From the outside, it is mesmerising to see India’s national media concentrating on cricket while turning a blind eye, relatively speaking, to earth-shaking episodes at the margins. Over the last month, readers and viewers were served up the Sania-Shoaib betrothal and the IPL controversy. Between these bookends came the Dantewada killing of 76 paramilitary personnel by the Maoists, rapidly sidelined in the deluge of trivia.
Distance from ground reality leads to trivialisation, and in the immensity of what is ‘India’, only cricket and cross-border infiltration seem to have the ability to keep the mass public endlessly in thrall. The Maoist insurgency and the establishment’s increasingly dirty war in response just do not have it in them to sustain interest. It’s important to understand why.
In India, there are just too many layers between national centralism and ground-level politics. The decision-maker and commentator tend to be some levels removed from the local terrain where the Maoist war is being fought. For perspective, compare this with the situation in Nepal. When the Maobaadi started their insurgency in 1996, a sense of urgency penetrated Kathmandu quicker than it is getting through to New Delhi today. Mostly, this had to do with the shorter distance between the Centre and the ‘periphery’.
The geographical and mental detachment of the national from the local means that the state establishment can implement a scorched-earth policy without being challenged immediately. While a smaller polity like Nepal’s has allowed the evolution of district-level local watchdog institutions, howsoever insufficient in context, India’s massive unitary establishment seems to have overall retarded the evolution of such institutions. This distance from the local is what allows the press to use phrases like “blood-thirsty Maoists”, as one national newspaper did recently. This remoteness allows the Maoists and the establishment to be presented as a good-evil binary, making it feasible for some to demonise the rebels just as it enables others to romanticise them.
To support violent insurgency from a safe distance is itself a kind of voyeurism, allowing the analyst in New Delhi to make ‘people-centric’ pontifications about the rebels, whether in Nepal or in Chhattisgarh. This ‘imperial-progressive’ position allows the analyst to retain all privileges of a first-world metropolis while castigating the establishment. Not for this lot the boring middle path, of supporting and deepening democracy at the grassroot while simultaneously challenging the national security state and the rejectionist, outdated Maoist ideology.
From the armchair of the metropolis, it’s easy to demand annihilation of the Maoists just as it is to suggest that the insurgents have all the answers. As always, the middle path is the less romantic but more practical. It would seek the promotion of more federalism which makes the administration of the individual states of India more accountable. India has representative democracy in those areas where there are local checks and balances, and leans towards a ‘predatory state’ where such controls are absent. Where local democracy is weak, the Maoists rise and create conditions of extremes in which social movements flounder as civil activists are forced to take sides.
Those who define state policy must understand that a scorched-earth policy would drive the village activists into the Maoist embrace for sheer survival. Meanwhile, would the Maoist leaders understand that their movement will surely evolve into an extortion machine, killing the very soul of participatory democracy? Cadre who join up as wide-eyed novitiates soon come to enjoy the power of the gun, and its use in raising money and enforcing submission. This creates a category of unproductive young adults who learn to reap without sowing.
One of the bases of liberal democracy is the state’s monopoly over instruments of coercion, but this is not held out for fear of a populist backlash. The job of the human rights activist is to ensure rule of law, working against all odds to make the state apparatus accountable. Quick-and-easy support for the revolutionary is a cop-out, a privileging of ‘people’s war’ by those who do not have to live where it is raging.
India is indeed the world’s largest democracy at the national level, but the structures are not yet in place to ensure that the socio-economic fruits of pluralism are enjoyed everywhere. The wake-up call from Dantewada must be utilised as a means to make democracy and development more participatory, more local. Not a very romantic notion, this call for better local governance—but then we are not writing fiction here.
(Kanak Mani Dixit is the editor of the Kathmandu-based South Asian monthly, Himal.)