Tanushree Bhasin travels through Lalgarh, capturing the lives of the adivasis who continue to be denied their basic constitutional rights.
It began on November 2, 2008, with a land mine explosion, allegedly by Maoists, targeting the then West Bengal chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and Union steel and mines Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, as they were returning from the inauguration of the Jindal Steel Works SEZ in Salboni.
What followed was an indiscriminate and unprecedented series of incidents in which the police brutalised, tortured, injured and killed scores of adivasi men and women in Jangalmahal.
The CRPF unleashed a reign of terror, conducting night raids on entire villages, picking up young men and women, and kicking, hitting, and beating them up with their lathis and rifles.
The scale of atrocities inflicted on some of the poorest, most dispossessed people in India was remarkable, one that forced the adivasis of the area to stand up in revolt.
Within days, the people of Lalgarh had blocked roads, cut off electricity and communication networks, and declared the area a “liberated zone” where it was impossible for the CRPF and CPI-M cadre to reach.
They set up their own administrative groups and demanded that they be issued apologies, given compensation, and the police brutalities be stopped immediately.
The movement soon found backing from Maoist outfits present in the area, and this led the state to launch ‘Operation Greenhunt.’
‘Operation Greenhunt’ culminated with the alleged encounter of Maoist leader Kishenji – who had publicly supported Mamata Banerjee’s quest to come to power.
By all counts, the story of the Lalgarh movement is a dead story. An adivasi uprising can’t and didn’t even make it to the mainstream media beyond a point.
Operation Greenhunt, however, which completely decimated this movement, is still being celebrated in the Jangalmahal area as a harbinger of peace by politicians across the spectrum.
No one wants to talk about these “anti-nationals.” They don’t have the kind of support or networks that radicals targeted by the state in urban areas might have.
Eight years have passed. Most leaders of the movement, like Chhatradhar Mahato or Lalmohun Tutu, have either been killed or imprisoned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, charged with sedition.
What becomes of these “anti-nationals” and their families who stood up for basic constitutional rights to freedom, security, food, water, education, and respect?
In Baro Pelia, where an attack on Chintamani Murmu by the CRPF blinding her in one eye, had sparked off the 2008 movement. Villagers admit that they still don’t have any jobs. Life continues as before, rice is scarce, and water even more.
Malati Tudu spoke little of her brother Lalmohan Tudu, president of the Peoples’ Committee Against Police Atrocities, who was brutally killed in a fake encounter in Narcha vilage. All she said was that the family had decided not to vote this year. They had simply lost faith in the government, she said.
The mother and niece of Chhatradhar Mahato, former convener of the Peoples’ Committee Against Police Atrocities and a prominent leader of the Lalgarh movement. He was arrested in 2009 after he gave an interview to police officers posing as journalists. He has been convicted under UAPA and sentenced to life imprisonment for sedition.
Chhatradhar’s wife Niyoti said, “Lalgarh voted Mamata into power and now TMC has abandoned and betrayed us. The long-term situation is the same: the goons in red have been replaced by TMC’s goons. Those even suspected of being Maoists don’t get anything. I didn’t vote in 2014 and I am not going to vote this year.”
Chhatradhar and Niyoti’s 19-year-old son has yet to find a job, although he is educated, unlike many others. He said, “Once you’re branded a Maoist, you will never get a job.”
Irrespective of whether the Left is in power or the TMC, the place of adivasis has remained the same. The government’s welfare policies can only count as handouts where the ‘greater good’ always trumps adivasi progress in these mineral rich, tribal areas. Memories of state brutality fester.
This man admits that he was a former Maoist. He explains that for an adivasi without access to the barest minimum, oppression forms the core of daily life. The attacks by the police may have stopped, “but oppression continues. MNREGA wages aren’t paid. Those who are rich get jobs – because bribes are needed, and the same is true when we want to sell forest produce.”
Those who actually wield the hammer and sickle in Jangalmahal feel an incalculable sense of abandonment. The Left government and its three decades worth of neglect, however, remain stronger than the discontent against the TMC.
Many of the children in Lalgarh and its adjoining area have grown up without the pervasive fear of the last decade. But their future remains entwined with their history and the twin forces of ‘national interest’ and ‘greater good.’