The Bengali word “harmad” – with a range of meanings from “pirate” to “goon” – comes from the Portuguese armadas that were feared in medieval Bengal for piracy and slave trading. During the final term of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in power in West Bengal, however, the term referred to its armed squads. That a word for “goon” was used widely to describe the ruling party itself is a good pointer to the nature of the Indian state in West Bengal.
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya’s book, Lalgarh and the Legend of Kishanji: Tales from India’s Maoist Movement, is acutely aware of this facet of the Indian state. “India is an unbroken chain of broken promises” – a statement from BD Sharma, former district magistrate of Bastar in Chhattisgarh – is displayed prominently on the back cover of the book. Yet, this history of the Lalgarh Naxal uprising does not stop there, making sure to explore how both the Indian state as well as the Maoists lost their moral compasses in the events that took place between 2008 and 2011.
India is no stranger to armed Communist movements. The first left wing peasant movement of independent India broke out almost as soon as the British departed. It took place in the dominion of the Nizam of Hyderabad, now modern-day Telangana. Then, in 1967, another Communist uprising, this time inspired by the teaching of China’s Mao Tse-tung, broke out in north Bengal, in a small village called Naxalbari.
Naxalbari captured the imagination of the Bengali middle class. Not only did a large number of young Bengalis join the movement, but many more also supported it silently. The scale of violence in Lalgarh was considerably less than that across West Bengal in the late 1960s. It was also more contained geographically, being restricted to the adivasi populations of the Medinipur region of West Bengal.
Yet, even as it was spread over a small area, the Lalgarh uprising had far more public support. Bhattacharya calls it a “new kind of Naxalism – one that combined mass movement with armed struggle”. The movement saw armed action by Maost cadre, but there were also road blockades, gheraos of security forces and police stations by large crowds of locals, and widespread anger against the ruling CPI(M), whose harmad gangs were often in the thick of things.
Moreover, the Lalgarh movement had a charismatic leader in Mallojula Koteswara Rao, aka Kishanji, who knew how to communicate the aims of his movement to the media. Till he was killed, Kishanji would play a daring game of cat and mouse with his mobile phone – “a lethal weapon in a guerrilla leader’s hand,” as Bhattacharya puts it. The device put him at great risk of detection by the police – but it also allowed him to reach many more people via the media.
In fact, one of the most intriguing things about the book is the descriptions of the author’s phone conversations with Kishanji. One such phone call turns into a debate on the ethics of the Maoists beheading Francis Indwar, an officer of the Jharkhand Police, in 2009. “You live in the city and don’t feel the despair and desperation of people living in a war zone,” argues Kishanji. But after a while, he takes Bhattacharya’s point. “Yes…we should review the act,” accepts Kishanji.
Bhattacharya’s narrative explores the moral complexities of the situation. The Maoists claimed to fight for the poor, yet, in 2010, low level cadre sabotaged a train track leading to the Jnaneswari Express being derailed. It gets darker. The West Bengal police knew about the sabotage and could have stopped the train in time, writes Bhattacharya. Yet, they allowed the accident to happen, for it would discredit the Maoists. A hundred and forty-one people died in the train derailment.
However, there is a happy ending of sorts to this tale with both combatants, the Maoists and the CPI(M), being beaten. In 2011, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress defeated the CPI(M) in the Assembly elections. Although the Trinamool had at many times tactically coordinated with the Maoists in order to take on a common enemy, the CPI(M), once in power Banerjee turned coat. Kishanji was killed within a few months of her coming to power.
The Trinamool Congress then backed this up with development in the area. Bhattacharya writes of metalled roads, street lamps, water tanks, colleges, polytechnics and electrification by the end of Banerjee’s first term in 2016. In 2016, the TMC won all four Assembly seats in the new district. In 2017, the epicentre of the Lalgarh movement was made a separate district, Jhargram.
Bhattacharya’s prose is stilted at times. But the book more than makes up for it with the depth of detail it goes into. Even keen watchers of West Bengal’s politics, I suspect, will find much to learn from the book. And for anyone studying the phenomenon of Maoism in India – what former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the “biggest internal security challenge facing our country” – this book is a must-read.
Lalgarh and the Legend of Kishanji: Tales from India’s Maoist Movement, Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, HarperCollins India.