Reclaiming The Red Fort
By Sourav Chatterjee
26 April, 2010
Lalgarh, the arena of the latest of India’s tribal rebellions, has a name that is mildly ironic. Literally translated, it means the “Red fort”, that hallowed seat of the world’s largest secular democracy. But here, in this faraway Red fort, a tribal hamlet in West Bengal, Indian democracy shows a very different face. It bears little resemblance to the tolerant democracy of Gandhi and Nehru, or even the corrupt but benign version of the State that the Indian city dweller is accustomed to. The reality of Lalgarh seems like an anachronism amidst the glitz and glamour of India’s shining new economy. In fact, it seems prehistoric.
Lalgarh’s development statistics are few and little cared for, perhaps a sure sign of Government apathy. The few reports that exist paint a grim picture. 95% of the children between 6 and 35 months suffer from anemia. The average number of working days in 2008-09 under the NREGA scheme was 6.02, 6.72 and 8.06 in the violence affected districts of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia1. Merely 6.5% of the population of Lalgarh receives clean drinking, and only 12.5% of the land is irrigated2.
Combine this with the oppressive social picture that is slowly emerging from the media reports at recent times. While the Left Front Government, with its ambitious land reforms program, had managed to transform the feudal hierarchy of the landed gentry, a new hierarchy, consisting of local party leaders and musclemen has taken its place. Nobody exemplifies it better than Anuj Pandey, general secretary of the Lalgarh zone of the CPI(M). Pandey had amassed a fortune as a CPI(M) leader, and his palatial two storey house on a sprawling 20 acre land, stood as the only “pucca” house in the whole village3. Angry villagers razed it to the ground and smashed refrigerators, LCD television and air conditioners in the house in an act of mob revenge, as the movement had finally given them a voice. Anuj Pandey’s story seems to be picked out of a seventies Bollywood flick, in its grotesque excesses and dramatic climax. In collusion with the local leaders are the police, whose stories of oppression are now coming out in the open. In fact, the movement at Lalgarh started out as a protest against police atrocities. Numerous cases of rapes of Adivasi women, strip searches of schoolgirls, police torture of pregnant and elderly women have been reported in the area4.
While there is a broad agreement about the genuine demands of the tribals, it is the form of the tribal resistance that has been questioned, in Dantewada and elsewhere. To civilized India, the violent forms of tribal resistance often appear medieval. However, in Lalgarh, the tribals answered not in the language of the violence that they have been subjected to, but in the language of a democracy, of which they never received any. The “People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities” (PCAPA) came up as a democratic organization, with its modest demands of the apology of guilty police officers and the removal of police camps from schools and Panchayet offices 4. Their political activity was in the form of gheraos, boycotts and peaceful assembly. For the moment, it appeared that a new paradigm in tribal politics was emerging, with West Bengal’s mainstream political opposition Trinamool Congress (TMC) standing behind Chatradhar Mahato.
However, things changed quickly. The democracy of PCAPA was answered not by democracy, but by the primeval brutality of force. The administration did not heed their modest demands. On the other hand, Chatradhar was captured in an illegal manner, and is being held in custody under the draconian anti-terrorism law, POTA. About six months have elapsed since his arrest, but the police have still not been able to produce evidence to back up the charges made against him5. The TMC and intellectuals close to the TMC have also increased its distance from the PCAPA, citing it as a frontal organization of the Maoists, after the party joined the Central Government. Regardless of political affiliations, mainstream political parties have failed to lend any helping hand to democratic voices emerging from the tribal areas. On February 2010, the Government forces led another blow to PCAPA, killing their president, an elderly Lalmohan Tudu, in a suspected “fake encounter”. Tudu was not known to have any Maoist leanings, and was never known to carry arms, not even the traditional bow and arrow that the tribals always carry with them. Various eye witness accounts suggest that an unarmed Tudu, and two of his relatives were picked up from their house shot at by a police force, which was apparently engaged in anti-Maoist operations6.
Thus, the events at Lalgarh, as they unfold before us, clearly suggest the administration’s intention of stifling democratic voices raised against it. There is little disagreement over the fact that the adivasis of Lalgarh have genuine grievances pertaining to the lack of development and law and order in the region. The only solution, albeit a slow one, is to reach out to movements fighting for the Adivasis, establish meaningful dialogue with leaders like Chatradhar Mahato, and most importantly, to make a sincere effort to develop these regions. This would not be difficult for a nation riding on the powerhorse of 8% growth rate. Unfortunately, the State has decided to act otherwise. It refuses to see the rebellion as representing the aspirations of disenchanted masses who the State has failed. Rather, in order to evade the problem, those in power have created their own spin on the turn of events, labeling it as a “law and order problem”. The Maoists suit this purpose just fine, and clubbing all anti-State movements as Maoist allows the administration to go on the path of “extermination”.
The argument equating the tribal resistance to a Maoist uprising is based on entirely false premises. The tribals and the Maoists have a symbiotic relationship at present with regard to their common goal of a fight against an administration that has been unjust to the tribals. The Maoist ideology, attempting a violent overthrow of elected Governments, is not compatible with that of democracy and their mindless violence and destructive ambitions must be dealt with severely, within the ambit of law. However, it would be a grave error to believe that the tribals, who are now the foot soldiers of the Maoists are also stringent believers in the ideology, and unleash a full fledged war aimed to “exterminate” them.
The justifications of violence have been debated long and hard. Violence is not sought for, whichever side it comes from. However, even free India (and every other civilized democracy for that matter), built on the ideals of Gandhi found it difficult to resolve conflicts without violent interventions, both inside and outside the country. The maintenance of law and order, however, one would argue, is legitimized by the authority vested on the State by the people, in a democratic system. What if the people are not represented? What if the State has failed its people, not once or twice, but at each and every instance? Does it still retain that legitimacy? The violence of the tribals is a desperate battle for survival and the violence of the State has lost its legitimacy in these tribal hamlets. The endless debates on the form of the movement are thus a diversion from the real problem. To lose oneself in the quagmire of the morality of violence, without an analysis of its context is dangerous and unproductive. It must be realized that the resistance of the tribals have taken a violent form (and aligned itself with the Maoists) in the absence of development and because of the stifling of democratic means of resentment. The State must respond not with unthinking violence, but with diplomacy and humanism towards its own subjects, who have been wronged for the last sixty years. The use of military power without a functional democracy in place is not the hallmark of a People’s State, but that of a military dictatorship, the last thing that the founding fathers had wished for this country.
1. Sankar Ray (23 July, 2009). “Where have the Maoists gone?” The Statesman.
3. Rabi Banerjee (Feb 7, 2010). “Comrade Bourgeois” The Week.
4. Amit Bhattacharya (2009). “Singur to Lalgarh via Nandigram” Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan
5. Sujit Nath and Aloke Mukherjee (March 9, 2010). “PCAPA leader gets bail in most cases” India Today.
6. Tusha Mittal (March 13, 2010). “Attack On CRPF Camp Or Fake Encounter?” Tehelka.