Kindling of an Insurrection: Notes from Junglemahals By Chandan Sinha, Routledge, Rs 850
Mani Tudu’s hut is made of red mud walls and has a palm-frond roof supported by a falling bamboo frame. Years of relentless beating by the sun and the rains has eroded the walls and left large holes on the roof that a tarpaulin sheet provided by the Relief Department cannot cover. But then, a poor cover over her head is obviously not something she can complain about much. For the house has no door.
For the district collector visiting her village in the Salboni area of West Midnapore, the house is “among the most pitiable I have seen”. He asks a panchayat functionary why Mani Tudu was not selected for having a house built under the Indira Awaas Yojana. The “evasive” answer leaves him unconvinced.
There are 39 Lodha families living in one part of a village in Binpur which the collector visits another time. Everyone tells him how badly the village needs a good road leading to Lalgarh, 10 kilometres away, where the closest health centre is located. The last time any work was done on the existing road, the collector learns, was 25 years ago.
And, frequently during his visits to other villages and block headquarters, the collector — also called the district magistrate — finds government and panchayat offices locked during working hours and employees absent. Teachers leave schools hours before closing time and mid-day meals for poor students are served only irregularly.
During his 14 months as the district collector of West Midnapore in 2004-2005, Chandan Sinha had first-hand experiences of what life was like for the poorest people in the most backward region of Bengal. The head of the district administration himself, he also came to know how decades of an administrative void had forced the poor villagers to live and die as they have always done — barely surviving on minor forest produce, exploited by middlemen and government functionaries and dying of malnutrition-related diseases without medicine or treatment.
Around the time Sinha was posted in the district, the poor, belonging mostly to scheduled tribes and castes, were, however, doing something else. They were rehearsing an uprising. Of a total of 7,498 villages in the district, 505 or six per cent are populated entirely by scheduled tribes. Of these, only eight villages, all in Binpur-II block, have a population of more than 500. The five blocks of Binpur-I, Binpur-II, Nayagram, Jhargram and Jamboni together account for 60 per cent of the villages where all inhabitants are tribals. Together they comprise the area which is known as “Junglemahal”. “It may make one wonder if it is a coincidence that left-wing extremism (in Bengal) has found a firm foothold in these blocks. And why”, Sinha ends his Introduction with the question.
But the book does not attempt to come up with an answer. It is rather reassuring that it does not do so, for there are by now plenty of answers to questions about the Maoist rebellion in different parts of India. What the author does instead gives the book its value and credibility. He portrays vignettes of village life, of poverty and its discontent and of official and political apathy. The result is a very realistic, if also saddening, account of the context that made Junglemahal a part of India’s red corridor.
The form he uses to create this gallery of portraits of Junglemahal villages gives the book its authentic, almost documentary, quality. For all the endless meetings and on-the-spot surveys that take up most of a district collector’s waking hours, Sinha found time to write down notes on every visit, thereby capturing the images, impressions and also policy choices on the pages of his diary.
In doing this, Sinha was actually following an old tradition that English district officers began in India. “Almost every settlement officer found that his heart went with his labours,” wrote Philip Mason in The Men Who Ruled India, “Many a man kept till his death the settlement report that he wrote in his thirties, a printed volume as long as an ordinary novel, even without the tables of crops, soils and percentages.”
Sinha’s book, though, has some tables, plenty of “percentages” and much more that should make it useful for researchers wanting to know about how the poorest in Bengal lived in the early years of the 21st century — that too, under a Marxist government.
There is a catch, though. No matter how the government functionaries fail the poor, there is no dearth of government programmes to eradicate poverty and feed, house and even provide them with basic education. Sinha provides a list of such programmes and schemes of rural development, funded by both the Centre and the state government. The English district officer had nothing of these at his disposal. His priorities too were very different.
After one has read the book, though, one is left wondering where all the money for these ever-proliferating programmes goes. Although Sinha provides no direct answer to the question why Maoism in Bengal is located primarily in West Midnapore, the narrative that takes shape from his notes offers a clue. One begins to understand, if not the politics of Maoism, then at least its lure for those who have nothing to lose but torn tarpaulin sheets over the holes of their mud-house roofs.
A Maoist sympathiser could finish reading the book asking, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”