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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 29, July 10, 2010

The Danger Of Fighting Maoists Without Knowing Who They Are

Friday 16 July 2010, by Diptendra Raychaudhuri


A recent news report revealed that after its initial reluctance the Army is now raising a 50,000 strong force to fight the Naxal war.

Quite expected. The state cannot afford to lose any war it has started to impose its writ on the territory it owns.

That’s what we are told every now and then. The ‘state’s writ’, ‘democracy,’ ‘development’, and so many arguments are put forward to prove the legitimacy of a war against the Maoists. A civilised society cannot tolerate such dissent, we are told. Told by the Ministers, the politicians, the newspaper commentators, and most vociferously by the television anchors. The cacophony has an advantage of its own. It blinds logic. People forget to ask fundamental questions like who is fighting whom? More fundamentally, whose state? And the most fundamental one: What type of democratic society is this that prefers bloodshed to dialogue?

Pro-war elites have gone to the extent of describing this as a war between India and the others, forgetting who the others are. Jingoistic jihad has not helped, in the long run, any society to prosper. Rationality has. From a rational point of view, in this context the state is a camouflage. The onus is on the government of the day. And the government sources its bona fide, in India, from democracy. The starting point of democracy is winning popular vote. But, winning an election does not and cannot be the sole criterion of democracy. Democracy, to survive, has to acquire much deeper connotation and much wider acceptance. There are hundreds of ways of defining democracy, but for this article let us confine ourselves to what the Father of the Nation envisaged.

Mahatma Gandhi said: “My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest.”

In the light of what Gandhi said, and he also warned that the vast inequality as it existed in the pre-independence days would not be tolerated after independence, we may investigate the contours of the Naxal war. The relevant questions are:

• One: Is there democracy in the areas where the so-called Maoist rebellion is at different stages, from simmering to boiling condition?

• Two: What is the exact nature of the rebellion: is it an attempt of armed takeover of the state, or an assertion of the underprivileged to get justice? Is it ideology (communist) driven, or inspired by the basics of humanity?

• Three: Whether the strategy adopted by the government is the only strategy at hand.

• Four: What may be the fallout of this war, particularly if the Maoist leadership is eliminated?

Before going into further discussion I want to make one point clear. This article is no apology for the Maoist leadership. Democracy has many, many shortcomings; but it the best form of governance developed so far. The Maoist leadership does not believe in democracy. Their obsession with arms and their faith in the archaic idea of overthrowing the state has provided the governments with easy excuse for a massive showdown. In this article the word ‘Maoists’ is used to denote the mass participating in this rebellion, actively or passively. I will detail it later.

No Democracy by Mahatma’s Yardstick

NOW, let us examine whether this region has democracy as envisaged by Mahatma Gandhi.

The so-called Maoist rebellion has engulfed a vast part of central-eastern India. Ironically, the whole region of the present conflagration is within or just adjacent to the boundaries of the original ‘Jharkhand’ as conceived by the adivasi leaders after independence. They demanded a separate State of ‘Jharkhand’ comprising the south-western part of West Bengal, southern Bihar (present Jharkhand), north-western Orissa and large parts of Chhattisgarh (now a State), then a region of Madhya Pradesh. The adivasis were not given the chance to form a State over this territory as they did not have a common language! Another argument put forward by the States Reorganisation Commission was that the ‘tribals’ were not in a majority in the whole of the region.

Thus, the consideration of ‘we’ and ‘they’ crept in at the very onset. The adivasis, when they demanded Jharkhand, counted all indigenous communities living in the region for hundreds of years as ‘we, the Jharkhandis’. It consisted of whom we call the ‘tribal’ people, plus the Dalit population, plus the most-backward castes. This definition emerged over decades, but the formal beginning of the process of such consolidation dates back to 1938, when the Adivasi Mahasabha was formed. This inclusive definition made place for even some others who lived in this region for a fairly long time (like Bengalis). Only recent settlers who had no attachment to the soil were considered as ‘diku’ or ‘outsiders’. But the burgeoning elite, who would later take total control of the Indian state, did not consider this definition and declared ‘they’ a minority by counting only the tribal population. The elite considered them unfit to award a State of their own!

The indigenous communities wanted their state to protect themselves from exploitation by the outsiders, to protect their identity, and to open up avenues for inclusive development (inclusiveness was the only way for the so-called ‘tribal’ communities). But the very first attempt of the conscious section of the people of this region to assert themselves was nixed. Thus, democracy failed them for the first time in the 1950s.

And then a saga of further harassment, exploitation and deprivation unfolded over the decades. These people could be exploited easily as they were too docile, adjusting and did not know how to assert themselves. After independence, the outsiders started coming in huge numbers, developing towns and cities—a process that started with the establishment of TISCO at a village called Sakchi (renamed Jamshedpur)—and the aboriginal population were pushed back towards the interior, towards oblivion. Hundreds of projects for ‘development’ came up and they were pushed further back. Thousands of people started earning huge fortune, millions became rich, and a bigger number of people bore the brunt of this ‘development’ process. A ‘Report of an Expert Group to the Planning Commission: Development Challenges in Extremist affected Areas’ (2008) said: “An official database of persons displaced/affected by projects is not available. However, some unofficial studies, particularly by Dr Walter Fernandes, peg this figure at around 60 million for the period from 1947 to 2004, involving 25 million ha. which includes 7 million ha. of forest and 6 million ha. of other Common Properrty Resources (CPR). Whereas the tribals constitute 8.08 per cent of country’s population, they are 40 per cent of total displaced/affected persons by the projects. Similarly at least 20 per cent of displaced/affected persons are Dalits and another 20 per cent are OBCs.” These facts are now well known. Still, I quote the next two sentences of the report as those too are relevant at this juncture: “The settlement record is also very dismal. Only a third of the displaced persons of planned development have been resettled.”
It is well known that this region is the most underdeveloped part of the country. It is equally known to all concerned persons that the tribal-Dalit-M-OBC population is everywhere the most economically backward people. A lot have been written on these points. Here I just mention two small pieces of information that may throw up a clear picture. In Andhra Pradesh, till towards the end of the last century, a tribal person was denied bail even in petty criminal cases whereas a non-tribal could easily get it. The other bit of information is sourced from the Report of World Food Programme published last year. According to it, more than 90 per cent of rural households in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and MP do not have access to toilet within their premises.
It is not only the extent of poverty these people faced, but the raw deal from the ‘outsiders’, that is, humiliation and social exploitation, that prepared the ground of a grand rebellion. It took several forms in different areas. It exploded in the form of a militant Jharkhandi movement in the 1960s and 1970s in south Bihar (which was contained by Indira Gandhi by persuading ‘Guruji’, now-defamed Shibu Soren, to contest the election). When, by the end-1980s, it became obvious that the Jharkhandis were failing in their goal of fighting for social justice, a part of its mass base in present Jharkhand started shifting towards the MCC, a Maoist organisation. By then, under the leadership of the PWG, the Naxalite movement had also gained momentum in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh and had spread to Chhattisgarh. The two separate streams started coming closer and finally merged to form the CPI (Maoist). Since then the rebellion has only spread.

It is argued that the liberalisation process initiated from 1991 has opened the natural resources of this area for further loot by the private parties. I need not go into that as from Arundhuti Roy to many other scholarly persons have dealt with it extensively.

Thus, by Gandhi’s yardstick, this whole region and the majority of the people living here have never experienced democracy. Now, let us see how the developments described in this section strengthened the present Naxalite movement, and whether the latter has anything to do with Marxism or Leninism or Maoism.

The Exact Nature of the Rebellion

SINCE my novel on the backdrop of the Maoist movement was published in 2007, many people have asked me whether the Maoists have really a large support-base.

The question is somewhat irrelevant. A sizable part of the indigenous communities living in central-eastern India at one point of time demanded Jharkhand, and later got converted into Maoists, either actively or passively.

