Lalgarh: A People’s Uprising Subverted by the Ultra-Leftists

Santosh Rana

Lalgarh is in the Jhargram sub-division of West Midnapore district in West Bengal (WB). It is part of the Paschimanchal (western zone) of the State, being an extension of the Chhotanagpur plateau which lies mostly in Jharkhand.

With its laterite soil of low water-retention capacity and Sal-Mahua forests, the area differs from the Bengal plains both geographically and culturally. It is actually part of the Jharkhand cultural region. Nearly 30 percent of the population are Scheduled Tribes (ST), 20 percent Scheduled Castes (SC) and the rest are communities like Kudmi-Mahatos, Telis, Kumbhars, Bagals, Rajus, Tambulis, Khandaits and others. The Kudmi-Mahatos are the biggest among the rest. They had been treated as tribals till 1935 when they were de-scheduled. The Mahatos, Bagals and some other communities are actually semi-tribals who have been partly Sanskritized but still retain their tribal characteristics. Now they are treated as Other Backward Classes (OBC). There are other OBC communities like Kumbhar, Tanti, Teli and others. But in West Bengal, benefits for OBCs started late. Even now, there is very little reservation for OBCs in West Bengal. It is only 7 percent, and, that too, in government jobs. There is no reservation for the OBCs in higher education in WB. The SC communities living in the region (Bagdi, Dom, Jele, Mal, Bauri, etc.) are so backward that they are unable to get government or semi-government jobs through reservations. The tribals are 30 percent of the population locally, but in local jobs, they get only the 6 percent reservation that is the State average for the STs. As a consequence of all these factors, the people of this region have very little participation in government and semi-government jobs or in the administration.

This has many devastating effects, especially in the field of education. Among the primary school teachers, there are only 6 percent STs though the STs are 30 percent of the population. So there are many primary schools where the students are Santhals and Mundas but the teachers are non-tribals who do not understand the language of the students. This creates a language barrier between the teachers and the students. Apart from poverty, this is one of the reasons for the large drop-out rates among the tribals. Those tribal boys and girls who manage to reach the portals of higher, especially scientific and technical, learning are systematically excluded by defying the laws regarding positive discrimination. For example, the STs are deprived of their admission quotas in medical and engineering colleges by the West Bengal government. Since 2001, the rules of admission have been manipulated in such a way that 90 percent of the ST quotas remain unfulfilled in medical education.

Due to the laterite soil and lack of irrigation, agriculture is poor and uncertain. Forests provided some means of livelihood traditionally but the colonial forest policy deprived the people of this source. Those policies were continued even after independence. Unemployment, poverty, illiteracy and hunger are everyday companions of the people. This zone has a high concentration of agricultural labourers. In West Bengal as a whole, agricultural labourers are 25 percent of the main workers but in this region, they are 50 percent. Concentration of agricultural labourers and lack of employment is the cause of seasonal migration, known as going “Namal” (low lands of the Gangetic plains). There are also cases of migration to far-off places like Gujarat, Maharastra and Madhya Pradesh.

The Uprising

On the first week of November 2008, the Chief Minister of WB had gone to Salboni to inaugurate a steel plant of the Jindals under the SEZ scheme. The Maoist squads operating in the area blasted a land-mine on his return route. It missed the target but the State government ordered night-raids in the villages of the Lalgarh block. Since the colonial days, night-raids on tribal villages by police take the form of inhuman attacks on the people, unrestricted by any law. The police repression ignited a massive uprising of the masses. The Santhals were the main force in the uprising but other communities like the Mundas and the Mahatos also joined the struggle. The Bharat Jakat Majhi (traditional headmen) Marwah – Association of Majhis – was at the forefront of the struggle at the initial phase. Different factions of Jharkhand Party and the CPI(ML) also joined the movement and it spread to adjoining areas in Jhargram, Bankura and Purulia. It took the form of a blockade of the highways and some other roads. For nearly a week, the entire region was blocked. At this stage, the leadership of the Majhi Marwah entered into negotiations with the administration. The administration conceded some of their demands and they decided to withdraw the blockade. However, the younger sections refused to withdraw the blockade at this stage. A People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA) was constituted and the blockade continued. At the time of its formation, there were people of different political opinions in this committee though it was dominated by Maoist cadres and sympathizers. In the first week of December, the PCPA entered into negotiations with the government and withdrew the blockade. The terms of agreement were more or less the same as those negotiated by the Majhi Marwah. The movement was so strong that the administration had to withdraw eight police camps from the sensitive areas by the middle of November. It was a great victory of the people.

