Monday, June 22, 2009

Where the mind is with fear

Excerpts from two articles in hindustan times written by Manas Chakravarty and Indrajit Hazra.

We are a non-violent people. We hate it when people resort to violence. In Lalgarh, the tribals have all along been very peaceful. True, the primary health centres in their villages didn’t have any medicines and doctors from the towns rarely visited them. So what’s new? Many people saw their sick loved ones die as they made the long trek to the district hospital from their villages over the dirt tracks that pass for roads. But there was no violence.

Finding drinking water in the summer has always been a problem in the villages. Ponds have had to be used for both drinking water and for bathing. Children have often suffered from diseases as a result. But the tribals of Lalgarh are used to their children dying early. They never complained.

Most villagers in the region are caught in a vicious poverty trap. Malnutrition is rife. Doctors from Kolkata who recently visited the place said that what the people needed was not pills but food. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen once said that hunger was “a quiet violence”. He meant that if a state can’t feed its people it’s guilty of violence towards them. But he was just twisting words to suit his theory.

Indians are malnourished not just in Lalgarh, but all over the country. A recent Unicef report said that 405 million people in South Asia suffered from chronic hunger. India’s rank in the Global Hunger Index of 88 countries is 66, below several African countries. So there’s nothing special about Lalgarh. Also, in spite of being hungry, the people were peaceful. Being peaceful is the most important thing.

Every election, the Lalgarh tribals voted the Left to power in the hope that these self-proclaimed friends of the poor would help them. But in spite of the promises, nothing happened. The money from the anti-poverty programmes never reached them, the police occupied the buildings that were supposed to be clinics and the irrigation canals dried up. They watched in silence as the local party bosses built mansions and businesses for themselves and their cronies.

For more than 60 years after independence, they patiently waited for better times. And it’s not that the country wasn’t doing well. Some of them went to the grand city of Kolkata and came back with wondrous tales of shining malls and air-conditioning and taps that never ran dry. They were right to wait. For as we all know, it’s just a matter of time. Once the Sensex goes up enough and CEOs start earning several crores a year and India becomes a world power, then money will trickle down and reach places like Lalgarh. True, generations may be destroyed before that happens. But that is not violence.

Some things do seem to suggest, at first glance, a hint of brutality. Take the routine manner in which the police pick up tribals for questioning and then torture them. But that’s required for the police to conduct their investigations. How else will they protect the people from the Maoists? True, tribals in Lalgarh lived in constant terror of the police and of the party thugs. But that is not terrorism.

Of late, though, the people of Lalgarh have been behaving very oddly. They drove the police and the party bigwigs out of the area and torched their houses. They have started digging wells, setting up schools and running health clinics, without any help from the state. They have formed a Committee against Police Atrocities which wants electricity in their villages and roads and bridges to be built. Worse, they even want the politicians to apologise! Very strangely, after all these decades, they seem to be running out of patience.

What on earth is going on? Outsiders must be inciting them to violence. We are a peace-loving people and must stop this violence at once. Don’t worry, our tribal brothers, our troops are on their way to save you.

--Manas Chakraborty

The conditions that have led people to fall for the seductive charms of violent revolt were being pressure-cooked for years. An administration had long forgotten to recognise, never mind keep, its part of the bargain with the very people who had given the CPI(M)-led front its generational power and the pelf that comes with it.

Take the case of Kuna Sabar, a resident of Darra village in West Midnapore’s Belpahari sub-district. On December 22, 2007 — when a million miles away in Calcutta, people were frantically speculating about the return of Sourav Ganguly in the Indian cricket squad — Sabar died of hunger. If his cause of death (confirmed by a doctor) wasn’t shameful enough for a government that took pride in prioritising the concerns of its rural masses, the subdivisional officer’s response to the death was horrific. He said that documents showed that Sabar had bought “8 kg rice, 2 kg wheat and 2.4 kg sugar” from the ration shop “between December 2 and December 16”. Effectively, he was telling Sabar’s widow that his death must have been her husband’s fault.
Sabar is just one statistic. During 2004-2005, a year before the Left Front won the 2006 assembly polls by a landslide, dozens of ‘hunger deaths’ across Bengal were recorded by the Asian Human Rights Commission. And these sordid deaths were overwhelmingly because of utter administrative failures. Till January 2008, only 34 people in West Midnapore, for instance, had received the minimum 100-day job and corresponding pay under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The remaining earned wages for an average of 11.6 days.

In a universe where bureaucrats, academics,policemen, the cogs and wheels of administration and governance are deeply entrenched in ‘party affiliations’, accountability can only be a silly theological notion for bourgeois ‘management types’. It is this affliction of apathy — and of genuinely being stumped about why people might be enraged about pointless deaths, of living in life-defying poverty — that really makes for something rotten in the state of Bengal.

What applies to administrative ignorance (an evolutionary byproduct of administrative apathy) holds true for a police force that simply doesn’t know anything about crowd control or how to tackle a riotous mob. Either the police do nothing (as they did when the Maoist-goaded People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities in Lalgarh first marched to the CPI(M) zonal headquarters in Dharampur last week to destroy any signs of the CPI(M)/administration and attack party workers), or they shoot first and ask questions later (as they so memorably did in Nandigram on March 14, 2007).

Only in Left-ruled Bengal do you get armed partymen being regularly and openly sent to ‘capture and liberate’ towns and villages that have fallen in the ‘wrong hands’. The police arrive at the scene later, if the comrades and their local commissars have failed to do their job. As this is being written, the state government has finally let the police and security forces enter Lalgarh to ‘reclaim’ it from the Maoist ‘invaders’. It will remain unclear for a long while whether this reclamation is being conducted at the behest of the CPI(M) or the people of Lalgarh, considering that the concerns of the two are different and almost diametrically opposite.

--Indrajit Hazra