is one and the same thing in Bengal.

In order to understand why the violence has been so sustained and brutal in Lalgarh, one has to look at the historical traditions of the district of Medinipur (now divided into two) of which Lalgarh is a part. From the times of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, when the village of Tilkuti in Medinipur invited the Emperor’s wrath for constructing a Hindu temple in direct contravention of his decree, through to the Chuar tribal revolt in the nineteenth century and the independent Tamluk government which effectively set up a parallel administration in parts of Medinipur in 1942 to Nandigram in 2007, Medinipuris have been known for their strong streak of independence and a healthy mistrust for centralised authority.

Given this context, it is no surprise that the strongest challenge to the Left government’s authority has come from this district.

In the case of Lalgarh, the seeds of the present violence was laid when a high-powered land-mine blast triggered by Maoists nearly assassinated Mr Bhattacharya at Shalboni near Lalgarh while he was returning after inaugurating the JSW steel plant in November 2008. With pressure to bring the culprits to book, the police then launched a repressive crackdown on the region, detaining, humiliating and harassing the local population, many of whom were suspected of harbouring Maoists or being active conspirators in the bomb blasts. This heavy-handedness provided the perfect fodder for local Maoists to inflame the local population and incite them to perpetrate violence against the local Left cadre. With the cadre in retreat, the Maoists then followed up with a chest-thumping “stop us if you can” march to Kolkata where the protesters brought to the city to a standstill and engaged in acts of vandalism.

The demands of the “people of Lalgarh”,  or more precisely the Maoists that are pulling the strings have been the removal of police posts from the region and stopping of night-time raids, demands that have been met by the state government. In essence, this has further weakened the rule of law in the region, a region where a steel plant is to be constructed, and energised the Maoists whose recruitment in the region has by all accounts been stepped up as they seek to entrench themselves from Tirupati to Pashupati.

The fallout of this on the state’s investment climate, especially after what transpired in Singur, is likely to be grave. Mamata Banerjee, whose contribution to making West Bengal an attractive venue for investment is well known, is also caught in a quandary. Though she has endeavoured to extract as much political capital out of Lalgarh as she possibly can, she has stopped short of walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Maoists, possibly because she realises that should her dream of chief-ministership were to be realised she would have to handle the consequences of absolute anarchy if the Maoists have their way. To her embarrassment, the agitators have called her bluff threatening her with boycott unless she “breaks her silence”. The accusation of having stayed silent is something Ms Banerjee is usually not accustomed to hearing.

And so Lalgarh remains on boil caught in a ceaseless cycle of Maoist terror and retributive violence by state police with a part of the state spiralling down into anarchy in the near future looking to be a very real possibility.. Bengal bleeds different shades of red as a result. But then again, what’s new?


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