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Published: Tue, 06/30/2009 - 11:08 Updated: Wed, 07/01/2015 - 11:29

The peaceful struggle of the poor people of Lalgarh retells a history of abysmal poverty and pain, total absence of good governance, and the corrupt regime of armed CPM goons
Aritra Bhattacharya Lalgarh

Sixty-five-year old Netai Hansda had to raise his voice above that of the others at the tea stall at Boropelia Chowk in Lalgarh to make himself audible on the tense evening of June 14. "If a child does not cry, will the mother ever give him milk?" he had asked, justifying the eight-month-long police boycott in Lalgarh. The locals, mostly tribals, thereby hoped that the police boycott would bring the administration to their doorstep, and that would help solve problems.

However, events since June 16 - the Maoists' playing out their control of the Lalgarh movement in front of the media and the state government's decision to send in paramilitary forces to "flush them out" - have left little chance of an amicable solution. The police action goes against the very basis of the hitherto peaceful, democratic people's movement in Lalgarh; it reflects yet again complete lack of faith in the police machinery.

This is because of the origin of this mass movement. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's convoy was attacked by a landmine on November 2, 2002, reportedly by the Maoists. He was returning after inaugurating the Bengal steel project of Jindal Steel Works at Salboni. Subsequently, the police went berserk, as if the people of Lalgarh were responsible for the attack.

In continuous raids during night and day, they brutalised the people, arresting people at random, dragging out women and girls and beating the hell out of them, not sparing children or old people, hounding young men, smashing houses and their meagre belongings. This relentless assault by the police, actively backed and sustained by local CPM men and the party leadership in Kolkata, went on, completely destroying the social fabric of the area. This was State terror at its peak. Until the people said they will not take it anymore. "The administration never came here to check the abysmal state of deprivation and lack of basic facilities in Lalgarh and the adjoining villages. And when they come, they only bring terror, tragedy and grave injustice," said a young Santhali woman. "We are not Maoists. But for how long are we supposed to tolerate this?"

They organised themselves with the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA) spearheading the movement, and decided to oppose police atrocities at any cost. They dug up roads; women came out with bows and arrows; they made barricades; and they said they will not allow the police the advance of the forces in every possible way. That is the legacy of the police boycott, and that is how all opposition political parties including the Congress and Trinamool Congress joined the struggle.

That is why branding the entire peaceful movement in Lalgarh as Maoist is a misnomer. The Maoists are a factor, as they move in to and fro from the forests of Jharkhand close by, but the movement has larger connotations and support base. Sending in paramilitary forces will not take away the mass support. It will only consolidate the deep-rooted hatred against the authoritarian and corrupt rule of the local CPM bosses, and its government in Kolkata.

Predictably, in 'Operation Lalgarh' currently on, the police did what it does best. It has not killed men or raped women as yet (at the time of going to press) as it did during the Nandigram massacre along with CPM cadre, but it has reportedly stripped women and girls, pointed lathis at their private parts, used the most vile of language, beaten and brutalised innocent men, and smashed shopkeepers and their shops who refused to entertain them. Is civil, peaceful boycott of the police a crime? Is it not yet another form of satyagraha?

Village after village, as Maoists disappeared in the forests, innocents have been targeted by the police. In one place women attacked them because they were found urinating in a pond shared by locals for drinking water. At other places they have entered homes of sick people and dragged them out, beating women black and blue and unleashing relentless violence. Young men are being forced to look for landmines. Others are being detained with no evidence of their links with the Maoists. Even family members of local Congress leaders or panchayat committees have been beaten up and hounded. Meanwhile, the CPM's  men, including its discredited and corrupt leaders like Anuj Pande are trying to come back and "recapture the territory" under the protection of the security forces.

So how is this brutish behaviour going to integrate the people into the CPM's mainstream, even while the Maoists wage a guerrilla war?

