February 25, 2012
By Partho Sarathi Ray
The collapse of the so-called “peace talks” process in the Jangalmahal of West Bengal as a result of the brutal killing of Mallojula Koteswara Rao or Kishenji, senior politbureau member of the CPI(Maoist), by security forces in what is evidently a false encounter, is highly instructive, as it deepens our understanding of the nature of such attempts at making “peace”, and also raises disturbing questions about the entire proposition of peacemaking in the context of the peoples’ struggles that have been or are going on in India over the last decade. It is also to be understood that although the murder of Kishenji was the culmination of the process that has been going on for the last eight months since the formation of the Trinamool Congress (TMC)-led government in West Bengal, it is in reality a byproduct of a much more dangerous process that has led to the stamping out of the democratic upsurge that Jangalmahal had witnessed over the last two years. This understanding about the nature of these so called “peace talks” is important for the revolutionary forces and peoples’ movements that are actively struggling against the Indian state and interests that the latter serves, and also for members of the so-called civil society who stand in solidarity with such struggles.
Background: The Failure of the Talks and Violence-counter-violence
Every one knows about the immediate context of this particular “peace process”: the newly-elected TMC-led government in West Bengal appointed a committee of interlocutors, who, styling themselves as representatives of civil society, signed an agreement with the government to take an initiative to “peacefully solve the problems of Jangalmahal” (quotation from the text of the agreement signed by the home secretary on behalf of the West Bengal government and the interlocutors “on behalf of civil society”, published in Jago Bangla, dated 14th-15th July, 2011). Following this the interlocutors initiated a process of discussions with representatives of the state committee of the CPI(Maoist). After a couple of round of such discussions, in an increasingly vitiated atmosphere created by continuing atrocities and a clampdown on all democratic activities in Jangalmahal by state security forces and TMC-organized vigilante forces and retaliatory strikes by the CPI(Maoist) armed squads against the leaders of the TMC-led vigilante forces, the peace talks completely collapsed at the end of November 2011 by the killing of Kishenji at the hands of the security forces.
A More Careful Probe of the Background
Amidst all these happenings, which kept public attention riveted on the statements and counterstatements emanating nearly everyday from the contending parties, what was lost from attention were the “problems of Jangalmahal”. Were the problems of Jangalmahal just one of violence and counter-violence, which could be solved by laying down of arms by the cadres of the CPI(Maoist) and other non-state actors? Was it just a problem of underdevelopment, which could be solved by the “development packages” declared by the chief minister Mamata Banerjee? Or is there something deeper in it, something that lies embedded in the particular history of Jangalmahal, and also ties it to the general context of the struggles of the exploited and oppressed masses of India? To understand this context, we need to take a relook at the recent history of the Jangalmahal, the history of the struggles of the adivasi-moolvasi people of the region which culminated in the historical Lalgarh uprising in 2008.
Adivasis: In an Unending Cycle of Exploitation
As is again well known, the adivasis of our country have historically borne the brunt of exploitation and oppression by all dominant forces, be it the British who first brought the forests under a system of governance and opened the way for the dispossession of the adivasis, or the settlers from the plains, the dikus, who started a cycle of exploitation which continues unabated till today. Independence did not bring a substantial change in the situation; rather the adivasis paid a disproportionate price also for the great developmental projects of modernizing India, projects that provided the minerals, water and electricity for a developing urban, industrial society in the country. Liberalization and globalization in the beginning of 1990’s added another dimension to the problem by opening up the vast mineral resources in the adivasi areas, hitherto mostly accessible only to the public sector companies, for predatory exploitation by various national and multinational corporations. For these corporations, increasingly backed by globalized, financialized capital, this was the last frontier in India. And as their depredations increased in the adivasi areas, so did the resistance of the adivasi masses. People all over the world, when pushed to the wall by capitalism, have fought back, and with a long history of resistance and rebellion, the adivasis of the eastern and central parts of India were not found to be lacking.
