‘Ethical Mining’ and Adivasi Community as ‘Stakeholder’

September 27, 2010

By Saroj Giri

Might one say, we are witnessing the softening of the Indian state, or perhaps the new inclusive nature of the upper middle class, so far known for its strident, aggressive, acquisitive, unaccomodative, in short, right-wing character? With regard to the debate on land acquisition, Vir Sanghvi recently pointed to this new inclusive nature: ‘the middle class position has shifted slightly from this absolutist position,’ ‘the middle class has begun to care’ (Hindustan Times, Aug 28, 2010). So far as the state itself is concerned, it can unnerve those who believe in the idea of the ‘fascist Indian state’, that the Home Minister himself is supposed to be in favour of diluting parts of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in all-too-sensitive Kashmir today!

And now we have the proposed Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation Act 2010 (MMRD) which has the look of a left-wing volley against corporate capital – appropriately played out as such, with the corporate sector strongly opposing the proposed 26% sharing of mining profits with the adivasi community (benefit-sharing). Add to it the findings of the N C Saxena report against Vedanta’s forays in Niyamgiri, and you have all the elements of ‘a democratic solution’ of the issue of land alienation among adivasis, indeed of the ‘Maoist problem’. How does one understand these ‘progressive’ developments, the democratic overtures of the ‘repressive Indian state’?

Community as partners mining

Let us start by asking: isn’t the proposed 26% ‘benefit sharing’ by mining companies with the ‘adivasi community’, the way to slowly morph the community into the all-too-market-friendly ‘proprietors’, stake-holders, ‘partners in business’ and so on? Isn’t this what the free marketers, the IMF and World Bank, call expanding ‘market-oriented property rights’ in places where ‘private property’, the very basis of market capitalism, is not well-developed or non-existent? The fact of the matter is that the Act and ‘democratic solutions’ in general clearly works towards a pro-market reframing of the adivasi community, luring them into, as it were, capitalism, or at least in the present case, into ‘sustainable mining’ – that is, instead of forcing things down. That is, apart from the ‘flushing out’ armed actions of Operation Green Hunt, we also have at work the much more inclusive, much more sinister operation of creating as it were the conditions of possibility for capitalism and market relations. The Act seems poised to ensure the reach and penetration of capitalism by packaging it as inclusive and democratic, aimed to neutralize the revolutionary movement in Dantewada and elsewhere.

Sustainable mining, sustainability, ethical practices (well, including fair trade, anti-animal testing a la Body Shop etc) is already the dominant mantra of global capitalism today. Marks and Spencer recently announced that it is not going to buy garments from Gurgaon-based Viva Global since the latter has ‘unethical labour practices’. This shift to ethical capitalism has not taken place in India really.

One wonders if the overall impact of the Maoist movement as reflected in the ‘democratic solutions’ is just to recycle unethical Indian capitalism into the ‘humanised’ Capitalism 4.0! Fight global capitalism in order to get more of it! On another register, it is as though the semi-feudal capitalism, which is what the Maoists believe it is in India, is a thing of the past so that we will soon have an eco-friendly, democratic, hence truly bourgeois capitalism. Of course there is evidence to the contrary, as FICCI and CII’s opposition to benefit sharing shows they are not yet ready for even this slight green, community-friendly, democratic makeover. What is for sure is that, thanks to the ‘Maoist menace’, they will have no choice but to engage in some benign acts of sharing and giving – sooner or later, the Western capitalist game of being environment-friendly and inclusive is going to unroll here.

Inside and Outside

The ‘progressive’ proposal for sharing of corporate mining profits with ‘adivasi community’ assumes that the problem so far has been of ‘capital vs. community’, or capital against community (with the state on the side of capital), so that a rapprochement, a patch-up is suggested. If however the Maoists are an issue here, then this proposal can clearly be seen to be operating at best within the older framework of social movements opposing ‘the ill-effects of development’, and not the framework inaugurated by the Maoists.

The earlier movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan defended jal, jangal, jamin primarily through a defense of the ‘community’ or ‘community rights’ and so most problems were treated as primarily coming from the ‘outside’, viz., big rapacious companies and the state. It was capital/state vs. community, with capital/state placed as on the outside, thereby defining an ‘inside’, the community, as an undifferentiated unity. The movement or struggle is then against what comes from outside to disturb the community, so that the fight against this outside is not seen as integrally related, or following from, struggles inside the community. This is not to deny moments and phases of internal struggle within such social movements. However these seem to have been more in the nature of a spin-off, catalysed by actions and mobilizations directed towards the ‘outside’.

The Maoist movement radically challenges this understanding. For the Maoists the fight against capital is part of the struggle against internal oppressive relations in the community. In fact, the ‘local community’ as a category is not instrumental at all. Thus their fight against corporate land grab does not exist in isolation from their well documented struggle against the forest department officials, local feudals, traders, as also the fight against women’s oppression. Salwa Judum showed how the dominant adivasi elite (even though backed by ‘outside’ corporate houses) can be radically challenged by the rest of the adivasis. Fight against ‘outside’ capital could not in this case be detached from one within the ‘local community’ (‘inner contradictions’). Indeed the Naxalbari movement in 1967 was not against corporate land grab but all about internal oppressive relations – largely the case in for example in Jangalmahal today where the main issue is not corporate land grab.

