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09 April 2010

Cong Cut Its Nose Off To Spite The Face

Operation Lalgarh may bear fruit for the Central Government. Rather, from the Union's point of view, it's an imperative. However, it bodes ill for the political party that heads that government. The Congress has compromised with its electoral prospects in West Bengal, in all likelihood, to cut Mamata Banerjee down to size

Unlike the other states where the Maoists are active, West Bengal had had no Maoism until the recent past when the events of Singur and Nandigram shook the conscience of the nation. There too, it was the local population that was up in arms against an arrogant state.

Maoists saw the total lack of development in these areas and found in it an excellent alibi to extend their sphere of influence. On the other hand, the local population that was protesting atrocities by the CPI(M)-backed police needed means for the sustenance of their struggle. After all, you cannot expect the poor to go without food and basic amenities for days on end to humour a political party, no matter how correct the party's position was in this one-off case. This was an added opportunity for the Maoists as they pitched in with help, aided ably in Singur by a multinational competitor of Tata Motors. When Chairman of the Tata Group, Ratan Tata, alluded to his company’s rival without naming it, the then head of Maruti Udyog Limited obtusely shot his own company in the foot by demanding substantiation of the allegation. Or, perhaps, since Jagdish Khattar knew he was about to retire, he tried to settle some scores with the rest of the management of the company he was not quite pally with. The MUL had, otherwise, nothing to do with the affray.

Back to the core issue, be it filmmaker Aparna Sen or writer Mahasweta Devi or the entire posse of Kolkata-based intellectuals, or their poster boy, the convener of the Police Santrash Birodhi Janasadharaner Committee (PSBJC), Chhatradhar Mahato, no one was a Maoist or even a Maoist sympathiser to begin with. The Kolkata-based elite — fashionably described as "intellectuals" — had turned livid especially when the potential land grabber was feared to be the ill-famed Salim Group of Indonesia, to protect the interests of which the state administration had unleashed its CPI(M) cadre-infested police on hapless protesters in Nandigram on 14 March 2007. But when the Maoists appropriated the legitimate people's movement and helped sustain it, spreading to other districts thereafter to gain control of areas where there used to be no such thing as a government, the city-bred 'root cause' maniacs either felt indebted to the red army for the help it had extended in Singur and Nandigram and hence turned a blind eye towards its excesses, or they now fear for their lives, lest the Maoists should seek revenge for their 'ingratitude'.

West Bengal’s politics serves as the backdrop of this power struggle. The people of the state are by and large tired of the Left's rule. And the CPI(M)'s henchmen who had unleashed a reign of terror spanning more than three decades are now on the run. The end of the depressing and repressive era of Left rule was never as imminent as it is now. But before the inevitable could happen, the Centre has turned the table in favour of the state's ruling coalition once again by ordering Operation Lalgarh — for the media, it's Greenhunt (or an extension thereof), a code used by some officers of the paramilitary forces operating in pockets of Chhattisgarh — even though this fallout was not a part of its gameplan. New Delhi had to intervene to re-establish its writ in that part of the Indian territory, if not to re-establish the Left Front Government's control over that region. The Congress is thus bracing for collateral damage by compromising with its own electoral prospects in the assembly elections scheduled to be held in 2011 — where it will be an ally of the Trinamool Congress (TC) and, thus, get to share power in case this alliance wins — so as to deal with the Maoist threat to the Indian state at large.

The state unit of the Congress — 'tormuj' or the CPI(M) by proxy, as it is pejoratively referred to in West Bengal — saw a golden opportunity to get even with its Big Brotherly (or Big Sisterly?) ally, the TC, in the course of an event that emerged as godsend. As has been observed in people's movements throughout history — India has its Chauri Chaura incident after which Gandhi sulked and the Non-Cooperation Movement fizzled out — it's difficult to fine-tune them and make reactions proportionate to the establishment's monstrosities. A convoy carrying West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, and Union Ministers Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitin Prasada was ambushed by landmines planted by the Maoists on 2 November 2008. Mercifully, the ministers escaped unharmed. The state's rebels must regret this diabolical attempt for a long time to come, though. Why the establishment alone, the locals did not take to the violent act kindly either; they voted for the CPI(M) candidate Pulin Bihari Baske in the Lok Sabha constituency of Jhargram, going against the trend in the remaining state. That would prove a mistake too.

