Jitters at Jhitka

November 24th, 2009

A strange sense of foreboding envelopes you as the car races into the forests of Jhikta, on the way to Lalgarh. After passing through seemingly peaceful villages interrupted by a smattering of paramilitary forces, the rising tree line of the notorious woods remind you of the terrain where the country’s most perilous insurgency survives and thrives.

Rows of verdantly gaunt Sal trees rise from above a thick undergrowth. The sonorous ring of the forests’ name and the half-hearted expectation to be accosted by the now-famous Lalgarh Naxals rattle relentlessly inside your head. As the cool November wind whips by, you peer into the trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of a covered gunman or two. But the forest recedes as quickly as it begins.

In Lalgarh proper, though, the reality is obvious. The state is limping and despair is growing. The security forces are holed up in their yet-to-be-completed station on the outskirts of Lalgarh town. The liquor shop facing the police station declares the end of this little oasis, often visited by scribes. The rest seems almost inconsequential in its existence.

From there on, the long arm of the law might as well be severed. On the potholed road that leads to Kantapahari and then onto Goaltore, the isolation appears complete.

In the hamlets that line the road, life continues. But beyond the fields that follow the administrations’ lifeline from point-to-point, there is little knowing of which powers hold sway. There is an inkling, though.

Suspicious faces, which piercingly look through you, are abound. There is an obvious reluctance to hold conversation with outsiders and, if at all, that happens there is only that much you can glean from their disinclined minds. There are some questions you just do not ask; others go unanswered.

As the afternoon sun begins its descent, you trace your path out of the Naxal heartland. There is more confidence now; after entering, and working in, a district that much of Bengal’s capital city views with a certain exoticism. The news, one thinks, has been procured. All that remains is to distill and transcribe it.

Bypassing Lalgarh, the car speeds back towards Jhitka. Only this time, a two-file patrol of paramilitary troops line the forested road. The photographer reacts with a professional impatience to capture that stereotypical frame of a state at war. In a flash, the man descends on the road, camera in hand, to hold court with a uniformed soldier to help structure that perfect picture. There is a sense of occasion.

The adrenaline is infectious. Before you know it, you, too, are on the metalled surface. Standing; hand–at–waist; observing; sometimes supervising. Colourfully costumed locals go by on the bicycles, unperturbed by the gun-totting men. The car idles a few meters behind. You watch sedately and stare into the forest.

That is when it hits you. The foreboding reappears with stunning speed. The realisation of being witness to what is India’s widest ranging internal conflict returns with a numbing swiftness. Beyond the facade of placidity, a war is waging.

Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it has ceased to exist.

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