It’s bemusing to be writing this right after the last post. Since that post, I’ve been to a place that is a shortish train ride from the site of what many consider a civil war that is being powered by the ideological descendants of the Naxals. I ate biriyani there, drank some superb vodka and attended a posh art gallery opening where the exhibition befuddled everyone but no one complained because there was white wine being served. The exhibition is a rather idealistic one and it hopes to make a strong political statement (more on the art exhibit later) but no one at the gallery really spoke about the killing and mayhem taking place 200km away. It surfaced occasionally, like the bubbles that leak when someone tries to hide underwater. There was only one man who wanted to talk about Lalgarh and, continuing the glorious tradition of me attracting the adoring attention of the cuckoo-est drunks in a gathering, I found myself cornered by him for a good twenty minutes.
People make contacts, expand their network and generally emerge with cards and new acquaintances that will help them advance in life. I meet a man who is a Japanologist, a specialist in conflict studies and generally weird. What I have at the end of meeting him is an email that reads, “You are a very interesting person. I don’t have many friends. Please be my friend.” At the gallery, he said he wanted to visit Mumbai and speaks about the city as though it is in another country. His home is “up north” and he wouldn’t talk about what brought him “down south”. If I had to take a stab at where he’s from based upon his accent and appearance, I’d say Tripura. He has “friends” in the Chinese army and he can’t understand why when he writes to the emails they’ve given him, he gets a mailer-daemon notification. To him, this is proof of the nefariousness of the Chinese internet policy. To me, this is proof that Chinese army officials are way smarter than I am because, unlike me, they don’t have an email from him, written in fuchsia, 16pt Times Roman font in their inbox. Maybe he picked fuchsia for me in an effort to appeal to my feminine side. If there is some way by which I can reply with a mailer-daemon notification, please let me know.
I know I shouldn’t have given him my email but the fact is that in that spotless white gallery where well-coiffed people passed on rumours about someone’s daughter in-law and expressed much puzzlement about how “an Amazon type with protruding dentures” like Michelle Obama is considered a beauty, it felt reassuring to speak to this man because he couldn’t talk about anything other than what was happening 200km away. “It’s not a rebellion in Lalgarh,” he said. “Rebellion is what happened in the North East but in Lalgarh, it is war. You cannot have an armed revolution when you are surrounded by the kind of apathy you have here. The only thing is war and even that doesn’t seem to penetrate this urban society’s fortifications.”
The Maoists are the new avatars of the Naxals of the seventies and since the late nineties, they have become increasingly active. They’ve been branded a terrorist outfit and banned in states like Orissa and Bihar but Bengal has resolutely refused to ban them. The state government has insisted that criminalising them is not going to help dialogue and dialogue is the only way that the Maoists can be convinced to not engage in their guerilla activities. The attitude sounds refreshingly mature but unfortunately, it’s undercut by the violence that the party members of Communisty Party of India (Marxist) are rumoured to engage in routinely and the appalling lack of infrastructure in the rural areas where the Maoists are active and increasingly popular. “Forget roads, forget drinking water, forget sewage systems, forget electricity and then you come somewhere close to what is village life for tribal people in Bengal,” said someone who works in the NGO sector. A retired government official dithered a bit when I asked him about development in rural Bengal and then said, “It’s not that bad everywhere but in the remote parts, well, they’re remote.”
West Midnapore, however, is not remote. It is well-connected to Kolkata and the district has a university, the second-largest industrial centre in Bengal and one of the most respected IITs in the country. In West Midnapore is an area called Lalgarh and this is where the “civil war” began on June 6, 2009, when reportedly 400 Maoists (many armed) marched into the town called Lalgarh and took it over. While the world was gripped with outrage at what happened in Iran to protesting students, a backward rural area got ready to take on a country’s army. “Those are stupid students,” my Japanologist conflict-specialist friend said of the Iranian revolution. “All this protesting, dying, burning of buses for what? So that Mousavi will allow women to show a 2-inch fringe of their hair. There isn’t any reform that these students are fighting for because no one is bringing reform. The leaders are all conservative and these boys are just idiots. Civil unrest and pointless. Lalgarh, now that is something. They are fighting for development, for some dignity in their lives, for freedom.”
The CPI(M) office in Lalgarh was demolished on June 6 and at least one of the party workers died a gory death. Victory drums beat in Lalgarh and eye-witnesses say it was like Durga Puja had come three months early. It took days for armed forces (Border Security Force, Central Reserve Police Force and the Army) to be galvanised into action and by the time they reached Lalgarh, the Maoists and the villagers were ready for them. The siege, or Operation Lalgarh, began on June 16 and it has not stopped yet. From bows and arrows to AK-47s, every weapon that the people in the area can get their hands on, they’re using. Landmines have been planted and the absence of proper roads and other basic amenities have, ironically, proved to be an enormous advantage for the Maoist guerilla warfare tactics. Few shops are open and many of those that have dared to lift their shutters have refused to sell supplies or give water to the government troops, many of whom are drained by hunger and the muggy, rain-less heat of the area. People in the area have stories of how the police have beaten up villagers, including women who say they were almost raped. Villages have turned into relief camps and many government officials are doing their best to do some damage control but the Maoists have cemented themselves as Robin-Hood-esque characters in the local people’s minds and the government in Kolkata that sends weapon-wielding men is the enemy. The police said on Saturday that they would reclaim control within 48 hours. It is now Tuesday and it hasn’t happened yet. No one thinks the Maoists are going to win but the fact that they have held out for as long as they have is enough to make some wonder what would happen in they were able to advance to Kolkata.
The Maoists say Lalgarh is their next attempt at wresting power from CPI(M) since their failed attempt at assassinating the Chief Minister last November. On Saturday, the Home Minister released the information that one of the rebel leaders in Lalgarh, Chhatradhar Mahato of People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, could be found in the list of Trinamool Congress’ registered members. The insinuation was obvious: rebels in Lalgarh have the support of the major opposition party in Bengal. This led to Trinamool leader Mamata Bannerjee raising the sound pollution levels in Kolkata to alarming levels. For many, this was a “Ping!” moment, when the bulb switches on above a cartoon character’s head. “It’s curious isn’t it how Trinamool champions a place and in no time, the Maoists show up there,” said one Kolkata intellectual when I asked him what he thought of the Home Minister’s announcement. “It happened in Singur and it’s happening again now but then again, who knows what really is happening behind the fighting.”
There are no Twitter updates or YouTube clips for what is happening around Lalgarh, which is 200km from Kolkata. Phones struggle to grab a mobile network in the area so I wouldn’t hold my breath for wi-fi internet. There’s been a siege for five days now and it has barely enjoyed any attention from Mumbai newspapers though – bless Bengali media – it is all you can see in Kolkata dailies. There’s been some TV footage but it hasn’t been a running ticker at the bottom of the news channels although NDTV has a decent round-up of the news on its website. There’s no mention of it in foreign media (although Al Jazeera has been culling reports on Lalgarh from The Hindu in its India section). You don’t need to smother this news. It’s as though no one really cares that it’s happening. When I said this to someone at the art gallery, they said, “That’s not true! This Lalgarh business is so upsetting!” Then she told me how adorable her granddaughter looks when she says “Mao” (for “miaow”) and how the little girl calls the kittens a stray cat gave birth to last week at their doorstep “Maoists”.