Praveen Swami

Is the violence in West Medinipur district really an adivasi uprising?

Land reform has given adivasis a high level of freedom and security

Poll results in the area showed no resentment against CPI(M)

LALGARH: Early this month, as police marched into the forests around Lalgarh, the adivasi residents of Salboni were told, by Maoists, to start building barricades.

Insurgents armed with rifles and side-arms watched over the villagers as they felled trees and dug trenches. Not surprisingly, no one disputed their orders.

But on Monday, Bongaram Lohar summoned courage to speak up on behalf of the dozens of local residents who had been press-ganged into the building work. For his defiance, Mr. Lohar was brutally beaten up and forced to flee the village.

Most commentary has cast the violence in Lalgarh as an expression of primal adivasi rage: rage against being denied development and justice. One critic even claimed the Lalgarh region had, for the past three decades, been “untouched by development.”

But Mr. Lohar’s story — and a mass of empirical evidence — give reason to doubt this telling of the story.

No development?

Back in 1977, after the first Left Front government took power in West Bengal, entire villages were freed from the control of jotdars, or landlords, by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) workers.

Data from West Bengal’s Department of Land and Land reforms shows that till 2002-03, land measuring 16,280 hectares was redistributed to peasants in the blocks of Jhargram, Binpur and Salboni — the areas now under Maoist assault. “In the Jhargram block village where I conduct research”, says Aparajita Bakshi, Senior Research Fellow at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, “75 per cent of all households are land reform beneficiaries. Of Scheduled Tribe households, no less than 70 per cent gained agricultural land and 90 per cent gained homestead land as a result of land reform.”

Income poverty and deprivation continue to exist throughout the region — but land reform has given adivasis a level of freedom and security their counterparts in the rest of India do not enjoy.

Marketed as the liberation of Lalgarh, Maoist rule, in fact, made the life of most adivasis worse. Income from forest produce, on which most local residents are dependent, dried up. Government programmes intended to mitigate hardship collapsed altogether.

“In November,” says Bhumidhansola resident Manek Singh, “the Maoists forbade us to enter the forests to cut wood. The Forest Department used to pay us Rs.70 a day for this work. Now, no one even enters this area to purchase the leaf-plates we make. We have been left with nothing.”

Extortion and attacks

Faced with extortion and attacks by Maoists, government staff also fled the area. Lalgarh residents told The Hindu that the Integrated Child Development Scheme workers were ordered to pay Rs.1,000 each month; school teachers and staff at the Block Development Office said they were compelled to part with twice as much to local Maoists.

Following the assassination of government doctor Honiran Murmu and staff nurse Bharati Majhi in October, the Lalgarh area has had almost no access to health care.

Politics and power

Election data debunks the idea that there is a popular rebellion against the CPI(M) under way in Lalgarh.

In the 2006 elections to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, the CPI(M) had won six of the seven Assembly seats which together make up the Jhargram Lok Sabha seat: Garhbeta East, Garhbeta West (SC), Salbani, Nayagram (ST), Gopiballavpur and Jhargram. The CPI(M) has held the Jhargram Lok Sabha seat, of which Lalgarh is a part, ever since 1977.

Police raids

Last year, the West Bengal Police carried out raids across the Lalgarh area, following a November 2 attempt to assassinate Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Fighting between police and Maoist supporters broke out during the raids; several people were injured.

Backed by the Maoists, Trinamool Congress leader Chhatradar Mahato — the brother of the principal accused in the November 2 bombing — set up the Police Santras Birodhi Janaganer Committee (PSBJC), or People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities.

The PSBJC activists blocked roads, shut off police access to the area, and attacked CPI(M) workers.

Prior to this year’s Lok Sabha elections, the Maoists even initiated protests insisting that the police not enter the villages of Boro Pelia, Chhoto Pelia, Dalilpur Chowk and Khas Jungle — all areas where they had a substantial armed presence.

Had the PSBJC represented widespread resentment against the CPI(M), it ought to have showed up in this year’s Lok Sabha elections. But Jhargram constituency swam against the anti-CPI(M) tide. The CPI(M) candidate, Pulin Bihar Baske, polled 5,45,231 votes, giving him a respectable lead over the 2,52,886 claimed by the Congress’ Amrit Hansda. Mr. Baske even won in the Binpur Assembly segment, of which Lalgarh is a part.

Rule of fear

How, then, have the Maoists gained so much influence in Lalgarh? Jharkhand Party candidate Chunibala Hansda had this simple answer for one journalist reporting on the Lok Sabha elections: “People are scared of them”.

Last year, even as the PSBJC was mobilising people against the West Bengal government, the Bharat Jakat Majhi Marwa — an organisation of traditional adivasi community leaders, which is opposed to the CPI(M) — organised a rally to protest Maoist violence. More than 10,000 adivasis gathered in Bhulabheda area of Belpahari on December 9.

Sudhir Mandal, the adivasi leader who organised the rally, was shot dead less than 48 hours later.

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