Opportunities Lost

After the withdrawal of police camps, the people were in a victorious mood and the movement was spreading to new areas. An opportunity was found where the awakened masses could be mobilized to establish organs of self-rule on the basis of democratic principles. Just six months previously the Panchayat election was held in the area. The CPI(M) had lost Lalgarh Panchayat Samiti (block Panchayat) and most of the Gram-Panchayats in Lalgarh. Different factions of the Jharkhand Party had own. Now, there was an opportunity to activate the Panchayats and to exercise control over them through the Gram-Sansads (a statutory body where every voter is a member) and to demand more financial and administrative powers in the hands of the Panchayats (like some power of control over the police and the administration of forests, village-level planning and their execution, the running of the NREGA, authority to issue BPL cards, etc.). Such measures would strengthen democracy at the village-level and prepare the ground for the masses to demand self-rule and autonomy.

But the Maoists operating in the area had a different plan. They wanted to utilize the uprising to create an area where the rule of the Maoist Party and their squads would be established, an area where there would be no opposition, not even any differing voice. So they tried to abolish all other parties and social organizations from the Belpahari and the Lalgarh blocks. The differences with the Majhi Marwah was objectively not such as could not be resolved within a democratic framework. This association of “Majhis” had no landlords or even rich peasants among them. When the CPI(M) had tried to impose its one-party rule in nearby Jamboni few years back, the Majhis played an important role in mobilizing the masses in their fight for democracy. But the Maoists wanted to abolish all social and political organizations which would not abide by their dictates.

The PCPA led by the Maoists issued a leaflet announcing the trial of Nityananda Hembrom, the head of the Majhi Marwah in a “people’s court.” They did not stop at that. They issued orders that everybody living in the area of influence of the Majhi Marwah would have to join processions called by them. Some people under the influence of Majhi Marwah defied this order. Many of them were beaten and some were killed. The murder of Sudhir Mandi in the last week of November by the Maoists created a major split among the masses. Sri Sudhir Mandi was the Chairman of Belpahari Panchayat Samiti in 2003-08. He belonged to the Jharkhand Party. He was a poor peasant having one acre of Dahi (infertile highland). Even after remaining Chairman of Panchayat Samiti for five years, he lived in his traditional mud-house with thatched roof. On the day of his murder, he had gone to the market to sell Sabui grass, a grass used for rope making and gathered only by the very poor. But to the Maoists, he was a class-enemy. A poor tribal is a class-enemy simply because he refused to carry out their order.

The Panchayat election was held in June 2008. Earlier Panchayats had failed because they functioned bureaucratically. A democratic functioning of the Panchayats was possible now with the supervision of the awakened masses. But the Maoists have no respect for democratic processes or democratically elected Panchayats. They beat up the Panchayat members and stopped them from functioning according to their mandate. They set up “people’s committees” with people loyal to them. In many villages, this loyalty was extracted by coercion. To them, these “people’s committees” were the organs of people’s rule in the area and had been given the power to impose any amount of tax and punishment through beatings or murder. The “accused” had nowhere to go for a hearing or an appeal. An Anganwadi worker earning Rs. 1,500 per month had to pay a tax of Rs. 500, a schoolteacher had to pay Rs. 5,000, a small brick-kiln owner Rs. 25,000, etc.

For seven months, there was no police in the area. During the period before the Lok Sabha election, the CPI(M) government was so frightened by the memories of Nandigram that they withdrew all administration in the area and left it to the PCPA. After the withdrawal of the state, the armed squads of the Maoists were the only armed forces in the area. Of course, there were CPI(M) squads in nearby areas. During the Lok Sabha election, the people in the CPI(M)-dominated areas were forced to vote for the CPI(M) while in the Maoist-dominated areas the people were not allowed to come to the polling booths. Thus there was “vote boycott” in nearly 75 booths with approximately 50,000 voters. The CPI(M) won the Jhargram Lok Sabha seat with a margin of nearly three lakh votes, the highest margin in the State. In the State as a whole, the CPI(M) lost heavily to the Congress-Trinamul combine and was totally in the doldrums. In many areas, the people living under the rule of CPI(M) thugs availed of this opportunity and raised the banner of revolt. It happened in Khejuri and many other areas in East Midnapur.

In the Lalgarh block, Dharampur Gram Panchayat was under the control of the CPI(M). During the Panchayat election, no other political party was allowed to set up a candidate. Even after the November uprising, this area was under the control of the CPI(M). The CPI(M) was actually using Dharampur as a base to attack people’s movements. Anuj Pandey, the notorious leader of the CPI(M) in Dharampur enjoyed the protection of his armed squads and the state police. After the Lok Sabha election, there was a popular revolt in Dharampur which was aided by the Maoist squads. Anuj Pandey fled to Midnapur town and his house was burnt and smashed. After this success, the Maoists openly held public meetings and press conferences in Lalgarh announcing the area as a liberated zone. Making the PCPA irrelevant, they announced that they were leading the whole movement. They would mobilize thousands of tribal men and women to resist the police, they announced.

