[This is a book review, written by Bernard D’Mello, that was published in EPW. For obtaining a copy of the book, please contact us : communications [at] sanhati [dot] com -Ed]
The Letters from Lalgarh contains a set of six dispatches written by the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) to various organisations and intellectuals in Kolkata over the period March-September 2010, during the occupation of Jangalmahal by the Joint Forces of the West Bengal and union governments. One might like to read these letters as a testimony of the repression and resistance that Jangalmahal witnessed over these months, as the Sanhati editors put it, in the Introduction. One might also consider these letters as part of the documentation of the Lalgarh uprising, a task that the Sanhati Collective has engaged in with a sense of dedication and commitment its activists can legitimately feel proud of.
Have All of ‘Us’ Become Maoists?
Upon the completion of 10 years of underground work (the long, patient organisational work that precedes the firing of the first shots, as Ho Chi Minh would have put it) amongst ordinary adivasis and moolvasis in the Lalgarh and surrounding blocks of the district of West Midnapore in West Bengal, in a dramatic flash, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) – CPI(Maoist) – lit a prairie fire there. On 2 November 2008, when the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, along with two central government ministers and a host of officials, was returning after a foundation stone-laying ceremony at the site of a proposed steel plant by the Sajjan Jindal business group at Salboni in the district, Maoist guerrillas detonated a landmine that narrowly missed its target.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPi(M))-led Left Front government had allotted 4,500 acres of land to the project even as the government’s land reform programme of allotting pattas (formal rights) for cultivable forestland and forestland under cultivation to the poor tribal peasants was kept in cold storage. The deeply felt resentment of ordinary adivasis and moolvasis only grew. The demands of India’s big bourgeoisie (the project had even been given the status of a special economic zone, bestowing a whole host of fiscal and other concessions to it) were more important than the needs of these ordinary people whose political consciousness was being sharpened by the Maoists slowly but surely since 1998.
The provincial intelligence bureau knew this and the police unleashed a reign of terror in the Lalgarh area just because the people there were deemed to be sympathisers of the Maoists. Even schoolkids were beaten and charged with “waging war against the state” among other things. But worse was to come. In a mid-night swoop on 6-7 November 2008, in the villages in Lalgarh block, the police kicked and beat – with their lathis and butts of their rifles – a number of women, among whom were Chintamani Murmu and Panamani Hansda who were badly injured, Chintamani in the eye and Panamani suffered multiple fractures in the chest. The adivasis, over here, the Santals, have been subject to police oppression over generations, but now, with the Maoists around, their sense of dignity could no longer be crushed. 7 November was the Russian Revolution anniversary day – the establishment- Left led by the CPi(M), masqueraded as a “revolutionary force” in a big show of strength, even as, here in Lalgarh, the real thing was brewing with the tribal people outraged at the CPi(M)-led government’s sell-out of their “ancestral land”.
At first more spontaneous, by mid-November 2008 the PCAPA was formed to lead the mass struggle in Lalgarh and the adjoining areas. (Apart from Lalgarh, the uprising spread over Binpur, Jhargram, Belpahari and Jamboni blocks over the first month since the outbreak on 7 November 2008.) A 12-point charter of demands was drawn up, among which was that the superintendent of police of the district and those responsible for the atrocities on the women should hold their ears and crawl with their nose facing the ground in apology and that the chief minister too should also tender an expression of regret. Significant on the list, apart from the call for the removal of police camps, was the demand for the withdrawal of the false cases and charge sheets filed since 1998 against people who had been framed as Maoists.
But what was really heartening were the direct forms of people’s democracy in practice – each village now had a gram (village) committee with five women and five men in it. Two persons, a man and a woman from each village were a part of the central coordinating committee; the utterly democratic manner of taking and ratifying decisions; making officials sit on the ground on hand-woven mats on equal terms to negotiate with the committees. All this brought into sharp focus the contrast with the practice of rotten liberal-political democracy by the mainstream political parties in India.
