Praveen Swami

Can democratic institutions resist a cult of death?

Four years ago, in a newspaper interview that went unnoticed even in West Bengal, ‘Comrade Dhruba’ described plans for a guerrilla campaign that would stretch from Medinipur to Malda. But the Communist Party of India (Maoist) central committee member had words of reassurance for his impeccably bourgeois, English-speaking audience. “We do not plan violence in Kolkata,” he said, “because when we establish our bases there, the people will be forced to obey us.”

Marketed as an authentic adivasi rebellion against misrule, backwardness and human rights abuses, the still-unfolding violence in Lalgarh in fact provides graphic insights into exactly how India’s Maoists command obedience. Lalgarh’s key leaders — a caste-Hindu from Andhra Pradesh with a Kalashnikov in hand, and an affluent public-works contractor backed by the Trinamool Congress — have demonstrated that there is an intimate relationship between fear and power.

Fittingly, perhaps, the Lalgarh crisis began with a murderous act of violence — albeit an abortive one. Minutes after West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee left the site of a new steel plant on November 2, 2008, a massive improvised explosive device went off under the road he had just passed over. If rats in the fields around Salboni hadn’t chewed through the kilometre-long wire connecting the IED to the hands which controlled the explosion, Mr. Bhattacharjee would have died.

For months before the bombing, there had been localised protests against the construction of the Rs. 350 billion JSW-Bengal Steel plant at Salboni. No large-scale displacement of local residents was involved. Of the 5,000 acres needed to build the plant, 4,500 acres were owned by the State government, while the remaining 500 were purchased by the JSW-Bengal Steel at relatively high prices. But Maoist-affiliated groups argued that the State had no right to the forest land it was making over to the plant: it belonged, they insisted, to the region’s adivasis.

The police responded to the November 2 bombing by detaining over a dozen Lalgarh area residents for questioning — a far from unusual practice after a major terrorist attack. Many of those detained, predictably, had no connection with terrorists. On November 3, for example, the police held retired schoolteacher Kshmananda Mahato and three teenage school students, Eben Muru, Goutam Patra and Buddhadev Patra. Even though all four were let off the next day, some local residents were incensed.

Clash between police and locals

Matters came to a head on November 5. Early that morning, the police raided the village of Chhoto Pelia in search of Sasadhar Mahato — the fugitive CPI (Maoist) operative alleged to have commanded the attempted assassination of the Chief Minister. Fighting broke out between them and the local residents who the police claim were compelled by the Maoists present in the village to obstruct their way. Fourteen women were injured; one woman, Chhitmani Murmu, lost an eye.

From November 7, the anger transformed into street protests. Led by the Bharat Jakat Majhi Marwa (BJMM), a body of traditional adivasi community leaders, Salboni residents closed roads and blockaded the Lalgarh police station. On November 14, though, the BJMM leadership reached an agreement with the local authorities. But its workers were now attacked by members of the newly-formed Police Santrosh Birodhi Janasadharaner Committee (People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities: PSBJC), which accused the traditional adivasi leadership of selling out the people it represented.

Who constituted the PSBJC? Its principal leader, Chattradhar Mahato, was a long-standing Trinamool Congress supporter who had made a small fortune from public-works contracts — and fugitive Maoist Sasadhar Mahato’s brother. Trinamool leaders claim he was expelled two years ago, but have produced no evidence to back this claim. Notably, Trinamool Congress flags were regularly flown by the PSBJC cadre at their protests; at many places in Lalgarh, the party’s banners still share space with those of the CPI (Maoist).

From the outset, it was clear that the PSBJC had no intention of making peace. Its demands were designed to invite rejection: that West Medinipur’s Superintendent of Police do penance by performing “sit-ups holding his ears;” that all policemen in Lalgarh crawl on all fours from Dalilpur to Chhoto Pelia, rubbing their noses in the dirt; that all those arrested on terrorism-related charges since 1998 be released.

Even then, the State government attempted to stave off a confrontation. On November 27, the day of the deadline set by the PSBJC, the West Bengal police shut down 13 posts and camps in the Lalgarh area. Later, on December 1, two more police posts were abandoned. But West Bengal’s increasingly desperate efforts to make peace failed — and a murderous meltdown followed.

