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09 July, 2009

India’s Maoist dilemma: the case of Lalgarh

Open Democracy

The ongoing security crisis in West Bengal exposes the cracks in Indian democracy, stemming from a volatile mix of poor governance, petty politics, and a fundamental breakdown in credibility

A battle rages on in the Indian state of West Bengal, between Maoist guerillas called the Naxalites (Naxalbari is the name of a village in West Bengal where the movement was born in 1967) and national and paramilitary forces. The Naxalites, a banned outfit deemed as "a terrorist organization" by the central government, had proclaimed the Lalgarh area of West Midnapore district in Bengal, with its 44 villages, a "liberated zone" on 16 June 2009.

Since then, state and national security personnel have been sent to flush out the Naxals and bring Lalgarh and its adjoining areas under the government's control. In the 20 days since the Special Forces were deployed, not a single Maoist leader has been arrested in the area, besides the group's spokesperson in the city of Kolkata, some 200 kms from Lalgarh. The fear is that the guerilla fighters have retreated to jungles along West Bengal's border with the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh and may return once the forces currently in Lalgarh withdraw.

Prelude to the siege

On 2 November 2008, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya traveled with 3 ministers of the central government in a high-security convoy through the south-west region of his state after inaugurating a steel plant. On its way to Kolkata from West Midnapore, the convoy narrowly missed being blown to bits by an improvised explosive device. When senior members of the government travel by road, a careful "sanitization" of the route is carried out. The fact that a crude bomb was triggered from a kilometer away through a wire running across open fields and narrowly missed the minister's cars, was a blatant reminder of the deteriorating law and order situation in West Bengal.

The current crisis in Lalgarh is seen as a direct fallout of this attempt to blow up the ministers' cars. The West Bengal police, shamed by the audacity of the attack, allegedly arrested innocent young men and women in the Lalgarh area, accusing them of having links with Naxalites who had already claimed the bomb to be their handiwork. The police's repressive tactics and the unwillingness of local leaders to intervene on behalf of the people was the tipping point of the population's anger, which had built over years of similar experiences with the state's security officials.

Thereafter, the people of Lalgarh have been agitating both peacefully and often violently against policemen and politicians alike, leading up to the 16 June declaration of a liberated zone.

India's Maoists are not a newly formed group and do not have any direct links with Maoist movements in neighboring countries such as Nepal. They are a domestic organization, although it remains unclear where contemporary militants purchase their weaponry from. Ever since the first Maoist uprising in Naxalbari in 1967, the movement has grown in size and covers one third of the country's districts, across 9 states. They are considered a major security threat to the country as acknowledged by successive national and state administrations and yet no concrete strategy to combat them has been undertaken.

The Maoists have spread across regions in central and eastern India where some of the country's poorest and most marginalised population is concentrated. Pratik Kanjilal writes in the Hindustan Times that a map marking some of the least developed districts in the country would easily overlap those with Naxal activity.

A failure of governance and development

The current case of West Bengal is a little out of the ordinary. When the Communist Party of India (Marxist) first received a mandate to govern the eastern state in 1977, it was after the last remaining Naxalbari activists had been driven out of the state by the then chief minster of West Bengal, Siddhartha Shankar Ray of the Congress Party. The Marxists introduced land reforms benefiting many in rural Bengal who for generations had worked as landless laborers on farms owned by "zamindars", landlords.

Today, the Marxists take credit for rooting out Maoists from West Bengal, instead of acknowledging Ray's role and it is this imaginative history that contributed to the government's arrogant and complacent attitude to the renewed Naxal threat.

Falling behind on promises to develop rural infrastructure, to create jobs for people (the Indian governments National Rural Employment Guarantee Program is yet to be implemented in the district) and to provide basic healthcare and education facilities are the root causes for disenchantment with the ruling government in West Bengal. Yet, as many commentators in the media point out, the West Bengal government could have saved these territories from falling in to the hands of the Maoists if they had woken up from their slumber when reports of Naxal activity began trickling in around 2004.

A South Asia Intelligence Review report from 2004 warns of a possible "Naxalbari Redux" in Bengal and points out how the administration, including Chief Minister Bhattacharya were aware of growing discontent and violence in West Midnapore and its surrounding districts, yet chose to ignore them as minor, local protests. In an assessment of the ongoing stand off in Lalgarh, KPS Gill, one of the country's most well-respected police officers, blames the "state denial, appeasement and progressive error; paralysis in the face of rising Maoist violence," which allowed the group to spread its operations further in to Bengal. He also faults the lack of a comprehensive strategy to root out the Naxals; since the start of paramilitary operations, the rebels seem to have simply melted away into adjoining forests and even neighboring states.

