The Great Rebellion


This is more than a Santhal rebellion in the tribal interiors of Bengal. This is legendary people's resistance against organised police and State terror.

Nilanjan Dutta Kolkata

Lalgarh. The name, literally, means red bastion. Till now the media had reserved this epithet for the state of West Bengal, thanks to the Left Front government dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-CPI-M) holding power for more than three decades. But it is not the sarkari Marxists who led the people of Lalgarh in turning this sleepy rural block into a veritable fortress, out of bounds for the state forces and even the ruling party's storm troopers. In fact, none of the parliamentary Opposition parties or their leaders could claim that distinction - not even West Bengal's indomitable didi: Mamata Banerjee.

For more than a month, it was the rule of "We, the People" in Lalgarh. For more than a month, they had cut off access of the police and administration to press for their demand - stop brutal police raids and attacks on citizens in search of Maoists. The place is a part of Jangalmahal, the forest-covered region in West Midnapore district. It is one of the most backward places in the state and a natural playground of the radical Left forces, more recently the Maoists.The developments in Lalgarh have shown certain features that are unprecedented in the history of political movements in post-colonial India.

Though the parallels with Nandigram are apparent, and the movement has definitely drawn lessons from Singur and Nandigram, it stands apart in some significant respects. Without any bloodshed, the movement, building its scaffoldings with sheer popular participation and a unique ‘organisation from below' (while keeping out all parliamentary political parties and leaders), has been able to force the administration to begin a conciliatory process. Though the national media paid little attention to the Lalgarh movement, it has attracted attention from various quarters. The Congress termed it as the "Second Santhal Rebellion", and Rahul Gandhi sent a team of his ‘Aam Admi Ka Sipahi' to make a field study.

However, the people of Lalgarh don't really like the idea of calling their movement a ‘Santhal Rebellion'. While it is true that the population in these parts is mostly tribal, and a large section of them are indeed Santhals, they would rather emphasise that it is a "people's movement", comprising all tribals and non-tribals as well. But it is also true that the powers that be, who do not hesitate to send in security forces to crush other people's movements in India, have not shown their habitual response in this case; they just could not risk sparking a tribal uprising across the land by rubbing Lalgarh the wrong way.

Police repression has been a part of life in Lalgarh for more than a decade, ever since a group of Naxalite youths made it their home. Their message of "liberation of the poor" from age-old oppression seemed to have struck a chord with the locals. The repression also seemed to have succeeded in either flushing out most of the radical activists from the place or driving the movement completely underground. In the last six years, there has been almost no news from Lalgarh of any "action", armed or otherwise. The police, engaged in anti-Naxalite operations, largely behave in the same fashion as the village chowkidars of the Raj days who would pick up the same old ‘thief' and beat him black and blue whenever there was any theft in the vicinity, without investigating whether he had had any connection with the crime in context. Hence, whenever any Naxalite activity has been noted during all these years anywhere in the district or even in adjacent districts, they have swooped down on Lalgarh.

This time too, the theatre of action was not Lalgarh initially. A special economic zone is being set up by the Jindal group at adjacent Salboni for building a steel plant. To facilitate this, the state government had acquired around 4,500 acres of land and handed it over to private industrialists. It is another story as to how this land had been acquired and how clearance was given to a highly polluting industry in the midst of forest areas, but the fact is that there was no effective resistance. However, when Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and Union Steel and Mines Minister Ramvilas Paswan were returning from the inauguration of the project on November 2, they escaped a landmine blast located on the path of their convoy. The spot was about 50 km from Lalgarh. But that was enough for the police to pounce on their favourite whipping-boy for another round of blood sport.

First, three teenage students, Aben Murmu, Gautam Patra and Buddhadeb Patra, were picked up while they were returning from a village festival at night. The next day, when their elders and neighbours went to the police station, they were told that they would be released soon. But that was not to be. They were assaulted in custody in a bid to extract "information" about the Maoists, and even as nothing came out, serious charges like waging war against the state were slapped on them.

On November 4, a man called Dipak Pratihar was arrested from Kantapahari village and his pregnant wife Lakshmi was beaten up and thrown to the ground. Ten people were arrested and brutally assaulted in course of the police raids that continued relentlessly. Among them were retired school teacher Kshamananda Mahato and civil contractor Shamsher Alam from Chhotopeliya village, who was visiting the area for some construction work. The cycle of police atrocities continued non-stop. The police and paramilitary forces led by senior officers began a combing operation in 35 villages in and around Lalgarh. The villagers faced increased violence and by the night of November 6, when they broke into the sleepy hamlets of Chhotopelia, there were hardly any men in the houses. Women, naturally, did not like the armed intruders ransacking their homes. But whoever among them tried to plead, argue or resist, faced maximum brutalities. At least seven of them are still bearing the marks of the violence of that night. Chitamani Murmu lost an eye, and Panmani Hansda suffered fractures. All of them were thrashed with rifle butts and lathis and kicked repeatedly and that was the last when Lalgarh took the blows lying down.

It is difficult to predict what would break the people's patience and when, but evidently, the point had been reached. From the morning of November 7, women and men came out in thousands, bows and arrows and tangis in hand, and took charge of things. They cut off and blockaded every entry point a la Nandigram, and declared that henceforth the administration and the police would not be allowed in until they came and apologise to the people. The abarodh (blockade) movement spread like wildfire to many parts of Jangalmahal and beyond. Though it first started under the banner of the Bharat Jakat Majhi Marwa Juan Gaonta, an assembly of traditional tribal leaders, it was soon clear that no existing organisation, political, social or traditional, was adequate as bearer of this new consciousness.

A unique organisation called the Pulishi Santras Birodhi Janasadharaner Committee (People's Committee Against Police Terror) was formed. This committee is a horizontal and expanding structure comprising village-level committees. Each of the latter consists of five women and five men, a gender balance that is unthinkable in the political system of the country. And the committee itself has had to ratify all its decisions at general assemblies attended by thousands, in a visible practice of direct democracy. A 13-point People's Charter was drawn up which called for withdrawal of all "false cases" registered against the people since 1998 and substantial compensation to the victims of atrocities, among other things. For a month, a war of nerves went on between the government and the people of Lalgarh, in which the latter have won the first round. The officials yielded in phases. First, they released the schoolboys, then arranged for the treatment of the assaulted women (not with success in Chitamani's case) shut down the police camps (even ceremonially handed over the keys of an outpost to the People's Committee), and finally, agreed to "consider" the larger demands such as case withdrawal and compensation. At this point, the committee lifted the blockade, with threats to continue it "throughout the year" the next time if the Left Front government and police go back on their promises.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the CPM, at a loss to devise a counter strategy for so long, is trying to build up armed vigilante groups by playing up the loss of control of the traditional tribal leadership. It may be an ominous development, going by the experience of the dreaded Salwa Judum of Chhattisgarh where thousands of uprooted tribals in make-shift camps have been armed by the BJP-led government to fight the Maoists, in what is also, clearly, a tribal versus tribal strategy.