The dominant discourse

However this specificity of the Maoist/Naxalbari movement which gives it the revolutionary edge, is what is being silently undermined in the progressive discourse on the issue of land grab and now mining benefits. The hidden logic of benefit sharing, which is essentially a proposal for the extension of ‘market-oriented property rights’, is to undermine the on-going process of social liberation among adivasis. How? The progressive proposal to make the companies pay a share of their profits clearly assumes that the problem is emanating from (outside) capital not respecting the rights of local communities to a share in the returns. With the problem presented as on the outside, the aspect of the internal transformation and struggle presented by the Maoist movement loses relevance. After all, the specifically Maoist/communist moments of the struggle viz. the so-called PLGA, janatana sarkars, new social relations and production based on collective work and socialist distribution and so on – are these not all in excess of what a struggle against ‘outside’ capital would entail? Isn’t it in this sense that the Maoist project is in excess of the struggle of social movements against corporate capital? Indeed, the excess played out in the media is the aim of the Maoists to overthrow the state and capture power, something the hawks hysterically stress to establish the futility of talks and a ‘democratic solution’ of the Maoist problem.

This excess, this communistic surplus the Maoist movement aspires to embody, makes progressives as much as right-wing hawks squirm and fret, the supposedly utopian nature of this project and the enormous strength of the capitalist state and empire notwithstanding. Thus steering clear of both capitalism and communism, Arundhati Roy feels impelled to retrieve some ‘subaltern agency’, using a stringent sieve to sift away the agency of the adivasi as a Maoist, as a communist. The wind is taken off the incipient communist drift by of course establishing a discourse where the on-going struggle is re-enacted, re-formulated as just a fight against corporate land grab. Roy’s question, ‘will the Maoists leave the bauxite in the mountains?’ carries tremendous critical charge – and yet it functions within this retroactively conservative discourse. No wonder even a free market proponent like B. G. Varghese is now coming around to argue for curbing corporate irresponsibility in violating community rights.

And here comes the solution: the fight against corporate capital is not through the continued political radicalization of large sections of adivasis (leading to communism?) but through a benefit sharing deal! Let us end land alienation in a way which takes the wind off any communist impulse, so that the alienation of the Maoists becomes real. Instead of dreaming of communism, adivasis should be active partners in sustainable mining! Unlike the repressive state apparatus, democratic capitalism does not just kill one whom it confronts in the present but suffocates with open arms what the future possibly holds.

And in spite of all the setbacks and reversal, in fact colossal failures, communism still is the idea prefiguring this future in a way that Roy’s ‘neither capitalism nor communism’ seems like a conjunctural variation on ‘either capitalism or communism’. Consider this: democratic/ethical/green capitalism or totalitarian communism; capitalism plus social movements plus subaltern agency, or obsolete communism; democracy or socialist dictatorship; multi-party system or one-party rule. In all these variants, the case for capitalism gets better and that for communism worse. What we see then is that, pitching for social movement or subaltern agency against or without the communist proposal of replacing capitalism in toto, moves within an ideological schema of one way or other accepting capitalism as the only game in town. Further, it is as though only an abandonment of the idea of communism itself can ensure a progressive and democratic capitalism. So Maoists should join the mainstream, local communities should become stakeholders, corporations should share profits….

Oh, or is communism, the Maoist threat and so on, merely a bogey raised by the state in order to justify repression against those purely working and acting within the democratic framework and calling for the progressive provisions of the Constitution to be implemented? Is communism a bogey used to repress those who are perfectly willing to abide by capitalism? That is, it is when the serious charge of believing in communism is made, do the real apologists of capitalism reveal themselves by saying – oh we never believed in communism, we were always with you but it is you who suspects us of that, arresting us in the name of Maoists and so on. And further, all that we are doing is that we are merely warning you of the fear (say of Maoist takeover) turning into a reality, if you do not follow our recommendations to democratic capitalize in order to save it. Such is the situation of large sections of the left in the country today – something clear from the proposed mining legislation, the progressive recommendations of the N. C. Saxena Committee as well as those who place major hopes on the Forest Rights Act and PESA and so on.

Adivasi as a natural order?

A few more remarks on the older social movement approach of ‘neither capitalism nor communism but only subaltern agency’. This approach, at least in some versions, presents adivasis not as stake-holders or partners but as those who are bound to the minerals and resources in an organic necessity. It thinks that the only way to defend ‘natural resources’ from corporate takeover is by treating these resources, the mountains and forests (‘nature’) as essentially what defines adivasis. Some kind of a natural order is pitted against corporate takeover, totally overlooking conscious adivasi subjectivity which might emanate less from any natural order or oneness with nature (?!) than from a political critique of capital itself – also overlooking that this critique might be emanating in turn from an ‘ism’.

Thus the radical reconstitution of adivasi society, throwing new political forms as part of the Maoist movement, becomes secondary as the question is raised directly about ‘the bauxite in the mountains’ as though adivasis represent no break with ‘nature’. In Arundhati Roy again we see that, perhaps in a bid to distance oneself from communism, she for example does not ask questions about adivasi subjectivity and the constitution of society that will and should decide what happens to the bauxite or more generally to ‘nature’. Instead, she short-circuits by asking directly about the bauxite in the mountains, about leaving nature as it is, as though there is no society, no social forms that mediate the adivasi’s relation to nature. Such an approach is of course nothing new. Marx long ago pointed out that treating nature as given, unmediated by society and history is a problem of the idealists and of the ‘contemplative materialists’. And yet in the specific context today, what is obscured from view is that it is not just the determinations of nature that ‘adivasi society’ might transcend but the determinations of capital itself.

The real point here is that it is much easier to issue a fiat that nature be left untouched or that the adivasis themselves should decide (whatever that means) than to engage with questions of social forms that will approach nature in an ecological or unecological manner. But then this question of social forms means that one cannot for long postpone the ‘difficult’ question of socialist/communist society or capitalist and happily wander into the ‘small is beautiful’ kind of a garden of subaltern benign-ness. I know it is a heavy question and it cannot be unsaddled from the burden of the actual history of 20th century experiences of communism. And yet if it anyway comes caught in the whirlwind of actual events happening today then one must boldly propose this question again.

Roy cannot do that. And hence her approach of ‘neither capitalism nor communism’, critical though it seems, ends up undermining the political movement which adivasis are involved in as part of the Maoist movement – instead it assumes the safe position of an untouched natural order and ‘subaltern agency’.

Maoists in question

While I am against narrowing the political import of the Maoist movement in a way which might reduce it to merely another factor influencing the recycling of capitalism or the state power in a new form, it needs to be pointed out that there are also tendencies within the movement itself that might be facilitating this process. Thus, it is not clear that the Maoist movement as such is headed towards a larger political vision of revolutionary change involving all sectors and all sections of Indian society. For example, small towns, urban areas, big cities, working classes in organized or unorganized sectors, slum-dwellers, middle classes and so on are still largely untouched by this movement. In this sense, it does look like a sectional struggle, of say adivasis, in spite of larger revolutionary ambitions and claims to overthrow the Indian state.

So it does often appear plausible to treat it as a local, territorial and particularistic movement about displacement from land or some such issue. Indeed, the Maoists themselves often appear too happy to play along with this narrowed image of the movement in order to gain wider acceptability within civil society. Civil society concedes fair amount of points to the Maoists to the extent that they are seen as the product of the failed neoliberal ‘development model’, and are fighting to protect adivasi jal, jangal, jameen. Any mention of people’s war, overthrow of the state, or even of socialism/communism as the goal is either overlooked as something which the Maoists can simply never pull off, innocent daydreaming; or, when noticed, it becomes urgent for civil society members to walk away from the comrades. Such is the character of civil society and even sections of the more left tendencies within it.

Thus one cannot rule out the impact on the Maoists themselves. There are signs that the profoundly anti-Marxist hegemonic ‘critique of the development model’ is slowly filtering into Maoist discourse, in lieu of a more class based Marxist analysis. Be that as it may, the choice before the Maoist movement seems clear: either generalize the movement to show its potential of ‘overthrowing capital and the state’ or else settle down for some benefit sharing or a moratorium on mining, without raising the question of social form, of social relations.

Finally, let also note here that once benefit sharing in mining is in place, as seen in other countries, the intensity and volume of mining increases several fold. The net effect will be far greater extraction and damage to the environment but it will be difficult to protest against it either, given the protection and legitimacy of community participation and community upliftment in place. Further, if the Act comes through, then this has the added implication of reducing Maoists either to a broker, facilitating the process, or an ‘outsider’, with an imported ideology and so on. This might be the latest move of capitalism with a human face.

1 Comment »

One Response to “‘Ethical Mining’ and Adivasi Community as ‘Stakeholder’”

  1. Kanailal Biswas Says:
    November 22nd, 2010 at 03:17

    The writer asks and discuses a new social outlook with greater vision. Social outlook developed through the revolutions of French Russia and China has some limitations. Even the cultural revolution could not break through the limitation and or hindrance to the “road to emancipation of mankind ”

    Restoration of Capitalism in Russia and China is very much painful. But it was inevitable. Exploiting Socieaty is based on individuality. So any better or alternative Socieaty requries a base of collectivity at every sphere of life and the society will be governed by collective wisdom.
    Though Maoist are far behind this outlook but situation compelled them to walk in this direction.
    However,I am interested to continue this discussion with writer and will be happy if I get the contact No. to my (M)9830776716

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