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India: Lalgarh’s battle for dignity and justice

By the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation

September 27, 2009 -- The following appeared as the editorial in the July 2009 issue of Liberation, the central organ of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) – CPI (ML). Since then, while the paramilitary campaign in Lalgarh has ended, repression against the adivasi (tribal) people of Lalgarh continues, with incidents of rape and violence reported. It must be remembered that the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) began in Lalgarh after adivasi women were sexually assaulted by police during an anti-Maoist raid; one woman was blinded. The state government of West Bengal [formed by the pro-business Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front] initiated an enquiry that established the assaults had taken place – but only offered some monetary ``compensation’’ to some of the victims, refusing to meet their demand of punishment for, and a public apology by, the police authorities concerned.

More recently, in the name of an offensive against ``Maoism’’, a paramilitary offensive has been launched in Bastar in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. A CPI (ML) statement on this is also below. At the same time, Chhatradhar Mahato, leader of the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities, has just been arrested, although he continues to vehemently deny being a Maoist.)

* * *

A concerted paramilitary campaign is now underway in Lalgarh and surrounding areas in the tribal-dominated western region of West Bengal[1] bordering Jharkhand and Orissa, ostensibly to flush out Maoists and restore the authority of the state. The campaign though being carried out by the state government is being actively guided and sponsored by the Union Home Ministry [of the Indian government]. The Union Home Minister has warned that the operation may take longer than expected and has appealed to political leaders and civil society organisations not to visit Lalgarh while the operation is on. Mamata Banerjee[2] has called for declaring the three districts of West Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia a disturbed area. The Union Home Ministry has meanwhile included the CPI (Maoist) in the list of unlawful associations under the recently amended Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s appeal against civilian visits to Lalgarh, coming apparently after a group of Left Front MPs wrote to the prime minister seeking his personal intervention to this effect, clearly shows that the government wants to keep the operation beyond the purview of public scrutiny. This is as good as an indirect admission about the real nature and purpose of Operation Lalgarh – a brutal war on the adivasis who had been offering such a determined resistance to state repression. In the absence of independent investigations, the actual extent of casualties and injuries inflicted by the ongoing operation is not really known. But hundreds of people have already been forced to flee and there are disturbing reports that the paramilitary forces are forcing local adivasi youth under duress to locate mines and explosives – under threat that they will be arrested as ``Maoists’’ if they refuse.

Lalgarh had first shot into national prominence in November [2008] when the local adivasis in their thousands revolted against police atrocities following an unsuccessful Maoist mine attack targeting the West Bengal chief minister’s cavalcade. The resistance has since continued unabated, and during the recent elections the state had to negotiate with the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) which is spearheading the resistance, for setting up polling booths outside the resistance area. The state was obviously waiting for an opportune moment and pretext for a crackdown. The opportunity came when Lalgarh recently erupted again against provocations by local Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders. Maoists made tall claims regarding their leading role in the Lalgarh resistance and dared the state to intervene.

At the heart of it, Lalgarh is a typical adivasi revolt against repression and injustice. The entire history of our anti-colonial struggle is replete with many such instances and the Indian state today has no problem recognising the leaders of those revolts as popular heroes. In the eyes of the oppressed and deprived tribal people the Indian state in all these years has not really changed much and retains many of the colonial era trappings of utter insensitivity and unbridled brutality. But when the inheritors of Birsa Munda, Sidho-Kanu and Tilka Manjhi[3] revolt against this contemporary reality, our post-colonial democratic system knows no other way but to declare a virtual war on these seekers of justice. It should be noted that the allegations of police atrocities made by the PCPA have been found to be true by a senior official of the West Bengal government (Backward Classes Welfare Secretary R.D. Meena) but instead of taking adequate corrective measures as demanded by the PCPA the West Bengal government has only announced meagre compensation of only a few thousand rupees to the 11 women victims of police repression!

