Fact-finding in Lalgarh area of West Bengal (10th-11th April, 2009) and convention in Kolkata (9th April, 2009)
Lalgarh, in the West Midnapore district in West Bengal, and the adjoining districts of Purulia and Bankura, have been the locale of an adivasi movement of historical proportions since the last five months. The movement had begun in November as a spontaneous uprising of the adivasi people in the Lalgarh area in response to the brutal assaults by police on adivasis, including women and children, in the wake of a land-mine explosion purportedly targeting the chief minister. In a reign of terror unleashed in 35 villages encompassing the entire tribal belt of Lalgarh, the police brutally beat up, kicked, hit with rifle butts and indiscriminately arrested numerous members of the adivasi communities. Women were especially targeted for beatings and humiliation. Police oppression is nothing new to the adivasis of the Bankura-Purulia-Midnapore area but the unprecedented atrocities inflicted by the police in this single week in November, especially the wanton attack on women, wore out their patience, and they rose up in revolt.
What began as rumblings of protest soon took the shape of a spontaneous mass uprising. Adivasi men and women, armed with traditional weapons, came out and blockaded the roads. Roads were dug up and tree trunks were placed on the road to obstruct the entry of police vehicles, in the same way as it had been done in Nandigram. The movement spread to all the adivasi-dominated areas and became a symbol of adivasi dignity and aspirations. Although the immediate trigger for the movement were the police atrocities, the basic issues of lack of development which are at the core of the grievances of the people, also resonated strongly. The adivasis recognize that the state terror, which they have been subjected to from the colonial times, is the "shock therapy" used to subdue them in order to dispossess them of their resources, their water, forests and land (which contains important minerals). They proclaimed that they were fighting for their right to these resources, with which their lives are intimately connected, and for their right to live in dignity. They demanded the development measures which are totally lacking in the adivasis areas, health services, schools free of police camps, food through the public distribution system, jobs for their educated youth, implementation of rural employment guarantee schemes etc.. The demands of the adivasis have been placed through a charter of 13 demands, the main amongst which was the demand for an apology from the police officials who had led the assaults, and which has become the rallying point for the movement.
Another remarkable feature of the movement has been the new forms of participatory democracy and gender equality that it has generated. The entire movement was without conventional leadership, and the villages that have been touched by this movement have done away with all traditional political leaders and tribal elders and elected a People's Committee against Police Atrocities comprising five men and five women. All decisions are taken at public meetings attended by all men and women. Political parties are not welcomed. The movement has been completely non-violent and democratic, as it has depended on mass mobilizations of tribal people, and it has been difficult for the state to brand them as 'Maoists'.
The movement has been going on in various forms for the past five months. In the last two months, ominous developments have taken place which have the potential to throw the entire adivasi-populated area into a spiral of violence. Unable to control the uprising through the police, which has been socially boycotted, the administration, with the active help and collusion of the ruling party, floated a number of organizations styled after the Salwa Judum of Chattisgarh. These vigilante groups, composed of adivasi youth, and armed by the state and the ruling party, were set up purportedly to resist the "Maoists" but have been used to attack the adivasi agitators. At least four people have been already killed. Attacks are happening every day. It has also become an attempt to drive the adivasi movement onto violent paths so that it could be justifiably suppressed with violence. There is grave concern that the civil war-like situation in Chattisgarh and Jharkhan is being reproduced in West Bengal with the aim of fracturing the adivasi resistance and drawing the region into a prolonged, and violent, conflict that will result in the destruction of the normal life of the adivasis and disrupt all developmental efforts in the area.
In the backdrop of this impending crisis, a fact-finding mission to the adivasi areas of Lalgarh was planned in order to understand the situation, so that measures to face the danger at its inception can be thought about. It should be noted that a fact-finding committee dispatched by the central government a few weeks ago was chaperoned around by the state administration and had given rise to major grievances among the adivasis.
The objectives of the planned fact-finding mission are threefold:
1) to investigate the police atrocities that became the trigger for the uprising.
2) to investigate the origin and activities of the Salwa Judum style vigilante groups.
3) to investigate the status of development measures and the deprivation of adivasis in the area.
The fact-finding was planned for the 10th-11th of April. A mass convention was organized in Kolkata immediately before the fact-finding, on 9th April, which deliberated on the adivasi movement in Lalgarh in the context of other adivasi resistance movements in different parts of the country, the attempts to develop Salwa Judum- like organizations that pit people against people and lead to displacement of adivasis, and finally the handing over of their land and natural resources for exploitation by corporations.
The aim of the convention was to share the experience and gain insights into the situations in Chattisgarh and other parts of India among the members of the fact finding team and the participants in the convention.
Attempt was made to look for information regarding following socio-economic/developmental issues:
- Health services.
- Educational services.
- Water availability.
- Roads and transportation systems.
- Work under NREGA.
- Public distribution system and BPL ration cards.
- Land rights.
- Forest rights.
- Agriculture (inputs, irrigation etc.).
- Industries and mining (employment opportunities).
- Sale of forest produce.
- Working of panchayats.
- Land acquisition.
- Participation in political processes.
- Caste/tribe discrimination.
This list is neither thought to be comprehensive, nor is it authoritative. This is just a list of suggested "pointers" for the fact-finding.
Detailed accounts of the adivasi movement and its background are available at the following urls: http://sanhati.com/front-page/1083/
Please find as attachment the press statement of the Fact Finding Team on returning back from Lalgarh on April 12, 2009. The complete report may be available soon.