Lalgarh : Story behind the Headlines

  1. Central security forces along with state police
    storm xxxxxxx.
  2. xxxxxxx

Such headlines in a leading newspaper convey an impression that a bitter & hated foe of the nation is being taught a lesson for aggression & treachery. They sound very triumphal & gloating with complete disregard to its’ human costs. Unfortunately, the word to be filled in here is not ‘Kargil‘, but ‘Lalgarh‘. Enemy is not Pakistani Army, but our own people – PSBJC (Pulishi Santrash Birodhi Janasadharoner Committee, i.e. People’s committee against police atrocities) & the radical outfit of Maoist. Narratives from eye witnesses emerging in the wake of security forces “storming” Lalgarh are so differing that obviously something much more is going on than highlighted in headlines. Is it simply a law & order problem, or worse still armed insurgency, by Maoists whose “avowed purpose” is to secure better life for the poor, marginalized & neglected through armed struggle? Maoists do not believe constitutional democracy would deliver equity & justice. But there is also PSBJC, which is spearheading Lalgarh’s struggle to stop brutal atrocities by police & CPI(M) cadre and to assert their right to livelihood & development. These hapless people, tribals & others, are not enemies, but desperate voices living in apathy, neglect & repression who have suffered in silence for long. They couldn’t take it anymore. Or are the Maoists to be magnified & annihilated as challenge to the power & sovereignty of state, and therefore worthy of treatment as enemies of state, while lumping teeming others along with them to be treated as ‘collateral damage‘? Are people to be simply ignored & banished even from speech – simply as inconvenient entities?

Lalgarh is in Midnapore district of Bengal. Even by Bengal’s liberal standards Lalgarh is a particularly backward & extremely poor block of predominantly tribal people. Even CPI(M), which champions the cause of poor & dispossessed, has failed them though in power for over thirty years. Contrary to those votaries, who don’t see any good in left entities, CPI(M) has not been in power for so long without good reasons. In its initial innings it pursued the agenda of agrarian reforms diligently & aggressively. It created a constituency of people – small landholders & farm hands – who benefited from its policies. The agricultural productivity increased impressively. Party apparatus contributed in this process by mobilising people, spreading awareness & ensuring implementation by our phenomenally lethargic & corrupt bureaucracy. It gained popularity. When land distribution was over, CPI(M) failed to search for other avenues for growth & development of the state. The ills that arise from stability, power & patronage began plaguing it & soon it seems to have become a moribund organization, where cadres became busy in protecting their perks & turf. Even bureaucracy was emasculated & overwhelmed to become subservient to party organization. Progressive role of CPI(M) (see this excessive but hard hitting critique) had turned regressive. When CPI(M) realized what was happening, it tried to change track to industrialization. Singur & Nandigram were chosen to become industrial hubs & land acquisition process began. People resented it. Government attempted to roughshod over the opposition. Party had lost touch with reality relying only on self serving cadres. Fund of goodwill from earlier decades was exhausted. People rebelled. Trinmool Congress (TC) stepped in the political vacuum to articulate the groundswell of grievances.

What is happening in Lalgarh over past 7 months (See report of fact finding mission from JNU-Delhi) is continuing manifestation of very same pattern. If forcible land acquisition for industry was the issue earlier, then relentless oppression let loose by police & CPI(M) cadres, when Chief Minister Bhattacharya was a target of a mine blast in this area in November last year, was the trigger here. While people of Lalgarh could live with loving neglect & apathy of state government, they could not stomach this new wave of brutality. They rose as one & blocked the entry of state apparatus that was seen as an instrument of terror & oppression. They created for themselves an island of security & peace. It was genuinely grass root people’s action. PSBJC did not stop there. Chhatradhar Mahato, a leader of the PSBJC, proudly points out that “the PCPA, with popular participation, built reservoirs, dug tube-wells and built roads in the area. The Lalgarh Sanhati Mancha, based in Kolkata, collected money and helped set up a health centre. A committee with five men and five women would take decisions”. Excerpts from the fact finding mission’s report follows :

