Mamata & The Maoists

Mamata & The Maoists

There has been an on-again off-again war between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) and the “Naxalites” (the general term given to the Maoist affiliated parties which are conducting armed struggle against the state) for more than three decades in the Indian state of Paschimbanga (the new name of “West Bengal” in western India).  In places like Lalgarh, Nandigram, and Singur, the Naxalites, local peasants and indigenous people (also called adivasis) have recently fought back against seizures of land and police repression by the ruling CPM and placed a spotlight on the corporate-led development that the putatively Marxist party was pursuing.  In its quest to develop Paschimbanga, the CPM unleashed a systematic campaign of intimidation and violence that included its own cadres as well as paid militias (called the “Harmad Vahini” in Bangla) which functioned as the paramilitary wing of the security forces.  The CPM suspended legal procedures which then allowed their security forces and paramilitaries to indefinitely detain most of the leadership of the political opposition, while human rights groups documented the use of rape, torture and fake encounters to kill off or intimidate sections of the Maoists as well as unaffiliated locals.

The current incarnation of the conflict pitted the super-rich of India (Ambani, Tata, Mittal, Jindal, and Essar) against the immiserated poor of the Paschimbanga countryside, and the poor won.  Aggressive neoliberal development in the form of Special Economic Zones and state-directed land transfers at the barrel of the gun were shown to have clear limits as the poorest of the poor in Paschimbanga challenged the state and exposed its cruelty.  The plight of the peasants and adivasis in Paschimbanga captured the imagination of the intelligentsia in major cities where civil rights organizations and NGOs held rallies and demonstrations in opposition to the CPM’s heavy-handed tactics and strong-armed development.  At the same time, the enthusiasm of the middle-class currently over the national anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare was also being felt in Pashchimbanga, as decades of CPM rule had ensured that party cadres got government positions and favors over most others.  What emerged was a wide coalition of rural peasants, urban intelligentsia, and social justice activists that all had long-standing grievances with the CPM.

It was in this context that Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress was able to capitalize on widespread hope that single-party rule in Paschimbanga might be coming to a close.  Decades of single-party rule and allegations of widespread cronyism and corruption within the ranks of the CPM had already disillusioned some of the urban base of the CPM.  The full-scale assault on peasants, tribals, and landless laborers turned the rural sections against the CPM, too.  And with the Maoists unwilling to contest elections on principle (and giving tacit support to a vote for Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress as a protest vote against the CPM) when the political bottom fell out of the CPM’s base, there was really only one place for it to go.  That her campaign tag-line was “Paribartan” (change) is also an index of how much she fashioned her own campaign as a negative referendum on the CPM.

The election of Mamata Banerjee to the post of Chief Minister of Paschimbanga earlier this year has sent shockwaves through the Indian establishment.  Not only was she the first woman elected to the post, but she also managed to end a 34-year long monopoly on political rule by the CPM.  The election was largely seen as a referendum on the CPM’s strategy of development, which involved large-scale projects with big multinational corporations (including Tata Motors) and brought the government into direct conflict with the peasants and indigenous people living in the hinterland.  And it has raised real expectations that Banerjee will be able to deliver a populist program that will not only guarantee social peace with the Maoists but will also ensure development and social redistribution throughout Paschimbanga.

Part of Mamata Banerjee’s platform included a promise of making peace with the Communist Party of India (Maoist) within three months of her election. Since becoming Chief Minister, she has already brokered a deal in Darjeeling to ensure the creation of a Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, in response to a long civil conflict in the region which had threatened separatist demands.  She managed to offer concessions to the separatists while preventing territorial divisions.  That political victory had many thinking that she might be able to deal effectively with the Maoists as well.  She has already appointed a group of interlocutors to initiate peace talks with “all armed groups in Junglemahal (Lalgarh)” and has created a rehabilitation package for all Maoists who surrender their arms.

