The demonstrations of the indigenous tribal people [‘adivasis’] of West Bengal, India against longstanding police brutality have not dissipated with time, contrary to the expectations of the police, the ruling party of West Bengal the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], and the other mainstream parties, the Congress and the longtime Hindutva fascist allied Trinamool Congress. The movement that had its roots in a sleepy hamlet of Lalgarh in West Midnapore district of West Bengal, India has spread and matured. It has come to pose a major threat to the CPI(M), the self-proclaimed vanguard of the ‘backward castes’: the entire movement was without conventional leadership, and the villages that have been touched by this movement have done away with all traditional political leaders and tribal elders and elected a People’s Committee against Police Atrocities comprising five men and five women. They vehemently criticize the CPI(M) for the absence of development, even though they have been in the government continuously for almost 33 years now. Under the pressure of the movement even the government has, at least on occasions, had to accept that the funds allocated for tribal development have been misused.
The adivasi movement has been completely non-violent and democratic, as it has depended on mass mobilizations of tribal people, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for the police and the ruling party to brand them as ‘Maoists’. For the West Bengal government, now repeatedly faced with popular dissent from the left, branding dissenters as ‘Maoist extremists’, thus justifying the use of murderous repressive violence, has become a convenient practice. This has long been the practice in many other states of India, but only in the last years has the CPI(M)-dominated government of West Bengal set down this tragic road. The turning point came in the villages of Singur and Nandigram, where blundering attempts at the expropriation of rural cultivators in order to set up capitalist Special Economic Zones [‘SEZs’] turned many against the CPI(M) and led to violence. But unlike Nandigram, the tribal people taking part in the present movement have not had to defend themselves by force as their mass base is almost absolute and geographically they are too widespread to be surrounded and attacked. And their demands, far from being revolutionarily or radical, are about basic democratic rights and assurance that they will not be illegally detained and tortured by the police for being ‘suspected Maoists’.
These developments have without doubt caused distress at the highest levels, both at the Home Ministry in New Delhi with its U.S. advisers, and at police and party headquarters in Calcutta. It has thus become increasingly necessary to drive this organized movement onto violent paths so that it could be justifiably suppressed with violence. On the morning of 25th January, these forces, in a textbook CIA-style operation, abducted and murdered Nirmal Sardar, a leading organizer of the Tribal movement in the Belpahari region of West Midnapore. The adivasi movement which prided itself in being able to achieve such success without shedding a drop of blood had their first martyr. Nirmal Sardar was murdered the same day the Peoples Committee had called for a massive demonstration near Belpahari. The committee, bravely, went ahead with their programme. And, as if this justified murder, police attempted to brand Nirmal a Maoist squad member (The Telegraph, Monday, January 26, 2009).
The murder of an organizer added another dimension to the program and the speakers called for the people to be even more determined and demonstrate in front of the police station against the murder of their beloved activist. Speakers called upon all locals to boycott that administration completely, putting forth the success of similar strategies in Lalgarh protests. The Lalgarh blockade that carried on for weeks had indeed successfully earned the people their rights to normal life and brought lasting peace in Lalgarh, free from police excesses. The rally of 25th January was a huge success with large number of the tribal population turning up in thousands with their traditional weapons and drums to display more of their spirit and culture than aggression. They distributed leaflets, played traditional music in their drums and listened to speeches all with the same intensity. There were even human rights and political groups from cities, who were welcome and shared the stage.
This major mobilization took place at Chakadoba village near Belpahari and was significant. It was a successful attempt to encourage the tribal population of the region to come out and participate in demonstrations, defying the police terror. Belpahari, which was supposed to be a major tourist destination, has been a centre of police atrocities in Bengal for quite some years; it has been among the first places where the adivasis rose up to demand their rights, but as they failed to spread their movement, the government choked them and terrorized them. This indeed led to many adivasi youth joining the Maoists and picking up arms in retaliation. And in turn this has led to further torture and staged ‘encounters’ by the police. Evidently there has never been a positive initiative on the part of the administration to seek real solutions to the grassroots economic and social problems. All their energies and money have been spent on fortifying the police stations, acquiring anti-mine vehicles and arming the police with sophisticated weapons. The only thing this has done is to make more and more adivasi youths run away from their homes in fear of arbitrary police torture and join the resistance. The present movement has learnt from the Belpahari experience. It has not been on a small scale and un-coordinated. It has come forth on a large scale both in terms of support and geographic area; and with time it has become close knit and well organized. In fact the Lalgarh movement that has moved beyond its borders has given the Belpahari adivasi a new voice and a new support. The meeting on the afternoon of Nirmal’s death saw 89 buses and trucks packed with adivasi activists, both inside and on top, coming from far-off villages in solidarity. As always a major percentage of them were women.
The next attempt at discrediting the movement came when on 1st February: CPI(M) leader Nandalal Pal was shot dead near Lalgarh, the epicenter of the movement, where the strength and support of this movement was absolute. Fingers were pointed at Maoists and the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities which has long been under scanner for any Maoist link. Exploiting the brutality and tragedy of the incident, the local CPI(M) became busy trying to blame the Maoists or the Committee for the murder. The best they could come up with was ‘retaliation against the murder of Nirmal Sardar’ (The Telegraph, Monday, February 2, 2009). However, murdering an opposition leader at a place where he had no influence seemed too weak a political motive, and soon theories of the police themselves carrying out this act in order to discredit the people’s movement emerged. Then on 2nd February, as the Committee was holding a scheduled mass meeting, a CPI(M) procession mourning Nandalal’s death passed the meeting, and suddenly gunshots were fired from within the procession towards the meeting, killing two people on the spot and injuring seven more. This has caused violent repercussions with blockades being erected all around Lalgarh and other villages and police vehicles being set to fire. Even as I write the protest is taking new turns, and the entire movement with it. Unfortunately, past experience has proved that only with many more martyrs and blood do the media and the general urban masses take note of, let alone protest, such atrocities. What we are seeing is an attempt by the centre to use the West Bengal police, with the blind and mistaken assistance of the leadership of the West Bengal CPI(M), to extend the fascist police repression of the adivasi that has brought civil war to Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand to West Bengal. The people of West Bengal must prevent this disaster from happening.
Koustav De is an activist in India.