Lalgarh. Literally, a red fortress. Tripura, for example. Where the mainstream Left held sway for a quarter of a century. Till the unthinkable happened this election. The tiny village in question is in West Bengal though. An erstwhile stronghold of ultra-Left guerrillas, it was the centrestage of Operation Lalgarh launched by the Left Front government to flush out the rebels towards the end of its 34-year rule. Soon after, Mamata Banerjee made the unthinkable happen in 2011.
Kishenji, the once-elusive Maoist commander, was killed the same year. Today his former seat of power is a liberated zone, touted as a model village in the making. But yet another unthinkable came about last week. A tiger was spotted in Lalgarh. The media has not stopped gawking since.
For some context, Lalgarh falls within what the British called Jungle Mahals (literally, forest estates). The present district is named after its headquarter, Jhargram (literally, forest village). Odisha’s tiger forests are barely 75 km away. Yet, this was the first tiger to show up in Lalgarh in many decades.
After extensive felling and mining, only a few patches of the region’s once-magnificent Sal forests survive. There is little connectivity and no prey base in these empty, island forests to support tigers that were locally exterminated so long ago that they barely figure in the living memory.
Then, one fine day, with nobody watching for one, walked in a big male. This is not Blake’s killing machine conjured up to torment the hapless. This is a wild cat driven by survival, daring to seek life in a landscape that must be the tiger equivalent of scorched earth. The sheer improbability of it has fuelled social media jokes about Kishenji’s ghost being on the prowl.
Even as experts charted possible routes the adventurous cat could have taken to Lalgarh, the residents and the administration reacted in panic. Teams of forest officials from Sunderbans rushed in with dart guns and trap cages to rescue and rehabilitate the tiger. It is a misfit in today’s Lalgarh, in the ruins of lost wilderness that cannot hold it any more.
Quite like the once-formidable ideological reach of the Left movement. The fading signboards still hang from desolate party offices. Or shine in the pockets where the parties still hold power. But the comrades went missing in the cadre-leader hierarchy that evolved to control and rule. As one section of the leadership traded integrity for convenience, and another compensated a lack of imagination with dogmas, the Left lost both moral and intellectual appeal.
The price of jettisoning everything of value to accommodate profit is that one has nothing to fall back or rebuild on once out of power. The rapid marginalisation of the Left in West Bengal after the first major electoral rejection in over three decades sets a dark precedent for the comrades in Tripura. However indefatigable, Manik Sarkar is touching 70 and unlikely to bounce back on his own. And he may not find too many rallying behind his unpopular cause.
Not because India is shifting towards a single-party hegemony and the BJP has its gaze fixed on Kerala for 2021. Or because the Vaastu Shastra is silent on the virtues of “left”, the direction, even though it acknowledges the importance of the Northeast in the new political construct of India. If the ones like Sarkar find themselves lonelier than ever, it is because of a growing consensus that the Left is finally, truly expendable.
This increasingly-uncontested narrative avers that, across the country, the aspirational youth does not want to be left out anymore. That there is no room for a counter-narrative in a land where the dominant narrative is essentially neoliberal. That secularism or plurality is negotiable for promised development. That even talking of inequality and poverty is a conspiracy to sabotage growth. That the rich, the powerful and the majority are all above scrutiny.
Not many will bet that the self-destructive Left movement stands a chance against such odds — real and perceptual — facing it in India. More than electoral rejections, what threatens the idea is a multi-pronged ideological and intellectual resistance. A turnaround of any consequence may seem unthinkable, even to the die-hard, if any. Why, the joke that Kerala can now flaunt a “We Have No Branch” tag is doing the rounds even in JNU.
This is where our comrades may look at Lalgarh with curiosity. Far from being Kishenji’s ghost out there to avenge betrayals, it is every inch a tiger walking in to reclaim the ruins of its lost territory. It is a flesh-and-blood, even if eventually doomed, tiger making the order that made him irrelevant and move on cower in fear, even if for a little while. One tiger won’t make a forest. But one unthinkable has happened. Yet others may follow.
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