Guerilla with a mobile phone

Print edition : November 10, 2017
A book that frames the Lalgarh movement and Kishanji, its charismatic and controversial spearhead, in a historical perspective.

FOR a brief period, lasting about two years, Koteswara Rao, better known as Kishanji, was the most-talked-about figure in West Bengal. He was the media-savvy gun-toting guerilla; the face of the deadly Maoist movement in West Bengal in which hundreds of civilians were killed; the terror of the Jangalmahal (the contiguous forested area of the three districts of Bankura, Pashchim Medinipur and Purulia); the self-styled liberator of the oppressed who soon turned into an oppressor himself. Whatever emotions and sentiment Kishanji may have evoked—terror, hatred, loyalty and even love—one thing universally acknowledged was that he could not be ignored. He himself made sure of that.

The book Lalgarh and the Legend of Kishanji:Tales from India’s Maoist Movement by Snigdhendu Bhattacharya explores the enigmatic and doomed personality of the Maoist leader, and the “Lalgarh” movement that he spearheaded—one of the most violent and bloody periods in the State’s recent political history. The author, having covered the Maoist movement in the State, weaves in personal experience with hard facts and takes the reader deep into the heart of the violence and the ruthless politics surrounding the movement. It is this anecdotal aspect that makes the book fascinating to read not just for students and academics but also for the general public.

The nondescript village of Lalgarh in Jhargram subdivision of Pashchim Medinipur district, like Nandigram (in Purba Medinipur) and Singur (in Hooghly district), has become a symbol of resistance against the establishment, and the events that happened there mark a turning point in West Bengal’s recent history. The movements that sprang up in these three places, the writer correctly observes, cannot be viewed separately. “Singur, Nandigram and Salboni (neighbouring Lalgarh)—the sites hand-picked for three big industrial projects that the CPI(M)-led Left Front thought would become jewels in its crown—proved to be its undoing. Singur and Nandigram culminated in Lalgarh.”

If the Singur and Nandigram movements, spearheaded by the then opposition leader Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress, were the fallout of the Left Front government’s policy of acquiring land forcibly from farmers for industrial purposes (to which the Maoists later gave their support), the Lalgarh movement was led by the Maoists (in which the Trinamool Congress later became involved).

It was after a failed assassination attempt on the then Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, while he was returning after laying the foundation stone for a mega steel project in Salboni on November 2, 2008, that the Maoists stepped out of the shadows and announced their presence in the State.

The subsequent police excesses during raids on the people of the region for allegedly aiding and abetting the Maoists was the spark that resulted in the conflagration that lasted for two years and played a pivotal role in toppling the seemingly invincible Communist Party of India (Marxist) government after 34 years in power. The author points out that a total of 355 civilians were killed by Maoists in the jurisdiction of 15 police stations in and around Lalgarh between November 2008 and November 2011; 53 security personnel lost their lives; and 80 Maoists and their supporters were killed by security forces and CPI(M) activists. “This is in addition to the death of 148 passengers in the Jnaneshwari Express tragedy—the result of a horrific, multi-agency conspiracy and a fallout of the movement itself,” the author states. Statistics show that more blood was shed in the Lalgarh movement at its peak than in any other Maoist-affected State in the corresponding period. In 2009, of the total 391 persons killed by Maoists in nine States, Lalgarh alone accounted for 143; in the following year, of the 478 killed, 180 were in Lalgarh.

Towering over this period of lawlessness, bloodshed and political upheaval was the diminutive figure of Kishanji, his face concealed by a gamchha (a rough towel used mostly in rural regions), an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, waging war against the Centre and the State and having the power of life and death over the people of the Jangalmahal region. “Whether Kishanji’s politics is right or wrong became a household debate,” observes the writer.

Born in Pedapalli in Karimnagar district in Andhra Pradesh, Kishanji embarked on the journey down the road of rebellion with the CPI(Marxist-Leninist) in 1973 while still a student at Osmania University in Hyderabad. He quickly emerged as a major force within the party, and in 1977 was one of the main leaders of the historic Jagityal Jaitra Yatra. Three years later, when the People’s War was founded, he was its Andhra Pradesh State secretary. Subsequently, he played a key role in the mergers of the Maoist parties, which ultimately emerged as the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in 2004. He was also one of the main brains behind the formation of the People’s Guerilla Army.

But it was during the Lalgarh movement that Kishanji truly became the face of the Maoist movement in the country. He was, as the author puts it, “the guerilla with a mobile phone”. For a long time, he was in touch with various mediapersons, intellectuals, politicians and activists every day, and many of his phone-in interviews were telecast live on news channels. By doing this, not only was he brazenly cocking a snook at the authorities but also creating confusion and spreading his message and ideology. He even sought out journalists who were not giving him sufficient coverage and appealed to them to hear him out. “Kishanji’s stature by then cannot be overstated. He was the first to demonstrate that a mobile phone could become a lethal weapon in a guerilla leader’s hand. It was amazing that, despite using a cell phone for as long as he did, the police were unable to track him down,” writes Snigdhendu Bhattacharya. For more than two years, Kishanji was truly a constant embarrassment for the police and the State intelligence, who seemed to be clueless about his whereabouts.

The book also sets the record straight in many ways and breaks the myths that often threaten to grow around a personality like Kishanji. In spite of his close association with Kishanji while covering the Maoist movement, the author tries to remain as dispassionate as possible while presenting the personality of the rebel leader. The picture the reader ultimately gets is that of not just a political or historical figure but a human being with all his foibles and weaknesses, cruelties and kindnesses.

It is a comprehensive book that places the Lalgarh movement in a historical perspective and provides a deep insight into and first-hand account of all that transpired in the Maoist belt. In writing the legend of Kishanji, the author also studies the factors that led to the spurt in the growth of the Maoist movement in the State and the larger and more deadly political game that was played around it. For all the stir that he created in the three brief years when he was more widely featured and quoted in the media than any high-profile politician, Kishanji ultimately ended up being nothing more than a pawn in the game of power. His death (in November 2011) put an abrupt end to the Maoist menace in the State, and Kishanji failed to leave behind a legacy strong enough for the movement to continue from where he had left it.

The book is invaluable for anyone interested in the Lalgarh movement, for there is little that the writer has left out, from the inception of the movement to the controversy and mystery surrounding Kishanji’s death, allegedly while fighting the State police and Central security forces. The book has not forgotten those who played key roles in the movement but were subsequently either overshadowed by the personality of Kishanji or lost importance as the movement grew. One such character was the enigmatic Bikram. Journalists in Bengal who were covering the Maoist movement would remember that it was initially Bikram who was the main channel of communication between the Maoists and the media before Kishanji’s became known as the “phone-in guerilla”. Bikram, who had got admission to the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, had abandoned a promising career for the life of a Maoist. He disappeared from the radar of reporters after Kishanji took over the phone.

With the help of pithy anecdotes, the writer provides diverse pictures of a bloody period—from the humanity shown by a jawan who refused to obey his superior’s order and make a woman with a six-month-old baby stand in a queue for interrogation to the often senseless violence and the gratuitous cruelty of the self-proclaimed revolutionaries. There are stories here that the reporter Snigdhendu may have had to leave out while writing for his newspaper but that the author Snigdhendu could not resist from including in his book.

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