Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2010 > The Third Position: Non-alignment with Violence

Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 13, March 20, 2010

The Third Position: Non-alignment with Violence

Saturday 20 March 2010, by Sudhir Vombatkere


McCarthyism in India

In a charge sheet against Kobad Gandhi produced by the Delhi Police in the Tees Hazari Courts, New Delhi, on February 18, 2010, besides naming some other individuals, some organisations —like the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR)—are named. Much like McCarthyism in the USA several decades ago, in the present circumstances in India, governments may treat members of the PUCL and PUDR as members, collaborators or sympathisers of Maoist, Naxalite or other militant groups.

This possibility needs to be examined in terms of (i) just who are militants and what distinguishes different types of militants, (ii) what precisely is militancy, and (iii) whether it is possible for a socially responsible position to exist, which supports neither the militancy of certain groups of people, nor the government response to militancy with the use of police and military fire-power.

Who is a Militant?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a militant is one who is “prepared to take aggressive action in support of a political or social cause”. But the dictionary meaning does not include an economic or environmental cause, even though these are daily triggers for violence across the country. These impinge upon the daily life and livelihood of those sections of the population that are marginalised, have no political voice, and live hand-to-mouth. Aggressive action does not necessarily involve the use of physical violence, though that is the most common form observed today. Physical violence at group levels occurs for a variety of reasons. Words or deeds that are contrary to, or criticise, political or social ideas or ideals held in esteem by one set of people can cause outbreak of physical violence not merely against the person(s) who are presumed to be responsible; ordinary people who may be passers-by or vehicles or other property that happen to be in the vicinity often also become victims.

In our 60-year-old Republic, such physical violence has been caused by various groups, some of which express allegiance to major political parties at the Centre or in the States. Just as an example, let us consider members of the Shiv Sena (SS) or Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in Mumbai, who openly challenge the government to stop or control them. That various governments in Maharashtra over the decades have failed to do so is well known, and so the SS, and more recently the MNS, are feared by ordinary people. Yet, even though their aggressive stance and physical violence have been for a political or social cause, groups such as the SS and MNS have not been named as militants. This is not to suggest that the SS and MNS are in the same category as the Maoists, Naxalites et al. The SS and MNS challenge governments with their political power supported by muscle power, whereas the Maoists/Naxalites challenge the state with their ideology supported by organised use of weapons. Also, the SS and MNS target individuals or groups of people who oppose them, or do, or not do or say things their way (even for saying “Bombay” instead of “Mumbai”), whereas the Maoists et al., who are also feared by ordinary people, target the government forces and government apparatus. Even granting the differences between the SS/MNS and the Maoists/Naxalites, both qualify as militant groups, but they are not treated equally by governments. This argument is not restricted to the SS/MNS.


Today, the words militancy and terrorism are used almost interchangeably. This is not only erroneous but very unfortunate, because all terrorists are militants but not all militants are terrorists, and confusing the two results in the wrong means being used to tackle these problems. In any case, it is instructive to see how militancy has grown in India.

The militant Naxal movement began in April 1967 in one State (West Bengal), one district (Darjeeling) and one police station area (Naxal-bari). And 42 years later, in November 2009, the Union Home Minister stated that Naxalism had spread to 23 States, 250 districts and over 2000 police station areas.1 Any thinking individual would wonder why this is so.

It cannot be ignored that a high-power committee, set up in 2006 by the Planning Commission of India, ascribed growing Naxalism to people’s discontent and failure of governance, and showed a direct relationship between extremism and poverty. It also recommended that “public purpose” for land acquisition should be limited to national security and public welfare. Clearly, that opinion and recommendation have found a place in the capacious waste-bins of the government, having been sent there by insensitive or arrogant bureaucrats, because the RR Bill and LA Amendment Bill do not reflect those concerns.

Militancy has almost always been handled by governments using State and Central Police forces. However more recently, in the background of PM Dr Manmohan Singh’s statement that Left-wing extremist terrorism is the greatest internal threat that India faces, a joint operation, involving the military and code-named Operation Green Hunt (OGH), has been initiated in Central India, mostly in the tribal areas. The wisdom of such up-scaling is questionable. Governments saw the Naxalites or Maoists—they all appear to have been clubbed under the name CPI (Maoist)—as the threat and now, with commencement of the OGH, as “the enemy”. From all accounts, the CPI (Maoist) sees the rapacious MNCs as the enemy and the governments as collaborating with the MNCs by using the armed might of the state in favour of the MNCs.

