For the first time in years Mamata Banerjee looked lost. It was expected that the Bengal Chief Minister would beam in front of television news cameras while reacting to the ‘successful’ encounter between joint forces and the Maoists in the forests of Jangalmahal which killed rebel leader Koteshwar Rao, the third most powerful man in the hierarchical order of the banned outfit Communist Party of India (Maoists).
Instead she looked disturbed. Surprising, considering that police, politicians and even the press are calling it the TMC chief’s biggest achievement since she came to power six months ago.
Why then is she rattled? Could it be that she is a politician with a conscience? She may not have forgotten that in the not so distant past the Maoists – including Kishenji – considered her their friend if only because she was the enemy of their sworn enemy: the CPIM. She may be deeply aware – however much she tries to distance herself from the Maoists today – that without the armed help from the Maoists– as TMC was alleged to have received – it may not have been possible to stand up to the might of the state in Nandigram, the pro-people agitation which ultimately propelled her to power. Post that, in several interviews to the press Kishenji had referred to her as ungrateful.
As Chief Minister of an Indian state, Mamata could hardly openly profess gratitude to an outlawed party, that too one which has been outlawed by a government with whom she shares power at the centre. Instead she promised the Maoists that she would leave them alone to do their own thing, provided they abjured the path of violence. Given a choice Mamata would solve the “Maoist-problem” amicably, without bloodshed.
There was a four-month ceasefire after she came to power in the Assembly elections in May 2011. But six months on, the Maoists were growing impatient. They wanted the joint forces pulled out of Bengal, something which Mamata had herself demanded from the previous government and had promised to the people of Janglemahal that she would do. But after assuming office she wouldn’t – couldn’t – do it.
It’s not an easy decision to take anyway. It’s one thing to sit in the Opposition and demand something. It’s another thing when you have to do it yourself. The Maoists used the ceasefire period to regroup themselves and started the killings again – this time their victims were not CPIM members. They were from TMC.
Mamata probably didn’t want Kishenji killed. She wanted him to give up arms. How naïve is that? She should have known that to tell a Maoist to give up arms is tantamount to telling them to give up their philosophy.
Or was she looking perturbed because she realizes that Kishenji’s encounter death in the hands of her police and paramilitary may have more far-reaching adverse consequences for her than just a tiny prick of conscience? For the first time she looked lost, as though she didn’t know whom to turn to for support. The support of the Bengal intellectuals which gave spine to her pre-election, pro-people movements including her demand for the withdrawal of joint forces from the jungle villages has been eroding for sometime now. Her own MP musician Kabir Suman criticized her for the apparent about-turn in her Maoist policies, openly flouting them when he penned songs and tributes in the name of rebel leaders.
The final nail in the coffin came earlier this week with Mahasweta Devi, the Magsaysay winning author – who had backed Mamata to the hilt earlier – calling a press conference in Calcutta where she called Mamata’s policies fascist. The specific charge against her, in fact, related to the CM’s refusal to allow an agitation against joint forces to take place at a stipulated venue.
As expected, human rights groups like APDR and individuals like Swami Agnivesh are demanding a probe into the death of Kishenji what with ‘fake-encounter’ allegations already being fired at the administration. And there is that distinct possibility of a Maoist backlash which is being talked about. Even the Centre has put all ‘Maoist-affected’ states on high alert.
It remains to be seen whether the death of Kishenji (as in-charge of the Maoist military operation in the eastern region) will bring about an end to the ‘Maoist nightmare’ in Bengal, but that it is the beginning of the end of Mamata’s dreams of finding amicable solutions to all the problems besetting the state is very clear indeed.
Face to Face
In one of my interviews with Kishenji over the phone I had asked him: If you are so proud of your philosophy why do you cover your face? He was actually at a loss for words for a few seconds. “No one has ever asked me that before,” he said after a pause. Then he said, “It’s because we don’t want to be identified.” In spite of the inanity of that question he didn’t hang up on me. Emboldened I pointed out to him in a friendly manner, “If you were so proud of your philosophy, you wouldn’t mind being identified.” I heard him chuckle on the other end. But he still didn’t hang up. I took that opportunity to advise him to not wear the gamchha (homespun towel) on his head so we could see the person we were talking to. “Otherwise it’s very disturbing for us,” I said. Now he laughed out loud. He told me he would grant me a face to face interview – without the gamchha on his face – soon and I could even bring a photographer provided he only clicked him from the back. All this was on his airtime. Kishenji never answred calls. If he wanted to, he would call back.
Every time there has been news of Kishenji’s phone conversations being tapped and recorded I have cringed thinking some intelligence officer is sitting there smirking at the stupid questions I put to this man, getting an interview with whom used to be so difficult that actually landing one was an achievement. Did I squander precious interview moments with such questions? Probably yes. But then it gave me a glimpse into unknown aspects of his personality. He was polite and polished. And he had a sense of humour. When I asked whether he was a friend of the CPIM (as Mamata claimed) or TMC (as CPIM claimed) he joked, “It depends on which channel you are watching.” (A dig at the open political stance of the television news channels).
From Other Interviews
Q: Why violence? If you say you are pro-people why do you kill people? Are those you kill really your class enemy? Aren’t they poor tribals and farmers?
Kishenji: It ‘s not violence. It’s counter-violence. We are fighting state violence. The poor people that you talk of who are getting killed are informers and traitors. They are our enemies.
Q: What is your ultimately goal? What do you want?
Kishenji: To expand our base and finally take over and overthrow this government. We don’t believe in this Constitution. Independence is a sham. This country is being run by the Americans.