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The siege of red fort

india Updated: Jun 21, 2009 00:09 IST
Highlight Story

Lalgarh empties minutes after the air force transport helicopter dumps thousands of leaflets at eight-thirty in the morning on Friday. Most drift away into the surrounding jungle and farmland, insistent flocks in a clear blue sky strangely bereft of birds. The helicopter is too high, concerned about the firepower of Maoist rebels; but the message floats home. I grab one.

"Mitten Aardash," the leaflet pleads in Awlchiki, a local dialect, on one side; on the other, in Bengali. It is an appeal from the government of West Bengal.
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Obstacle course Maoists use trees to block the Bhimpur-Lalgarh road near Bhimpur, so police forces cannot get in. All roads to Lalgarh have been blocked or dug up for a similar reason

“Galmarao kataygay etketonray reyah shomadhan daw huoy dareyah aa. Shontrashbadiyah oundichtay aalopay tarama. Shanam hor orah ruour jong pay. Elakaray shanti dohoy koumiray proshashon gor emaye pay.”

Only discussion can lead to a solution. Don’t pay attention to the propaganda of terrorists. Go back to your homes. Help the administration bring peace back to the area.

It’s a little late. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government has had since 1977 to work things out in this southwestern corner of West Bengal, abutting Jharkhand, a mere 200-km drive west of Kolkata. Populated mostly by the adivasi and migrants from elsewhere in the state, it’s an area where most, according to official statistics, live on “Rs 20 or less a day”. Local party bosses are satraps: they administer, extort, provide instant justice. It is a bellicose, corrupt, entrenched system, finally rattled by the stunning reverses suffered by CPI (M) at the general elections just weeks ago.

And so, it has come to this, as Maoists would have it: a veritable war on the people, so we shall make it of the people, and by the people. As elsewhere, so too in Lalgarh, this proto-Dantewada, -Gadhchiroli, -Koraput, -Malkangiri; the latest ‘name’ in an intended Maoist ground zero assiduously watered and tended with a compost of anger, propaganda and planning.

Lalgarh is not yet a ‘liberated zone’, much as Maoist propaganda and some giddy media would have it. Such a zone would truly emerge if Maoist cadre and sympathisers are able to successfully defend it from attack, and with impunity run a de-facto administration. This is yet to be.
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Red Vs Red The remains of the CPI(M) party office at Lalgarh Chowk. A Bengali translation of Yevgeniya Stepanova’s biography of Karl Marx lies half-burnt among the debris. There’s not a hint of the CPI(M) flag anywhere in Lalgarh. Even the CPI(M) logo on graffiti has been daubed out with cowdung

“Why are you closing shop so early?” I ask Shaktidhar Pyne. He is the proprietor of the modest-sized Pyne Bashonalaya, that sells utensils.

“What else is there?” he replies in Bengali, yanking down shutters. “Poristhiti.”

The situation. Along with shontrash, terror, it is these days top of the Lalgarh lexicon.

He has heard the news, the same as others, on live television that has become the information lifeline of Lalgarh, along with that modern-day jungle drum: mobile telephony. Police and paramilitary are massed at Bhimpur, just 8 kilometres to the east. They have moved up from Pirakatha, where on Thursday paramilitary waded into townspeople and media persons in an attempt to flush out Maoists and activists of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, a Maoist-backed outfit of locals that has set a cordon sanitaire in the Lalgarh region. It is led by the canny, media-savvy Chhatradhar Mahato, who has a temporary base in Boropelia village, the inaccessible road to it past the nervously guarded, isolated Lalgarh police station. (Mahato has ordered a boycott of police and paramilitary; residents in the zone are not to sell them anything.) The area of Lalgarh chowk near Satyanarayan Mistanna Bhandar is desperately abuzz. People are stocking up on siege provisions: cereal and vegetables, muri or puffed rice, some medicines. As I take rapid, pre-shut down sips of “raw cha”, black tea with a dash of rock-salt, at a crowded rickety sit-down, talk before dispersal is urgent.

Troops have begun to move. No, they have not. They will move at 2 p.m. No, they will not; they will move tomorrow at dawn. Dhootteri! They are scared of Maoists. No, they are not. The helicopter: see, if it can drop “handbills”, it can drop bombs. No, it cannot; if it could, they would have said so on TV.

My co-traveller, Soumitra, a photographer with this newspaper, and I move in the direction of Bhimpur, past the downed shutters of Queen Saloon, Das Cycle Stores, Hasina Bedding Stores, Joy Maa Kali Teleco — names redolent of Other India. We come to the northern edge of Lalgarh, where the forest of sal and waist-high foliage begins. We stop at a big banyan near the veterinary hospital. There is a clay elephant and horse by the tree, a shrine to placate the local — and mythical — watchman. Soumitra takes a call from a friend at Bhimpur. I overhear the conversation.

Where are you? In Lalgarh. Still there? Yes. But all media have left, and the Maoists have mined Lalgarh. Where? At a place near the veterinary hospital, there’s a big banyan there — where are you? At the banyan, near the veterinary hospital.
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Bridge to nowhere This rickety wooden bridge over the Kangsabati river, less than a kilometre from Lalgarh, was burnt by the Maoists a few hours after the HT team had crossed it by taxi to get to the town. The bridge is the only way vehicles can cross the river.

“We are caught in the middle,” says Bidyut Mondol, a resident, before he disappears into a hovel behind Suchandra Sweets.

“Where can we go?”

The question has also occurred to us.