Mamata has also begun the process of returning the land that was seized from the peasants and the adivasis.  In fact the first law that the TMC-led Paschimbanga Assembly passed on coming to office was the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act which attempted to return some 300 acres of seized land back to the farmers after the previous CPM government had given it over to Tata Motors Ltd.  (The Tata group, incidentally is challenging this decision in the courts).   She had also made extensive promises about social redistribution and political redress in her populist election platform, including the release of political prisoners, electrification of every village, building hospitals in non-urban areas, and an extensive jobs program.  There are substantial expectations that such a program might be able to secure meaningful change for masses of ordinary people in Paschimbanga; there are also important concerns that the state lacks the revenue to deliver on Banerjee’s extensive promises.

But Banerjee is no principled populist.  She was groomed in the 1970s as part of the Sanjay Gandhi-led Youth Congress where she functioned as an ideologue and led rallies against pro-democracy movements during the Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency.  In one famous incident, she danced on the hood of JP Narayan (one of the chief opponents of the Indira Gandhi regime and one of the most famous activist for democratic rights) while others in the Youth Congress smashed his windows.  Then she switched allegiances from the Congress Party, started her newly branded Trinamool Congress, and joined forces with the right-wing BJP and became part of their ruling National Democratic Alliance in 1999.  In 2001, she switched back to siding with the Congress Party (and gained the Railway Ministry in 2004 after the electoral defeat of the BJP).  It was only in 2005 that Banerjee seriously took up the question of land acquisition for corporate development.  What she has demonstrated over and over again is her commitment to realpolitik over principle, to power over probity.

Already Banerjee faces some serious challenges.  First and foremost, Mamata’s cadre-base is weak in all the places that she needs it to be strong.  Her electoral strategy relied on support in the rural areas which are dominated by either the CPI(Maoists) or the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), an unaffiliated civil rights organization which has been documenting and fighting against the police and paramilitary incursions into places like Lalgarh.  During the election, both the Maoists and the PCAPA backed Mamata tacitly, allowing her to speak in areas where they were the dominant forces and even speaking on the same platform as her.  After the election, however, the base of the Trinamool Congress has been shown to be weak.  Her post-election rallies were poorly attended, and in many places in Lalgarh, the Maoists have shut down Trinamool party offices.  New rifts are beginning to open up between Mamata and the Maoists as both are testing the waters to see whether pre-election promises will hold up in the post-election calculus.

But the post-election scene in the poorest sections of Paschimbanga is impossible to understand coherently.  Already cleft between supporters of the Trinamool Congress and the CPM, new debates between a variety of actors have reorganized the political scene substantially.  The Maoists have returned as have a host of groups with new or recycled acronyms.  The People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities has been holding public meetings.  Their former leader Chhatradar Mahato started a new political group called Santrash Durniti Manch.  The Trinamool is now holding public rallies and various offices of the CPM still remain.  The Harmad Vahini seems to have been disbanded or joined some of the other existing groups.  Meanwhile Mamata has called for 10,000 new recruits to Paschimbanga’s Special Police Officers (SPOs) to be recruited from the rural and forested areas; some have called this an attempt to replace the Harmad Vahini with her own paramilitary forces.  All of these groups have guns – and all of them blame each other for the violent outbursts that take place, making it impossible to distinguish political competition from naked violence or coercion.

As Biswajit Roy commented on the independent blog Kafila: “Formally being open to talks with Maoists and PCPA, Mamata and her men are quite angry with the rebels and their supporters for refusing to leave political space to Trinamul, which has bagged larger share of 40 seats in the districts of Purulia, West Midnapore and Bankura which covers Junglemahal and seven out of 14 constituencies where Maoists have more presence. According to them, the rebels and their PCPA frontal men have degenerated into self-serving extortionists who are eying their share of the booty including government fund for panchayats, other local bodies and government. They are disrupting the government’s move to distribute subsidized food grains at gunpoint and stalling developmental plans with the aim to turn the zone into its fiefdom once again. The insistence on the withdrawal of joint forces is aimed at achieving that goal, they argued.”

