Lalgarh beyond Maoism, Maoism beyond Lalgarh

Pothik Ghosh

A shorter version of this article was published in Hindustan Times

In politics, the truth is almost always counter-intuitive. In this realm – where the art of the possible intersects in strangely unexpected ways with the science of the impossible – ominous portents of anarchy often conceal messianic promises of deliverance. Lalgarh, today, is perhaps the starkest symbol of this confounding cocktail, which has come to characterise the polity of Left Front-ruled West Bengal. But the violent upheavals, which have been rocking this tribal-dominated village of West Midnapore over the past several months, are unlikely to yield any meaning as long as socio-political violence continues to be envisaged as a moral question. If anything, such a moral approach would only produce counter-productive programmes and practices that would inexorably push politics further down the hopeless pit of a degenerate status quo.

Whether the Lalgarh movement constitutes an unconscionable disruption of social peace, or is a legitimate popular upsurge cannot be conclusively determined unless the objective political condition and logic of that movement and its subjective ideological orientation, especially with regard to the adoption of violence as an instrumentality of politics, is accurately accounted for. What clearly distinguishes the Lalgarh uprising from other apparently similar violent incidents and agitations that have scarred West Bengal over the past few years, and which have registered a sudden spurt in the aftermath of the resounding victory of the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance over the CPI(M)-led Left Front (LF) in the 15th Lok Sabha elections, is that the calculus of competitive electoral politics has had absolutely no bearing on the movement. The reason why electoral considerations have figured rather significantly in most other zones of unrest in the state is because the strife in those zones has been ignited mainly by the collapse of the CPI(M)-led LF’s well-oiled and calibrated network to differentially distribute political patronage by way of governance. This has particularly been the case in areas such as Nandigram and Singur where the main battle has been against acquisition of farmland for industrial development.

The struggle for patronage is essentially a competitive struggle that has no concern loftier than that of conserving and progressively concentrating positions constitutive of a structurally inequitable and undemocratic status quo. That does not, however, mean the distress and disaffection caused by the collapse of such patronage, which is all that is there by way of governance in LF-ruled West Bengal, is not real. The trouble is the political idiom in which such genuine anxieties are being articulated is, in being shaped by the all-pervasive regime of patronage politics, thoroughly competitive. That has inevitably rendered such mass movements susceptible to all sorts of cynical manoeuvres and manipulations.

The popular eruption in Lalgarh, on the other hand, has been driven by no such competitive consideration precisely because the remote tribal belt of which it is a part has had little or no patronage network to begin with.

The insurgency of the Lalgarh population has been shaped by its experience of a state that has registered its presence in the area through the brutal effectiveness of its repressive security apparatuses but has been absent as an organic expression of the will of the people and an efficient purveyor of emancipatory social development and vital public goods. Clearly, the problem there is not, as many seem to believe, the absence of the state but its existence as a completely alienated and foreign entity. Those being the objective conditions for the emergence and expansion of the Lalgarh movement, it is highly unlikely that it is capable of positing, or even articulating, anything other than a transformative critique of the alienated and repressive state, and the intrinsically competitive and hierarchical socio-economic order that engenders it.

And that is precisely why the temptation to classify the Lalgarh uprising as a tribal identity movement, driven by the ideology of some organic notion of autonomous communitarianism, should be resisted. The majority population of Lalgarh is doubtless tribal but the anti-competitive orientation of their struggle, thanks to the objective politico-economic conditions that have shaped them, serves to completely invert the competitive logic of identitarian movements, which always articulate their politics in supremacist terms of ethno-cultural pride and domination. Put simply, the Lalgarh movement clearly manifests characteristic features of a working-class struggle.

The People’s Committee against Police Atrocities-led revolt, which was sparked seven months ago by a repressive combing operation launched by the West Bengal police in Lalgarh and surrounding areas in response to a Maoist mine attack on the chief minister’s cavalcade, has steadily morphed into a more proactive and comprehensive struggle for a fundamental transformation of the socio-political structure. That has yielded a two-pronged movement of resistance and reconstruction. It is, therefore, no accident that the PCPA, which has been leading the militant mass movement against the West Bengal government in Lalgarh, is now also at the forefront of an incipient social reconstruction programme for the enforcement of a cooperative and democratic management of resources and rudimentary public services such as healthcare developed by the local community itself.

