Saturday, February 27, 2010

Colluding with Maoists

Sunanda K Datta-Ray

The accusations that are flying in West Bengal over the Sildah massacre recall a passage in the memoirs of Mohit Sen, the son of a Calcutta High Court judge who joined the Communist Party of India. He says that Mr Ranjit Gupta, one of the last of British India’s IP officers, was “a strong sympathiser” of the CPI and kept it informed in the late-1940s of official plans for “a crackdown”.

Mr Gupta, now an ageing and ailing man, retired long ago as West Bengal’s Director-General of Police. As Kolkata’s Police Commissioner in the late-1960s and early-1970s, he acquired fame — some say notoriety because of the methods that were used — for liquidating the Naxalites. Sen received Mr Gupta’s secret information and passed it on to the radical historian Susobhan Sarkar “resulting in almost all the top leaders of the CPI escaping by going underground” when the “crackdown” came in 1948.

Incidentally, Indrajit Gupta’s “underground” was my grandmother’s flat in south Kolkata. He lived there comfortably — my grandmother was his aunt — while the police supposedly searched high and low with a warrant for his arrest. His brother, another Ranjit Gupta, but of the ICS, was then West Bengal’s Home Secretary.

My reason for dredging up this minutiae is to illustrate the interconnectivity that can bind those charged with upholding the law and those beyond its pale. The Gupta-Sen-Sarkar nexus highlighted the power of class ties. They came from similar upper middle-class backgrounds, had gone to English-medium schools and the same college. Mixing in the same social set, they were what Lady Thatcher called “people like us”. There are people like us at all levels, bound by similarly strong ties of kinship and friendship.

At the height of the Naxalite troubles a much younger and fitter I accompanied a Rajput regiment on a combing operation in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, tramping precariously along the sodden narrow ridge between waterlogged paddyfields night after night. It was a lark for the jawans and their officer. Even the local magistrate strode gamely along with a walking stick. But the bedraggled policemen accompanying us unceasingly whined about the hardship like petulant children being unfairly punished, and talked bitterly among themselves at the top of their voices, despite warnings to be less noisy, of the military deliberately victimising them because they were Bengali.

I thought it was Bengali lyricism when they burst into Rabindrasangeet before dawn broke. But, no, as a light flashed in the distant dark, to be repeated in a clump of trees a hundred yards away, I realised the singing (like the loud talking) was to warn Naxalites lurking in the outlying huts. I was told of the police confiscating a gun from a jotedar’s house and the sequel that very night of a band of Naxalites turning up to demand the ammunition.

Collusion was common in those days. It might still be. Birbhum’s policemen were locally recruited; the Naxalites were also local youth. Commonalty may also have been a factor in West Midnapore. It wouldn’t have been easy otherwise for 50 Maoists in an SUV, a pick-up truck and a fleet of six motorcycles to raid the Eastern Frontier Rifles camp in the heart of a crowded township. The surrounding shopkeepers obviously knew what was afoot for they made themselves scarce. Someone had tipped them off. Who?

Despite their murders, no one treats the Maoists as untouchable. Mr Susanta Ghosh, a CPI(M) Minister from West Midnapore, is believed to have taken their help to defeat the Trinamool Congress-BJP alliance in Keshpur in 2000. Ms Mamata Banerjee made common cause with them in Nandigram and Jangalmahal (covering West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia districts), and even sported Maoist supporters in her rumbustious entourage at Singur when she foiled the Tata people’s car project.

Many villagers even regard the “Bon (Jungle) Party”, as they call Maoists, as their saviour. Maoist cadre have dug wells, built roads and dams, and set up health centres in remote areas, earning the gratitude of neglected villagers who have reason to complain of police atrocities.

As with the Naxalites, some Maoists started in the Marxist ranks and then moved further into extremism, drawn by the lure of prairie fires, liberated zones (muktanchal), the countryside encircling cities and other fancy theories borrowed from abroad. Many are plain bandits. Others, Dalits and Adivasis, are fighting for class and community rights. Bihar’s policemen and landlords have long dubbed any landless peasant who demands the minimum wage a Naxalite.

Sildah confirmed that West Bengal’s police are corrupt, cowardly and physically unfit. The political and administrative system they serve is equally uninspiring. While politicians and policemen blame each other for the carnage, senior police officers also accuse one another of the negligence and bad planning that played into the Maoists’ hands. The Sildah camp had no watchtowers or sandbag barricades. Townspeople strolled in freely to use its toilet. As Maoist attacks continue, other badly planned police camps are hastily being dismantled.

Security could not be more casual. Intelligence reports are ignored. The Rs 400-crore development package announced last year for Jangalmahal has been forgotten. Talk of Andhra-style Greyhound commandos, STRACO (State Special Combat Force) and COBRA (Combat Battalion for Resolute Action) is as ineffective as Operation Green Hunt.

The firing episode outside Kolkata’s American Center was revealing. Far from shooting back, policemen locked themselves and their weapons inside their black van, leaving a hapless comrade outside to be shot dead. Sildah’s EFR jawans, mostly past their prime, were reportedly lounging about in mufti, smoking ganja, far from their weapons. Their commander was one of the first to scramble over the wall and escape. As the Brigadier heading the Counter-Terrorism and Jungle Warfare school in Kanker, Chhattisgarh, puts it, “Pot-bellied policemen who can barely walk 400 metres with a gun cannot be expected to match the guerrillas who can walk 40 kilometres through the jungle at night.”

Though West Bengal turned down a Central policing offer in 1990, its security is not safe in Kolkata’s hands. Whatever the Constitution stipulates and however great the hurt to Left Front sensibilities, this is a responsibility that New Delhi cannot shirk. That would mean surrender to what the Maoist leader, Koteswar Rao, also known as Kishenji, calls with a wicked sense of humour Operation Peace Hunt.


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