The PSBJC announced the suspension of its struggle — but on ground, formed a parallel administration. Its Maoist allies prevented the entry of the police and administration in the villages of Belpahari, Binpur, Lalgarh, Jamboni, Salboni and Goaltore. From here, the Maoist death squads launched a series of increasingly brutal attacks. BJMM’s Sudhir Mandal, who organised a massive anti-Maoist rally in December, was shot dead. In February 2009, Maoists fired on the funeral procession of the assassinated Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, Nandalal Pal, killing three. Five more CPI(M) supporters were killed in April, as were four poll staff and police personnel. June brought a fresh wave of attacks.

“The Maoists did not capture Lalgarh,” counter-terrorism analyst Ajai Sahni observes, “the State deserted the people.”

Maoist groups had long been preparing the ground for just such a situation. In 2005, following the assassination of CPI(M) leaders Raghunath Murmu, Bablu Mudi and Mahendra Mahato, the prestigious South Asia Intelligence Review warned of the possibility of a “Naxalbari Redux” — a reference to the Darjeeling district hamlet from where, in March 1967, began a six-year Maoist insurgency that claimed hundreds of lives.

Documents seized from three CPI (Maoist) leaders, researcher Saji Cherian noted in the article, showed plans to attack or blow up police stations. There were also notebooks with details of how adivasis in Bankura, Purulia and West Medinipur were to be educated about their exploitation — and how they could be “freed.”

Starting with an October 14, 2004, attack which claimed the lives of six Eastern Frontier Rifles personnel in West Medinipur district, the CPI (Maoist) launched increasingly ferocious attacks.

Political allies

It also made political allies. In February last year, the West Bengal police arrested Himadri Sen-Roy, the Bengal state secretary of the CPI (Maoist). From Roy’s interrogation, the police acquired a mass of details on how the Maoists were developing a symbiotic relationship with the Trinamool Congress and the welter of so-called civil society movements that had sprung up to oppose West Bengal’s industrialisation drive.

Top Maoist leaders, Sen-Roy is said to have told the police, visited Nandigram in 2006, soon after the Trinamool Congress and Islamist groups initiated what would turn into a bloody confrontation. They sensed opportunity. Sen-Roy claims to have persuaded a range of political figures that their interests and those of the CPI (Maoist) were similar: among them, Trinamool leader Subendhu Adhikari and eminent writer and activist Mahashweta Devi.

Early in 2007, Sen-Roy is alleged to have said, Maoist military commanders purchased Rs. 8 lakh worth of weapons — six .315-bore rifles and ammunition — to set up an armed unit in Nandigram. Dozens of locally-made weapons were also purchased to arm new cadre. The weapons were stored at Sonachura in East Medinipur, an area which saw some of the worst violence during the Nandigram agitation.

Meanwhile, top CPI (Maoist) commander Molajella Koteswar Rao set about constructing military infrastructure in the Lalgarh area. According to Sen-Roy’s testimony to the police — which, under the law, is not admissible in a court — Rao extorted between Rs. 8 lakh every month from roads, construction and forest-produce contracts operating in the districts of Paschim Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia. In addition, CPI (Maoist) units outside West Bengal pumped in a further Rs. 1.5 lakh a month to train recruits in Jharkhand and Orissa’s Mayurbhanj forests.

By 2008, the Intelligence Bureau was reporting Maoist activity in all but one of West Bengal’s 18 districts. Three districts — Bankura, West Medinipur and Purulia —were graded among the most affected in the country. Between January and October 2008, 21 fatalities were reported from the districts in 34 Maoist attacks.

Like the Lalgarh violence, these killings did nothing for the poor adivasis in whose name they were executed: but the CPI (Maoist) doesn’t seem to care.

In one recent interview, Koteswar Rao candidly admitted that his party was willing to endorse almost any form of violence: “We do not support the way they attacked the Victoria station [sic.]”, he said of the Lashkar-e-Taiba jihadists who executed November’s carnage in Mumbai, “where most of the victims were Muslims. At the same time, we feel that the Islamic upsurge should not be opposed as it is basically anti-U.S. and anti-imperialist in nature. We, therefore, want it to grow.”

West Bengal will be a test of whether democratic institutions prove capable of resisting this cult of death.