It is not simply underdevelopment that lies at the heart of people's distress. Aditya Nigam points out in the Tehelka magazine that the Left Front government has been nothing short of a totalitarian regime that allows no room for dissent and complaint. The party's cadres have been accused of high-handedness, bearing illegal arms, siphoning off state funds and preventing citizens from speaking out against the party. Their activities are unchecked by West Bengal's police force, which remains hijacked by the Left Front's leaders.

It is in this vacuum of a law and order system and out of fear of cadre violence and police brutality that the people of rural Bengal turned to groups such as the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities (PSBJC), formed after last November's police brutalities in Lalgarh and eventually the Maoists, who claim to support the populace in its uprising against the state's hubris and complacency.
Playing politics with the Maoists

Bengal's main opposition party the Trinamool Congress and its leader Mamata Banerjee picked up 19 seats in the recent national elections and is part of the coalition ruling at the centre. In her agitations against state brutality in Nandigram in 2007 and against poor land acquisition policies in Singur in 2008, Banerjee is accused of receiving help from local Maoist groups. The PSBJC's convener, Chhatradhar Mahato was once a member of her party and his older brother is a high-ranking Maoist operative sought by the police. Hence, the Left Front has been quick to accuse Banerjee of allowing the Maoists to penetrate Bengal.

However, in an interview with Livemint, Koteswar Rao, head of guerilla operations for the CPI (Maoist) dismisses the claim that his group had been receiving support from the main opposition party in the state. The Maoists claim to support only the people, and in particular the adivasis or tribals in Lalgarh and its adjoining areas. However, CNN-IBN has Rao on record saying that Banerjee should refrain from allowing the central government to send paramilitary forces to West Midnapore, as she would lose the people's support.

Whether Banerjee was seeking help from Maoists during her earlier agitations at Nandigram and Singur is unclear, yet many in Bengal's administration are more than convinced and accuse her of bringing the guerillas into the state's internal politics. Banerjee, now the Minister of Railways in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's cabinet, denies allegations of collusion with the Maoists for her own political gains. She points out the Left Front's poor governance and the poor behavior of its cadres as the primary reasons behind the unrest in Lalgarh. For the moment, she is happy to let the state government deal with the Maoists as she doesn't want either side to use her as a pawn to blame the consequences of their decisions on.

"Good" or "evil"?

The nature and organization of people's groups such as the PSBJC has been a matter of great debate in the Indian media. The Hoot, a media watchdog traces the different representations of the PSBJC in newspapers, blogs and magazines from across the country. Some commentators assume that the PSBJC is a front for the Maoists, but several others have been skeptical of such assumptions as they point to reports of the organization undertaking small-scale relief projects in West Midnapore since it began its agitation against the state police. While mainstream newspapers and news channels are sticking to the former line, bloggers have written out against such an oversimplification.

Some extend this argument to the media's treatment of Maoists as well and claim that they cannot be labeled "terrorists" all that easily. Writer and activist Arundhati Roy has also warned the media and population at large of such a simplification of the Maoist movement in a recent article for Outlook magazine.

Nobody's battle, everyone's troubles

From being a bastion of the Left Front, Lalgarh has become the centre of a complicated battle involving a state government, its opposition, paramilitary forces, an elusive and banned guerilla group and most tragically, the local populace. The Left Front and its opposition continue to blame one another for resurgent Maoist activity in West Bengal; an elite paramilitary force tries to hunt down the Maoists with out any real action plan; and the state administration has still not acknowledged its poor governance record in West Midnapore or even announced any long term program of reform.

In the cross-fire between all these groups, the people of Lalgarh and its surrounding districts seem to have no one trustworthy to turn to who will deliver job security, roads, schools and hospitals along with access to a really democratic space where they may express their grievances freely without fear of being literally shot down. Simply flushing out the Maoist guerillas is no long term solution. The law of the land seems to have fled from the district some years ago, and no one has a roadmap for bringing it back.

Aaradhana Jhunjhunwala is a Kolkata-based writer and blogger. She recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania where she studied History, Economics and Comparitive Literature.

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