In the wake of Lalgarh
RIGHT now, the situation in Lalgarh is grave. The combined military offensive has got a nod from the central and state governments; it means we have to be worried about ghastly horror, concerned about more suffering and loss of lives. Since 18 June 2009, the entire area has been under siege by joint forces in the name of flushing out the Maoists. Perhaps, in post-independence India, it is unprecedented that the ‘affected areas’ have remained under Section 144 Cr.PC for such a long time without a break and that civil society organizations and individuals have been denied access to the area.
Allegations of brutal torture and destruction of houses and property are rampant. Many people have already died in firing by the joint forces. Almost 300 people have been arrested and implicated in false criminal cases; one activist has died in police custody; the police has registered 30 serious cases under sections of the IPC against Chatradhar Mahato alone. The nefarious intention of the government is clear: Mahato must not be freed even though he had been granted bail in a number of cases, as the material evidence produced by the police against him in court did not satisfy the magistrate. In one case, even the charge of sedition was dropped by the lower court for want of prima facie evidence.
The vengeance of the government against the leader of the people’s movement and the movement itself became clear when Mahato and other members of the PCAPA were booked under UAPA. Evidently, authoritarian personalities like Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram or Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, equate dissidence with anarchy, little realizing that in trying to stamp it out, they only become self-fulfilling prophets!
The question is: Why did the people of Lalgarh initiate such a movement against the Left Front government? Let there be no mistake about this – Lalgarh represents a community upsurge, cutting across all political colours. The very name of the committee formed by the people of Lalgarh – Peoples’ Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) – reveals the nature and scope of the movement. Thirteen of its initial demands were directly related to police atrocities from 5 November 2008 onwards and oriented towards future safeguards; of these, the central demand was a public apology from the Superintendent of Police of West Midnapore district.
So, unlike Singur and Nandigram, the resistance movement in Lalgarh revolved around police brutalities, with tribal people raising their voice against the law enforcement agencies for breaking the law of the land. In this sense, the movement is essentially a political one – for protecting the honour of womenfolk and the restoration of civil liberties in the area. It is pertinent to note here that the present chief minister had initiated low intensity operations against the Maoists in three districts – West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura – as far back as 2001, when there were no incidents of violence and no formal allegations had been made against the Maoists.
The allegations made by the government at that point of time appeared unconstitutional and fascistic, to say the least. The CM, in his police budget speech in 2001, admitted in the assembly that the government had been conducting raids to nab ‘some misguided youths’ [Maoists]. And this was being done because they had been trying to ‘organize simple and peace-loving tribal people of these districts!’ Clearly, in the eyes of the state government, even attempts to organize people by a political party, not to the ruling party’s liking, is to be treated as a criminal offence.
The consequences of such a policy can easily be imagined: the arrests of a number of villagers, including women and academics like Kaushik Ganguly on the one hand, and relentless barbaric atrocities by the police on the poorest citizens of India on the other. In 2003, the chief minister commended the success of such a repressive policy in his police budget speech. ‘It is paying dividends,’ he said! Really, what a dividend. Abhijit Sinha, a customs officer, who was arrested from his house at midnight by the Midnapore police committed suicide, all because he could not bear the torture of Kaushik and others in his presence at police detention centres.
At a meeting with the government at the Midnapore circuit house on 22 April 2009, PCAPA representatives raised the issue of arrest of their fellow villagers against whom criminal cases have been pending since 2001, in some cases, from as far back as 1998. The government admitted the existence of these cases. Who is to blame for such an outcome, nay dividends, of the government policy? Under the pressure of peoples’ resistance, the government promised to review such cases and for this another round of talks was scheduled to be held in June 2009.
What I want to emphasize is that the poor people, though economically and socially deprived, were not overly concerned about the problems of land acquisition or the issues of development and displacement; the sole issue, the most fundamental one, was that of the right to life. As usual, the ‘powers that be’ refused to concede the central demand of the people of Lalgarh: tendering an apology by the then SP. What infuriated the people of Lalgarh was the culture of impunity, in turn giving rise to a call for a boycott of the police.
The problem was further aggravated when, in February 2009, the armed goons of the CPI(M) attacked the protesting villagers in order to break the movement, just as they had tried in Nandigram in 2007. This attack resulted in the deaths of four PCAPA activists. Even after that, as part of the agreement reached at the tripartite meeting (between the election commission, the government and PCAPA) held on 22 April 2009, the Lok Sabha election was held smoothly and without violence. The first post-poll political violence occurred when gangs of the ruling party, perhaps emboldened by the victory of the left candidate in that constituency, attacked the villagers of Dharampur; admittedly, the Maoists cadres openly joined in retaliatory action.