The present upsurge is no more an outsider-based movement like the first Naxalbari movement of 1967-71. Its later avatar was the Bhojpur Committee led by Master Sahab (Jagdish Prasad) that reached a take-off stage from 1973 onwards. It was basically an assertion of the backwards and Dalits against the oppressive caste system prevalant in the Bhojpur region. Master Sahab himself was a Kurmi. He was killed by the landlord’s army and Comrade Jawahar became their next Secretary. He too was eliminated and Vinod Mishra took up the leadership. Under Mishra, the caste element was criticised and the organisation was remoulded on the ideological line of class-theory. Its downfall started with that. It then participated in elections and it still survives only as a tiny political party called the CPI-ML (Liberation). Its base was, however, snatched away by two other groups operating in Bihar: the MCC (earlier known as Dakkhindesh) and PU. The MCC was known as a ‘backward caste’ organisation in north Bihar and allegedly had good relations with the then Chief Minister (1990 onwards), Laloo Prasad, and other ‘backward’ socialist leaders. Throughout the 1990s the MCC fought it out with the united private army of the landlords called Ranbir Sena. They often retaliated against the Sena by massacring the forward caste men. Such caste-killings had nothing to do with the communist ideology, but it virtually stopped all age-old customs of discrimination on caste-lines.

The other stream of the Naxalite movement was alive in Andhra Pradesh and got enlivened with Kondapalli Sitaramaiah, a veteran Communist, forming the People’s War Group (later only PW). But Sitaramaiah was cornered and later expelled (though the Maoists deny it) from the organisation by Ganapati. The difference between them emerged over dependence on arms and continued from 1987 to 1992. Sitaramaiah was for mass movement and was strategically flexible. Ganapati was the chief of the armed wing, had developed connections with people from the LTTE for getting AK-47s and other sophisticated arms, and took an ultra-extremist line. But he succeeded to unite many fractions of the Maoists and the PW spread to Chhattisgarh, Gadchiroli (Maharashtra) and also to western Bihar as the PU merged with it. Traditionally, as they emerged from Andhra, the PW’s focus was on the Harijan-Girijan combine. Its middle-level leadership was accepted by the tribals of Chhattisgarh and adjacent areas of Maharashtra and Orissa. In Jharkhand, the PW and MCC, after they merged to form the CPI (Maoist), became an organisation of the tribal, Dalit and backward population. It helped them in other States too.

The MCC’s style of operation, that included attacking the target with hundreds of people including women, was different from that of the PW, which always depended on guerrilla tactics. The present-day CPI (Maoist), in its operational tactics, is a synthesis of both the traditions.

What is important is that though the top leaders of these organisations like the PW, PU, or MCC were educated middle class men (and mostly Bengalis and Telugus), their cadre starting from the middle-level leadership were the locals. I met some of these middle-level leaders during 2000-04, and found they knew very little about Marx or Mao. They all came to fight for their ‘honour’. It includes two things and both are equally important: (a) economically a better life or may we call freedom from hunger and unemployment/underemployment; and (b) social justice (against caste and similar types of oppressions, forcible eviction and so on).

Consider these: A Dalit driver, who was beaten up for entering his upper-caste employer’s house, joined the Maoists and took revenge on them. Someone, whose father was a bonded labour and was freed by the Maoists, joined them out of gratitude. A woman raped by the upper-caste men joined them to kill her rapists. I found many, many such instances from the stories the locals told me in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. In Lalgarh of Bengal, the outburst started after the high-handed police went there to look for the Maoists who triggered a blast on the route of the CM’s convoy, and unleashed atrocities against the innocents including women. The whole region, already boiling against the oppressive and self-seeking control of the CPI-M leaders, found in the Maoists their real friends. Many of them have become Maoists.

It is a movement by those people who were and still are at the receiving end. They are the most underprivileged lot of this country and they number many, many millions. It is somewhat like the Congress party in which, apart from the top echelons, the active workers can hardly be differentiated from the hardcore supporters. In Chhattisgarh, the Gonds (the largest tribe of India) and in eastern Jharkhand-West Bengal, the Santhals are the main rebellious force.

But to say that this movement is a tribal movement is over-romantic: it is a movement by the severely-underprivileged sections of the society. The anti-Naxal war essentially is a war against these people. If the state reveals the caste identities of the Maoists killed in last 10 years, it will be found that 90 per cent of them are from tribal or Dalit or backward population. This is their movement. They are not supporters of the movement, they are participants, physically or mentally. That is why we find so many women and teenagers in the movement. Some people lament the use of children in the movement. They lament about lost childhood. Being a part of the elite, they do not know that those children have no childhood. Like rag-pickers around us, who we feign not to see, they start working for food from the age of eleven-twelve, if not earlier. They are not ‘our’ children, not the ice-cream/chocolate generation.

