Rule by fear

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on July 28, 2017

Shock and awe: After Kishanji was killed near Burisole in West Bengal’s Jhargram sub-division in November 2011, Central Insurgency Force personnel had the surrounding villages evacuated   -  Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Holding fort: Central Reserve Police Force jawans keeping vigil near Lalgarh, West Bengal in August 2010, before a rally called by Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee   -  Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Lalgarh and the Legend of KishanjiSnigdhendu BhattacharyaNon-fictionHarperCollins India₹450

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya’s book on Kishanji does a thorough job of detailing how the Maoist leader’s clarion calls were perennially undercut by episodes of grisly violence

Two years after the events that constitute his main narrative, author Snigdhendu Bhattacharya visited Lalgarh to pick up the thread with persons he had met while covering the tumult as a news reporter. He was met with some reticence, even anxiety. A young man who had recoiled in horror after the first euphoria of the “peoples’ war”, spoke with hope of a future where “development” would benefit all.

Bhattacharya tracked down an old man whose hut had been the venue for his first meeting with Kishanji, the top Maoist who was Lalgarh’s military strategist and voice. He encountered a man in deep despair. All visible signs of material progress were because of the “movement”, said the old man, but its leaders were “rotting in jail” and the locals seemed to not care.

At around the same time, a circular issued by the Maoist leadership inverted the perspective. The outlays involved in government development programmes, it said, had induced divisions within the “peoples’ camp”, turning a small section within it “into the social base of the exploiting ruling classes”.

From the early years of the century, the districts of West Bengal bordering the larger tribal entity of Jharkhand, had witnessed growing incursions of Maoist insurgents, with Mallojula Koteswar Rao, alias Kishanji, being its main strategist. The ruling party in West Bengal, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — or CPM — had, meanwhile, reached the limits of its redistributive agenda and put in place an apparatus of governance and patronage, which proved the instrument of its will as well as an impediment to progressive change. Frustrated by stagnancy, the CPM-led government from about the middle years of the last decade, began looking to the neoliberal paradigm for a long missing spark.

It was a time of growing concern over the impact of the neoliberal model, which displaced large communities while reserving its benefits for an ever-narrowing strata. Mass unrest broke out in Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal after CPM cadre went in with the police to overpower local protests against land acquisition for newly-minted development projects. A Maoist hand was evident in both, subtly camouflaged behind mainstream parties that saw an opportunity to break the CPM monopoly on power.

Maoists retaliated for lives lost in these protests with a bomb attack on the West Bengal chief minister. A brutal crackdown followed, triggering a mobilisation against police atrocities and a virtual Maoist takeover. Maoist territorial control was strategically seen by the leadership as the first step towards cementing mass loyalty through substantive and participatory welfare programmes.

Countermeasures had, meanwhile, begun from the State, with the uniformed forces acting in concert with armies of enforcers recruited from CPM cadre. The logic of the counter-insurgency, as explained by the then Union home minister P Chidambaram, was “capture, hold, build” — symmetric with the philosophy of territorial conquest followed by ideological hegemony the Maoists espoused.

Was the Maoist upsurge an effort at substituting one form of coercive power with another, though grounded in the legitimacy of representing the voiceless? It was a question Bhattacharya asked Kishanji soon after the Maoists had beheaded a captured policeman. Kishanji both disavowed the grisly killing as part of the Maoist repertoire and defended it as the proper riposte to police atrocities.

That was the typical justification Kishanji advanced through the ensuing months of turmoil and bloodshed, when he sustained an astonishingly high public profile through strategic use of the mobile phone. A variety of operatives had, meanwhile, infiltrated the Maoist ranks, weakening the central authority. A particularly disastrous outcome was the sabotage of the Jnaneshwari Express in May 2010, which killed over 140 passengers. The authorities were quick to blame the Maoists, who rather unconvincingly denied responsibility. Bhattacharya usefully recounts contemporary media reports suggesting that the local police were aware of impending disaster but chose inaction as the best option to bring the Maoists into disrepute.

Meanwhile, a variety of political actors had begun riding on the chaos, the shrewdest being Mamata Banerjee. In assembly elections held in mid-2011, Banerjee won a sweeping victory, with her Trinamool Congress enjoying a free run in parts of the State where the Maoists had fought the CPM to a standstill. She did not pause to render thanks, promising to make Lalgarh and its environs a model of development, while renewing the terms of the police officials who had been the most brutal enforcers of the CPM will. Desertions began from the Maoist ranks, and within months Kishanji was cornered, perhaps taken alive, and shot dead.

At their first meeting, Bhattacharya had asked Kishanji about the failure of the Maoists to retrieve lost ground in Andhra Pradesh, where the movement had germinated. The answer was simply that the Maoists had no ideological response to the State’s systematic efforts to buy popular loyalty through fiscal handouts. That was in the aftermath of Lalgarh, the message of fickle popular loyalty the Maoist leadership was left contemplating, while celebrating Kishanji’s life of uncompromising revolutionary struggle.

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Published on July 28, 2017
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