Armed Struggle of Peasantry: Parallel and Confluent
This period also witnessed another phenomenon which ran parallel, and counter, to the process of globalization: that of the development of an armed struggle based among the peasantry, with the stated aim of an agrarian revolution and with the strategy of “protracted peoples war”. This struggle, waged by the CPI(ML) Peoples’ War in Andhra Pradesh and CPI(ML) Party Unity and the MCC in parts of Bihar and Jharkhand, spread to the adivasi areas, and found a fertile ground there to develop and flourish. The objective conditions in these areas, the extreme poverty and marginalization of the people, the government-small contractor-big company-political party nexus which kept the cycle of exploitation and oppression running and the inaccessibility and inhospitability of the terrain provided ideal conditions for the Naxalite parties to gain widespread influence and popular support. Not only that, a fact that is easily overlooked, the adivasis, with their little stake in the Indian political and economic systems, with little dependence on privately-owned agricultural land and with strong notions of collective/community ownership, proved to be a potent revolutionary force. Hence, when the CPI(ML)-PW, which had just merged with the other two Naxalite parties to form the CPI(Maoist), was crushed by the government in Andhra Pradesh in the course of another such “peace talks”, the party found a ready refuge among the adivasi population of Dandakarnya in Chattisgarh, where a liberated zone was established and subsequently gave rise to the janatana sarkars, the unique experiment of peoples’ governments of the adivasis of the region.
The Jangalmahal: Poverty, Exploitation and Indignity
The Jangalmahal of West Bengal also did not remain untouched by these churnings, although it took a different trajectory because of the differences in geography and socioeconomics of the region. Jangalmahal was not the direct target of corporations in search of mineral wealth, but that did not lessen the misery of the people there. Here people were the victims of a nexus of forest officials, tendu leaf and timber merchants, contractors and corrupt functionaries of political parties which kept the people mired in poverty, exploitation and indignity. People owned little land, and in the absence of irrigation facilities, return from agriculture was meager. This led to mass outmigration of the work force for agricultural work in other parts of the state or to other states, especially during the cropping and harvesting season. The income from this was not sufficient to maintain the families throughout the year, and in the lean season there was widespread hunger and even starvation deaths. Therefore people were dependent on supplemental income from forest produce, but there also they were greatly exploited by the forest guards and the forest produce mafia nexus. Prices for forest produce like tendu leaves, sal leaves and babui grass was abysmally low. Even access to the forest produce was at the whims and fancies of the forest guards, and I have heard horror stories of how getting beaten up or being sexually harassed was a daily reality in the lives of adivasi men and women trying to extract firewood or sal leaves from the forest. Absence of developmental measures such as schools, health centres, roads, electricity and irrigation facilities was the norm. The panchayats, be they led by the CPI(M) or the Congress or various Jharkhand Party factions, were equally corrupt and a large section of political party leaders fattened themselves on money for government schemes and on contracts for government work.
Police Terror in Jangalmahal since 1990’s
In this scenario, towards the end of the 1990’s, appeared the Maoists. They organized the people on the issues of development, demanding water, electricity and health facilities, and also demanding remunerative prices for forest produce and the end of harassment at the hands of forest guards and the police. The modes of the struggle were overground and constitutional, with deputations to BDOs and marches to government offices. But the government, instead of paying heed to these genuine demands, responded with brutal oppression. The West Bengal police descended in full force on the quiet hamlets of jangalmahal, letting loose a reign of terror in the form of beatings, torture, molestations of women and thousands of false cases. These times are well documented in the series of reports titled “Inside Midnapore” by the veteran journalist and human rights activist Nilanjan Dutta, which appeared in Times of India in 2002. The Maoists resisted this state terror, and organized the people to resist it. Therefore it is not surprising to hear a villager say in one of the reports of Nilanjan Dutta that “If one has to do Janajuddha (people’s war) for a health centre, one might as well do it.” The people also achieved some significant victories, as the Maoists could enforce a substantial increase in the price of minor forest produce such as tendu leaves. I have heard local officials in the region privately admit that this was one of the major contributors for bettering the lot of adivasis in the entire forested region of east-central India. The Maoists gained widespread popular support and developed a strong base in the region, with many of the leading cadres such as Sasadhar and Suchitra Mahato arising from the local communities.
It is therefore only the abysmally ignorant who say that the Maoists were a non-entity in the region in 2008-2009 when the Lalgarh uprising broke out.
This pattern of state terror continued through the decade of the 2000’s with very little noise made about it by the civil society or by opposition parties in West Bengal. Schools came to be permanently occupied by the police, and people were faced with daily indignities of beatings, harassment and raids. False cases became a curse on the livelihoods of people who were daily wage earners, and who could ill afford to waste days to attend courts or report to police stations.
2008: The Lalgarh Movement
Then came the police atrocities during the night of 5th-6th November, 2008 in the wake of the land mine blast targeting the convoy of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who was returning from inaugurating the proposed Jindal steel plant and SEZ in Salboni. This was the final straw that broke the camel’s back, and the people rose up in anger. It is worthwhile to note that the people had already been primed by the brave resistance of the people of Nandigram against land acquisition, and the initial modes of resistance such as digging up the roads and blocking entry of the police, were borrowed from the Nandigram experience. However, Lalgarh went far beyond, and came to challenge the entire foundation of the state by challenging the state’s right to administer a people whose humanity the state was not ready to recognize. This was articulated in a very cogent, but also in a very earthy, manner by the demand that the superintendent of police responsible for the atrocities publicly hold his ears and ask for forgiveness. In response to the democratic aspirations of the people, the Peoples’ Committee against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) was formed. The remarkable events that followed this upsurge have been well documented, and constitutes a glorious part of the annals of peoples’ movements in India.
But the beats of the dhamsa-madal was sullied by the sound of gunfire. From day one of the uprising, the people, especially those who took leading roles in the PCAPA, was under attack by the vested interests in Jangalmahal, at that time mainly represented by the ruling CPI(M). The state, and the ruling political powers, represented by the CPI(M), would not countenance such a direct challenge to the authority of the state and to the established order of things. Many of the local leaders of the CPI(M), whose corruption in the panchayats was well known, had fled in the wake of the uprising. Together with them were forces and individuals who had been discredited and sidelined by the mass uprising, such as the traditional social leadership of the santhals, the Majhi Madwa, and various Jharkhandi factions which controlled many panchayats in the area. The armed CPI(M) cadre, together with some of the latter elements, were actively backed by the state, to mount attacks on the rallies and the peoples’ marches. Those of us, viewing the entire uprising, through the romanticized vision of an idealized exercise of democracy in an ideal context of peace and non violence, were in for a disappointment.
June 2009: Jangalmahal Goes under the Ambit of Operation Green Hunt
The mass violence broke out in June 2009, in Dharampur, in consequence of a vicious attack by CPI(M) cadre on a rally led by women. People rose up and destroyed the palatial house of Anuj Pandey, the local CPI(M) overlord, and killed his armed henchmen who had terrorized the area. In this mass upsurge, the Maoists, who had been the organizational backbone of the movement because of their longstanding presence and organizational work in the area, came to the fore. And then the Left Front government of West Bengal, in collusion with the Congress-led UPA government in the centre sent in the joint state and central security forces to “reoccupy”, Jangalmahal. They were joined by the armed mercenaries of the CPI(M), the Harmad bahini, organized by the CPI(M) leaders who returned in the wake of the joint forces. Jangalmahal conveniently went under the ambit of Operation Green Hunt which had already been going on for some time in the adjoining forested regions of central India. A period of darkness descended over Jangalmahal, which has increasingly deepened despite the change in government in West Bengal.
At this juncture, it is worthwhile to note the context under which the “reoccupation” of Jangalmahal by the state forces took place. The prime minister had repeatedly stressed that the Maoists were the “greatest threat to internal security” in India, and had also emphasized that the struggle being waged by the Maoists in the forested, mineral rich tracts of central India was the most serious deterrent to investment by corporations in the region. As a response, Operation Green hunt, had been unofficially launched across four states, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Orissa since the end of 2008. The Jangalmahal of West Bengal is contiguous to the forested regions of Jharkhand, and constitutes a crucial part of the so called “red corridor”, the zone under Maoist influence from ranging from north Bihar to the AP-Karnataka border. How could the state allow such a crucial region to be “destabilized” by a de facto liberated zone? Therefore, it was inevitable that the Lalgarh movement had to be crushed.
Was Lalgarh a Struggle for Jal, Jangal, Jameen?
Some people argue that the Lalgarh movement was not on the basis of the struggle for protecting jal, jangal, jameen, from the corporations, which is the basis of the resistance struggles in the rest of the forested regions. However, what needs to be realized is that although there were no direct proposals by corporations to invest in the Jangalmahal of West Bengal, except Jindal’s infamous project at Salboni, the state clearly feared that the influence of Lalgarh would directly affect the adjoining regions of Jharkhand and Orissa which were, and are, lucrative prizes for corporations. Therefore it was imperative for the state to stamp out the peoples’ resistance in Jangalmahal, and this also brings us to the crux of the matter that whether peace is at all possible, or meaningful under these circumstances.
Denouement after Mamata Banerjee
Therefore, when Mamata Banerjee came to power, overthrowing the 34 year stranglehold of the CPI(M), things did not change. Mamata Banerjee and her party had based their election campaign in Jangalmahal on the promise that the joint forces would be withdrawn and the numerous people imprisoned under UAPA and other cases would be released if they came to power. Neither the Maoists nor the PCAPA mounted a strong campaign to expose this doublespeak by Mamata Banerjee, and consequently the people of the region voted for the TMC.
However, as was to be expected, these promises were not to be kept. Operations by the joint forces were stopped for a total of fifteen days, from 15th May till 1st June, 2011, till they resumed, although at a subdued scale and in a much more insidious manner. Consequently, the atrocities continued, and reports of beatings, of villages being besieged and houses being ransacked, and of indiscriminate arrests started to come in again. There was a complete clampdown on democratic activities such as meetings and rallies by peoples’ organizations such as the Nari Ijjat Bachao Committee. . During this period, the house of Chatradhar Mahato, the jailed PCAPA leader was ransacked, students belonging to various adivasi students’ organizations were detained and beaten up, and Bhagwat Hansda, a leader of the “Santras, Durniti o Samrajyobadi agrason birodhi ganotantrik mancho”, the body on behalf of which Chatradhar Mahato had stood in the elections was arrested.
Arrests and Patronization-Intimidation Network
Three hundred arrests, including those of the remaining leaders of the PCAPA have taken place over the last eight months. At the same time, the network of patronization-intimidation, which the CPI(M) had so skillfully honed, was re-established. Leaders of the TMC in the Jangalmahal area, with the active aid and abetment of the government, built up the vigilante force called as Jan Jagran Manch, which was the TMC counterpart of the CPI(M) harmad bahini, and locally came to be called the bhairab bahini. The Bhairab bahini let loose a reign of intimidation, forcing people to join up and act as informers. The Bhairab bahini acted in close coordination with the joint forces, and created a Salwa Judum-type situation where the vigilante force on one hand became the eyes and ears of the state forces and on the other expanded and established the territorial control of the TMC in various areas. Complementing this mechanism of intimidation were the mechanisms of patronization, and the state and the TMC skillfully used the developmental schemes declared by Mamata Banerjee to gain control over the people. To be eligible for any of the schemes; rice at Rs 2 per kg, free cycles for girl students, jobs of the national volunteer force, required loyalty to the TMC, and this loyalty had to be expressed in the form of participation in the Jana jagaran manch and opposition to the Maoists or the PCAPA. While these were the overt strategies of the state on the ground in Jangalmahal, the “peace talks” were continued as a much more insidious strategy to root out the resistance in Jangalmahal.
The State’s Terms of Peace
The basis of the peace process was the appointment of the interlocutors to open the channels of dialogue with the Maoists. The interlocutors signed the abovementioned agreement with the state government, which conveniently failed to mention any of the original demands of the PCAPA, on the basis of which talks were being held between the PCAPA and the state government at the time when the joint forces were sent in. It promised to provide all sorts of socioeconomic, democratic and cultural sops, but significantly failed to address the question of the dignity of the adivasi people. The problem was that the original demands of the Lalgarh movement questioned the entire basis of the state, and therefore had to be kept out of the pale of any “peace process”.
Instead the agreement contained egregious points such as “the joint forces would be withdrawn from the Jangalmahal after and if (emphasis by author) the region has been free of weapons and peace has returned”. This was a complete negation of the position of all civil society and democratic organizations, both in the Jangalmahal and the rest of West Bengal, on the basis of which movements had continued against the erstwhile Left Front government for the previous two years. The demand for the withdrawal of the hated joint forces was always unconditional, and was never contingent on the return of “peace” in the Jangalmahal. Secondly, the agreement did not clarify what was meant by peace; did it signify a return to the status quo ante, marked by the atrocities and the human rights violations of the previous decade? And definitely making the Jangalmahal “arms free” did not include the arms in the hands of the most heavily armed agency in the region, the security forces.
Equally egregious was another point in the agreement (point 4). It stated that “those who want to surrender with arms would be given social rehabilitation and a special financial package by the government.” It is unbelievable that an agreement between a group of people who were taking on the role of interlocutors on behalf of civil society included surrender conditions for members of the organization with which they were going to interlocute. Would the interlocutors be dangling this carrot in front of the leadership of the organization when they were going to talk with them? This was a clear violation of any interlocution process as it constituted an attempt by the state to break the ranks of the organization with which the talks was being attempted by enticing members of the latter with offers of financial packages and rehabilitation.
The Release of Political Prisoners
Something more needs to be said about the call for the release of political prisoners, which was another major demand of civil society and democratic rights organizations, and has always been thought to be the bedrock of any realistic peace process. There are a large number of political prisoners spread out over various jails in West Bengal, and a large majority of them are adivasi men and women who have been arrested by the joint forces in Jangalmahal, and charged under various laws and sections of the CrPC, including UAPA, the Sedition Act, Arms Act, murders, conspiracy, rioting etc.
As mentioned above, the issue of political prisoners is on one hand a highly emotive issue in Jangalmahal, and also an important issue for the democratic rights movement in West Bengal. The agreement between the state government and interlocutors calls for the “hastening the work of the prisoner release committee”. “Prisoner release committee” refers to the review committee set up by the West Bengal government, which included human rights activists and some lawyers and retired bureaucrats, together with a host of serving police officers and bureaucrats under the chairmanship of a retired high court judge. That a review committee was formed to review the cases of political prisoners “on a case-by-case basis” was itself an affront to the civil society and the political prisoner release movement in of West Bengal, which has always demanded the unconditional release of political prisoners.
And why the work of this review committee could not be hastened is clear from some of the terms of reference of this review committee. Among the six terms of reference, especially egregious were those which enjoined the committee to review the behaviour of the prisoners while they were in jail, to examine whether the prisoner might commit the same “offences” when they are released and also to find out whether the prisoner might instigate others to commit similar “offences” when they are released. Applied to a political prisoner, this meant that prisoner had to effectively quit politics if (s)he was released. This was not only insulting to the prisoners; it also violated the fundamental right of individuals to freedom of association or union. It was obvious that the West Bengal government had no real intention to release the political prisoners, and it was borne out by what followed; the review committee recommended the release of 78 prisoners, the state government cut it down to 52, and then further to 50, removing the last two Maoist prisoners from the list. The review committee went along with these moves, which clearly showed the government’s disdain for the committee, without any protest. Also, “release” really meant granting bail, unlike what was done by the newly elected Left Front government in 1977, when release meant the withdrawal of cases by the government.
Peace: An Open Field for the Operations of Capital
Therefore the thrust of the so-called “peace process” was very clear from the text of this agreement itself. And the subsequent events over the past eight months have made it further clear. The question that it raises is that whether a “peace process” is at all possible in a situation where it is a war to the finish for both the contending parties.
For the state, it is very clear that the survival of the neo-liberal trajectory that the state has adopted is contingent upon the destruction of the peoples’ resistances that have developed all over the country. It is immaterial whether the resistance is armed or unarmed, “peace” for the state means the peace of the graveyard, an open field for the operations of capital. That is why the state has besieged three villages over the last six years in Jagatsinhpur district of coastal Odisha, where the villagers are resisting the proposed steel plant of POSCO. That is why people resisting the depredations of capital, and the semi-feudal power relations through which capital works in many parts of the country, from people opposing big dams in Assam to people resisting local moneylenders and liquor dealers in Narayanpatna in Odisha, are all at the receiving end of the state’s repressive measures.
Stalemates but no Peace
On the other hand, it is also a question of survival for the people who are resisting the state and for the resistance movements being led by the CPI(Maoist) or other organizations, as the neo-liberal policies of the state are targeting the basic resources on which their lives and livelihoods are dependent. These conditions are by definition non-negotiable, as the success of the capitalist project is contingent on the destruction of the resistances against it, and the survival of the people is contingent on being able to push back the offensive of the state as has been seen in other parts of the world such as in Latin America. This struggle is fundamentally different in nature from the secessionist struggles, where the status of the territory under contention is negotiable and there are various alternatives available between complete subjugation and complete independence. On the other hand, the war going on in Jangalmahal and other parts of the adivasi-populated regions of India, is based on the question of the survival of a people and their control over the resources needed for survival. There will be stalemates in this war but there will be no peace. Under these circumstances, the state will use peace as a weapon of war, just as it uses “development” as a weapon of war. The “return” of peace to Jangalmahal is meaningless, unless it signifies a just peace, a peace based on the dignity and prosperity of the masses. And such a peace cannot be achieved by interlocutors and review committees, it has to be won through struggle. Without that the “return” of peace is a mirage, a mirage that will disappear as soon as the illusions of normality are destroyed by the brutal reality of life in Jangalmahal today.