Maoists burnt the wooden bridge at midnight, four hours after we had driven across on Thursday. It’s the one we had used to come into Lalgarh from the south, from Jhargram, and past the quaintly named Aamkola — literally, Mango-Banana — village, over the mostly dry Kangsabati that offered a slim ribbon of stacked sand, reed matting, and overlay of gravel. The fifty-metre span of planks over four narrow steel girders supported by stout logs is the only way for vehicles to cross the water, in the summer. During the monsoons, folks use boats, now awaiting the nudge of rain fed river.

With the burn, every other way in, or out, is now gone. The roads that snake through forest and farmland southwest, southeast, north and east, are cut — literally — and blocked with small, medium and massive trees. We test every route. A motorcycle or cycle can sneak through, not the small taxi in which we travelled to Lalgarh. An attempt to travel out on a road past Chamitara hamlet takes us past twenty-five tree barriers, seven cuts in the road, and a barrier of sand. We move trees, go off-road, nearly flip the car over. We partially fill a couple of deep ditches, using bare hands and a borrowed shovel. At Anhatjora, near the southeastern edge of the temporal Lalgarh, we meet a barrier of people, all armed men and women, who surround our car in seconds, as we try to move a palm tree in our path.

The barriers are to prevent several companies of forces of the state from entering Lalgarh, the emotive centre of a ring of fire that is really a mirror to our failures as a nation.

They are powered by acronyms, these forces. CRPF and BSF you would have heard of: Central Reserve Police Force — frontline paramilitaries; and Border Security Force, now often tasked to handle unrest in the heartlands of India. There’s a third, a chalk of self-important bureaucratese: CoBRA — Combat Battalion for Resolute Action, conscripted last year to battle Maoist rebels.

Government forces will attempt to stamp the authority of the state, as well as the state of West Bengal. They will have a lot of ground to cover.

I didn’t see a flag of the CPI (M) in the area. In places, wall-borne party logos are daubed with cow dung. At others, offices are destroyed, as are houses of its dons. The local CPI (M) party office in tiny Lalgarh town is awash in destroyed furniture, remains of half-eaten meals, paperwork and pamphlets that claim progress. A half-burnt biography of Karl Marx by Yevgeniya Stepanova lies amidst debris that partly blocks the dust track of S.I. Road. At Dharampur, a village southeast of Lalgarh we manage to reach, the ruined house of local CPI (M) don ‘Dalim’ Pandey still smokes from a two day-old fire set by PCAPA activists.

“Where is he?” I ask Pintu, his 14 year-old cousin, as he follows me into the shattered interior, curious.

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In the dark Tense villagers watch television news at Lalgarh Chowk on Thursday night. Television and the mobile phone have become the information lifeline of the area, telling residents where the troops are and where they are expected to move next
"I don’t know," he says. "Who knows? Who are you?"

There isn’t a CPI (M) worker or leader to be found. They have been threatened, beaten and more than a dozen killed this past month. This is Maoist S.O.P. — standard operating procedure. Move in, cultivate a base, pick up grouses, threaten ‘class’ enemies, kill a few, scare away the rest, claim territory.

The last major provocation came in November 2008. A motorcade in which West Bengal’s chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was travelling, along with two Union ministers, was targeted by Maoists in Salboni, northeast of Lalgarh. The landmines missed the target. In retaliation, West Bengal police were given free reign to query. They went overboard, and targeted locals — men, women and sometimes, minors — in a wide swathe of the Lalgarh zone. And PCAPA had a ready leverage in an area where Maoists have for years been influential. With the CPI (M)’s election debacle in May, Maoist planners scaled up in Lalgarh.

It proved yet again an axiom: anger makes warriors of the meek. The state doesn’t get it. Maoists do.

The ring around Lalgarh is explosive. Past the hamlet of Phulberia, we join several hundred tribals on a march, women in front, men behind, children scampering alongside. These are Chhatradhar’s ‘people’. A few hold PCAPA banners with slogans that urge people to stand firm in the face of “elections through the police”; to evict all police from jangalkhand, or the forest areas. A few beat on drums to provide energy. And all — absolutely all — carry an assortment of tribal weaponry.

Bows and arrows; spears; crude swords; wood-cutting axes; the curved adivasi batte-axe, the tangi; sickles, stout bamboo staffs; knives. Men and women break into martial cry: a chilling, staccato ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, with the back of the palm rapidly moved in front of the mouth to break up an extended howl.

They are a Maoist-indicated line of defence against seasoned troopers. The march is a display of intent, a morale booster. A few young men, their faces covered, move up and down the line, exhorting the marchers, keeping an eye on us.

“Why?” I ask Sudhakar Mahato of Phulberia, as we snake past the hamlets of Salpatra, Kendangri, Bandorboni, Kumeer Katra; a collection of dirt-poor, dark hovels mocked by signs that proclaim “electrification” under the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikran Yojana.

“We have little but our pride,” he says. “If the police start their shontrash then we will have nothing left. And what if something happens to our mothers, sisters and daughters?”

It is a no-win for the state. If its forces do not arrive, the state will cede territory to Maoists. Or, there will be a bloody battle. Simple folk will die. Others will be made fearful, resentful, angry. And Maoists will leverage this negative energy.

The jungle drum rings. Paramilitary and Maoists are trading bullets in Bhimpur; nearby, a police jeep is destroyed by landmine. Communist Party of India (Maoist) Politburo member M Koteswara Rao, ‘Kishan-ji’, has asked media to move out of the area. If media travels with security forces, Maoist operations will be hampered. And so, their safety cannot be guaranteed.

The battle for Lalgarh has begun.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country

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