    “The Committee was formed against police atrocity.  But what impressed us most was the alternative developmental work that the Committee and the people have been doing inside Lalgarh in the past seven months.  These areas are marked by extreme poverty and backwardness.  Rainfall is scanty and the people are dependent only on rainfall for agriculture.  We saw the dysfunctional government canal, which is lying dry.  They described the faulty nature of governmental dams which ultimately dry up the natural falls.  The showed us the pathetic condition of roads which become completely inaccessible during the monsoons.  The Committee on its own has made 20 km of roads with red stone chips (‘morrum’).  The people have volunteered labour to make these roads.  The total cost to make this 20 km of road, they showed, was Rs. 47,000, while the panchayat always shows at least Rs. 15,000 for 1 km of road.  They have repaired quite a few tube wells and installed new ones at half the price of the panchayat.  They have started to make a check dam in Bohardanga to fight the water crisis.  The two best things that have been done by the Committee is to start land distribution and run a health center in Katapahari.  The vested forest lands are supposed to be distributed to the landless tribals according to a bill passed by the West Bengal government.  But it never happened.  Now the Committee is taking initiative in Banshberi and other villages to distribute the vested empty lands adjacent to the forests to the people who have no land.  We saw the distribution of the patta in one village.  The condition of health facilities was also in a pathetic state in the villages, as there was not a single functional health center.  The nearest ones are in Lalgarh and Ramgarh town.  Patients often died on the way to the hospital, often there had been cases of snakebites of the people who were carrying the patients to the hospital in the monsoon.  There was a dysfunctional building in Katapahari which was supposed to be a health center.  The administration decided to turn it into a police camp.  After police boycott, the Committee turned it into a health center.  Doctors from Kolkata and other regions visit there thrice a week.  It is flocked by more than 150 patients every day.

Maoists came later (TOI article) when they saw a situation developing that they could use. They were not the leaders but voluntary supporters. Continued incursions by the state police to regain entry & capture physical space (government hardly attempted to occupy mental space by opening up a dialogue) provided opportunity to Maoists to highjack the agenda. Maoists knew best how to stop & retaliate against strong arm tactics. Soon that became newsworthy. Seeing this whole situation only as a Maoist Menace will be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. These nuances of reality politicians like Mamta Banergee are alive to. She instructed two of her TC central ministers to camp in Lalgarh & organize relief operations for people displaced due to the ‘storming‘ by the central & state security forces. She probably recognises the difference between genuine people’s action initiated under the umbrella of PSBJC & the Maoists attempts to hijack the issue. So have some representatives of literary figures, playwrights & filmmaker from Kolkata who visited Lalgarh a few days ago calling for restraint & dialogue. Both attempts have been labelled as misguided & foolish by an editorial in Indian Express.

Recent pronouncements have Congress talk of “Inclusive growth”. Sonia Gandhi has set an agenda for the government to enact National Food Security Act (NFSA) providing draft legislation for its consideration. It proposes freedom from hunger and malnutrition as a fundamental right. Intent is laudable, nay overdue for a long time in words & more so in deeds. Knowledgeable researchers have faulted the details (Devil is in the detail after all, read article by Milind Murugkar) but have applauded the objectives. Recent assessments by UN System–Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN) on impact of recession on poor in developing countries are grim. Proportion of population living in extreme poverty in South Asia has risen in 2008 by 1 percentage point or more. Extremely poor globally increased by about 150 million between 2005 &2008, and additional 59 million are expected to join ranks in 2009 alone. In India additional 12-15 hours a week of work will have to be put in to feed family of five. While the WPI has travelled into negative territory, the food prices have shown no signs of abating & are on the rise. Monsoon outlook for current season is looking worse than first anticipated. Whole point is whether we are going to treat hunger, thirst, disease & illiteracy with repression & state terror, or with assured supply of food, water, health care & education. Lalgarh is crying out for answer. It would not bode well to view it myopically as a law & order issue.


  1. Curiously Asok Mohan Chakarbarty, Chief Secretary –West Bengal, has faulted today Maoists & PSBJC for very same things for which JNU fact finding mission found the state government responsible. Interesting question is whether he studied that report before visiting ‘liberated‘ Lalgarh.

First action of liberated Lalgarh police station is to file a case under CrPC 144 (unlawful assembly of five or more people) against the delegation headed by Aparna Sen that went to Lalgarh to meet PSBJC.



2 Responses to “Lalgarh : Story behind the Headlines”

  1. Neelakshi Jatar Says:

    This ‘inside’ story is so revealing–not just about the tribals in Lalgarh but a universal tale of what humans can do –and do—to other humans.
    Nilakshi J

  2. Suvrat Kher Says:

    devastating story. thanks for bringing me up to date on these developments

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