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Have authorities in Bengal taken leave of their senses?

By T V R Shenoy
July 08, 2009 12:45 IST
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The name Anuj Pandey has not received the acclaim that is due from economists. Should you be unfamiliar with his accomplishments, Anuj Pandey is the secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist's zonal committee in Lalgarh.

As a full-time worker, the CPI-M pays him the none-too-handsome salary of Rs 1,500 every month. And yet Anuj Pandey and his brothers somehow managed to put up a handsome two-storey house (as well as reportedly end up owning 40 bighas of land).

It is said to be the only two-storey house in the area -- one of the poorest in West Bengal -- and seemed to have been a handsome structure judging by its photographs.

A salary of Rs 1,500 a month is not exactly a generous amount, it works out to just 50 rupees a day. (Even less in months with 31 days!) Currencies fluctuate a lot but Anuj Pandey's salary puts him dangerously close to the often-quoted international definition of poverty as a 'dollar a day'. So how exactly did the Pandey family manage to put up a house, the finest one for miles around?

The Pandeys' not-so-humble abode does not exist any longer; its high roof, its railed balcony, and its marble floor now exist in memory alone. When the Maoists conquered Lalgarh one of the first places that was attacked was Anuj Pandey's house.

Intriguingly, the ones who pulled it down do not seem to have been the armed guerrillas themselves but the local tribals. Judging by the photographs taken on the occasion, the men were drumming and the women were ululating.

Those are the same rhythmic beats and the same high-pitched trills made in rituals like, say, weddings or birth ceremonies.

In fact, there seemed to have been much the same air of mingled solemnity and celebration when the Pandey dwelling came down as during any other mass religious rite. Some observers even say that there were the same calls to gather and bear witness.

The cynic in me says that at least some of this was stage-managed by the Maoists, people who know a thing or two about propaganda. But you cannot get away from the stark reality of the photographs, which showed a two-storey house towering up in an area where most other human dwellings were, to put it politely, rudimentary.

Those photographs give the lie to all the Marxist claims of development in West Bengal. Judging by Lalgarh, 32 years of unbroken Marxist governance has delivered little or nothing to the ordinary person with all the goodies being hogged by the Communist cadre.

That is no excuse for the violence unleashed by the Maoists in West Bengal or elsewhere but it helps to explain the environment in which they flourish.

I am sure the West Bengal authorities can put down the insurrection. But what comes after that, how does the ruling CPI-M propose to win the hearts and minds of the alienated tribal population? Does it really think that its zonal committee secretary, Anuj Pandey, is the right man for the job?

It is hard to exaggerate the extent to which the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government and its minions are now alienated from the people. What was the first -- thus far the only -- case filed after the Lalgarh police station was 'liberated' from Maoist control?

It was, believe it or not, against the likes of director Aparna Sen, poet Joy Goswami, actor Kaushik Sen, and five others for violating Section 144 (which prohibits unlawful assembly of five or more people).

The eight of them had apparently gone in a group to meet Chhatradhar Mahato and urge him to stop the violence. (Mahato is the leader of the Police Santrash Birodhi Janasadharaner, the 'People's Committee Against Police Atrocities').

You cannot be blamed for wondering if the authorities in West Bengal have taken leave of their senses. One may have little sympathy for the drawing-room socialists of Kolkata, one should have absolutely no sympathy for Maoists who worship violence, but is it truly the West Bengal authorities' highest priority just now to take actors and poets into custody?

Would the CPI-M ever demonstrate the same zeal in unearthing the mystery of how a man who earns 1500 rupees a month manages to put up a two-storey house?

Who are the beneficiaries of decades of Left Front rule? Not Muslims, according to the Sachar Committee. Not rural Bengal, judging by what happened in Singur and Nandigram. Not tribals, if we believe even a small fraction of the reports emerging from Lalgarh. Not even the intellectuals of Kolkata, whose disillusionment is now all too clear.

The stark picture coming out of West Bengal is of a vast wasteland of poverty and brutality broken only by the occasional symbol of prosperity -- such as Anuj Pandey's late, unlamented house.

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T V R Shenoy