Hysteria has increasingly come to dominate both reportage and assessment of security crises in India, and this was, once again, evident in the extended stand-off at Lalgarh, provoked by a Maoist 'takeover' of some 17 out of a cluster of 118 small villages spread across some 300 square kilometres and accounting for a population of about 70,000. The media -- led by the always-frenzied TV channels -- spoke of a 'war zone', while even sober analysts and at least some security professionals gravely informed the press that Lalgarh had been transformed into a 'liberated area' by the Maoists.
Few, however, saw the crisis for what it was: an opportunistic intervention by the Maoists exploiting extraordinary administrative incompetence and a protracted failure by the state government and its agencies to respond to what was essentially a local flare-up. Crucially, for all the talk of 'liberated zones', the Maoists quickly faded away on the first signs of determined police and paramilitary action -- something that could have been secured at the very outset, had the state's Marxist leaders not been in a blue funk in Kolkata, crushed by enveloping electoral humiliation and nightmares of Nandigram and Singur.
In many ways, a distilled paradigm of the Maoist strategy -- both in its success and its inherent vulnerability -- was manifested in Lalgarh. Critically, it is not the strength of the rebels, but the infirmity of the state that accounts for transient Maoist 'dominance'. Local crises or grievances -- especially when manifested acutely -- are quickly harnessed to the wider purpose of 'conscientisation', militant mobilisation and recruitment. The objective is not, as many believe, to seize and hold 'liberated zones' -- the Maoists have little illusion regarding their present capacities to secure and sustain such dominance against the state's forces -- but simply to take the processes of radical political mobilisation a step forward.
A protracted face-off with the state's forces enormously compresses these processes and creates unique opportunities for the identification of potential supporters and cadres. Within this context, violence -- often initiated by Maoist provocateurs -- and particularly violent police action has a special utility: it helps separate the wheat from the chaff. Most will, of course, flee such violence; some will stand their ground; a handful will engage directly. Maoist recruiters will focus on the last two categories, raising new cadres, militia and members of front organizations. There is, of course, a price to pay. Bones will be broken; some poor villagers will die. But "the revolution", Chairman Mao reminds us, "is not a dinner party", and a little blood must be shed.
The objective, moreover, is not even remotely to address or redress specific popular grievances. The outcome of such a confrontation with the state is irrelevant. Whether the lot of the people of Lalgarh -- or Singur or Nandigram -- improves or worsens is of little significance (indeed, if it worsens, so much the better: more grievances will create new opportunities for mobilisation). The purpose is, rather, to "isolate the enemy by organising the people into various cover organisations and build joint fronts in order to mobilise the masses into struggles to defeat the enemy offensive". "Army formation", the Maoists insist, further, "is the precondition for the new political power", and "all this activity should serve to intensify and extend our armed struggle. Any joint activity or tactical alliance which does not serve the cause of the peoples' war will be a futile exercise."
It is this broad strategy that was progressively realized in Singur, Nandigram and, now, Lalgarh.
Other players have, of course, been critical -- the Trinamool Congress (TC) principal among the veritable armies of 'useful idiots' who have been taken along. The backdrop of this increasing 'joint front activity' has been augmenting violence and a consolidation of the Maoist presence across West Bengal -- something the Communist Party of India -- Marxist (CPI-M) state government has sought consistently to deny, underplay and cover up.
The state government insists that just four districts -- West Midnapore, East Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura are affected by Maoist activities. Central agencies, however, list 17 of the state's 18 districts as afflicted. At least 11 districts in the state witnessed incidents of Left Wing Extremist (LWE) violence in 2008, resulting in 24 fatalities -- 19 civilians, four Security Forces (SF) personnel, and just one Maoist cadre, the last datum reflecting the complete paralysis of the state police in the face of the Maoist challenge. Significantly, 38 persons had already lost their lives in escalating Maoist violence in West Bengal, till June 21, in 2009, including 32 civilians, five SF personnel and one Maoist.
The Marxists at Kolkata have, however, remained the only state government in the principal affected
states that has refused to proscribe the Maoists. Indeed, many political parties, including the Marxists and the TC in West Bengal, as well as various national and regional formations, have, from time to time, been seduced into believing that the Maoists reflect
'legitimate' popular grievances and are, consequently, to be tackled 'politically' (whatever that may mean
-- the actual constituents of such 'solutions' are never clearly defined beyond a sanguine faith in
'talks') or through an impossible quantum of 'development' which would 'resolve' the
'root causes' of the conflict.
The Maoist tactics, strategies, and ideological framework have been articulated in great detail in the many documents and statements that are available in the open source -- and central and state intelligence agencies have a much larger accumulation of such materials. It is clear, however, that there are now very few who read in Writers' Building (the State Secretariat), and the Marxists have demonstrated, in their policies, practices and pronouncements, the most extraordinary ignorance of Maoist intent and approach.
In Lalgarh, the incoherence of approach came to a head, even as the limitless and irreducible contradictions of a Stalinist mindset trapped within a parliamentary democratic framework, and progressively and uncritically committed to globalised capitalism, were exposed. It is useful to recall, here, that the Marxists have long administered a cadre-based thuggery in the state. Strong arm tactics and the execution of all public programmes through Marxist cadres have been the hallmark of CPI-M rule in the state, with the entire structure of governance deeply politicised through the application of crude force.
With the unravelling of Marxist power -- a process that appears to have commenced from the moment Jyoti Basu demitted the office of Chief Minister -- a widening vacuum has emerged in pockets across the state, and it is into this vacuum that other political formations -- including the TC and the Maoists -- have stepped in. These formations have, moreover, used emotive issues to widen this vacuum -- the forcible acquisition of land at both Singur and Nandigram being cases in point.
Crucially, in both these locations, the Maoists penetrated and eventually virtually took over an agitation principally initiated by the TC, lending the support of their armed cadres against Marxist stormtroopers who were initially sent in to break the agitators, and subsequently against
police and paramilitary action.
It is significant that Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh are all contiguous, though each falls into a different administrative district, and that the Rs 350 billion Jindal Steel Project -- covering some 5,000 acres of land -- is coming up in Salboni, abutting Lalgarh. The Salboni project is divested of the more unsavoury aspects of forcible land acquisition -- 4,500 acres of the land for the project were in the state government's possession, while 500 acres was bought directly by the Jindals from tribals on terms that were far from 'exploitative'. Nevertheless, the extreme Left insists that the government's vested land was intended for redistribution among the tribal poor -- a duty that Kolkata has neglected for decades -- and the transfer of forest land is 'illegal'.
In any event, Salboni did eventually get mired in the Lalgarh crisis because of an assassination attempt directed against Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, which narrowly missed its target as well as the cavalcade of the
union minister for steel, Ram Vilas Paswan, in the Lalgarh area, when they were returning from the foundation-laying ceremony of the Jindal Steel Plant at Salboni on November 2, 2008. Subsequent arrests by the
police in Lalgarh were strongly protested by local tribal formations.
The hijacking of the tribal protests by the Maoists is of crucial interest. Initially, the protests against police action (exaggerated reports of 'atrocities' were to be fabricated later, but the dispute was essentially over the arrest of seven tribal youth) were led by the Bharat Jakat Majhi Marwa (BJMM), a body of tribal elders, which imposed a blockade in Lalgarh.
On November 14, 2008, however, the BJMM reached an agreement with the government, and began to lift the blockade. BJMM workers were, at this point, assaulted by another group of tribals, who accused them of 'betraying their cause'. This is the point at which the People's Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) took birth, under the leadership of Chhattadhar Mahato.
It is significant that Chhattadhar Mahato was associated with the TC (the Party's leadership now insists that he was 'expelled' two years ago, but given the nature of party membership and records, this is not verifiable), and that he is also the brother of Sasadhar Mahato, the prime accused in the Salboni blast incident.
The PCPA immediately expanded the demands initially articulated by the BJMM, to include several that were, by clear intent, impossible to satisfy. These included the demand for the release of all tribals arrested over the preceding 10 years; the withdrawal of all police posts and camps from the area; an apology by the Superintendent of Police, West Midnapore, by doing "sit-ups holding his ears"; and a demonstration of contrition on the part of the police, according to which every policeman in Lalgarh would have to crawl from the Dalilpur to the Chhotopelia village.
Astonishingly, On November 27, 2008, coinciding with the end of a 24-hour deadline set by the PCPA, the
government withdrew forces from 13 police posts and camps in the area. Another two
police camps were shut down on December 1, 2008, after a second PCPA deadline. The PCPA set up a parallel administration by forming
'Gram (Village) Committees', and prevented the entry of police and paramilitary
forces in the villages of Belpahari, Binpur, Lalgarh, Jamboni, Salboni, Goaltore and adjoining blocks. On December 7, when the
state government promised to look into specific cases of police excesses, the PCPA proclaimed a
'suspension' of the agitation.
It was at this juncture that the BJMM and a second tribal organisation, the Jowan-Gaonwa, organised a mass meeting of some 10,000 tribals, in the Bhulabheda area of Belpahari, on December 9, to protest against the growing Maoist violence and intimidation in the area. Sudhir Mandal, the tribal leader who played a central role in organising the anti-Maoist protest meeting, was shot dead two days later, at Jordanga in West Midnapore. With this single act, all tribal opposition to the PCPA-Maoist combine ended at a stroke.