At the same time, the Maoists have challenged Mamata’s seriousness about a cease-fire.  On August 11, the Maoists managed to ambush a group of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel as they were patrolling the Tarkey forests in Lalgarh.  While the national media accused the Maoists of breaking the ceasefire, the Maoists asked why the CRPF was there in the first place if not to attack and ambush them.  While the conflict between the Trinamool Congress and the rebels in Jangalmahal seems more tense than bloody at the moment, it has all the makings of a more serious rupture, especially if Mamata decides that she cannot afford an endless series of maneuvers before talks take place.

In fact, in order to get the rebels to the table, Mamata has attempted to do two things.  First she has convened a body of civil society interlocutors to negotiate the terms of the dialogue with the Maoists.  This body has already come under fire as it is neither representative of the people in the rural and forested areas nor does it have any real political connections to the leadership of the movement.  Moreover, one of the chief problems is that the members of the negotiating team—Sujato Bhadra, Debabrata Banerjee and Debasis Bhattacharya—are closely allied to Trinamool; in the run-up to the election they helped campaign against erstwhile PCAPA member Chhatradhar Mahato in order to secure a victory for Trinamool.

The bigger problem is that the Maoists want their negotiations to be led by the section of their leadership which is sitting in jail.  Mamata had made the release of political prisoners a main plank of her election platform.  A review committee had put the number of political prisoners in jail at the time of Banerjee’s election at 78; Banerjee later agreed to release 52, but on a case-by-case review basis.  Then, the Home Ministry of the Central government leaned very heavily on Mamata not to release two Maoists in particular, Chandi Sarkar and Pradip Chatterjee, for fear that it would embolden the Maoists in Paschimbanga and in other places throughout the country.  Mamata then revised the number of prisoners released down to 50 (with the two Maoists removed from the list).  Civil rights groups have accused Mamata of reneging on her promises and politically discriminating against the Maoists.  Either way, as long as the political prisoner issue remains unresolved, no movement seems likely towards dialogue or peace.

In the second part of her plan, Mamata has put together a jobs and monetary package in exchange for surrender for any Maoist willing to turn in his or her gun.  The details of the package itself explain how desperate the TMC government is to show that it is making progress.  The initial terms of surrender were in the tens of thousands of rupees (15k for AK-47, 25k for a light machine gun).  When no one turned in any guns or offered themselves up, Mamata revised the numbers upwards into the hundreds of thousands (Rs. 100k for an AK-47, Rs. 200k for a light machine gun).  There is also a lucrative jobs training package and a three-year guarantee of wages should anyone come forward.  As of today, not a single rebel has availed himself or herself of this deal.  It’s not likely that Mamata will be able to afford an even more lucrative package.

But for the Maoists and PCAPA, Trinamool’s position (that guns be laid down before peace negotiations begin is a non-starter).  The joint security forces (state and central forces) still have bases of operation in Jangalmahal and have conducted raids and made arrests since Banerjee was elected.  Even though the pace of the operations has slowed from its aggressive levels during the previous Left Front government, the Maoists and PCAPA see Banerjee playing a double game, cozying up to the central government and extending a hand of peace to the rebels.  The Maoists argue that peace negotiations can only really begin once the security forces have abandoned the area.  Mamata continues to insist that guns will have to be downed before the security forces can leave.

The other difficulty is that there is a definite split between the policies that the Central government is pursuing with respect to the Maoist controlled areas in what is called the “Red Corridor” (a belt of land that stretches all the way from the northeast to the southwest of the country).  For Delhi, and especially for Home Minister P Chidambaram, the Maoists cannot be negotiated with.  In state after state the Maoists have demonstrated their ability to attack security forces and level serious attacks against the state, as well as their ability to cross state borders to regroup and reorganize.  A cease-fire with the Maoists in Paschimbanga not only gives moral confidence to Maoist groups throughout the country, but also gives them a stable base of operations from which to organize.

