By Swapan Dasgupta
As a schoolboy in a Calcutta devastated by competing variants of Marxism-Leninism and other exotic viruses, I recall a poster that made its appearance sometime in 1970. Conceived as a parody of Dwijendralal Roy’s well-known play Chandragupta, it had Alexander remarking to his trusted general: “Satya Seleukos ki bichitra ei desh: deeney ora Nakshal, raatey Congress. (Truly Seleukos this is a bewildering place. They are Naxalites by day and Congress at night.)”
Those were fearful and confusing times. On the face of it, the Naxalites were in the midst of their campaign of annihilation of “class enemies”, the CPI(M) was battling the Congress and the Naxalites, and the Congress was in the throes of political churning and reinventing itself as a youth brigade (this predated Sanjay Gandhi) against the Left. On the ground, however, no one was very sure which local militia was with whom and at whose behest. The lines of political identity were very blurred-something Siddhartha Shankar Ray adroitly exploited to finally restore order after 1972, but at a huge cost.
Watching Congress and Trinamool Congress on the one side and CPI(M) stalwarts on the other trade insults and charges over the handling of the insurrection in the Lalgarh area of West Midnapore district is very distressing. It brings to mind an observation of Karl Marx that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. West Bengal is reliving the mean politics of the 1970s which devastated the State to such an extent that it hasn’t yet recovered from the blow after 40 years.
The comparisons with the past are eerie. In the 1970s, thanks to the involvement of large numbers of students from middle-class families, the predominantly Left-wing intelligentsia of West Bengal painted the Naxalite movement as an expression of idealistic anger against a decaying system. It was generally assumed that the Naxalites meant well, even if their methods were a bit extreme. Public intellectuals such as Mrinal Sen, Ranajit Guha and Samar Sen were widely seen to be sympathetic to those who proclaimed “China’s Chairman is our Chairman, China’s path is our path.”
This atmosphere of indulgence enabled the Naxalites to get away with outrageous acts of murder and vandalism. The routine desecration of statues of national figures, including Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, and the murder of ageing vice-chancellors and traffic policemen, were looked upon either as revolutionary grandstanding or youthful excesses. Even Charu Mazumdar’s demented assertion that the knife was a better way to kill a class enemy than firing with a gun resonated as a major theoretical debate.
Today’s Maoists are immeasurably more professional than yesterday’s Naxalites. The quality of their arms and ammunition is comparable (and occasionally better) than those used by the security forces. They have an apparently inexhaustible source of funds raised from ‘taxes’ levied on businesses in ‘liberated areas’. In military terms they are far more focussed and have deliberately confined their activities to forested and relatively inaccessible parts. Unlike the 1970s when they banked on a spontaneous outbreak of the “spring thunder”, the CPI (Maoist) of today is clear about its objective of undermining the Indian state by the creation of liberated areas where its writ prevails. It also seeks alliances with other secessionist movements and even Islamist groups.
The challenge of Maoist extremism has been recognised by all those committed to the preservation of a democratic India. Yet, this has not prevented an outpouring of sympathy for the so-called ‘cause’ the Maoists profess. Human rights activists have emerged as the overground arm of the banned Maoists and various student bodies are operating as thinly-disguised front bodies. The Maoists even scored a propaganda coup of sorts through their campaign to free Binayak Sen, a doctor who operated as a facilitator for a Politburo member of the CPI (Maoist). The Maoist-inspired campaign against the tribal-led Salwa Judum resistance movement has appealed to those who want a stick to beat the BJP with.
It is this cover of liberal sympathy — witness the likes of Aparna Sen and Sumit Sarkar calling for “restraint” by the administration — which is serving the Maoists well in Lalgrah. The opposition to CPI(M) high-handedness in Nandigram was hugely successful and contributed to the Left Front’s defeat in West Bengal in the parliamentary poll. It was the post-poll retreat of the Left that created the vacuum which the Maoists have filled in Lalgarh — with some help from the Trinamool Congress.
The Maoists have done what the CPI(M) has perfected in many parts of rural Bengal: Uprooting all those opposed to them by force. Yet, there is one major difference. The CPI(M) sought monopoly political control; the Maoists seeks a parallel state, a springboard for encroachments into the rest of West Bengal and Jharkhand.
The ‘liberation’ of Lalgarh is an assault on Indian sovereignty. Its national cost is unacceptable. The Centre cannot afford to prevaricate.
It is one thing to oppose the CPI(M) politically as the Congress and Trinamool Congress have been doing. However, it is an act of extreme short-sightedness to use the State Government’s disarray to prevent sustained military action against the Maoists. Worse is to cite the plight of tribals to allow the well-armed Maoists to consolidate their hold. Orissa is a case study of the futility of a kid glove approach.
India is paying a heavy price for the narrow partisanship that has marred anti-Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh. If the process is repeated in Lalgarh the Maoist dream of a contiguous chunk of ‘liberated’ area in the heart of India will become a reality. The political approach to fighting Left-wing extremism means the surgical detachment of excising a cancer. This is as true for Bastar and Dandakaranya as it is for West Midnapore.