Power versus people: Though all political parties in opposition to the CPM have issued rhetorical statements against the state government, chiding its inaction and blaming it for the impasse in Lalgarh, they have steered clear of openly condemning the police action and brutality led by the Left Front and Congress-led central government. "Opposition parties, including the Trinamool Congress, are wary; they know that when they come to power, they too will resort to the same force to quell the Lalgarh movement," says Sumit Chowdhury, a filmmaker and convener of the Lalgarh Andolan Sanhati Mancha.

While the Union home minister P Chidambaram cajoled everyone not to visit Lalgarh, filmmaker Aparna Sen, and artists, intellectuals and theatre persons visited Lalgarh, spoke to the people, and called for a complete ceasefire. "Why should ordinary people be caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and the CPM and the police," they said. 

On its part, the People's Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) is now distancing itself from the Maoists. "The presence of the Maoists is largely a creation of the media," says Chhatradhar Mahato, leader of PCPA. He insists that Maoists appear to be controlling the movement on television channels across the board, but on the ground it is PCPA which is mobilising the people.

Earlier, on June 15, while speaking to this correspondent, Mahato had said, "I don't deny Maoist support to the movement... you must remember that this is a people's movement... if Maoists enjoy people's support, as do Marxists, Gandhians, Socialists, and others, I cannot do anything."

"At every step, we are aware that we are in a parliamentary democracy; we respect the Constitution of India and will function within its ambit," he added in the same breath. "What the Maoists are doing is not connected to our agenda," he says. "We will oppose police action in our own democratic, unarmed way. We don't have arms to fight the police."

Chowdhury, meanwhile, reckons that the police action in Lalgarh can acquire the strategy of the Sri Lankan government offensive against the LTTE. The forces will occupy the area, and block off all entry/exit points, hoping that the movement runs out of steam.

How it came to a pass: The situation wasn't as bad on June 13, when representatives from the state government met the PCPA top brass. After the meeting, Mahato announced that the committee had decided to end the eight-day long siege and allow movement into and outside Lalgarh. This was in response to the government agreeing to its six demands, chief among which was the release of all PCPA activists arrested since May 31, whose cases had not reached the courts.

The various village committees of the PCPA were happy. There were "victory processions" in some areas, including at Dharampur, a CPM stronghold where PCPA had negligible presence. By late that night, news started floating into Boropelia Chowk, the centre of the movement, about a CPM harmad (hired armed goons) firing on the peaceful PCPA procession. Clearly, armed CPM musclemen started the violence. Gunshots were heard during the night. By next morning, we were informed that villagers had got hold of some men of the harmad; reportedly, three CPM men were killed. Despite claims by a section of the media, it is not clear if there was Maoist hand behind the killings. The CPM office was also attacked and set on fire.

Meanwhile, though some of his own people were engaged in the clashes, Mahato was composed, unhurried; the clashes, the outpouring of anger against CPM goons meant that newer territory was coming under PCPA control.

June 15 changed the equation completely. The media began talking about a Maoist versus CPM conflict in Dharampur. CPI (Maoist) leader Bikash appeared in front of eyeball hungry television channels and stated that his party was in control in Lalgarh. CPM leaders were being killed, party offices destroyed, set on fire, the law and order situation was worsening. This provided the state government with a lever - it could now rush its forces into the area, under the guise of "flushing out" Maoist guerrillas.
 "It could be that the Maoists are in collusion with the state government," says a member of the Kolkata-based LASM.

Lack of basic amenities: Opposition to the police is an emotive issue in Lalgarh, as is the insensitivity and inefficiency of the state government and resentment against the CPM's harmad. Locals describe the police and the CPM cadre as the government's repressive bull (shorkarer shaand). Thirty-two years of CPM rule has brought about no change in their way of living, they say. There's only one primary health centre in Lalgarh; the doctor, who comes from the town, is often absent. Also, the health centre has no medicines, except, at times, stocks of Tedvac, says Shyama Mahato, a supporter of PCPA.