Starting in 2009, the Government of India began an aggressive paramilitary and military offensive against Maoist strongholds throughout the country in what the Indian media refers to as Operation Green Hunt.  Tens of thousands of troops have been sent in to try to root out the Maoists from their bases, with the inevitable result that there have been substantial civilian casualties.  In Chattisgarh, a nearby state where Maoists are also quite strong, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has employed its own paramilitary outfit, Salwa Judum (“purification hunt”), which has recruited adivasis in order to attack other adivasis and Maoists in the region.  Salwa Judum was formed back in 2007 under the Chattisgarh Police Act which allowed the state to appoint Special Police Officers (SPOs) and armed them but did not give them any significant legal or arms training, and putting them in dangerous situations which resulted in some tragic consequences.   In July, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the gross human rights violations committed by Salwa Judum and the Chattisgarh government against adivasis and in favor of big corporations (what it called a “culture of unrestrained selfishness and greed spawned by modern neo-liberal economic ideology”) were so overwhelming as to warrant declaring them illegal.  The Indian Central Government is now lobbying to have the Supreme Court decision overturned.

Part of the reason that Chidambaram is so committed to the war against the Maoists (calling it India’s “single largest security threat”) is because the Maoists control vast swathes of land throughout central India that have some of the nation’s richest mineral deposits, especially iron, coal, bauxite, and manganese.  If in Paschimbanga the issue is access to land that the Maoists control, in other parts of the country the issue is allowing multinationals like Korean metal giant POSCO access to the nation’s natural resources.  Much of the national economic development strategy is pegged to lucrative deals with multinational corporations (the deals are often called Memoranda of Understanding or MOU) as a way to secure foreign direct investment and to get contributions to the development of industrial infrastructure.  At the same time, adivasis who live on the land are rarely consulted or compensated when the state illegally takes away forest rights to which the adivasis are entitled.  A deal with the Maoists in Paschimbanga would send two messages that worry Chidambaram: that the state is unwilling to eradicate the Maoist opposition and that guerrilla warfare is an effective strategy for wearing down the nation’s security apparatus.

As a result, Chidambaram has leaned heavily on the Banerjee government not only to stop negotiations with the Maoists but also to renege on promises to release political prisoners, many of whom come from the leadership of the Maoist organizations.  Chidambaram is hoping that the fact that Paschimbanga needs money from the Central Government in order to fulfill its development promises allows it some leverage to pressure and persuade Banerjee to take a harder line against the Maoists.  On the other hand, Banerjee’s election relied on the very forces that the Maoists inspired and mobilized to help her beat the CPM.  There is a limit to how aggressively she can pursue the Central Government’s strategy with respect to Maoists without alienating a large chunk of her base.  Those pressures cut in opposite directions and account for the strange micro-oscillations in Banerjee’s political maneuvering (sometimes collaborating with central security forces, sometimes aiding Maoist groups).

Already there are signs that the rifts are growing deeper.  On August 11, IBN reported that the Maoists had fired on CRPF patrol in the forested areas of West Midnapore, the first time that the Maoists had fired on security personnel since the election of Mamata Banerjee.  On August 19, two Trinamool Congress activists in West Midnapore accused the Maoists and members of PCAPA of beating them up and firing at them.  It is unclear whether these represent local skirmishes or broader changes in the overall outlook of the Maoist leadership, but they do represent the ways that the underlying social problems in Paschimbanga have yet to be resolved and that the tensions between the TMC government and people on the ground are erupting in new ways.

At the same time, Banerjee has been charting a careful course trying to appease both the Center and the Maoists at the same time.  Her campaign unleashed extraordinary energy and gave confidence to a section of Pashchimbanga that has long been ignored, left outside the halls of power.  Those people and organizations could continue to mobilize and ensure that the Banerjee government continue to make good on its promises and deliver much-needed reforms in the hinterland.  Banerjee, though, could just as easily do an about-face, deciding that her ambitions for national power and her pursuit of some kind of corporate development in Pashchimbanga put her at odds with the Maoists, in which case, one or another security concern will be paraded out to try and turn popular opinion against the Maoists and their sympathizers.  The final calculus, though, may not be determined inside the state, but may depend on the needs of either neighboring state governments or the Maoist insurgency throughout India, and both of those pressures mean that even temporary compromises have the risk of quickly coming undone. ■

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Snehal Shinghavi is an assistant professor of South Asian literature in the Department of English at the University of Texas, Austin.

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