Initially, Kolkata's Marxists resorted to their standard tactics -- sending in party cadres, and not the police, to tackle the Maoists. Unfortunately for them, the times have changed, and the PCPA, backed by Maoist armed cadre, both local and brought in from neighbouring states, with superior tactics and larger stockpiles of arms, quickly decimated the Marxist challenge.
Demonstratively brutal murders and the display of corpses for days on end, the militant mobilisation of significant segments of otherwise pacific and compliant populations, the systematic intimidation and elimination of all opposition, and daily displays of lawless force -- including the ritual demolition of the offices and homes of Marxist leaders -- in the glare of an entranced national media, created the spectacle of an apparently uncontrollable meltdown.
Local command over the Maoist operation was exercised by 'Bikash' -- who state
sources insist is none other than Sasadhar Mahato, the chief architect of the Salboni blast
-- while Koteshwar Rao aka Kishanji, a CPI-Maoist Politbureau Member and the leader of military operations in the Orissa, Jharkhand, West Bengal region, took progressive overall charge of the campaign. The more significant acts of violence by the Maoists in this phase included:
February 2, 2009: Three villagers were killed and three others injured in firing that took place at Khasjangal in the afternoon after a procession carrying the body of slain CPI-M leader Nandalal Pal was stopped by members of the PCPA.
April 21-23, 2009: Five CPI-M workers killed in separate incidents by Maoists.
April 30, 2009: Four persons were killed when Maoists triggered a landmine blast targeting a convoy of three vehicles ferrying Election Commission (EC) personnel after polling at Jamboni.
June 3, 2009: Three Policemen were killed and two others injured when a group of 15 Maoists cadres ambushed a Police patrol party at Piralgiri in the Bankura district.
June 6, 2009: Jayanta Mahato, a leader of the ruling CPI-M was killed by Maoists at Dirghosa forest in the Salboni area. Earlier, on June 2, Maoists had announced at a meeting that Mahato would be killed. In a separate incident in the same district, Maoists allegedly killed two CPI-M supporters at Gajgiri on June 4.
June 14, 2009: Three CPI-M workers and one supporter of the PCPA were killed in a gunbattle between the two warring groups in Lalgarh. Nine others were missing and are believed to have met with the same fate. Two bodies were recovered later.
June 17, 2009: A local leader and two activists of the ruling CPI-M were killed by the Maoists at Banksole in the Jhargram area.
Eventually, national media exposure and direct prodding by the union home minister forced Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya to take belated action. Backed by Central Paramilitary Forces, the state police began a gradual and systematic process to recover the abandoned territories. Unlike police action at Nandigram, which inclined towards excess and lack of discrimination, what has been witnessed in Lalgarh is narrowly targeted and condign use of force.
Despite all talk of 'war zones' and 'liberated areas', there has been negligible effective opposition -- demonstrating beyond doubt that it was not the Maoists who 'captured' Lalgarh, but the state that deserted its people. Within 24 hours of the initiation of the operations, Police and PMF personnel had restored control over the Lalgarh Police Station, and were systematically moving forward across the entire affected area.
Difficulties remain, of course, with much of the area mined by the Maoists, and passing through dense forests. The Maoists have also given a call for a strike across five contiguous states -- Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh -- and some trouble can certainly be anticipated. Nevertheless, Koteshwar Rao, who was threatening murder and political assassination just a few days ago, is now suing for peace and putting out appeals for a suspension of police operations and for talks with the state government.
Despite the imminent recovery of the entire Lalgarh area, it is crucial to recognize that the Maoist campaign there has largely served its purpose. As in Singur and Nandigram, the only force that is consolidating through these disruptive processes and confrontational politics is the Maoists.
The TC appears to have been entirely blinded by its visceral hatred of the Marxists. In its impatience to capture the
state government, the TC leadership appears willing to sup with the very Devil --
which is precisely what the party has done repeatedly. But the Devil serves a poisoned chalice and the TC will pay a heavy price for its perfidy for years to come. The TC has sought to mask itself behind a blurring of political identities in Lalgarh, but this can hardly disguise the reality that Mamta Bannerjee has operated in a loose pact with the Maoists since the very launch of her obstructive campaigns in Singur and
As for the Marxists, they appear to be trapped in inescapable contradictions, with a leadership weakened both at the centre and in West Bengal, but most crucially, in morale and mind.
It is not yet clear whether this eviscerated leadership and the exhausted ideology that once inspired it, have the surviving capacity to make an objective assessment of the Maoist threat and purpose; but if, indeed, they have, the experience in Lalgarh has all the lessons to craft an effective, wider and enduring policy of response.
Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal
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