The catchphrase, ‘extremists are anti-development’, is an integral part of the state’s strategic communication strategy in areas affected by Left-wing Extremism (LWE). Alternatively without extremism, the fruits of development would flow into the affected areas, changing the lives of the population therein. This oft-repeated and publicised piece of wisdom appears to have lost much of its sheen in India’s LWE affected states. A plethora of examples exist to substantiate the allegation that while the extremists have indeed mobilised the tribal population around the issue of underdevelopment and poverty, the state too is guilty of abandoning its project of developing the extremism-affected regions once it liberates the area from the control of the extremists. West Bengal’s Junglemahal area is the latest example of this trend.
Spread over 8000 square kilometers and divided into 23 blocks, Junglemahal comprises areas in three contiguous districts—Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore (in 2017 Jhargram district was created by bifurcating West Midnapore)—in West Bengal. In 2008, LWE began in the area following police excesses on tribals after a bomb blast on the route of the then Chief Minister, Budhadeb Bhattacharjee. The Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) was quick to take advantage and soon converted 18 police stations in the three districts into a no-go area for security forces as well as the activists of the political left-front. A change in regime brought the Trinamool Congress (TMC) into power in 2011, allegedly with the help of the Maoists who chose a lesser evil over their bitter enemy, the Left Front. However, West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee soon changed her position, abandoned a brief spell of peace initiative, and pursued the Maoists with vengeance. The killing of Maoist leader Kishenji in a police operation in November 2011 decimated the extremist infrastructure in Junglemahal. Banerjee remains a darling of the India’s Ministry of Home Affairs for the unrestricted support she provided for anti-Maoist operations. Since 2012, the area had been ridden of the extremists, without an iota of hindrance for the government to initiate development projects.
And then politics set in.
Pet schemes with mass appeal and inbuilt instant gratification have come in handy for unimaginative politicians and development planners. One of the first schemes to be launched by the TMC administration was making rice available at INR 2/- per kilogram to every household in Junglemahal. Subsequently, bicycles were distributed among the tribals. TMC activists claim that the administration launched several projects that include roads, schools, and mid-day meals, which continue to keep the area extremist free. In 2012, the government established a Tribes Advisory Committee. In 2014, irrigation projects worth INR 500 crores were launched targeting Junglemahal’s dry areas. In 2017, Jhargram was declared a new district and the state administration reportedly spent INR 200 crores in development projects there. In Purualia and Bakura, 86,000 houses were constructed under the Bangla Gramin Abas Yojana.
And yet, in May 2018, in the elections held to the Village Panchayats, the TMC fared abysmally in Junglemahal. Independent tribal candidates and those belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vanquished their opponents. Within weeks within of the announcement of poll results, 200 representatives of the Bharat Jakat Majhi Pargana Mahal (BJMPM)—one of the biggest umbrella organisations of the Adivasis in West Bengal, met in Kolkata and accused the TMC government of failing the state’s tribals on a host of issues, including on primary education and social welfare. The BJMPM has questioned every parameter of governance the TMC highlighted. It has accused the state government of lack of transparency and of indulging in superficial projects. The BJMPM demands to know how the INR 200 crores have been spent in the new Jhargram district and INR 500 crores, on the irrigation projects. It has accused the state government of running Santhali language primary schools without teachers, and has termed the Tribal Advisory Committee as a failed experiment.
The 30 May 2018 meeting in Kolkata’s Bowbazar to discuss issues concerning tribal identity is considered to be first of its kind in West Bengal’s recent history. Riding on the success of tribal independent candidates in the panchayat polls, the BJMPM has attempted to build pressure on the TMC. The latter, on the other hand, has attempted to link BJMPM with the BJP and also the Maoists. In some seats, the BJMPM and the BJP did back tribal candidates belonging to the Adivasi Samanvay Manch (ASM), who also were reportedly supported by the CPI-Maoist. However, to blame its defeat on the collaboration appears to be only a poor attempt at hiding its inability to meet the expectations of the tribals.
Junglemahal may not relapse into LWE. The weakened CPI-Maoist is engaged in a battle of survival and is in no position to expand its operations into West Bengal. This promising prospect of absence of a bleak security scenario, however, has no reason to become coterminous with poor governance. Demands for right of self-governance have been raised by some of the BJMPM representatives. It is pertinent for the TMC government and also, governments of other LWE-affected states to discover that security force operations to cleanse extremist affected areas mark only the beginning of a long and arduous process, which must culminate in the establishment of an effective governance structure. Without that, the Maoists’ propaganda would begin to make sense to the governance-starved people.
This article was published at IPCS.