Thursday, November 24, 2005

From Delhi to Palam
Chandan Mitra-Daily Pioneer.

Seen from the comfort our plush living rooms in metropolitan cities, India is surging ahead: Power-packed, four-wheeled SUVs zip across under-construction expressways, discotheques are brimming over with heterosexuals, homosexuals, metrosexuals, multi-sexuals or whatever, new TV channels and airlines are taking to the air almost daily (a record 525 flights landed in Delhi last Thursday).

Not surprisingly, therefore, we can't remotely visualise the starkness of the reality in India's underdeveloped underbelly. Probably we don't even want to think about it. And even when it hits the headlines, we pause momentarily before resuming our awe-struck amazement at the rise and rise of the sensex.

But reality has a nasty way of catching up with us, if only as a reminder that India's aspiration to attain Big Power status will continue to be jolted by intense internal socio-economic conflict. What happened at Jehanabad in god-forsaken Bihar on the night of November 13 is one such shattering visitation.

Jehanabad was not a mere jailbreak. In terms of inmates forcing their way out of prison, by violence or stealth, there have been many other "impressive" performances. Some years ago, terrorists dug a tunnel under the walls of Chandigarh's high-security Burail prison and escaped, filmi-style.

Jehanabad's importance does not lie in numbers either, although it must be the single biggest escapade in Indian history with 379 inmates walking out. At least 20 were reluctantly dragged away and a few of them subsequently murdered. The most significant thing about the Jehanabad incident was that it symbolised the collapse of the state machinery and demonstrated that the authority of the mighty Indian state could be brazenly defied. It established that the writ of the government did not run in many parts even of "heartland" India. For all practical purposes, the rebels in Bihar had successfully created what in their parlance is known as a liberated zone.

Imagine the sequence of events. It's pitch dark in that unkempt, schizophrenic town. The darkness of the night is made more eerie because the daily power cut is in progress. The occasional generator is sputtering sporadic light due to inadequate supply of costly petrol.
Amid the stillness some candles and kerosene lamps flicker casting lengthy shadows on deserted alleys. In the distance, shouts are heard. Gradually they rise to a crescendo. Gunfire begins. Fearful inmates scamper into their homes, furtively glancing out of window shutters trying to figure out what is going on. Raising blood-curdling slogans, several processions slither along the town's narrow lanes. Microphones blare out: "We have no enmity with you.

The police and Ranvir Sena are our enemies. We shall teach them a lesson. Stay indoors and do not go to the police." The residents are too terrified to go anywhere except, perhaps, the toilet. It's only when the marauders leave, raucously triumphant, that the enormity of the event hits home.

While the people and police cowered, over 1,000 armed outlaws overpowered the security forces, broken through the jail's cordon sanitaire, freed their comrades, dragged away some 20 "class enemies" also lodged in the same building, and decamped thumbing a nose at the authorities. A few days later, mutilated bodies of two top leaders of the Ranvir Sena whom the attackers had whisked away, were discovered in nearby fields. True to form, the Maoists must have held a kangaroo court in a neighbouring village and tortured them to death in full public view.

There is something savagely primordial about the Jehanabad outrage. It's not only the brutality. Naxalites revel in such acts. In my childhood in Kolkata of the late 60s we read about determined young men storming buses, dragging out hapless men (either because they had turned renegade or police informer), beheading them publicly and jubilantly gyrating on the streets with their severed heads.

It was almost like the mythological dance of Goddess Kali. But Jehanabad was not a case of selective, targeted violence against individuals. It was a classic instance of a guerrilla raid on the most visible symbol of the state - the jailhouse.

Only last month they broke into a police armoury in Giridih and escaped with 183 rifles. Clearly this was part of the plan to storm the Jehanabad jail. Maoist outrages have become so commonplace in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, with landmine blasts routinely killing dozens of security forces, that we have become immune to these. Consequently, they get bolder.

A few months ago, armed Naxalites similarly attacked police stations in the town of Madhuban in Bihar's East Champaran district and freed their comrades from lock-ups apart from looting a large quantity of arms. It was reported that Nepali Maoists had walked across the porous border and helped their Indian counterparts in mounting the operation.

However, the police brass was at pains to deny Nepali involvement pretending it was a pure "Made in India" operation. Acknowledgement of foreign participation would have shown up our border security in poor light and the authorities were unwilling to concede the reality of the Red Corridor extending deep into India from Nepal. That Maoists made bold to storm the jail in Jehanabad reveals the price we have paid for turning a blind eye to the seriousness of the Madhuban incident.

Those familiar with Communist history would recall many similarities between the Jehanabad incident and the Changsha uprising in central China in the mid-30s. Although his latest biography denies Mao Zedong a key role in its organisation, his hagiographers have for years credited the Chinese dictator for being its principal strategist. Those who plotted the Jehanabad outrage obviously internalised Mao's dictums on how to plan and execute such guerrilla actions.
It was in the aftermath of the success of the hit-and-run operation at Changsha that Mao wrote some famous guerrilla commandments. These included, "When the enemy sleeps we attack; when the enemy camps, we harass, when the enemy attacks, we run." The conservative urban leadership of the Chinese Communist Party had called for an explanation in view of the savagery at Changsha.

In justification, Mao wrote: "Revolution is not a dinner party and revolutionaries do not have table manners." Such simple one-liners appear to have become the mantra of the desperadoes who function in his name across vast tracts of the sub-continent. Amazingly, the rudimentary tactics that help Mao take on the regime of Chiang Kai-shek 70 years ago appear to be yielding similar dividends to those who, in blatantly display of extra-territorial loyalty, coined the slogan "China's Chairman is our chairman" some 35 years ago.

Yet another startling factoid has since come to light. Following the Jehanabad raid that resulted in the abduction and murder of two top Ranvir Sena leaders, the authorities have decided that even Beur Jail in Bihar's capital is not safe for the Sena's supremo. So, it is proposed to shift him to Delhi's Tihar Jail. A similar suggestion is doing the rounds for other high-profile criminals lodged in different prisons in various parts of India. Doesn't this amount to admitting the shrinking control of the Indian state over distant parts of the country?

If prisoners cannot be secure in jails outside Delhi, what about ordinary citizens who do not live in official custody? Could we be returning to the days when it was mockingly said about a later Mughal 'emperor', Att Dilli te Palam, shahenshahi Shah-e-Alam (From the walled city of Delhi to Palam on the outskirts is the expanse of Shah Alam's empire)?

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