The other aspect was that, in Jangalmahal, the CPI(M)-led Left Front had abysmally failed on the “development” front – the public distribution system had collapsed, the primary health centres were almost non-functional, even potable water was not easily accessible – while the PCAPA-led mass movement, with the meagre resources at its command, was able to run health posts with doctors from Kolkata coming in once a week, construct and repair embankments, dig ponds, set up tube wells, teach the local language in some schools, a lot of all this through shramdaan (voluntary labour).
With such modes of direct participatory democracy, the movement spread further – to Goaltore, Salboni, Nayagram, and even to Garbeta, a CPI(M) stronghold. Students came out in solidarity. But the traditional local leadership of the Santals, the Majhi Madwa, and Jharkhandi political parties, who came to take advantage of the mass outrage to convert it into a vote bank, were asked to back off. The CPI(M)’s “divide and rule” tactics failed, but the party repeatedly made the charge of Maoist involvement to justify what was on the anvil – state and state-sponsored terror. Nevertheless, the spread of the struggle, the roadblocks and the bandhs, the attacks on CPi(M) offices, and so on ultimately forced the government to remove the police camps – the camps had occupied school buildings among other places.
Very soon, within a month, 10 of the 12 demands were met. Even the chief minister was forced to apologise. But the two main ones, the apology of the superintendent of police and his men who had committed the midnight raids and the excesses remained, as also the demand for the dropping of the cases/charge sheets filed against so-called Maoists since 1998. The struggle thus went on, and indeed, practically the entire state machinery was kept out of operation in the areas of struggle for months. In keeping with the changing dynamics of the situation, the PCAPA and the CPI(Maoist) together, in tandem, for a while, seemed to have struck an astute balance between political mobilisation, armed actions, and social welfare/“development” activity.
But the situation was on edge. In progressively taking over CPI(M) strongholds, the Maoist leadership was working towards banishing the ruling Leftists from the area. However, in doing so, it was precipitating a crisis of the state. That moment came on 14 June 2009 when the target was the “White House”, the “palatial” (in sharp contrast to the deprivation all around it) house of Anuj Pandey, the CPI(M) zonal secretary. He was in control of Dharampur, whether it was getting work in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, below-the-poverty-line ration cards, deciding who would be the beneficiaries of welfare programmes like the Indira Awaas Yojana, he was in the saddle, and, of course, locally he directed the CPI(M) harmads – armed goons who enforced the party’s writ. That is why the Maoists chose to destroy the “White House”, for it was a symbol of the “Ancien Régime”. The grand finale was when the Maoist leader Bikash, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, made a public declaration that, indeed, the Maoists were leading the movement.
Perhaps the CPI(Maoist) knew of the impending entry of the Joint Forces, as a result of a joint decision of the Congress Party-led government at the centre and the CPI(M)-led West Bengal government. The occupation of Jangalmahal by the Joint Forces brought about a sea change in the Lalgarh movement, especially in the balance between mass political mobilisation and alternative development activity, on the one hand, and armed resistance, on the other. With the entry of the Joint Forces in the manner of an occupation army and the conduct of the CPI(M) harmads in the manner of local collaborators, the CPI(M) began recapturing its territorial strongholds. But even as the Maoist guerrillas and the Sidhu-Kanhu militia (the latter, of the PCAPA) resisted the Joint Forces and the CPI(M) harmads, even carried out ambushes and landmine explosions, the tempo of mass political mobilisation and social welfare/development activity by the PCAPA became a real challenge to sustain.
In fact, the resistance took a fresh turn with the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) raid on a camp of the Eastern Frontier Rifles at Silda (in West Midnapore district) on 15 February 2010. Condemnation of the Maoists in the commercial media assumed hysteric proportions. Three months later, the Gyaneshwari Express train was sabotaged on 27-28 May leading to its derailment, and with an oncoming goods train hitting the loose carriages, nearly 150 passengers died, and predictably, the Maoists were blamed,1 this to buttress the “discourse of counterinsurgency”. Disease metaphors – “deadly virus” and so on – of colonial vintage had a field day, for both the West Bengal and the central governments did not seem to want the public to know the truth.