It is, however, not that the whole population of the underprivileged mass has become a part of the movement. But a very large chunk has, mostly mentally. Many may not take up arms or take part in Maoist operations where hundreds, even thousands, of villagers join them, but even they believe the Maoist cadre are their people. Of course, there are many families who have turned against the Maoists, particularly those who have a little land. Maoists take away one bigha from one who has two bighas and distribute it to two landless persons. Naturally, these people, who too are very poor according to our standard, turn against them. There are others who have turned against them for their atrocities. There is no doubt that a section of the Maoists are neither committed to the cause, nor are good men (or women), and they commit various atrocities. This is an unavoidable corollary of an organisation that provides arms to the cadre and, thereby, gives them near-absolute power over the unarmed mass.

State Inviting Anarchy

IT is true that if an armed group attacks unarmed people or an installation, no government can sit back. It has to retaliate. But, ironically, it seems the elite of the country is under the illusion that Maoists are a few Robin Hoods causing havoc, or may be like Veerappan, the sandalwood-robber. The political leadership of the present regime, all from the elite, is deluding themselves by propagating that these Maoists are rogues to be tackled. And this is fraught with serious consequences, may be so serious that we cannot imagine it now.

The state, if not in tremendous hurry to ‘clear, hold and develop’ the region—and surely for them development has one meaning that we have witnessed so far—could have gone for a long-term strategy for emission of the fever and treating the patient. It could have sent Army, yes Army, to these areas with food, with vitamins and medicines, with safe drinking water. The Army could have taken up projects to ensure earnings of the locals like guarantee for 180 days work (100 days work is not sufficient for the targeted population as most of them have no other significant work most of the time), running special schools and vocational training centres and so on. While the people do not trust the agents of state they have seen so far—corrupt animals like politicians and bureaucrats—the image of the Indian Army is still unsullied. This was probably the only way, and if undertaken sincerely (that is, without involving corrupt elements at any stage) it could have paved the way for a democratic solution over a few years.

But this is a novel, tough and long-term solution, and it will not clear the region for evicting more people and establish new mines and industries. This is not what the Central Government wants. Otherwise, its whole thrust should not have been in Chhattisgarh where so many projects are on the pipeline. And the government will get support from the elite who will directly and indirectly benefit out of this ‘development’. The English media will be happy with the government’s strategy (they would get costly ads released by the government to wean away the people of the Naxalite area, none of whom can read English), and will give enough scope to P. Chidambaram to lament about a ‘limited mandate’.

Now, out there it is a war zone. No third party is allowed to work there. Forget Binayak Sen. Forget Himanshu Kumar. Nobody is allowed to find facts from these areas. You go to those areas and if you are caught you will be charged with treason. The most recent example of this is the arrest of three intellectuals who, along with some news-reporters, went to the Lalgarh region to have a first-hand account of what is happening there. All these will lead to further and very, very dangerous alienation of those people living there like ‘enemy population’. That may change the course of the movement.

And if the government can eliminate the Maoist leadership or push them out of the conflict zone, the movement can splinter and take the form of a terrorist movement. It may not be limited to that geographical area then. The Maoist leadership, may be about a hundred people (only in the last ten years many more educated middle-class youth have again started joining them), is ideologically oriented and has kept the movement within the contours of ‘revolutionary parameters’. The Jnaneshwari Express accident, caused by the half-educated cadre, is an example of what will become routine in the absence of the control of the leadership. No doubt, this leadership has failed to find out meaningful ways to advance the cause of the people. This leadership, being obsessed with arms, has caused further misery to the people. Still, it is the only guarantee against degeneration of the whole movement. Once it is done away with, the whole country may plunge into anarchy. That is why there is no alternative to engage in a dialogue with that leadership by stopping the operation immediately.

The elite, due to its shortsightedness, is inviting what could be its nemesis. It is yet not too late. But, at the moment, the voice of sanity is not being heard.

Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a journalist and author of the novel ‘A Naxal Story’.

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