The Indian state was waiting for this opportunity. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, abandoned all his federalist and Left pretensions and prayed to Chidambaram to send central forces. The Indian state readily agreed with the condition that the Maoist Party would be banned. The Chief Minister of West Bengal accepted the condition (though some Left Front partners objected) and Centre-State joint operations started in Lalgarh.

In the face of this joint operation, the Maoists tried their best to mobilize the people for a mass resistance. It was expected by many well-wishers that the tribal men and women with their traditional bows and arrows would resist the police. It was being claimed that the paramilitary forces would have to proceed to Lalgarh over mountains of corpses. But nothing like that happened. On the first day, the Maoists mobilized some people for a mass resistance. The police fired some tear-gas shells and lathicharged them to remove the blockade. Subsequently, the police and paramilitary forces reached Kantapahari, the capital of Maoist rule in Lalgarh for six months, without any mass resistance. The squads placed some landmines here and there but they were in no way an effective deterrent to the paramilitary forces.

Now the paramilitary forces are setting up camps in Lalgarh and Belpahari. The State government is sending high-level committees to promote the “development” of Lalgarh. How far the paramilitary forces will succeed in “sanitizing” the area or the government succeed in promoting development is to be seen. But one thing is certain. The uprising has been suppressed. The state had to withdraw in November 2008. In June 2009, it reasserted itself. This is a defeat for the uprising.

Whether the defeat is temporary and how and when the people will rise again in mass movements depends on many factors. But people interested in the revolutionary transformation of our society must analyze the movement and draw proper lessons.

The movement was powerful enough to force the state to withdraw in November 2008 because (i) all the democratic forces in the region participated in the movement and a very strong people’s unity was forged, and (ii) there was division in the enemy camp with the contradictions between the Centre and State and between the Trinamul and the CPI(M) playing their role.

By March 2009, the situation was fast changing. The coercion on the people for “collection” and forcible participation in processions, suppression of all opposition by beatings, garlanding with shoes and killings were destroying the democratic content of the movement. The uprising was losing its internal strength. Then the squads resorted to more coercion and terror to show their “support” to the outside world. It reached its peak during the Lok Sabha election when the squads with guns went from village to village telling the people that they would be punished if they would go to the polling booths to vote. On the polling day, a landmine was blasted to kill some polling personnel. All these activities further alienated the masses.

When the joint armed forces started their campaign, only the advanced sections and cadres were ready for some resistance with landmines. The people decided to flee their villages and take shelter in the surrounding villages in Jhargram and Bankura. While the people’s democratic unity was disrupted, the ruling classes bridged some of their differences. The Central government offered all help to the State government in its fight against the “Maoists”.

Apart from tactical mistakes and mistakes on the question of united front, the Maoists hold a grossly wrong understanding of the nature of people’s power. They hold that absolute power in the hands of their party is equivalent to people’s power. They want a system where there will be no election on the basis of universal suffrage and no opposition party. “People’s Committees” would be formed with people loyal to them and they would decide everything. They tried to use the favourable situation in Lalgarh to start an experiment in political power on a miniature scale. So they imposed their “144” against all other political and social organizations in the area of their control. They did not allow a campaign car of the CPI(ML)-New Democracy, with a red flag hoisted on it, to pass through the area. The car was allowed to leave only after the red flag was pulled down. Same was the fate of a vehicle carrying a flag of the Jharkhand Party (Aditya).

In Lalgarh, the people’s uprising combined with the isolation of the CPI(M) forced the state to withdraw for some six months and the Maoists got an opportunity to practice what they understand as people’s rule. It is to be noted that they did not raise any class-issue or the issue of the people’s rights over the forests. They simply identified activists and supporters of other political parties as “class enemies” and killed them. These are the basic reasons for the failure of the movement.

The people of Lalgarh and the whole of Paschimanchal will certainly learn from the experiences of the uprising and rebuild their struggle for “Self Rule”, an aspiration which expressed itself during the Jharkhand movement and more explicitly during the November uprising. This will be a self rule where organs of political power will be elected by the people on the basis of universal suffrage and where these organs will seize all economic and political powers. They will certainly smash the limitations imposed by bourgeois dictatorship on the democratic aspirations of the people. But neither the people of Lalgarh nor the people of India will ever accept the one-party rule of any political party.

Published in For A New Democracy, July-September 2009

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