Voice of Jangalmahal
During the occupation, the media dutifully published the versions fed to it by the police in Midnapore and Jhargram, and so, these letters of the PCAPA need to be read to understand how ordinary adivasis and moolvasis felt about the repression, and the manner in which they valiantly resisted. As the Introduction by Sanhati says, the letters, written in a uniquely “earthy tone”, put forth “cogent arguments”; they were the “voice of Jangalmahal” in those dark times. More important, “(i)t is telling that nearly all the signatories of these letters have been killed or are in jail”. Indeed, a month before the first letter was penned, Lalmohan Tudu, the president of the PCAPA was cold-bloodedly assassinated on 22 February 2010 (as per a statement of the PCAPA) when he went to meet his daughter who was to appear in the state board examinations scheduled to begin the next day. Sidhu Soren, who led the Sidhu-Kanhu militia, and four of his comrades were killed on 26 July 2010 while they were asleep in the jungles of Metala (again, according to a statement of the PCAPA). Umakanta Mahato, a member of the central committee of the PCAPA, falsely accused in the sabotage of the Gyaneshwari train, was cold-bloodedly assassinated by Joint Forces personnel, accompanied by CPI(M) men, on 27 August 2010, in the forests of Parulia while returning home (according to the testimony of Sabita Mahato, the wife of Umakanta Mahato). It seems as if it was the implicit policy of the West Bengal and central governments to annihilate the leaders of the PCAPA.
The letters give the reader a glimpse of the pathetic role of the judiciary at the local level, the role of the harmads as collaborators of the Joint Forces in the occupation, the PCAPA’s attempts to continue the implementation of its development programmes in the midst of the occupation, as also, their mass mobilisation in the form of rallies and meetings, and, of course, the role of women in the resistance. The latter, for instance the 35,000 women entering Jhargram on 20 July 2010 “demanding punishment of the perpetrators of the rapes in Sonamukhi” (p 111), the formation of the Nari Ijjat Bachao Committee (Committee to Safeguard the Dignity of Women), women leading a campaign to demolish liquor shops in Ramchandrapur, Chandabila, Nekradoba, Piyalgeriya, Barodehi and other villages, all this in the midst of the occupation is remarkable.
Incorrect Handling of Contradictions
Interestingly, in the course of the first four letters, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) is “identified as part of the ruling clique responsible for sending the Joint Forces into Jangalmahal” (Introduction, p 7), but, towards the end of the fifth letter (pp 140-41), dated 9 August 2010, upon Mamata Banerjee taking the initiative to organise an “anti-terror forum” and a rally to take place in August in Lalgarh to oppose the CPI(M) and its harmads, the PCAPA softens. Letter five says:
We shall remain steadfast with the anti-terror movement-struggle which has been formed with the initiative of the Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee, intellectuals and human rights organisations (p 140).
Indeed, it was the PCAPA that made Mamata Banerjee’s rally in Lalgarh a success. It was here that she made all the tall promises – to withdraw the Joint Forces, punish the harmads and the police officers responsible for the atrocities committed, and institute enquiries into the killings – that eventually won her the Jangalmahal seats in the state assembly elections. What followed, as we now know, was the formation of TMC’s own harmads, the Bhairav Bahini, a strengthening of the intelligence serving the counter-insurgency, and the capture, brutal torture and assassination of the Maoist politburo member and the party’s main leader of the Lalgarh uprising, Kishenji.
What explains the terrible blunder committed by the Maoists and the PCAPA in allowing Mamata Banerjee and her TMC to gain a foothold in Jangalmahal, which ultimately led to a severe setback for the resistance over there? Surely, temporary, conditional alliances have to be made at certain junctures in the course of a “protracted people’s war”. In such politics, one has to utilise a conflict of interests, even if temporary, among one’s adversaries. The question however relates to the handling of a whole set of contradictions in the course of an alliance with a temporary, unstable, thoroughly unscrupulous and conditional associate.
