Approximately 15 kilometres beyond Midnapore town, the landscape starts to resemble a war zone, from where the large and once moderately prosperous village of Pirakata is located. A little over a week ago, a mine explosion killed a securityman nearby. Lalgarh is a further 30-odd kilometres away.
There is first the ubiquitous presence of the security forces — patrolling or hunkered down in schools taken over for the past five months or so. Facing a court order, they have to vacate all schools by December. Camps are now being constructed for the forces in good numbers. But more than that behind the deceptive peace of sylvan — and beautiful — countryside the tension is palpable. My guides advise against straying off the main road that winds through the war zone.
The camps are a good place to start if you want to understand the perversity of the Bengal government’s operation against the Maoists. Just over a week ago, the advocate-general of Bengal argued in court that in some contingencies education could take a back seat. The argument was not countenanced. The tribals of West Midnapore and elsewhere had been staunch supporters of the Left 1977 onwards — in fact, the CPI(M) won a number of seats in this belt, including Jhargram, of which the Lalgarh area is a part.
This is a constituency that the CPI(M) has systematically deprived of the right to proper education, healthcare and decent employment opportunities. But that is history. Even after the Lalgarh insurgency happened on the back of police atrocities added to deprivation, the government and the party refused to draw the right conclusions — its joint operations have
deprived a large number of children an education. Some will now have to forfeit a year. And the government justifies this.
Moreover, the operation has not succeeded in landing a single significant Maoist leader, other than Chhatradhar Mahato, if he can be called a Maoist at all. The ultra-Red squads continue to operate in the area with something approaching impunity.
All that the operation has succeeded in doing is alienate the tribal people further for exactly the same reason why the insurgency started in the first place — police atrocities. Security personnel are known to pick up villagers randomly and give them the treatment. Property is routinely vandalized. Villagers are caught in the crossfire. They can’t offer assistance to locate Maoists for fear of reprisal — it would be madness — besides which many for explicable reasons sympathise with the insurgents. And when they don’t help, they face the full force of the farcical operation.
The joint operation and the CPI(M)’s policies have also created a big divide in the Jangalmahal area. I was speaking to a CPI(M) member in Ramgarh, near Lalgarh. He was candid that there had been little development in the area and that the tribals were deprived. But he wasn’t carrying a candle for them. He was intensely critical of both the Maoists and the tribals, berating the latter for not making the best of some of the extra opportunities provided to them by the government in the field of education, for not integrating with the Bengalis and for pushing the case for their own language.
The point is not whether the government has provided educational advantages, of which more later, it is the growing divide between the caste Hindu Bengali people and the tribals. Growing, not least because the joint operation and the intensification of the Maoist offensive has thrown life out of gear in the area. The CPI(M) man says that many people have fled the area — it is obvious. Village after village is littered with shuttered shops, restaurants and other establishments.
As for the educational opportunities, the hyperbole is equally obvious. As we make our way to Lalgarh and back we come across a number of 'primary' schools. They are a joke - ill-clad, famished children scattered around derelict cottages.
This is in the more prosperous areas along the road. In the interiors it is understandably worse. My guides confirm this as they confirm that the party and government have not bent their energies to deliver basic services in the area. And they admit cheerfully that the game is up, not afoot.
The Lalgarh story is part of the bigger story of the CPI(M) in Bengal and more specifically Midnapore. Take corruption. A school teacher, a local committee member, says that substantial funds have been sanctioned for his school, though not released. But already plans are afoot among party leaders in local and zonal committees about how the funds are going to be misappropriated.
The problem, many party men say, is that Alimuddin Street has ceded control over party affairs to its all-powerful district secretary, the notorious Dipak Sarkar, who runs the party and the district like a minor kingdom.
Suhit Sen is a Kolkata-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal