Lalgarh, the Rebellion That Didn’t Make Front Page

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya’s Lalgarh and the Legend of Kishanji is a detailed description of a movement and a leader that have much to teach us, despite their faults.

A family walks on a state highway at Pirakata near Lalgarh, some 165 km (102 miles) west of Kolkata in this June 20, 2009 file photo. Credit: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters

A family walks on a state highway at Pirakata near Lalgarh, some 165 km (102 miles) west of Kolkata in this June 20, 2009 file photo. Credit: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters

Lalgarh and the Legend of Kishanji: Tales from India’s Maoist Movement is not a brilliant read, but that’s not why I picked up the book at the Indira Gandhi Airport domestic terminal. The prose is neither smooth nor beautiful and it’s not really the work of somebody adept at using the English language. Nevertheless, the book grips you. Like in many other art forms, Lalgarh is proof that content is often more powerful than mere style.

The author, Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, is a veteran journalist and the principal correspondent with the Hindustan Times‘ Kolkata edition. He takes us on a journey of the Lalgarh movement, from its inception and disintegration to the present day, bombarding us with facts after facts, forcing us to acknowledge a revolution (a word that should not be taken lightly) that took place in our lifetime, while most of us have been almost completely unaware of the undercurrents of history-in-the-making.

I remember being in college when the mighty Left Front government in Bengal came under severe public criticism for its anti-poor stance in favour of corporate bonhomie. The Left front had been in power for more than three decades and seemed invincible in every possible fashion; especially in the high-handed manner they handled land acquisition at Singur and Nandigram, and the brutality with which they tried to quell the people’s movement at Lalgarh. Like any other naïve and overtly idealistic 20 year old, who foolishly fancied himself as part-revolutionary part-activist, I remember questioning the party who had won the students’ union election at my college, the Students Federation of India (SFI) – which was also the students wing of the ruling government – on the Left front’s policies in Lalgarh.

Snigdhendhu Bhattacharya <em>Lalgarh and the Legend of Kishanji</em> Harper Collins, 2016

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Lalgarh and the Legend of Kishanji
Harper Collins, 2016

Most of us, like the existing political climate back then, were overwhelmingly against the government’s atrocities against the poor and showed some semblance of concern. (Or so, I like to believe.) Consequently, most of us supported Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), which was, in our eyes, the only David that stood up against the tyrant Goliath.

The result was clear. TMC created history by ousting the apparently invincible Left front from its hallowed seat of power of 35 years in the 2011 assembly elections. A new political era was ushered in, for better or for worse.

But were they really the harbingers of this change or ‘poriborton’ as Banerjee proudly terms it?

Bhattacharya’s book takes us through it all and lays special emphasis on the role of Maoists and, in particular, one unlikely, charismatic leader of the people’s revolt, who lead from the front and fought till the end – Mallojula Koteswara Rao, popularly known as Kishanji.

As Bhattacharya paints him for us:

“Between 1995 and 2008 Kishanji was the main architect of the revival of the Naxalite movement in Bengal. Only a few other Maoist party members had work experience as vast as his. At the time of the formation of the CPI (ML) (PW) in 1980, even the present general secretary, Ganapathy, had worked under his leadership.

While moving from one village to another- in and around the Lalgarh police station area, carrying an AK-47 and a backpack crammed with is laptop and other essentials, and dodging huge contingents of security personnel- the fifty-four-year-old man used nothing but his mobile phone to counter the Government of India and the various state governments at every opportunity.”

Yet this book is not just an ode to Kishanji. It highlights the man’s faults and his mortality in equal stead with his successes – how the tide first turned in favour of and subsequently against the man and lead to his death in 2011.

The author himself calls out Kishanji on the flaws in the movement several times, one of which was the capture and beheading of Francis Indawar, a special branch inspector of the Jharkhand police. By Bhattacharya’s own account, Kishanji tries to justify the beheading, trivialising it as “one death”. But when Bhattacharya persisted and brought up a report of the Andhra Pradesh state committee of the erstwhile CPI(ML)PW in 1998 stating that “beheading people or punishing anyone by chopping parts of his or her body or beating up to the extent of breaking a person’s hands or legs or lynching people will have to be completely abandoned. These types of punishments are alienating us from the masses,” Kishanji admitted his mistake, agreed with the author and promised to review all such punishments in the future.

Oddly enough, although the crime itself is gruesome in the extreme, this willingness of a leader to take direct responsibility for the action of his underlings and admit his errors to the media is in grave contrast to most of our political leaders of much less violent movements.

Maoist leader Kishenji (C, facing back) speaks to the media in Bholagara village of West Bengal October 22, 2009. Credit: Reuters/Jayanta Shaw/Files

Maoist leader Kishenji (C, facing back) speaks to the media in Bholagara village of West Bengal October 22, 2009. Credit: Reuters/Jayanta Shaw/Files

The book also takes us through thickets of wild speculation into the meadow of fact-dom on the operations of Maoists in the country and in Bengal in particular, their ideologies and policies, and what Maoism really means. Ever since firebrand revolutionary Charu Majumdar started the Naxalbari movement along with Kanu Sanyal and others in 1967 and the subsequent formation of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), Naxalism (or Maoism or Ultraism as it may be known in government circles) has been a subject of curious discussion/debate among idealists. This book tries, in a compact way, to take us through some of the Maoist ideology, post the fall of Naxalbari movement and Majumdar’s death in 1972.

Bhattacharya seems to have meticulously and painstakingly assembled a plethora of tiny pieces of information and pasted them in a logical order for the reader to follow. As a citizen staying barely 100 km from what can be termed as the biggest agrarian revolt of our times, I am ashamed to say that I have been woefully ignorant of all the events that have unfolded in that two-year period, from 2009 up until 2011.

Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the movement was the role of women in it. Women led, front and centre. They were part of everything – from armed rebellion to planning to being spokespersons to leading rallies against the tyranny of the government. And in that, the Lalgarh rebellion stands out – the brightest star in a firmament of dim constellations in terms of equal gender participation. According to Bhattacharya’s description:

“The PCAPA (People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities) came into being on November 8, 2008, with five men and five women members from each of the ten villages, including Chhotopelia, Baropelia, Darigera, Narchya, Amlia and Birkanr. It was decided that women representatives would go everywhere – be it a deputation to the police and the administration or public meetings and street corners. They would always feature in the list of speakers. The idea of equal gender representation was path breaking. Women virtually led the PCAPA rally from the front.”

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya. Credit: Twitter

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya. Credit: Twitter

It ends, rather intelligently I must say, with excerpts and a commentary of Kobad Ghandy’s six-part thesis and the current situation in Lalgarh. Ghandy is currently in judicial custody and is the head of the Sub-Committee of Mass Organisations (SUCOMO) under the Communist party of India (Maoist), who, in his thesis, has questioned the current ideology that Maoism (and in turn, communism at large) is entrenched in and why it hasn’t caught on with the masses, despite us living in the most turbulent socio-economic times since the Second World War.

Ghandy’s sombre approach and logical explanation on the path that the ideology must avoid for its own survival struck a chord with the writer of this critique. Ghandy is logical, brutal and honest and doesn’t shy away from speaking the truth, no matter how bitter it may be to swallow. Like Kishanji, Ghandy’s candid approach to the mistakes of his political ideology is extremely appealing to a logical, ordinary citizen, so much so that she might have a better understanding of the self-critical ideology.

“What happens if the leadership betrays the revolution (as is the case in the USSR, East Europe and China) and there are no democratic institutions to counter those betrayals? The revolution collapses and the socialist system remains only in name. Past experience has shown that the democratic question is indeed important. Above all, a democratic environment is absolutely essential for humans to blossom and develop their creativity,” Ghandy said.

He made his point clearer when he said,” The international powers with their enormous ability at subversion and moral corruption, as also the force of past habits, tend to destabilise the process of change. In order to prevent those forces from impacting the process of change, the communist parties, and particularly their leadership, maintained tight controls over most aspects of people’s lives. But did it stop the reversals? Not only did they revert, in every case it was that very leadership, who controlled “tight” reins of power that were the first to revert. This was the case everywhere- the USSR, China, East Europe- and it was these very leaders who became the new elite. And ironically it was precisely these “tight controls” that prevented any resistance to reversals. That there was not much opposition is another aspect.”

Bhattacharya goes on to write:

“Ghandy’s words reminded me of what today’s youth are asking Maoist cadres: why take such an extreme path if it’s all going to be the same? Not even same. If the people who run the system are not any different, ‘one party rule’ makes things worse! People in India could still stall state-backed big corporate projects in Singur, Nandigram, Haripur and Narayanpatna, but what is the situation in China and North Korea?”

Lalgarh lives on, in peace and harmony for now, but it doesn’t seemed to have forgotten its sons and daughters, still rotting away in jail, awaiting justice. But it doesn’t seem to be any position to do much about it.

It’s eerily like that part in Persepolis where most of the main architects of the Iranian Revolution were systematically decimated by the Iranian leadership under Ayatollah Khomeini and afterward.

Bhattacharya’s book may not find its way into literature festivals, given its nature and topicality, but it is sure to ruffle feathers. It can also serve as the starting point of many neophytes (this writer included) in the political scenario who would want to look closely at crushed rebellions and find answers for working out effective solutions for the poor and downtrodden and their grievances, who have the most to lose with or without their rebellion.

And in that, Lalgarh and the Legend of Kishanji is an essential read for every politically involved and socially-motivated citizen of this nation.

An ex-IAS, former district magistrate of Bastar and now a staunch tribal rights activist B.D. Sharma’s quote sums up the Indian state’s position in the tribal areas in an ominous, succinct fashion. “India is an unbroken chain of broken promises.”

Nishant Chhinkwani is a socio-political neophyte observer currently employed as an instructional designer in Bombay.

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  • Tejaswi

    What a wonderful write-up. So good that I decided to come out of hibernation and use Disqus once more to comment here. Wonderful writing and wonderful thought process. Well done…