Lalgarh poses questions that the two main streams of the Left in India have to answer.
The Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) suffered its worst defeat in parliamentary elections since independence. The reasons for its defeat, particularly in West Bengal have got much to do with the failings in the CPI(M), reflected in its organisational problems over the years, and in the way it went about implementing policies that alienated sections of its own core support base - the rural poor in particular of late. The incidents in Lalgarh in West Midnapore district in a sense confirm both the alienation and the anger against the ruling party as well as the degradation of the left front in certain pockets of the state. On the other hand, the wanton killings of ruling party representatives by activists of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in the region which eventually invited reprisals from the centre and state government, point to the inefficacy and immaturity of the Maoist praxis.
The incidents in Lalgarh were triggered after the attempts at the life of West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in November 2008 near close-by Salboni by the Maoists, who have been active in the west Midnapore region for more than a decade. The subsequent reprisals engaged in by the state police, indiscriminately targetting villagers in Lalgarh for allegedly harbouring Maoist activists, was so brutal that a spontaneous movement was launched by the tribals in and around the villages of Lalgarh. Later a committee - Police Santrash Birodhi Janasadharaner Committee (PSBJC) was formed to protest police atrocities and which demanded apologies from the police besides an halt to frequent police raids in the area.
After initial suggestions of acquiescence to these demands, the state government did nothing much beyond withdrawing certain police camps from the area. The much traumatised tribals protested and resolved to keep the state administration and the police out of their lives, erecting barricades and blockades around the area. The tribals then went on to transform their movement from merely being grievance-driven to trying to implement means for livelihood on their own - by setting up primary health centres, irrigation facilities within their area - signalling their disconnect with the state administration. This further created an impasse which pitted the tribals against ruling party supporters and officials who were keen on regaining control over the blockaded Lalgarh. Eventually the gradual isolation of the tribal movement from mainstream politics - no political party took up the interests of the tribals beyond the PSBJC - resulted in Maoists taking up the demands of the PSBJC and also in controlling administrative activities within Lalgarh. This pitted the Maoists against ruling party sympathisers, fitting the pattern of late in parts of west Midnapore district. Increasing Maoist control over the tribals part of the committee resulted in the targetting and killing of CPI(M) sympathisers, office bearers and destruction of their homes and offices, in full public glare.
The following state action - mobilisation of central paramilitary forces, removal of blockades, banning of the CPI(Maoist), arrest of its spokespersons and the general environment of reprisals has killed a movement leaving in its wake the grievances and the aspirations of the tribals intact. The actions by the CPI(M) led left front administration to clear Lalgarh of "Maoist influence" have worsened the climate so badly that the alienation is complete. The hapless tribals and the PSBJC have demanded talks with the state government and so have the Maoists, but the banning of the CPI(Maoist) and resolve shown by the state government in persisting with paramilitary action has meant that a more full fledged military affair is on.
Questions have to be raised to the Maoists as to why they insist on tactics such as assassination and what political motive does this achieve. For all the political dividends that the Maoists claim to achieve, it is the opportunist sections of the West Bengal polity that has really benefited from these strategies. Besides by inviting state repression through the means of engaging in such tactics, the Maoists have betrayed the tribals' cause putting them in harm's way in a manner that is legitimated as legal military action against "Maoist mayhem".
Compared to other regions in West Bengal, land reforms have not necessarily affected the socio-economic specificities of the West Midnapore region. For one, the region suffers from lack of irrigation resources and despite the left front getting strong mandates in the district -though Lalgarh falling under Binpur assembly segment has preferred the Jharkhand Party (Naren) more often since 1991 - there has been very little dents made in the health and education fronts. Added to this is the gradual conversion of left front hegemony into a patronage system in the local level, favouring the left front cadre, that has seen sharp antagonisms resulting in violence. This has been one of the failings of the left front in West Bengal, where despite gains from welfare measures such as land reforms and deepening of local democracy, the "party-society" institutionalisation remains a major drawback. The organisational deficiencies of the left front - local corruption, organised patronage and entrenchment of violence are all consequences of the failures of the left front to transform the rural countryside in West Bengal beyond the aforementioned welfare and democratic measures. The anger of the tribals in Lalgarh against malfeasance by the CPI(M) cadre and sympathisers in the region is symptomatic of this
All in all, the tragic sandwiching of tribals in Lalgarh between a blundering Left Front administration and the brutally violent Maoists, raises questions at both these political entities in the state.
Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly