Can There Be Any Hope?

May 1, 2010

[The following editorial of Economic and Political Weekly is being republished to encourage debate and discussion among activists. – Ed]

All of India knows that even as many Indians have benefited from the rapid economic growth of the past quarter century, millions have also been marginalised by the so-called transformation.

This division has given a new edge in marketised India to the long-standing fracture between the “Two Indias”. There is now the thriving India – mainly urban, skilled and entrepreneurial, with close links to the globalised world – which acts as if the other India does not exist. This other India – mainly rural but also the underbelly of the cities – has been left behind because it has neither assets nor skills. The poor also have to cope with a collapse in public services. The trend now is for the thriving India to “secede” socially, economically and even politically from the rest of India. But it still has to deal with the other India because it needs its labour and needs its land, water, forests and all manner of natural resources that belong to the marginalised in order to fuel its growth and beautify its cities. This new division of Indian society is emblematic of the weaknesses of Indian democracy.

Much is often made of the vibrancy of Indian democracy, the deep stakes that the people of India have come to develop in it and the fact that an ever-increasing number of Indians – across castes, classes and gender – participate in the formal electoral process. All this is indeed true, but at the same time it is apparent from everyday life that many of the institutions of democracy have failed. The procedural aspects of democracy – such as accountability, transparency and governance – are largely non-functional. Working through the democratic process, citizens have obtained a number of rights but it is a daily struggle to exercise even a measure of these rights. Six decades after the constitution of the Republic it is not enough to point to the spaces that exist within a malfunctioning institution as evidence that it offers hope and opportunities to all. The institutions of democracy are widely and perhaps rightly seen as having been captured by the rich and the powerful. And the next fear must be that the gradual spread of the cancer of Hindutva communalism through many public institutions and the organs of the State will eventually complete the hollowing
out of Indian democracy.

The Communist Party of India (Maoist) is neither the first nor the only one to organise the marginalised against the forces of exclusion. But the Maoists have certainly jolted the “9% growth” mood of self-congratulation in the corridors of power. For close to half a century and through various cycles of activity, many groups of Naxalites have been working with some of the poorest of the poor for justice, dignity and rights that are supposed to be guaranteed under the Constitution. The impact of the Naxalite movement has varied, depending on the nature of the group and the area it works in. In parts of northern Andhra Pradesh and in the Dandakaranya region of central India, decades of persistent organisation by various strands of the Naxalite movement have resulted in a few gains in the form of payment of minimum wages, an end to extreme forms of oppression by local landlords and agents of the State and, most important, a sense of self-respect. The irony is not sufficiently recognised that it has taken a political party committed to the scrapping of the Constitution to effectively deliver on a measure of basic rights.

Today the Maoist movement is equated with the struggle of the adivasis in Dandakaranya. The adivasis undoubtedly make up the most marginalised group in India. They have always been at the mercy of one particular organ of the Indian state, the forest department, which has stubbornly sought to deny them their traditional rights to land and forest resources. The Naxalite groups that preceded the CPI (Maoist) chose Dandakaranya three decades ago to set their “guerrilla zones” as part of their long-term strategy to capture state power through an armed struggle. From all reports, the Maoists have gained the support and trust of a substantial proportion of the adivasi population in certain tracts of Dandakaranya by fighting the corruption of the forest department and oppression by local contractors. This, as is well known, has even found mention in the 2008 report of the expert group constituted by the Planning Commission.

The CPI (Maoist) has grown in strength in mineral-rich Dandakaranya. So given its strategy of wresting an ever-expanding area from the state administration, it was inevitable that the State would eventually respond with brutal force. The ugly face of the Indian state has been on display since 2005 in Chhattisgarh when, with the blessings of the state government (and the silent approval of New Delhi), the Salwa Judum set citizen upon citizen. While the strength of the Maoists in the region does come in the way of the mining plans of Indian and foreign companies, it is a simplistic view and fits in with a binary understanding of the masses railed against the Indian state to see the State’s response in terms of clearing the way for mining operations.

With its strategy of using paramilitary forces to “recover areas” from Maoist control, Operation Green Hunt – a deeply offensive term that reveals what the central government wishes to do with and what it thinks of some citizens – can only cause a bigger tragedy than the Salwa Judum. Some features of a civil war are already with us – indiscriminate arrests, fake encounters, and imprisonment of minors (by the State) and execution of “informers” (by the Maoists). The foot soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force are set against the adivasi recruits to the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army of the CPI (Maoist). The 75 jawans killed at Chintalnar-Tarmetla village in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh earlier this month may well be followed by another terrible killing, this time by government forces. The “body count” of one side will be compared with the “body count” of the other.

There will be assassinations and attacks by the Maoists (“to enthuse [the cadre] with daring counter-offensives” as one CPI (Maoist) statement described it last year). The State, on its part, makes the frightening promise to “study all options” and it has for all practical purposes suspended civil liberties in the areas of Maoist influence. Maoism has also become useful for the State to brand and suppress as extremist any movement that dares to confront the powers-that-be. (It is at the same time important to stress that the Maoist movement itself is not as widespread as the CPI (Maoist) or the State would have us believe, each for its own reasons.) The other side of this phenomenon is that it has not been uncommon for the Maoists themselves to take over an independent movement.

Militarised Identity

The CPI (Maoist) claims that it has been forced to take up the gun because over the past four decades central and state governments have violently suppressed the Naxalite movement whenever it has been able to organise the poor. Suppression by the State is a fact but this is an erroneous explanation, for the gun is central to the Maoist politics of waging an armed struggle to overthrow the State. The constant use of violence to protect and expand influence has inevitably begun to define of the character of the party. The result is that the CPI (Maoist) now has more of a militarised identity than a political one. Naturally, the violence of the Maoists increasingly mimics the violence of the State. Even if there can be no symmetry between the two, the consequences of the CPI (Maoist)’s militarised form of functioning are many. It is horrifying that the CPI (Maoist) now has little qualms in even justifying murderous retribution in its fight against the State (see unedited interview of Azad, CPI (Maoist) spokesperson, with The Hindu). This is unacceptable coming from a political formation that claims to want to build a new and just society.

The party hands out its brand of justice by, for instance, assassinating Laxmanananda Saraswati of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Kandhamal district of Orissa in August 2008, but it does not foresee, or worse, may not care, that the retribution by the Hindutva groups would be savage and will permanently scar the lives of thousands of minority citizens. As K Balagopal perceptively observed in this journal in 2006, the Maoists have acquired considerable military expertise but their political development has stagnated. The institution of summary courts that deliver summary justice, the shadowy and autocratic manner in which the Maoists function, their intolerance of dissent and the use of “levies” on traders and contractors (i e, extortion) to mobilise finance, and the attempts to influence and take over sympathetic organisations are many other aspects of their functioning that should make any one worry about the movement. The CPI (Maoist) also has an instrumental view of the adivasis. Thus, the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act which is meant to give the adivasis greater control over their resources (but has not been implemented by state governments) never figures in the Maoist campaign, for if it was implemented the adivasis would end up with more control over their lives.

Indian Democracy in the Dock

Ultimately, what is at test in the conflict is not the politics and violence of the CPI (Maoist) but the very institution of Indian democracy. For wherever the CPI (Maoist) has built up some influence it has done so because the fault lines in Indian democracy have made people in some of the most deprived regions of the country deeply resentful of the State. It is the organs of the State that are now in the dock for their cumulative failure to respect and guarantee the rights of all Indians. The Indian state is so enamoured of its (perceived) status as an economic and political power on the international stage that it does not see what is happening on its periphery. The adivasi anger is only one of many, albeit small, fires burning in the country. (It is somewhat strange that even as Hindutva continues bit by bit to undo the basic tenets of the Constitution, it is the CPI (Maoist) which is seen as posing the “greatest ever internal security challenge” to the State.)

Which way then for the CPI (Maoist) versus the State conflict? In the immediate term, the open conflict has to end. It goes without saying that even after the tragedy of Chintalnar-Tarmetla, the central and state governments have to demonstrate a measure of sagacity and foresight to halt all paramilitary offensives and disband the Salwa Judum. The most marginalised of Indian society at the very least have a right not to be in a theatre conflict.

The CPI (Maoist) has, of course, been very keen on “talks” for that will lift the siege it is now under. Agreement on the modalities of such discussions between the CPI (Maoist) and the State is not essential for both sides to first end the war-like situation. Yes, the past experience (notably in Andhra Pradesh in 2004) with “peace talks” has not been a happy one for either the State or the Maoists. But the people of Andhra Pradesh did enjoy a respite from state and Maoist violence for at least a few months and so too will the people of Dandakaranya. In the medium term the State must lift its ban on the CPI (Maoist) and give it the freedom to openly work among the people; the big question though will be the possession of arms.

Beyond the immediate and the medium term, we need a different kind of Indian state and a different kind of CPI (Maoist). Can we imagine both the State and the CPI (Maoist) respecting and affirming the basic rights of citizens? Can we imagine institutions of the State responding to the needs of all groups of citizens and fulfilling the lofty promises of the Constitution? Can we imagine a CPI (Maoist) that also effects a fundamental transformation and sheds its militarised identity?

On such hopes must rest our imagination.