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"We are fighting for democracy and dignity"

By Nilanjan Dutta

Angry at the brutality unleashed by the police in combing operations for Maoists, the tribals of remote and backward Lalgarh district in West Bengal refused to allow police to enter their villages this election and forced polling booths to be set up on the outskirts. They have drawn up a 10-point development charter as well

Lalgarh tribal in West Midnapore district of West Bengal

On April 30, 2009, the first day of the parliamentary elections in West Bengal, the attention of the media, administration, as well as a section of civil society was fixed on a remote south-western corner of the state. The reason: ever since elections were announced, this dot-on-the-map has arrogantly stood its ground, bargaining with the mighty state machinery, and winning some unprecedented concessions. People and policymakers across the state watched with rapt attention a series of televised meetings between election commission officials and representatives of the Pulishi Santras Birodhi Janasadharaner Committee (PSBJC) or People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities of Lalgarh, an organisation formed only a few months ago. The meetings were held to try and resolve the stand-off between the people of Lalgarh and the state police.

Since November 2008, the people of the Lalgarh tribal belt in the West Midnapore district of West Bengal have banned the entry of state police forces in their area. They have done so to protest what they call police atrocities on the villagers while searching for Maoist rebels.

On November 2, 2008 West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the union Steel and Mines Minister Ram Vilas Paswan narrowly escaped a landmine blast after inaugurating a special economic zone set up by the Jindal group at Salboni for building a steel plant. Though the spot was about 50 km away from Lalgarh, the police zeroed in on the area as it was said to be an old Maoist stronghold.

Lalgarh has known repression for a long time. “Although there has been no major incident in Lalgarh in the last few years, the people here bear the brunt of police action whenever any ‘Naxalite violence’ happens anywhere in the district or in the adjacent districts,” says PSBJC spokesperson Chhatradhar Mahato, who himself has been in and out of jail.

Following the blast, three teenage students, Aben Murmu, Gautam Patra and Buddhadeb Patra, went missing when they were returning from a village festival at night. They were allegedly tortured to gain information and charged with waging war against the state. Then, Dipak Pratihar, a resident of Kantapahari village, was arrested from home and his pregnant wife Lakshmi was beaten and thrown to the ground. Ten people were arrested, among them a retired schoolteacher, Kshamananda Mahato, and civil contractor Shamsher Alam from Chhotopelia village, who was visiting the area for some construction work.

The police and paramilitary forces started a combing operation in 35 villages. On the night of November 6, they broke into the impoverished huts of Chhotopelia. According to the complaints lodged by the PSBJC, almost all the men had left the village out of fear, and women tried to plead with the police that there were no Maoists there. At least seven of them faced violence. Chitamani Murmu lost an eye, and Panmani Hansda suffered fractures. All were battered with rifle butts and sticks and kicked.

As another day broke, Lalgarh witnessed an unprecedented scene. Thousands of women and men armed with their traditional weapons – bows and arrows, tangis and axes – poured out of the hamlets and blocked all the main roads. They declared that the blockades would not be lifted until the police officers responsible for the assaults came and apologised to the people. The barricades spread like wildfire in many corners of this and other districts. Police were declared persona non grata in Lalgarh.

The PSBJC was formed in the wake of this protest. It is unique in that it is not led by any established political party, and people assembled every other day in thousands to debate and adopt every decision. Five women and five men represented each village in the committee. A 13-point People’s Charter was drawn up, which included withdrawal of all “false cases” registered against the people since 1998 and substantial compensation for the victims of atrocities, apart from the original demand for apology.

The administration had not anticipated such a reaction and after a month-long war of nerves, it began to yield. The schoolboys were released. Medical treatment was arranged for the assaulted women, though Chitamani did not get back her vision. And one by one, the police camps in Lalgarh closed down. The PSBJC set up a medical camp with voluntary doctors at the health centre building which had been usurped by the police.