That the CPI(M)-led West Bengal government, infamous for its autocratic ways, was extremely cagey until a few weeks ago to crack down on the movement was largely due to its mass insurrectionary character. In Lalgarh, violence against state apparatuses has not been launched by a clearly identified group acting on behalf of an oppressed but largely passive population. Instead, it has been an expression of disaffection and opposition by a population entirely insurgent against a repressive state and the oppressive socio-economic order it protects and perpetuates. Even the guerrilla operations carried out by Maoists in the area and its neighbourhood have become a seamless extension of this insurrection, which inevitably enjoys wide-ranging local legitimacy and has some serious moral standing, vis-à-vis the rest of the state. It is this legitimacy, which derives from an assertion of popular sovereignty, that had kept West Bengal’s Stalinist dispensation away from open repressive manoeuvres for so long. That it had burnt its fingers in Nandigram, where its cadre together with the state police had attempted a scorched-earth operation a couple of years ago, has only compounded its diffidence on that score.

After all, a modern state formation, no matter how repressive, has to always act in the name of protecting popular sovereignty. But in an insurrectionary situation, like the one in Lalgarh, the sovereignty vested normatively in the state is clearly in conflict with actual sovereignty on the ground. In such circumstances, the state, if it cracks down on the movement, runs the grave risk of losing all formal legitimacy it enjoys as the keeper of people’s sovereignty. In fact, it is the state or the government that, in such a situation, comes to be seen as an external threat to the sovereignty of the people and the violent insurrection of the latter against the state pushes it and its laws into a state of crisis. That renders the legal-illegal dichotomy problematic and consequently makes it difficult for the state to legitimately monopolise violence to crush popular movements in the name of combating anti-sovereign lawlessness and insurgency. That is a risk the CPI(M)-led LF could ill-afford at a moment when the electoral drubbing it has received in West Bengal signals significant erosion of its moral-political standing.

The Lalgarh movement could, nevertheless, hardly have gone on for ever without inviting the wrath of the ruling classes of West Bengal and India. The only way a movement like that could possibly evade state repression and keep itself alive and kicking is through continuous political growth accomplished through a relentless process of engagement and integration with concerns, anxieties and disaffections in other areas and sectors of the state. Yet, an unpardonable tactical blunder on the part of the Maoists, who indisputably have a sizeable numerical presence in the PCPA, has cleared the way for the West Bengal government to unleash repression on the Lalgarh movement sooner rather than later. The recent claims by various senior Maoist leaders and activists that the PCPA was a front of the underground outfit, which was controlling and running the show in Lalgarh, has given the repressive arms of both the LF government of West Bengal and, to a lesser extent, the Centre the alibi they had been waiting for. The West Bengal government has, over the past few days, turned proactive and has been dispatching contingents of heavily armed police and central paramilitary forces to Lalgarh to crush the popular uprising. That the LF dispensation has suddenly regained its usual repressive element is because it knows the police operation in Lalgarh would now be widely perceived as a legitimate measure taken by the state to protect popular sovereignty from Maoists and some sections of the local community they have bamboozled.

The Maoists, thanks to their doctrinaire programmatic commitment to agrarian revolution and the concomitant tactical emphasis on guerilla struggles exclusively in tribal and rural areas of the country, have failed to focus on developing large-scale popular movements in the semi-urban and urban areas. Their time-worn approach of encirclement of cities by people’s army raised from the countryside has, willy-nilly, militarised their politics, what with their roving guerrilla squads carrying out dramatic raids on behalf of a rural population they have barely organised. That, among other things, has ensured their politics enjoys little concrete ideological-political support among working people in Indian cities. As a result, it has been rather easy for the state at all levels and the ruling classes it represents to paint the Maoist movement into an illegal corner and successfully delegitimise it as an external threat to popular sovereignty.

The Maoists doubtless have a significant numerical and ideological presence within the PCPA and the wider Lalgarh movement. But the committee, which is much more diverse in its broad Left ideological composition, is far from being a front of the Maoist group. And that, as far as the Maoist commitment to a militant working-class movement is concerned, would have spelt no harm. If anything, the Maoists and their sympathisers in Lalgarh ought to have envisaged such a situation as an opportunity for them to continue to work quietly within the PCPA and provide the insurrectionary movement with requisite logistical support and ideological orientation to expand politically to engage with and integrate a multitude of other disenfranchised and exploited sections of West Bengal’s society and economy such as the embattled peasants of Nandigram, Rajbongshi separatists of north Bengal plains, the Gorkhas of Darjeeling and the large masses of workers rendered unemployed by the sharp decline in the fortunes of the state’s tea and jute industries. This process of integration through continuous engagement would have had to address the specific concerns of each of those sections even as it transformed their mutually competitive idioms of political articulation into a coherent but multitudinous critique of the logic of the larger political economy responsible for all their various miseries. That would not only lead to an aggregative programme of social change but would also make Maoism into an ideological current that is always internal to an ever-growing variety of popular movements.

In such circumstances, the modality of political violence would always be that of popular insurrection. And even guerrilla tactics, as and when they are deployed, would necessarily be envisaged as an integral part of this insurrectionary paradigm. That would not only make it hard for the state to delegitimise such violence as illegal or the movements that generate them as anti-sovereign, it would also ensure that Maoism is rescued from the excesses of its current sectarian militarism that have, often enough, ended up replicating the same configurations of superordinate state power, which the movement has sought to unravel.

Clearly, the Maoists can avoid tactical blunders like the one they have committed in Lalgarh only when they re-frame their political-organisational vision. Their obsession with territorial expansion, which has spelt no real political-ideological breakthrough for Maoism, essentially stems from the Maoists’ insistence on envisaging the party as an a priori state-form, which seeks to subordinate the singularity of various experiences of disaffection and registers of struggle to its doctrinaire conception of politics, which is no more than the generalisation of one particular experience of social oppression and resistance. What they need to do, instead, is to imagine the organisation as a movement-form, wherein Maoism is a dynamic organisational impulse and the party is always in a state of bottom-up formation through a perpetual process of politicisation at the grassroots.

West Bengal, ironically enough, provides the most conducive political climate for the Maoists to effect such a reorientation. Their struggles against a repressive state, controlled for over three decades by a coalition of Left forces helmed by the largest Communist Party, ought to compel them to reflect on how communist-left forces, which were once the undisputed principal representatives of a genuine working-class movement, have come to distort it beyond recognition.

The degeneration of the CPI(M)-led LF, contrary to the popular belief shaped by the neo-liberal consensus, is not because of its failure to turn fully social democratic but precisely because it has abandoned the tortuous dirt-path of working-class struggle for the comfortable highway of social democracy. Social democracy, which envisages social progress and the well-being of the working people and the poor essentially as a question of distributive justice, is a form of governance that seeks to equitably distribute a given basket of socio-economic entitlements. In such a ‘Leftist’ scheme, there is no place for interventionist and transformative politics because the state, which for social democracy is an instrument of efficient regulation and equitable redistribution, is treated as a passive and neutral entity that must be captured and then merely controlled.

The state, however, is in reality constitutive of an exploitative, oppressive and hierarchical social order. To that extent, a radical socialist programme must actively articulate the tendency to erode, not capture, it. For, it is only through such erosion that the structural reinforcement of a stratified society can be undermined. The preposterous contradiction the CPI(M)-led LF has created between industrial development that is inescapable, and universal democracy that is indispensable, is a symptom of its social-democratic degeneration. Its failure to imagine more democratic and participatory configurations of socio-political power, which could drive truly cooperative consolidation of land and other resources, and posit an alternative model of development, is because of its social-democratic fixation on the state.

That the Maoists too should call themselves the CPI(M) – Communist Party of India (Maoist) – is uncanny. But more eerie perhaps is the fact that their conception of the party as a state-form predisposes them to a social democratic approach to politics that virtually makes them a mirror-image of the original CPI(M). It’s time the Maoists woke up and smelt the gunpowder.

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