At the border of West Bengal and Jharkhand where Lalgarh lies, it was once common to see adivasi hunters bringing home the kill slung from a bamboo pole. Almost everyone has seen the high culture version, sepia prints of maharajas and ICS-wallahs bringing home tigers to be skinned. But on Thursday morning, a modern travesty of those images appeared in the papers — dead Maoists, some of them women, slung from poles by their wrists and ankles like the quarry of the hunt. They’re only pictures, but pictures matter.
The first offensive against the Maoists in Lalgarh on Wednesday was a strategic success. A small arsenal has been seized and, more importantly, radio sets which may have been looted from the CRPF camp in Silda. They constituted a serious security risk, since the Maoists may have used them to eavesdrop on frequencies used by the security forces. But the operation was not an unqualified success, because those newspaper images are going to haunt the home ministry. And now, the solitary ‘Maoist’ taken alive has been revealed to be a mentally-challenged mute boy.
The battle against Maoism is partly a contest for hearts and minds, and how it is advanced by such imagery is not obvious. The way the villager sees it, Maoists are counterpoised against the government on the scales of power. Power which is gauged by the primordial index of the ability to inflict arbitrary violence. The challenge is to highlight the legitimacy of the government versus the illegitimacy of the cadre. If they are seen to be equally brutal and arbitrary, the purpose is defeated. In fact, if the paramilitaries had not indulged in arbitrary violence against villagers while breaking the siege of Lalgarh a year ago, maybe they would not have had to remain engaged there.
Nationally, publicity like this squanders the advantage that the government now enjoys among the majority. They would never support far Left methods anyway, and they are exasperated with random Maoist violence. But they are also sensitised to State brutality and a vocal section will oppose it. Some, of course, will argue that Maoists deserve no better, having declared war against the Indian State. Well, so have the Pakistanis on several occasions. I don’t recall their battlefield casualties ever being treated like this.
The Maoist issue is on the radar of the international community, which becomes an interested party in every conflict these days. India has a rather poor human rights record. We are seized of the problem after decades of judicial action, but much remains to be done. The Supreme Court ruled against narco-analysis, which is classified as torture in several countries, only a month ago, though on legal rather than humanitarian grounds. We can do without needlessly callous or brutal behaviour from the State at this point.
We have had a long history of the ultra-Left being savagely put down. Even in the cities — Kolkata was a battleground in the 70s. There’s a long history because a brutal State response works only temporarily. The current wave of Maoist assertion has to be put down but now, brute force alone will be even less adequate than in the past. Because now we get the picture, and image matters more than ever before.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal