Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Siege Show at Lalgarh


Two days back, a kid at the varsity asked me my opinion about the police crackdown at Lalgarh. I was rather surprised. No one asks for anyone's opinion in this country. The television images show only surreptitious Maoists, marching policemen and cheerful commentators; the adivasi villagers are silent faces that flicker on the screen. No one asks them: whether they want all those police and Maoist squads alternately ‘liberating’ their villages, or the media pestering them about how they like the show.

It was when the cyclone Aila and its victims had been declared passé by our shapers of opinion that all the city-bred news gatherers with their bottles of mineral water and cameras flocked to the once-forested lands where the people usually die unheard, of drought, malnutrition and perennial hunger. No, they didn't really care about the exploitation and torture of the indigenous people through the centuries, or now. These macho bite collectors were keener on reporting their own daring exploits while they selectively reported the march of the state's hounds and Cobras against the state's ‘Other’, the Maoist communist party. A typical TV grab of the Bengali or the national channels over the week has some reporter standing next to a metalled road and persistently going on about being inside ‘a recently-liberated Maoist zone’, some gun-totting policeman marching by, or some sombre-faced bespectacled analysts babbling away on the implications of the showdown.

While the state's hounds are known to shoot, rape and torture in most ‘operations’ (our 'sensitive' media has faithfully ignored this bit till now), their ‘Other’ too has its own ingenious methods of inspiring terror— for instance, keeping the corpse of a 'class-enemy' in public display and letting it rot away in the summer heat for four days. The media has been faithful in reporting the ‘Other’s atrocities; it has kept silent on how scores of villagers have ended up in relief camps set up in schools outside the zone of conflict. Hearsay in Kolkata city tells of deaths and merciless beatings: the media reports none.

Is it believable that the police have marched ‘peacefully’ through villages in Lalgarh? On June 28, 2009 (Saturday), eight members of a citizen’s Fact Finding Committee were arrested from the Midnapore railway station as they were trying to reach Lalgarh, and sent to Kolkata in a prison van. Among them was the Gopal Menon, an award-winning documentary filmmaker from Karnataka, and human rights activists from West Bengal and other states. Earlier, the state government had lodged a case against Saoli Mitra, Aparna Sen, Kaushik Sen and other Kolkata intellectuals who had visited Lalgarh calling for peace. In the absence of independent news, news from Lalgarh is what the West Bengal government wants us to hear.

Far removed from the events, the kid at the varsity asked me a lot of pertinent questions. I too listened to them intently though I didn't have answers to any of them. I believe this has got to do with the way in which I see the world now— differing shades of fuzzy grey, than the clearly demarcated black and white of old that rested on the ridiculous question: "Which side are you on?" It's not a Nietzschean vision of pervasive evil; it has got more to do with the reality of the times in which we live.

What will come of this? The kid asked me. Again, I didn't have any answers. Apart from many future acts of torture and further unreported acts of violence and deaths of the adivasi population, I said, both the state and the Maoists will be celebrating their victories against the 'enemy'. It'll be, as good old Kundera famously said, a part of the eternal histories of laughter and forgetting. And the people's struggle will be to remember, and to remember it all, against newer atrocities.

I told him that the problem lies with the unquestionability of the 'means' by which some closeted and very obstinate minds always think of achieving some perfect and quick 'end'— ‘restoration of order’ or ‘lal-salaam emancipation’, whichever way you put it. People question the ends and theoretical purposes of these ends, and there are hot debates, talk-shows, treatises, critiques and critical tomes, etc. But as a rule, the means are never questioned, and certainly not in the media.

As far as the media houses go, none of them have seriously called into question the necessity of this police action. In a broader sense, they are following the old practice of unquestionable tacit support to the state which tries to solve each of its problems by using brute force. Three random examples from the edits of some of the dailies read here:

From The Telegraph edit (Saturday, June 20 , 2009):

“The problem is that not even a liberal head of government can afford to dawdle in the face of an insurgency. It is imperative on the part of a government to establish its authority over the territory under its jurisdiction. The quicker it does so, the more effective is its authority. The government has allowed the situation to grow into alarming proportions instead of curbing it when it was small. Having begun the counter-attack, belatedly, it should not drag its feet. If necessary it should take the help of the army.”

From The Hindu edit (Friday, Jun 19, 2009)

“True, the Left Front government and Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee were distressingly slow to wake up to the crisis. But the Union government, which sees the Maoist upsurge as a national security threat elsewhere in the country, has been quite happy to let the Left Front government struggle with a difficult situation. The thinking seems to be that it should be made to pay the political costs of quelling the Lalgarh revolt, and it may even be a case of hoping: the bloodier, the better. The situation in West Midnapore is too serious to allow for such crass politicking. The Manmohan Singh government must not lose any more time in coming to the aid of West Bengal’s Left Front government in tackling the Maoists, and their surrogates. Else there will be a heavier cost to pay.”

From the June 29th Indian Express editorial:

“To ensure that development gets the promised security cover, the government must actuate its planned counter-offensive along the Jharkhand-Orissa, Jharkhand-Orissa-West Bengal, and Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh borders, securing the area first and then beginning the developmental activity.”

Did any one of these edit writers think of what will happen to the civilian populations caught in the middle of their desired final conflict? They didn't really care.

Questioning the 'means' falls inside the realm of ethics: that important something which makes us humans. Outside it, there's a world that will continue to suffer 'collateral damage'.

The state prevents the media from witnessing firsthand the police action, it arrests and deports a human rights team that goes in to investigate, it slaps cases on Kolkata intellectuals who were trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to things. And the media by and large agree with the role offered to them by the state. In this foul is fair weather, being skeptical is closer to the truth.