What followed was police raj. Just about anybody and everybody would be picked up at random by the constables from the Lalgarh police station, interrogated, heckled and even tortured for being a suspected Maoist. This only worked towards emboldening the Maoist alibi: state terrorism. As the local adivasi population united and rose in protest, the police, fearing the people's growing solidarity, made false promises of releasing the detainees. In reality, hardly anybody of consequence was released, even as the adivasis fumed in rage, cutting off all modes and means of communication and transport to and from the village so that no political leader, whom they did not trust a bit, could mediate and negotiate with the administration on their behalf. And yet, they were only appropriated by the Maoists. They were not Maoists themselves. This was a pertinent nuance the Union failed to observe, even as Sudhir Mandal, a leader who mobilised 10,000 adivasis to protest Maoist violence, was shot dead within 48 hours of the rally.

In the meantime, the odd victory of the CPI(M) in Jhargram notwithstanding, the locals egged on by the supporters and workers of the TC began getting even with the Marxist party's henchmen who had presided over all proceedings of the state for thirty-two years under a tyrannical regime. The leading party of the Left Front lost many of its cadres from the region; they were either slain, maimed or thrown out of the villages, or they simply changed their loyalty and became a part of the PSBJC to save their skin. Cornered and threatened by the portent of political extinction, the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee Government cried for help. As if waiting anxiously for the cue, the Centre obliged immediately, despatching five companies of the CRPF and two companies of the COBRA to the Midnapore district forthwith. Thus began Operation Lalgarh.

The response from New Delhi was unusually prompt. This may well be Pranab Mukherjee's politics, as he has never been comfortable with the prospect of being chaperoned by the obvious choice for chief minister's chair, Mamata Banerjee, in the state, in the scenario of the TC-Congress combine emerging victorious in the next poll. Sources in the UPA tell this writer that Home Minister P Chidambaram was a mere façade; Operation Lalgarh was Mukherjee’s brainchild. The finance minister did little to not lend credence to this suspicion. Between June and November 2009, it was he more than the home minister who would answer all questions pertaining to Lalgarh!

There was some communal strife in a part of the Jadavpore constituency. Kabir Suman, being the MP from the area, went to the spot to make the warring local lords patch up. After three days of hectic parleys when a deal was about to be struck, some of his colleagues from the TC told him he was no longer required in the party's scheme of things and that the matter in that pocket of his constituency was well taken care of in his absence. Suman felt humiliated and, the temperament of an artist that he has, left the party in a huff, sending his resignation to Banerjee and two other leaders of the TC through an SMS! The whole act was, however, pre-meditated by the TC leadership that, in turn, was browbeaten by the Congress ‘highcommand’ to get rid of the Maoist sympathisers within its ranks.

The TC does not realise the harm it has done to itself. Or, even if it does, it was helpless in the face of increasing coercion by the Congress-led government at the Centre, which had roped in the services of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, requesting her to use her good offices with Mamata Banerjee and rein her in.

The TC-Congress alliance's phenomenal victory in the recent Lok Sabha elections owed largely to the mobilisation of people by many former Naxals (who should not be taken for today's Maoists; there's a difference). It is not sure now if that magnitude of mass mobilisation can be repeated if the Naxals, largely comprising semi-urban middle class Bengalis, with little or no representation from the state’s tribal population, do not come to its support in the 2011 state elections.

The supporters of the Congress and the TC — and even those of the BJP — should factor in the predicament above before cheerleading the security forces' march across the rural hinterland of West Bengal. Maoism in West Bengal and that in the rest of the country's 250 odd districts are not the same. Clubbing them together is naïve.

And yes, the Maoist movement is driven by way too much arbitrariness to sustain in the long run. What about the institutional machinery of the CPI(M)'s tyranny? How can the once-undivided Congress forget all the workers and supporters it lost to political violence in the last three decades? How can the New Delhi-based party overlook the reason that split the party's West Bengal unit? How can the average Bengali in small town Bengal ignore the eeriness associated with being identified as a non-CPI(M) votary in the midst of the local populace? Should the people of West Bengal keep seething even as it seems, on the surface, all is well?

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.