This raises the question: Is the presence of a few gun-toting Maoist cadres sufficient and reasonable ground for the joint military operations in Lalgarh? Will reinforcements of armed forces and deployment of Cobra jawans serve any purpose except add to the suffering, killing and torture of tribal people? It is a clear case of ‘pre-emptive’ military action. As reports reveal, this ‘war on terror’ has created ‘tyrannicide’ in the affected region. Even the NHRC has expressed deep concern over the violations of international human rights standards by the forces involved in the joint operations. Though the mainstream left parties forcefully argue that the ‘world is better off without the Maoists and hence they should be eliminated,’ but we, of the APDR, are clear that a resumption of talks with the PCAPA is essential. On a number of occasions, before as well as after the ban on the Maoists, even Kishenji offered talks with state government. The state government, however, took an extremist position by rejecting all proposals for talks.
Another question that arises is: Why did the armed opposition parties or extra-institutional politics gain a social base among the ‘wretched of the earth’? The answer lies in the actual conditions of the area where people live in abject poverty, lacking all basic civic amenities and denied their entitlements as citizens of this country. A recent survey conducted under the auspices of the state government has only confirmed this picture. In addition, the political attitude of the security state has only aggravated the situation. Unfortunately, whether we read the parliamentary debates on internal security, or the views expressed by the left parties’ on various kinds of insurgencies within the nation, the same discourse prevails.
Most of the not inconsiderable sums of money earmarked for development have not been spent for the uplift of the poor adivasis. Even after 32 years in power, the self-proclaimed pro-labour government continues to announce new schemes for social and economic development of regions like Lalgarh. Worse, all formal democratic forums for justice remain both ineffective and insensitive to the demands of the poor. All this creates a favourable situation for the rise of radical politics and a militarization of justice.
But, both official perception and policy (essential elements of the same process) remain in denial, failing to recognize this total failure of governance. Both the Centre and the affected states have adopted a security-centric approach, which was created by the police and valorized in most media reports. A former police officer points to the shortcomings of this approach with regard to social conflict situations in different parts of India: ‘Official reports received from the state governments and the IB are often biased or partial and self-serving. The IB, the main information agency of the central government, often serves the ends of politicians in power.’1 Further, ‘The rapid decline of the R&P division contributed to the failure of the MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) in systematically developing [socio-economic] insights for policy making.’2
Equally, Arundhati Roy has brilliantly exposed how the unholy nexus between politicians of all shades – in power or not – and the interests of corporate capital work at the expense of millions of Indians, and explains the ground reality of ‘holy terror’. Similarly, Kamlakanta Dash, an Indian research scholar based in Australia argues in a recent article that without proper community-based interaction it is not possible to identify the root causes of ‘terrorism’ and that terror laws like UAPA are no longer required to tackle such human violence.
Despite all this the central government has chosen to deliberately ignore the recommendations of the expert group set up by the Planning Commission to which the report was submitted in 2008, and instead pursue the traditional repressive policy to contain the Maoist problem. The Left Front government is no different. One could legitimately ask the West Bengal government: If your policy of repression of Maoists since 2001 has been paying ‘dividends’, as you claim, how does one explain the growing presence of this organization today?
Everybody values life. But this military operation values some lives over others. The ongoing operation wants to eliminate ‘bare life’ and protect ‘quality life’ of some people like the Jindals, Ambanis and Agarwals. The government has the power to not only use deadly force, but also justify it with the rhetoric of saving society from ‘evil forces’, by invoking the ‘humane versus monstrous’ and ‘legitimate versus illegitimate.’
For a contextualized explanation of terror and violence, one has to understand sources and causes, ways and techniques, ideologies and structures of Maoist nomadic violence. Often, such organized and collective violence garners significant and massive support from the local people. Intellectuals ranging from Noam Chomsky to Ashis Nandy have differentiated between state terror and the terror/violence of non-state actors as ‘wholesale terror’ and ‘retail violence’ respectively. It is worth remembering that in the last century alone, our secular states have killed many times more people than those killed by non-state actors. Thus, we should, with regret, recognize that the costs of democracy have been imposed primarily by the unmitigated, unapologetic violence by the state and reinforced by the misadventures of non-state actors.
Human rights groups are often criticized for their differentiated views on violence by the state and non-state actors. While true, it must be remembered that all human rights treaties/declarations are restricted to states/nations whose duty it is to respect and ensure the observance of human rights and to comply with the obligations thereof. Such rights are not intended to govern armed conflict between the state and armed opposition groups. In fact, the relationship between parties to the conflict and civilians is of a different kind, bound by Common Article 3 and Protocol II in conflict situations. That is why the stance of human rights groups vis-à-vis the state is one of zero tolerance and their criticism of state terror is antagonistic. Criticism of human rights abuses by non-state actors, as enumerated in international humanitarian law, is in contrast made in a non-antagonistic manner.
Today we need to create public opinion to compel the government to abandon its designs to wage war against the people under the cover of Operation Green Hunt, to withdraw joint forces from Lalgarh and repeal the UAPA. This is essential to create a conducive atmosphere for dialogue with the Maoists. Only if we learn to listen with compassion and love can we create a new ethics that will help articulate alternate versions of the public good.
1. K.S. Subramaniam, Political Violence and the Police in India, Sage, Delhi, 2007, p. 132.
2. Ibid., p. 138.