For the Indian government and its belligerent home minister, who managed to win the recent election by administratively converting defeat into victory, Lalgarh is a test case to unleash a new pattern of governance in which paramilitary forces will become the custodian of constitutional niceties. There is also the larger political game plan to trap the ruling Left Front of West Bengal in an increasingly repressive role while the Congress party plays the benefactor and monopolises the mask of welfare measures!

For the people of West Bengal, Operation Lalgarh is a political eye-opener. During the recent elections, Mamata Banerjee claimed to champion the cause of the struggles in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh, and the local Trinamool Congress (TMC) says the Maoists need to be politically isolated from the people they are mobilising, even as West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee[4] demands more central forces and Sitaram Yechury[5] asks the prime minister to demonstrate his seriousness in tackling what his government claims to be the biggest threat to internal security! On the one hand, the government spearheads a paramilitary operation, and the MPs seek personal intervention of the prime minister to prevent political leaders from visiting the operation area, and on the other hand the party talks of fighting a political battle against Maoists! If the CPI(M) thinks that all this can be justified by invoking the party-government distinction and that the centre-state or Congress-CPI (M) cooperation in ``restoring the authority of the state’’ in Lalgarh could help check the TMC’s advance, it is only deceiving itself.

As for the Maoists, they have only once again demonstrated the incompatibility of their ideas and actions with the needs of any radical people’s movement. With their penchant for exclusive and sensational military actions and aversion to the mass political process, they ultimately only produce a dampening and disruptive effect on any powerful people’s movement while letting the Mamata Banerjees reap the political benefit of people’s struggles and sacrifices.

We join the democratic opinion of the country and the justice-loving people of Lalgarh to demand an immediate end to the paramilitary offensive, withdrawal of paramilitary forces and a negotiated resolution of the conflict through fulfilment of the just demands of the Lalgarh people and quick redressing of all their long-standing grievances.

We also do not support the idea of banning the CPI (Maoist) as a terrorist organisation. The Maoists are anyway an underground organisation and the experience of states like Chhattisgarh and Orissa, where they have been banned for years, clearly shows that the ban has been ineffective from the point of view of checking Maoist military actions. The ban is actually a weapon to terrorise the common people and stifle the democratic voice of protest. The case of Dr. Binayak Sen is a clear instance and for every Binayak Sen case that comes to the limelight, there are always hundreds of lesser-known activists and ordinary men and women whose human rights continue to be brutally trampled upon.

Victory to Lalgarh’s glorious battle for dignity and justice!

Halt paramilitary offensive in Chhattisgarh

Statement issued by CPI (ML) Central Committee, September 20, 2009

Halt ``Operation Green Hunt''.

War on the people cannot bring peace to Bastar.

Disbanding Salwa Judum and ensuring rights of adivasi people is the only road to peace.

The paramilitary offensive launched in Bastar by CoBRA[6] battalions along with state police is a matter of grave concern for all those who seek the return of peace in the region. The experience of counter-insurgency offensives in other parts of the country, as well as that of the past few years in Chhattisgarh itself, have clearly shown that paramilitary ``cleansing operations’’ never bring peace or end militancy. In effect, such operations have invariably spelt a war on the people, with mass-scale violations of human rights, and have been quite ineffective in checking military actions by Maoists or insurgent groups.

The Indian government, by sponsoring a militaristic offensive in Bastar and backing up the Chhattisgarh government in the patronage of a private militia (the Salwa Judum[7]), is not even heeding the recommendations of the expert committee appointed by the Planning Commission[8]. In its report submitted in early 2008, this committee had explicitly counselled against ineffective militaristic solutions, pointing instead to the need to address the “socio-economic malaise” caused by the state’s failure to ensure basic constitutional entitlements to the poorest and most deprived of people.

In a highly irresponsible manner, the [Indian government’s] Home Ministry is accompanying its offensive with screaming ads displaying photographs claimed to be victims of ``naxalites’’ who, the ad claims are “nothing, but cold-blooded murderers”. Civilian killings by Maoists are indefensible. But killings of innocents by the state, in order to brand them as extremists in death, is surely a far more heinous offence. The Home Ministry is silent on the numerous ``encounters’’ in Bastar, where villagers have identified the victims as innocent adivasis rather than ``dreaded naxalites’’. The Ishrat Jehan[9] case has emphasised that ``encounters’’ which are yet to proved genuine by a judicial enquiry are all too likely to be fake. Are fake encounters not cold-blooded murders? An estimated 2 lakh adivasi people of Bastar have been rendered homeless since the launch of the Salwa Judum offensive in 2005. There have been several charges of rape and looting against leaders of the Salwa Judum. What passes for the ``counterinsurgency’’ operation in Chhattisgarh is clearly nothing but a war on the people.

The only road to peace in Bastar, in this situation, can be for the state and central governments to immediately put an end to the war on the people by private militia (Salwa Judum) and paramilitary; to ensure the return of the displaced adivasis to their villages; and guarantee of their rights to land, livelihood and life.



[1] The Indian state of West Bengal, ruled for the past 30 years by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front. In recent parliamentary elections, the ruling CPI (M) suffered huge reverses.

[2] Leader of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the main ruling-class opposition party in West Bengal, whose coalition with the Congress party in the last parliamentary elections won a landslide victory with the majority of the seats in the state.

[3] Adivasi (tribal) heroes and martyrs of the freedom struggle against British colonialism.

[4] CPI (M) West Bengal chief minister.

[5] CPI (M) politburo member.

[6] Commando Battalion for Resolute Action – a central paramilitary force in India.

[7] http://www.cgnet.in/N1/hurightspressrelease for facts on Salwa Judum by a human rights group. There have since been several more damning facts revealed about the Salwa Judum; see http://www.tehelka.com/story_main42.asp?filename=Ne180709coverstory.asp to read about tribal women who are trying to get a magistrate to register their case in court accusing top leaders of the Salwa Judum of rape.

[9] A 19-year-old young woman, a college student, who along with three other men was shot dead in a reported ``encounter’’ five years ago in Gujarat, branded by Gujarat police as terrorists plotting to kill the Gujarat chief minister. Recently a magisterial enquiry established that she and the other three men were innocent, and that the ``encounter’’ was faked.

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Lalgarh: Background of the movement

Nov 13, 2008: Background of the movement

By Partho Sarathi Ray, Sanhati.

The events that have been happening during the last one week in the adivasi (tribal) belt of West Midnapur district in West Bengal are so unprecedented that the authorities do not know how to respond to them, and the media doesn’t understand their significance.

Even the political parties and civil society are at a loss trying to come to terms with what is happening. What had started off as protests against police brutalities in Lalgarh have turned into a full scale uprising against state oppression and dispossession. Nothing like this has been witnessed in West Bengal in living memory.

The entire chain of events started after the 2nd November land mine explosion targeting the convoy of West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and union steel and mines minister Ram Vilas Paswan as they were returning from the inauguration of the Jindal Steel Works special economic zone (SEZ) in Salboni in West Midnapore district.

Around 5000 acres of land have been acquired for this project, of which 4500 acres have been handed over by the government and 500 acres have been purchased directly by Jindal from landowners. Reportedly, a large portion of this land was vested with the government for distribution amongst landless tribals as part of the land reforms program and also included tracts of forests. Moreover, although the land was originally acquired for a “usual” steel plant, last September Jindal got SEZ status for the project, with active help from the state government, which dispensed with the requirement for following most regulations for building and running the plant, including crucial requirements such as doing an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The government was, and is, not bothered about the setting up of an SEZ having a polluting steel plant in the middle of a forested area, dispossessing tribals from their land and endangering their means of survival. Understandably, there were major grievances amongst the tribals against this, although the mainstream media had constantly portrayed a very rosy picture of the entire project.