On Jangalmahal, during the occupation, the whole set of contradictions can be demarcated into three subsets – (1) differences within the revolutionary consensus (between the CPI(Maoist) and the PCAPA, and within each of these entities); (2) disputes with progressive intellectuals and parties who opposed the revolutionary consensus regarding the strategic path to “new democracy” or “people’s democracy” (the other Naxalite parties/factions, some civil liberties and democratic rights organisations, and independent-Leftist public intellectuals); and (3) conflicts with those beyond the pale (the provincial CPI(M) in power in Jangalmahal and in West Bengal, the Congress Party, the TMC, other non-Left parliamentary parties, and “public intellectuals” serving the interests of their political patrons). In our view, handling criticism, difference of opinion, contention and opposition with those in (1) and (2), without clashes, by presenting the facts, reasoning things out, and persuading one’s contenders through resort to reason, is an essential part of “correct” practice of the leadership principle of the “mass line”. As regards (1) and (2), the revolutionaries were essentially handling contradictions among the people, that is, to the extent that the parties in (2) were expressing the will of at least a section of the people through their political practice.
The social-democratic CPI(M) – even though it was in power in the province and was acting as a close collaborator of the “occupying forces” in Jangalmahal – was (is) not beyond reform, unlike the TMC, which is unambiguously in (3). The “social fascist” characterisation of the CPi(M) by the CPI(Maoist) is ridiculous. In Jangalmahal, however, the CPI(M) was acting as a collaborator of the Joint Forces, and thus its contradictions with the CPI(Maoist) and the PCAPA were rendered antagonistic. Nevertheless, even in the civil-war like situation then prevailing in the area, the Maoists could have made the distinction between harmad combatants and CPI(M) non-combatants, and refrained from unleashing political violence on the latter. The alleged excessive killings of CPI(M) non-combatants seem to have unnecessarily escalated the already antagonistic contradictions between the CPI(Maoist) and the CPI(M) to a multiple of what they might otherwise have been, and ultimately, the TMC took advantage of the situation to steal a march over the CPI(M) in Jangalmahal in the state assembly elections of April-May 2011.
Indeed, as regards the TMC, the PCAPA should never have accepted the leadership of Mamata Banerjee when the TMC joined the “anti-terror forum”. Conceding the leadership to Mamata Banerjee gave the TMC the opportunity to wean away some of the PCAPA’s cadre and mass base. And, given the track record of parties like the TMC as regards the sharp contrast between their electoral manifestos (promises) and their conduct as soon as they come to power, a party like the CPI(Maoist) and its mass organisation, the PCAPA, whose cadre and leaders risked their precious lives, should never have had any positive expectations from the TMC. Nevertheless, peace talks, if these could have been forced on the TMC-led government that came to power, would have been beneficial to the people, to the extent that some concessions for the people could have been extracted from the mouth of the tiger, the Indian state, and would have given the resistance movement time to recuperate and reorganise in Jangalmahal.
The PCAPA letters do not give the reader even a clue about whether the CPI(Maoist) was in effective control of the PCAPA or not, or about the nature of the relationship between the leadership of the party and that of the PCAPA. But yes, Letter four does express outrage about the Joint Forces personnel carrying the dead bodies of young Maoist guerrillas, killed while they were asleep in the jungles of Ranjja in June 2010, hung animal-like, hands bound, legs tied, from bamboo poles, the security-force jawans conveying the bodies just like colonial hunters coming back from a shikar once did, with their prized dead game. Letter four says:
Those who were killed were our sons and daughters; they turned Maoists to resist (the) atrocities of (the) harmads. The way their dead bodies were carried after hog-tying them puts any civilised society to shame (p 106).
For those public intellectuals who highlight the crimes and cruelties alleged to have been committed by the Maoists, they ought to learn from Marx, whose response to the “crimes and cruelties alleged” against the “insurgent Hindoos” of 1857 was to set out an account of the daily violence “in cold blood” of British rule in India. The dispatches of the PCAPA show that not much seems to have changed in this respect in independent India, even as we are in the 21st century.
1 The Maoists investigated whether renegade factions had been behind the sabotage, but have found that this is not the case (Maoist Information Bulletin, 20 October-November 2010).
– See more at: http://sanhati.com/articles/