It is well known that the lands and forests occupied peacefully by the tribal people are rich in minerals and that the MNCs have an eye on exploiting that mineral wealth. At the same time, that exploitation, willy-nilly combined with exploitation of the occupant tribal people through their forced displacement, adds to the nation’s GDP, and makes out India to be a healthy, growing economy, well on the way to becoming a “regional superpower”, “economic powerhouse”, “destination for investment” etc. This exploitation is nothing but economic violence being wrought upon the hapless tribal people, who appear to be responding in the only way that they possibly can. It is pertinent to note that while there are no official figures, Dr Walter Fernandes, a noted scholar, gives some idea of the magnitude of displacement. He indicates that between 1947 and 2004, about 60 million people were displaced forcibly and 40 per cent of those of them are people of the Scheduled Tribes.1 Compared to 50 million Africans displaced over 200 years by slave-trading Europeans, 60 million Indians displaced in 59 years and that too within and by an independent, democratic nation in the name of development, is shameful beyond description.

The militancy in Central India appears to be disputing and questioning the model of development and, as with any powerful body whose fundamental ideas are questioned, the state has responded with police and military force.

Other kinds of Violence

Often physical violence results from some spoken or written words or sketches, cartoons, paintings etc., that some individual(s) find objectionable. Violence begets violence. When governments wreak economic violence upon people by displacement for industrial projects causing loss of land and livelihood, they cannot resist or respond with economic force since they have none. They protest, agitate, demonstrate and physically resist the occupation of their land by the industry. These sometimes turn physically violent since they have no other choice when their point of view is not considered or even heard. Whether the protesters or police started the physical violence, the first cause is economic violence by the government that has led to the situation. Gone are the days of quiet supplication... these are times of angry demands for social justice and fair play from people in power.

The perpetrators of economic violence are primarily corporate interests which have enormous and proximate influence in the highest levels of governments. These interests ensure that they receive the official go-ahead for their projects which, in almost all cases, involve the acquisition of land for a “public purpose”, land on which the poor and marginalised people subsist. These project-affected families (PAFs) have little or no means to argue or represent their case in the corridors of a geographically distant and corporate-favouring government. It is commonly observed that elected representatives, whether or not they are from the ruling party in government, rarely if ever take up the cause of the PAFs. In recent times the the PAFs have been frequently led by some better educated members of their group or by intellectuals motivated by notions of social justice or human rights.

However, the involvement of intellectuals is not only for the PAFs, but extends to social or physical violence by the “upper castes” against Dalits, atrocities against women, attacks on religious communities, child-exploitation etc., under the rubric of human rights or civil liberties. There are organisations that have been formed to uphold and protect the constitutional rights and privileges of all sections of people, especially human rights and civil liberties. These organisations have been formed under the constitutionally granted right of freedom of speech and expression and freedom to form association under Article 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(c) respectively, and they function under the constitutionally prescribed fundamental duties under Article 51A(e) to promote harmony and Article 51A(i) to abjure violence.

Speaking up against Violence

Gandhiji preached and practised non-violence and is recognised internationally as its apostle. He demonstrated ahimsa by example in his personal life, with the conviction and courage of truth (satya), often through satyagraha. He did not restrict his idea of ahimsa to the physical plane but generalised it to other spheres including the economic and political. In today’s India there are people who, though they may not be followers of Gandhiji’s doctrine of ahimsa, believe that violence is wrong and counter-productive. And they speak against all forms of violence—social, economic, environmental, political, physical—since ultimately it is the weak who are the victims.

It is unfortunate that governments do not understand the oft-repeated position of human rights and other social activists, that standing against violence does not mean sympathy with or support for militant groups, that there is a third position which is equidistant from both sides of the conflict, and that the position of “if-you-are-not-with-us-you-are-against-us” is deeply flawed in the common law and social senses.

Equally unfortunate, speaking against violence and in favour of peaceful negotiations is interpreted by the government as opinions of misguided peaceniks at best, or as overt or clandestine collaboration with militants. Today, governments are openly adopting hairy-chested policies of up-scaling police and military fire-power based on intelligence using the latest hi-tech from the military-industrial complexes of the world. This inevitably results in the governments’ intelligence agencies creating lists of individuals and organisations who oppose its policies and actions.

The “Lists”

When there are serious differences of opinion, the tendency is to make lists of people who agree and who disagree with one’s point of view, to mobilise support and to counter or eliminate the opposition. At that stage, the “us” and “them” get clearly defined and the mindset of “if-you-are-not-with-us-you-are-against-us” sets in. The CPI (Maoist) no doubt have their “hit lists” consisting of government officials at various levels and also local people who are suspected or known to be collaborating with the state forces, who they believe need to be eliminated. But surely the governments’ intelligence apparatus prepares lists in much the same manner though, of course, not all those on the lists are meant to be eliminated. And that is were McCarthyism begins to take hold. The names on these lists can be—and are—used not only in the context of militancy but also to settle personal or political scores, feuds and grudges.

The reality of such a list recently came very close when Dr E. Rati Rao, a retired scientist and the Vice-President of the PUCL-Karnataka, who has been active in upholding women’s and Dalits’ rights and communal harmony (and opposing attacks on places of worship) was served a Notice on February 26, 2010 by the Vijayanagara Police Station of Mysore (Karnataka), with questions about an in-house bulletin (named PUCL-Karnataka Varthapatra, since discontinued) which she was publishing. Along with the Notice was an FIR No 155/2007 charging her with IPC Sections 124A and 505 and Press Registration Act Sections 14 and 15. Needless to say, there is nothing even remotely seditious in the bulletins. It may be purely coincidental that Dr Rati Rao received the Police Notice soon after the charge-sheet against Kobad Gandhi and the PUCL was filed in the Tees Hazari Courts, New Delhi. But with this Police Notice and FIR against Dr Rati Rao, the message of McCarthyism is loud and clear in Mysore.

The Third Position

In matters such as the militancy and terrorism that are presently rife, many people fear that the governments’ policy that militancy (caused by decades-long neglect and misgovernance) should be crushed by the use of police and military fire-power, will make the presently bad situations worse. Such people take the so-called third position, standing apart from the “if-you-are-not-with-us-you-are-against-us” position, and in favour of peace and harmony.

The opinions of people who take the third position may be summarised as follows. They

• stand against and condemn violence of any sort by either governments or militant groups because innocent people are always caught in the cross-fire and their casualties cannot be treated as collateral damage as it violates their human rights;

• strongly encourage peaceful, meaningful and honest negotiations between governments and various militant groups across the country;

• believe that governments need to take the lead or first move in calling for negotiations with militants without pre-conditions;

• believe that the use of police, para-military or military force in the troubled (mostly tribal) areas cannot solve a political problem caused by decades of social and economic neglect by governments, and latterly, unremitting exploitation by corporate interests supported by governments in the name of economic growth and development;

• believe that large scale hardline operations like the ongoing Operation Green Hunt can only worsen an already bad situation of human rights and social unrest in many States;

• believe that the para-military and military forces should be immediately withdrawn, and the State Police should assume the stance of “holding operations” while State governments should use honest political means of consultation and consensus to ameliorate the degraded social and economic status of the tribal people;

• believe that the needs of the tribal and other poor people should be determined through honest processes of consultation, using the constitutional system of the Panchayati Raj all over the country, and especially for the Scheduled Areas;

• believe that the onslaught of corporate interests on land for industrial activities (especially mining of minerals like coal, bauxite, uranium etc., sand or water) needs a complete review so that the economic growth of India is not predicated upon the loss of human rights and/or displacement of tribal or other already poor people;

• believe that only honest and meaningful political steps taken to bring development of the sort desired by the tribal and other poor people (not the current model of development being thrust upon them, which is obviously doing them no good) can bring lasting peace and prosperity not only to the affected people but also to all sections of society across rural and urban India;

• believe that there can be no real or lasting progress or development without honest consideration of human rights, social and economic justice at all levels of governance.

Aum, shanti, shanti, shanti!


1. D. Bandyopadhyay; “Sour Men of the Central Wooded Uplands!”, Mainstream, Vol. XLVIII, No. 10, February 27, 2010; pp. 19-21.

(Major General S.G.Vombatkere retired as the Additional Director General, Discipline and Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi, in 1996 after 35 years in the Indian Army with combat, staff and technical experience. He holds a Ph.D degree in Structural Dynamics from IIT, Madras, and the President of India awarded him the Visishta Seva Medal in 1993 for distinguished service rendered in Ladakh. Since retirement, he is engaged in voluntary work with the Mysore Grahakara Parishat, and is a member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). He coordinates and lectures a course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for undergraduate students from the University of Iowa, USA, and two universities of Canada, who spend a semester at Mysore as part of their programme of Studies Abroad in South India. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa.)

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.