The land mine explosion was blamed as usual on the Maoist insurgents allegedly active for a long time in Salboni and the adjacent Lalgarh area. According to press reports, the Maoist movement is active in twelve police station areas in the three adjoining districts of West Midnapur, Bankura and Purulia. Three junior-level policemen were suspended and show-cause notices were served on a few senior officers for negligence of duty.

Usually, the police harass and arrest tribal villagers after every Maoist attack; this time in order to hide their own failure in providing security to its political masters, and to save their skin from the wrath of the government, the police went on a rampage in the tribal villages. Having no clue about the real perpetrators of the land mine explosion, they started beating up and arresting people indiscriminately. Among the first to be arrested were three teenage students, Aben Murmu, Gautam Patra and Buddhadeb Patra, who were returning from a village festival during the night. They were charged with sundry charges including waging war against the state, conspiracy, attempt to murder, using dangerous weapons and obstructing justice. Then during the day on 4th November, an armed police party arrested Dipak Pratihar of Kantapahari village while he was buying medicine from a chemist’s shop in Lalgarh for his pregnant wife Lakshmi. In the process the police brutally beat up Lakshmi and threw her to the ground. She had to be subsequently hospitalized. Ten people were arrested during the police raids and beaten up, including a retired teacher Khsamananda Mahato and a civil contractor Shamsher Alam from Chotopeliya village, who was visiting the area for a day for some construction work. Although these two people were subsequently released, as the police could not formulate any charges against them, the rest were kept in police custody.

The police and CRPF, led by the officer in charge of Lalgarh police station, Sandeep Sinha Roy and the superintendent of police of West Midnapore district, Rajesh Singh, unleashed a reign of terror in 35 villages encompassing the entire tribal belt of Lalgarh. In raids throughout the night of November 6th, women were brutally kicked and beaten up with lathis and butts of guns. Among the injured, Chitamani Murmu, one of whose eyes was hit by a gun butt, and Panamani Hansda, who was kicked on her chest and suffered multiple fractures, had to hospitalized. Chitamani’s lost her eye because of the injury. Eight other women were badly wounded. These police brutalities soon reached a point where the adivasis had no other option but to rise up in revolt.

The adivasis of India are one of the most oppressed and downtrodden groups of people in the country. Police oppression is nothing new to the Santhal adivasis of the Bankura-Purulia-Midnapore area. But the unprecedented atrocities inflicted by the police in the past week, especially the wanton attack on women, wore out their patience. On the night of 6th November they assembled near the Lalgarh police station and surrounded it, effectively cutting it off, and the policemen inside, who had been rampaging in villages the previous night but had now locked themselves inside the police station, did not dare to venture out. Electricity to the police station was disconnected and all the lights were broken.

What began as rumblings of protest took the shape of a spontaneous mass uprising the next day. On 7th November, when the ruling CPI(Marxist) was “observing” the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution throughout West Bengal, ten thousand Santhal men and women, armed with traditional weapons, came out and obstructed the roads leading to Lalgarh, disconnecting it from Midnapur and Bankura. Roads were dug up and tree trunks were placed on the road to obstruct the entry of police vehicles, in the same way as it had been done in Nandigram.

The police jeep and the CPI(M) motorcycle have long been symbols of oppression and terror for villagers throughout West Bengal, so this digging up of roads, besides actually inhibiting the movements of these agents of oppression, have become a symbol of defiance and liberation. Towards the night of 7th November, the people also disconnected telephone and electricity lines, virtually converting a vast area into a liberated zone. The apex social organization of the Santhals, the Bharat Jakat Majhi Madwa Juan Gaonta took up the leadership of the struggle, although the leader of the organization, the “Disham Majhi” Nityananda Hembram has himself admitted that the organization has no control over the movement; rather the movement is controlling the organization.

Smaller organizations of the tribals, such as the Kherwal Jumit Gaonta, that have been playing active roles in the struggle have openly called for armed resistance, stating that there is no other way for the survival of the adivasis.

The demands of the adivasis were so “earthy” and original that the administration did not know how to respond. The demands were that the superintendent of police Rajesh Singh should publicly apologize by holding his ears and doing sit-ups, a traditional way of punishing errant youngsters, the guilty policemen should crawl on the streets of the villages where they had tortured people, rubbing their noses on the ground, again another traditional way of humiliating wrongdoers, and Rs 200,000 compensation for the injured and assaulted. The demands were marked by the total reliance of the adivasis on their traditional systems of dispensing justice, and not looking up to the formal judicial process which they have realized is by nature weighted against the poor and marginalized. Although these demands have since been modified to an unconditional oral apology from the police superintendent and punishment for the policemen involved in the raids, the administration has arrogantly refused to accept these demands, although they have said that the demand of compensation can be considered.

However, the adivasis have been in no mood to accept this “offer” and the upsurge has spread over an even wider area encompassing Dahijuri, Binpur, Jhargram and Bandowan.

The administration has virtually disappeared from these areas. On 10th November, adivasis led by the tribal social organizations set up new roadblocks in the Dahijuri area. When the police lathicharged the assembled people and arrested some of the leaders of the Gaontas, the situation turned explosive. The tribals surrounded the police officials present and a crowd of few thousand adivasis, armed with bows and arrows, axes and daggers, and led by women wielding broomsticks, chased the police for four kilometers along the road leading to Jhargram. The police were forced to retreat from the area and release all the leaders of the social organizations they had arrested.

The movement has been continually intensifying during the past week and spreading over a larger area.

The slogans emanating from the movement have also been changing and now the adivasis are demanding that the dispossession of tribals from their land, forests and water in the name of development and industrialization has to stop. The struggle against state oppression is turning into a bigger struggle against dispossession and marginalization.

The state has been helpless in front of this upsurge and has been trying to “negotiate” with the tribals. But what has been frustrating their efforts is the essentially democratic nature of this upsurge. Although the administration has been holding multiple all-party meetings with the dominant political parties, CPI(M), Trinamool Congress, Congress and the Jharkhand Party, the leaders of these parties have openly admitted to their inability to exert any influence on the adivasis.

The adivasis are not letting any political leaders access to the movement, including tribal leaders like Chunibala Hansda, the Jharkhand Party (Naren faction) MLA from Binpur. They are demanding that any negotiations be carried out in the open rather than behind closed doors. Even traditional leaders like the “Disham Majhi” Nityananda Hembram and other “majhis” are having to talk directly with the adivasis before talking to the administration. Villagers of the ten villages in Lalgarh have formed ten village committees with one coordinating committee to negotiate with the administration. This democratic nature of the upsurge have frustrated all attempts by the administration to “control” the movement till now, and have forced the political parties like the local Trinamool Congress to come out in support, although the state leadership of the party is strangely silent about it.

The state and the CPI(M) have not dared to respond with overt violence yet, although there are news that a motorbike-borne militia is being assembled nearby by Sushanta Ghosh, the notorious CPI(M) minister and Dipak Sarkar, the CPI(M) district secretary. The state has been forced to accede to the bail of the three teenage students arrested by the police and have also send Sandeep Sinha Roy, the notorious O.C of Lalgarh police station, on extended leave. There are also reports that, being unable to quell the resistance, the state government has requested the central government to send paramilitary forces to help in their efforts.

What we are witnessing in the tribal belt of West Bengal is of historical moment. A long oppressed people have risen up and are daring to confront their oppressors and question the logic of “development” that destroys their lives and livelihoods. It is interesting to observe that the nature of confrontation with the state, exceptional in scale and intensity, seems to be inspired by the popular resistance at Nandigram - thereby, providing some sort of continuity to the possibilty of an emerging people’s struggles against state repression.

The West Bengal government has been alleging that the movement is being organized and led by the Maoists, and that the Lalgarh area has become a “liberated zone” for them. These are common ploys used by the CPI(M), the government and its sympathisers to brand and delegitimize popular movements. The mainstream media, a faithful ally of the state in such matters, has been repeating the same allegations and lamenting that such acts, which are being dubbed anarchic in nature, has resulted in the breakdown of civil authority. In this manner, attempts are being made to dissociate the urban civil society and intelligentsia from the movement, who have not yet been able to formulate a response to the upsurge. Moreover, using such rhetoric, the state is perhaps also trying to legitimize whatever steps it wishes to adopt in overcoming the resistance.

It is quite expected that radical political forces would have been active among the adivasis as the latter have been the most downtrodden people in India and it is their land and resources which is being handed over for corporate plunder. However the presence and participation of the Maoists or similar forces in no way delegitimizes this seemingly spontaneous, and democratic, expression of people’s anger. This is amply expressed by what Arati Murmu, a woman who had been assaulted by the police, and who had gone to block the Lalgarh police station had to say:

“Whenever there is a Maoist attack the police raid our villages and torture our women and children. For how long will we suffer this oppression by the police? All of us are Maoists, let the police arrest us. Today we have come out.”

*****

Statement from Sanhati on recent developments

June 16, 2009

From the very inception of the adivasi-moolvasi people’s movement, led by the Peoples’ Committee Against Police Atrocities, in Lalgarh and the entire jangalmahal region of West Bengal, we have expressed our solidarity with their struggle for dignity and the right to be free from state terror in their daily life. The political development in that region has received widespread support and also inspired people across the country. Having challenged the usual manner in which state machinery functions, the people have had to face the terror unleashed on the movement by the private militia (”harmads”) organised by the ruling CPI(Marxist). Such attacks have been strongly condemned by us, along with other political platforms. We feel that the Lalgarh movement has been historic in form and content and we will continue to support it in every possible way.

We are very concerned about the incidents over the past few days, in which a rally of the Peoples’ Committee Against Police Atrocities was fired upon by gunmen allegedly belonging to CPI(M) harmads near the village of Dharmapur. As usual, the front ranks of the rally had women in large numbers, who became the targets of this attack. The rallyists retreated, but thereafter regrouped again and retaliated, resulting in the death of a number of CPI(M) cadres. After this attack by alleged CPI(M) cadres, there has been a spontaneous outburst of popular anger which has resulted in the torching of a CPI(M) party office, CPI(M) leaders have fled from the area, and the police have vacated the three camps near Lalgarh which they had reoccupied. We think that the state might take this opportunity to send in paramilitary forces into the area in the pretext of combating the squads of CPI(Maoist) who are being accused to be behind this unrest. The corporate press is also paving the way for such intervention by the state by representing this peoples’ movement as a front of the Maoists and crying hoarse about the absence of “state control” in the area. We condemn any moves to send in paramilitary forces into the area to let lose a reign of repression on the adivasi-moolvasi people of Lalgarh.

However, we have also been alarmed by incidents in the recent past where some purported CPI(M) supporters in the area have been murdered or inhumanly attacked, allegedly by squads of the CPI(Maoist). We condemn these acts of violence - we feel that such actions are counter-productive for the growth and sustenance of the movement, which itself is directed against state-sponsored violence and which probably has origins in the years of organisational work done by these radical left organisations in the jangalmahal area. We strongly feel that any organisation or group involved in these incidents should refrain from such acts and owe an explanation to the people regarding why such acts were committed.

The recent parliamentary election has resulted in the formation of a central government which is allied to neoliberal interests. Therefore, there is every possibility that more and more anti-people policies will be enacted and thereafter enforced on the common people. This would require increased and widespread mass resistances through alliances of people from different segments of the society. Such a situation necessitates continuous dialogues among different streams of radical left and other democratic voices and evolving programmes, which are inclusive of all forms of struggles, through a process of debate and discussion - we remain committed to this process.

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