Many years ago, to illustrate the volume of counterfeit liquor in the Indian market, the chairman of the distillers J&B had told me that more Scotch is drunk in India than is bottled in all of Scotland. Today, watching the TV coverage of Lalgarh, I wonder if there are more Maoists in West Bengal than in all of India. The belief that this is a purely Maoist movement is a classic case of post hoc ergo propter hoc (‘after this, therefore because of this’), the logical fallacy behind most superstitious beliefs.
The Lalgarh saga was preceded by a Maoist landmine attack in November 2008 on the convoy of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, but the unrest was actually triggered by the police excesses that followed. Incensed by their inability to protect their political masters, they arbitrarily attacked and arrested villagers. Tired of being ignored by the state, except for the brutal attentions of the police, and encouraged by Maoists who had been waiting for such an event, the local adivasis rose in revolt and paralysed the administration. What started as a people’s movement fitted in beautifully with the grand Maoist plan to create autonomous regions founded on tribal identity stretching across central India.
When you have a power vacuum, opportunistic political interests like Mamata-didi or Mao-dada will rush in and violence will follow. But we aren’t seeing classic Maoist violence. The Maoist’s natural prey is the police, but no one’s tried to murder policemen in the months since November. Is the target the state, which sponsored underdevelopment and police brutality? The party, which had a stranglehold here? The casualties were CPI(M) cadres, but the picture is unclear. After three decades of Marxist rule in West Bengal, the party, the state and its executive appendages, including the police, have fused into an ugly boil in urgent need of lancing.
Insurgencies, like the Maoist one, feed off governance failure, especially in tribal areas. Take a map of India, mark off underdeveloped areas and insurgency flashpoints and you will find an amazing degree of congruence. It gets worse when state or party attempts to retain control by using the police as its armed enforcers, instead of investing in development. Even peaceable people become receptive to the idea of armed resistance, allowing a handful of Maoists to seize control of vast territories.
Underdevelopment will persist for reasons of political chicanery and administrative inefficiency. But surely we can prevent the police from being used as the private army of the political establishment. A non-partisan police could have reduced the degree of violence seen in Ayodhya, Gujarat, Nandigram and Delhi in 1984 — tragedies scripted by three distinct political groups. Ever since the Emergency, a need has been felt to reform the police from a colonial occupation army into a modern public protection force. But reform was repeatedly stonewalled by political interests. In 2006, an exasperated Supreme Court ordered measures to free the police from political interference and make it accountable. Even this order was resisted by many states, including West Bengal.
After the Batla House ‘terrorist encounter’ in Delhi, Manmohan Singh had advised the police to ask themselves why they were mistrusted. Today, it would be useful for our chief ministers and home ministers to ask themselves the very same question.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine.