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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 36, August 28, 2010

Mamata, Maoists and Indian Democracy

Thursday 2 September 2010, by Ambrose Pinto

There was uproar in Parliament against Mamata Banerjee and her party for inviting the Maoists for her rally in Lalgarh. The uproar continues and there have been arguments for and against what Mamata Banerjee said and did. That violence has no place in a democracy is accepted by all. Nobody can glorify violence, not even the state. But the central question is: why is it that we have not succeeded in handling the Maoist and Naxal issue threatening the foundations of our democracy? There is no political will anywhere. Both the Centre and the affected States have been engaged in a blame-game accusing each other for the failures and finding solace in accusations instead of working out a concrete plan of action to get the Naxals and Maoists into the mainstream.

The argument of P. Chidambaram, the Union Minister for Home, that democratic parties cannot align with the Naxals and Maoists as long as they tread the path of violence is debatable. Why shouldn’t a democratic state dialogue even with those who advocate violence? Precisely because in a democracy avenues are open to any individual or group to dialogue, there should be no bar in inviting any group to the negotiating table The argument that the Maoists and Naxals are determined to wage a war against the state and hence the state should not or would not dialogue with them is a poor argument since the groups had accepted to come to the negotiating table more than once. In fact, the state has blundered even by killing one of the key leaders who had accepted to come to the negotiating table.

Maoists are Expanding their Base

ONE gets the impression that while the Maoists and Naxals are expanding their zone of influence, our parliamentarians have become irrelevant with their declining public space. According to official and unofficial estimates, the Maoists have extended their sway to no fewer than 280 districts in the country, particularly in the forest areas of six States.

What is the secret behind the expansion of their base and the declining space of legislators and police? Why do the Naxals and other extremist groups capture the imagination of the poor while our legislators do not? It is precisely because the legislators have failed to build up State Legislatures and Parliament as institutions and devices for state and nation-building. If the entire time in Parliament is spent on party politics with boycotts and walkouts, where is the time to discuss the concerns of the poor? Even if there are discussions in Parliament, they are hardly about hard and real issues of the poor and the downtrodden. There has not been sufficient and adequate emphasis laid on effective governance and eradication of poverty. As long as the issues of the poor are not sufficiently debated and action plans evolved to bring them to the mainstream of development, Parliament and State Legislatures cannot represent the poor of the country.

In theory, the state exists to look after the greatest good of the greatest number. In reality, the officials of the state have miserably failed to do that. The consequence is that even the educated have come to believe that the legislators do not represent them anymore and they cannot be approached other than during the time of elections. At a recent meet at the National College, Bangalore when Rahul Gandhi asked the students what is the greatest evil confronting the Indian state, he must have been expecting the students to say “terrorism” or “extremism”. But to his own astonishment, the answer was “politicians” and when he asked the students what we should do with our politicians, the answer was: “Shoot them at sight.” Even the middle class has come to have no trust in the legislators. The public space they occupied is ever on the decrease. If at all they are noticed, some of them are in TV channels and others negotiating deals with multinational and transnational corporations or accepting bribes.

Political Class has Failed the Nation

THE poor have an impression that politicians and political parties as a class are only interested in ways and means of retaining their power. Once in power, they increase their assets instead of increasing the assets of the poor. The entire system is tuned to serve their vested interest. The Dalits and tribals have been more and more robbed of their livelihoods in the name of development. Otherwise one does not understand how the governments could sell tribal and Dalit lands to corporations. No heed was paid to the warnings of environmentalists, NGOs and social scientists that the tribals and other marginalised communities were feeling deprived and alienated. The government allowed the multinationals, transnationals and business houses to flourish by exploiting the forest and mineral resources. The poor were driven away from their homes and habitations with hardly any compensation. Once you rob the poor so extensively, there are consequences and the violence we see around us is in retaliation—the result of the loot and plunder of their resources. On the other hand, all these loot and plunder is in nexus with the politicians who have filled their coffers.

Poor are with the Maoists

WHAT have the Maoists and other extremist groups done in the situation? They have taken advantage of the vacuum created by an insensitive state to set up their networks. Totally helpless because of the onslaught of the state on their economy and resources, the poor have cast their lot with the extremist groups. That is the only option they see since these groups provide them a ray of hope. What else can they do if the state, instead of protecting them, loots their resources and hands them over to the Mighty? Just because they are with the Maoists or Naxals, it is wrong to call them as Maoists or Naxalites. They may not even know the ideology of these groups though they are very likely familiar with the designs of the state. Is it wrong to see the situation in the right way? One has to only look at the kind of displacement that is taking place all over the country and the acquisition of land of the poor. Who cares for the poor? They are treated as dirt and thrown out of their habitation with total insensitivity. It is a pity that the governments, both at the Centre and in the States, perceive any analysis of the situation as a support to the extremists instead of remedying the situation.

Force is not the answer

BOTH Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Nitish Kumar, the Chief Ministers of West Bengal and Bihar, and Mamata Banerjee, the leader of the West Bengal Opposition, are driven by electoral calculations in their response to the problem. Their statements are not to be taken seriously as long as the two States are getting ready for State elections and they are the main players. But look at the way the States handle extremism. The West Bengal Government recently issued a notification asking the administration of three Maoist-dominated districts to promote a surrender-cum-rehabilitation package. If one thought surrender would mean the right to live fearlessly, one was wrong. The State made it clear that judicial proceedings will be initiated against persons accused of “heinous crimes” even if they surrender. What was more saddening was in spite of the call for surrender, the joint offensive against the Naxals was not relaxed. The only way the State wants to restore law and order is with the help of the Central paramilitary forces. The Chief Minister does not want the Central forces to be withdrawn against the demand of Mamata. An assessment of the performance of the joint forces reveals, however, that the extent of success has been far from satisfactory. Apart from Andhra Pradesh, the States of Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh have been equally unable to contain the Maoist phenomenon.

Dialogue and Development is the Answer

WHAT does all this mean? The extremists believe that they have a mission to establish an egalitarian state through extremism since democratic means have failed. The poor have reposed their faith in them since the state has failed them. Mamata may have called for a dialogue for electoral reasons. But there is no other way as far as democracy is concerned. In a democracy, there is no place for violence or retaliation. No state can kill its own people. The neo-liberal economic policies of the state and the imposition of a single model of development have killed and destroyed people. What the masses in the country are asking the government is not to impose a particular model of development from above. They want to be empowered through their own model of sustainability. Simultaneously, the state may have to initiate land reforms, return the land to the tillers, send away the multinational and transnational corporations from the tribal areas, respect tribal self-rule laws and stop their alienation. The extremists should not be and cannot be tackled with the assistance of armed forces in a democracy. There is still space for dialogue but the dialogue should be on the model of development the country should adopt. A development package for the alienated groups with an ordinance from the President of India that tribal rights over community resources would be established with immediate effect could be the only way of winning the race against extremism.

Dr Ambrose Pinto SJ is the Principal of St Joseph’s College, Bangalore.

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