The state government had been neglecting this abysmally poor area since the last 32 years, and the people somehow wanted to draw its attention to their plight. The dirty primary health centre is in abysmal condition, there is not even drinking water, people have to travel long distances to get basic medical care, the public distribution system has collapsed, wages are low, there is no infrastructure and acute poverty stalks the land. Even while local CPM leaders like whole-timer Anuj Pande have built palatial houses for themselves.

Women face relentless hardships, says a local, unwilling to identify himself lest the harmad might come to get him. The health centre is not equipped to handle deliveries. Whether it is deliveries, diarrhoea or daily or emergency medicines, villagers need to go to Midnapore (50 km) or Jhargram (35km). For serious treatment and operations they have to go to Kolkata (150).

The chief occupation of the people in the area, mostly tribals - Santhals - is agriculture (rain gods willing) and gathering sal leaves from the forest. "Had the government made some arrangements for irrigation (Kangsabati river is 3-5 km away), we might have been able to cultivate our land twice a year and earn a living," says the old man. Even drinking water is a problem in the area. People rely on tube wells, many of which are in a state of disrepair.

In effect, the people in the area have nothing to lose and much to gain from the movement. That explains their support for PCPA, as also the fact that in a largely tribal area, the committee has demanded, among other things, that Olchiki, the tribal language, be made a part of the curriculum primary level onwards.

Significantly, the PCPA has undertaken developmental activities in the last seven months. It has built 16 km of unmetalled roads, installed new tube wells and repaired defunct ones, and constructed two community health centres that offer free health check-ups in Chakadoba and Kantapahari.

The PCPA is organised in tiers at the village, zone, block and district levels. "Every village committee, represented equally by men and women, is given independent charge to conduct its affairs," says Mahato. Though this has given a democratic character to the movement, it has also produced worries. The Belpahari unit, for instance, took a rally inside Jharkhand late last month where around 40 of its members were arrested. "Can't they make out the border," thundered a furious Mahato.

In certain areas, wealthy timber merchants have joined the committee; this has given the PCPA access to money and resources, but has dented the popular character of the movement. "These merchants have never enjoyed people's support. So when they joined the movement, many locals lost faith in it," said a resident.

Alcohol is a major menace. "Drunkards abusing and beating up their wives is commonplace," says Shyama. Some extremely poor families also sell home-made liquor in the local market; the women in such families are often victims of drunken violence, but the money also helped in feeding hungry stomachs.

Things have changed in the last seven months. The PCPA has banned the sale of jaggery used to make liquor. Poornima Murmu, president, PCPA-Mahila Shakha, says it was tough convincing the poor people not to make and sell liquor. Though the income of such families has come down, she says they are happier that they do not have to deal with domestic violence. Tarak Nath Patro quips, "So long as one way of subsistence is open, people do not explore other options."

"We have also thought about getting machines to make sal plates from the PCPA fund for very poor families," says Murmu. The mahila shakha is trying to prevent multiple marriages among adivasi men. Putting a stop to the practice of dowry is also on its agenda. Clearly, an invisible and collective social revolution is unfolding in the poor interiors of Lalgarh, something denied to them by the power structure in Kolkata and their leaders and goons in Lalgarh.

For the moment, however, Poornima Murmu's will have to wait. For, nobody knows what lies in store once the police action is over. For his part, Praveen Kumar, the DIG of Midnapore Range, has said that Chhatradhar Mahato will be arrested at the first opportunity. And perhaps with him, all the leaders and activists of the PCPA, including women, who have nothing to do with the Maoists and who believe in non-violent democratic struggles.

So that, finally, the CPM can plant its flag at Lalgarh, while the Jindals can fly their flag at Salboni.

The peaceful struggle of the poor people of Lalgarh retells a history of abysmal poverty and pain, total absence of good governance, and the corrupt regime of armed CPM goons Aritra Bhattacharya Lalgarh

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This story is from print issue of HardNews