Although the blockade was relaxed, the boycott of the police continued as the demands for an apology, withdrawal of the case and compensation were yet to be met. And then it was election time. Hardliners in the ruling CPM party pressed for a crackdown, but the government dithered, remembering perhaps the public censure that followed the bloodbath in Nandigram. It chose to negotiate, at least till the elections were over.

“The police will again torture the common people once they get entry on the pretext of the polls. Protecting our right to life is our primary concern, rather than exercising our right to vote,” said Chhatradhar Mahato, spokesperson of the PSBJC. “Let the elections be held under the supervision of civil society representatives,” he suggested.

No election has been held anywhere in the country without the police being present. “At least we in India will have to wait for many more years before we’re ready for such a step,” observed state chief electoral officer Debashis Sen. But Lalgarh refused to buy this argument.

Finally, an agreement was reached: there were to be no polling stations inside the ‘core area’ where the police boycott was in place. All 49 booths from the area would be accommodated in four polling centres located on the fringe, and voters from distant villages would be brought there by buses arranged by the election commission.

Both the CEO and state home secretary Ardhendu Sen expressed satisfaction over the arrangement.

But in the end, it did not work. Officially, polling went on without interruption. Activists of the PSBJC armed with bows and arrows guarded the centres along with the police. Chhatradhar Mahato cast his vote and gave a photo-op to the media along with his wife in proper VVIP style, holding up their ID cards. But voters from the villages did not turn up. Almost half the booths registered a polling of 0-13%.

The villagers said it was not worth their while to trek a long way through forest paths to board the buses on the main road. Besides, what has voting in all the previous rounds brought them? Additionally, the Maoists had called for a poll boycott.

The pessimism about voting is understandable in an area where 39.86% of the population, mostly tribals and dalits, live below the poverty line, safe drinking water and irrigation facilities are scarce and seasonal migration high. Very few can afford the luxury of travelling to the Midnapore district hospital about 40 km away. The building that was supposed to be a government health centre was turned into a police camp after being unused for a year. Radical Maoists have been working in this Jangalmahal region for a long time, organising people to demand their basic rights like drinking water, healthcare, irrigation facilities and decent wages for the forestdwellers who pick kendu leaves for making bidis. Alongside, they spread the message of armed revolution, which seems to have had a good number of takers among the local poor.

The real test for Lalgarh will come after the heat and dust of the elections settles. Whether it can live up to the hopes of pushing the people’s movement to a new high after Singur and Nandigram, depends on its strengths and weaknesses. No one in official circles has dismissed the Lalgarh movement altogether. Though the state Transport Minister Subhas Chakraborty said, “I would like to fling Chhatradhar Mahato to the ground and put him in jail”, the chief minister called for restraint and appealed to the people to realise that they were “playing into the hands of the Maoists”.

The Lalgarh movement has attracted popular attention because it is genuinely a movement of the people living at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy. Development issues are important – ten demands relating to development have been added to the people’s charter – but if any of the thousands of participants in the movement is asked what she or he wants, the prompt answer is “respect”. As Mahato puts it, “We are fighting for democracy and dignity.”

Its attraction also lies in the alluring notion that armed State power can be made to yield by using no force other than people’s unflinching determination. But here, already, fissures have opened up. Some of the activists in the Lalgarh solidarity movement are disturbed by reports of humiliation and assault on ruling CPM party supporters and even their family members, and the way they are forcibly herded to attend PSBJC rallies. Besides, there is no let-up in the landmine blasts and vengeful raids on local CPI (M) workers by the Maoists. In such a situation some activists are afraid the movement may become self-defeating. But others point to the tremendous intimidation by the ruling party that has been trying to float vigilante groups akin to the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, and to attacks that have killed four PSBJC supporters. It seems that Lalgarh is going to face a more complex situation after the elections. 

(Nilanjan Dutta is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata)

InfoChange News & Features, May 2009