Book review

This detailed account of a Maoist movement in Bengal shows how they succeeded – and failed

A must-read for anyone trying to understand the Maoist movement in India.

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.

Communist uprisings

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.

Deeper details

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.

Aftermath

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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Can a colour encourage creativity and innovation?

The story behind the universally favoured colour - blue.

It was sought after by many artists. It was searched for in the skies and deep oceans. It was the colour blue. Found rarely as a pigment in nature, it was once more precious than gold. It was only after the discovery of a semi-precious rock, lapis lazuli, that Egyptians could extract this rare pigment.

For centuries, lapis lazuli was the only source of Ultramarine, a colour whose name translated to ‘beyond the sea’. The challenges associated with importing the stone made it exclusive to the Egyptian kingdom. The colour became commonly available only after the invention of a synthetic alternative known as ‘French Ultramarine’.

It’s no surprise that this rare colour that inspired artists in the 1900s, is still regarded as the as the colour of innovation in the 21st century. The story of discovery and creation of blue symbolizes attaining the unattainable.

It took scientists decades of trying to create the elusive ‘Blue Rose’. And the fascination with blue didn’t end there. When Sir John Herschel, the famous scientist and astronomer, tried to create copies of his notes; he discovered ‘Cyanotype’ or ‘Blueprints’, an invention that revolutionized architecture. The story of how a rugged, indigo fabric called ‘Denim’ became the choice for workmen in newly formed America and then a fashion sensation, is known to all. In each of these instances of breakthrough and innovation, the colour blue has had a significant influence.

In 2009, the University of British Columbia, conducted tests with 600 participants to see how cognitive performance varies when people see red or blue. While the red groups did better on recall and attention to detail, blue groups did better on tests requiring invention and imagination. The study proved that the colour blue boosts our ability to think creatively; reaffirming the notion that blue is the colour of innovation.

When we talk about innovation and exclusivity, the brand that takes us by surprise is NEXA. Since its inception, the brand has left no stone unturned to create exclusive experiences for its audience. In the search for a colour that represents its spirit of innovation and communicates its determination to constantly evolve, NEXA created its own signature blue: NEXA Blue. The creation of a signature color was an endeavor to bring something exclusive and innovative to NEXA customers. This is the story of the creation, inspiration and passion behind NEXA:

Play

To know more about NEXA, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of NEXA and not by the Scroll editorial team.