I was back at home from work on Friday evening, and sitting in front of the TV, when a colleague called to say she still hadn’t got home because… some people had shot arrows at the bus in which she was travelling, and that had caused a tyre to burst. All this on Mayo Road, geographically the centre of Kolkata, and within virtual shouting distance of both Writers’ Buildings (the city’s administrative headquarters) and Lalbazar (the police headquarters).
Naturally, I reacted with complete disbelief. Arrows? Tribal activists? Shooting with lethal intent in the heart of the city?
Well, yes, she said, describing how she and fellow passengers had ducked to avoid further arrows, and how there seemed to be very few policemen around.
When it finally registered, there was a sense of inevitability about it. At last, trouble in Lalgarh had come home to roost, and we could no longer pretend that tribal militant activism in West Bengal was limited only to some vague corner of Midnapore and had no direct bearing on our lives.
Years of administrative neglect and exploitation have piled up to bring the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) out on to the streets, and they are in no mood to back down this time. Curiously enough, most of us identify with them, because anyone who has been to rural areas of West Bengal will testify to the complete lack of government involvement in the lives of the people, and the iron hand with which the ruling Left Front coalition seeks to rule their daily activities.
All that is changing, and in years to come, Lalgarh could well become a model for other disaffected regions. The area’s residents have declared a boycott of the elections scheduled to be held here in a week, banned the entry of policemen of any description, and, with a series of carefully coordinated shows of strength led by Chhatradhar Mahato (of whom we are likely to hear a lot more), demonstrated how thoroughly they can bring an inept and hitherto indifferent state machinery to its knees.
Well, indifference is no longer an option. Every single Kolkatan I have spoken to, including those who suffered the PCPA roadblock on Friday, seem to be endorsing the ‘serve them right’ line of thought. For many, the people of Lalgarh have done what we in the city have been unable to do, and they have finally spoken to the Left Front in the language that it understands.
Yes, we all know that the language of violence takes on a life of its own after a point, and if the situation in Lalgarh is not brought under control soon, it could well spiral into a bloodbath, but if that is the only threat that seems to get our leaders to listen, so be it.
For far too long, West Bengal has been steadily pushed along the road to ruin by a party that claims ideological high ground for all its acitvities. It villages and cities have rotted away, its brightest workforce migrated to other cities and countries to shine there. Other than Kolkata, we have no major city to speak of, and the one-time capital of British India, rather than the cosmopolitan cultural hub that it used to be three decades ago, is striving to be a poor copy of Delhi and Mumbai, and failing miserably.
Whichever way you look at it — industry, healthcare, agriculture, education, employment — West Bengal is likely to be found at the bottom of the list, and the constant attempt to inject the CPI(M)’s cadres into every walk of life has finally become too much to tolerate. Therefore, the people of Lalgarh, for instance, now look to the Maoists, not the state, for help, in times of crisis.
Therefore, no matter how great our fear of violence, our desire for change is likely to overshadow it. In the coming months, don’t be surprised if a hundred Lalgarhs spring up across our unfortunate state.