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The law locks up the hapless felon
who steals the goose from off the common,
but lets the greater felon loose
who steals the common from the goose.
—Anonymous, England, 1821
In the early morning hours of July 2, 2010, in the remote forests of Adilabad, the Andhra Pradesh state police fired a bullet into the chest of a man called Chemkuri Rajkumar, known to his comrades as Azad. Azad was a member of the politburo of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and had been nominated by his party as its chief negotiator for the proposed peace talks with the Government of India. Why did the police fire at point-blank range and leave those tell-tale burn marks, when they could so easily have covered their tracks? Was it a mistake or was it a message?
They killed a second person that morning—Hemchandra Pandey, a young journalist who was travelling with Azad when he was apprehended. Why did they kill him? Was it to make sure no eyewitness remained alive to tell the tale? Or was it just whimsy?
In the course of a war, if, in the preliminary stages of a peace negotiation, one side executes the envoy of the other side, it’s reasonable to assume that the side that did the killing does not want peace. It looks very much as though Azad was killed because someone decided that the stakes were too high to allow him to remain alive. That decision could turn out to be a serious error of judgement. Not just because of who he was, but because of the political climate in India today.
Days after I said goodbye to the comrades and emerged from the Dandakaranya forest, I found myself charting a weary but familiar course to Jantar Mantar, on Parliament Street in New Delhi. Jantar Mantar is an old observatory built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur in 1710. In those days it was a scientific marvel, used to tell the time, predict the weather and study the planets. Today, it’s a not-so-hot tourist attraction that doubles up as Delhi’s little showroom for democracy.
On the 64th anniversary of India’s Independence, Manmohan Singh climbed into his bulletproof soapbox in the Red Fort to deliver a speech that was bone-chillingly banal, passionless.
For some years now, protests—unless they are patronised by political parties or religious organisations—have been banned in Delhi. The Boat Club on Rajpath, which has in the past seen huge, historic rallies that sometimes lasted for days, is out of bounds for political activity now, and is only available for picnics, balloon-sellers and boat-rides. As for India Gate, candlelight vigils and boutique protests for middle-class causes, such as ‘Justice for Jessica’—the model who was killed in a Delhi bar by a thug with political connections—are allowed, but nothing more. Section 144, an old 19th-century law that bans the gathering of more than five people—who have “a common object which is unlawful”—in a public place has been clamped on parts of the city. The law was passed by the British in 1861 to prevent a repeat of the 1857 mutiny. It was meant to be an emergency measure, but has become a permanent fixture in many parts of India. Perhaps it was in gratitude for laws like these that our prime minister, while accepting an honorary degree from Oxford, thanked the British for bequeathing us such a rich legacy: “Our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy and our police are all great institutions, derived from British-Indian administration, and they have served the country well.”
Jantar Mantar is the only place in Delhi where Section 144 is not enforced. People from all over the country, fed up with being ignored by the political establishment and the media, converge there, desperately hoping for a hearing. Some take long train journeys. Some, like the victims of the Bhopal gas leak, have walked for weeks, all the way to Delhi. Though they had to fight each other for the best spot on the burning (or freezing) pavement, until recently protesters were allowed to camp in Jantar Mantar for as long as they liked—weeks, months, even years. Under the malevolent gaze of the police and the Special Branch, they would put up their faded shamianas and banners. From here they declared their faith in democracy by issuing their memorandums, announcing their protest plans and staging their indefinite hunger strikes. From here they tried (but never succeeded) to march on Parliament. From here they hoped.
Of late, though, Democracy’s timings have been changed. It’s strictly office hours now, nine to five. No overtime. No sleepovers. No matter from how far people have come, no matter if they have no shelter in the city—if they don’t leave by 6 pm, they are forcibly dispersed, by the police if necessary, with batons and water cannons if things get out of hand. The new timings were ostensibly instituted to make sure that the 2010 Commonwealth Games that New Delhi is hosting go smoothly. But nobody’s expecting the old timings back any time soon. Maybe it’s in the fitness of things that what’s left of our democracy should be traded in for an event that was created to celebrate the British empire. Perhaps it’s only right that 4,00,000 people should have had their homes demolished and been driven out of the city overnight. Or that hundreds of thousands of roadside vendors should have had their livelihoods snatched away by order of the Supreme Court so city malls could take over their share of business. And that tens of thousands of beggars should have been shipped out of the city while more than a hundred thousand galley slaves were shipped in to build the flyovers, metro tunnels, Olympic-size swimming pools, warm-up stadiums and luxury housing for athletes. The Old Empire may not exist. But obviously our tradition of servility has become too profitable an enterprise to dismantle.
Site of hope A farmers’ protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)
I was at Jantar Mantar because a thousand pavement-dwellers from cities all over the country had come to demand a few fundamental rights: the right to shelter, to food (ration cards), to life (protection from police brutality, and criminal extortion by municipal officers).
Of late, Democracy’s timings here have changed: it’s strictly office hours, 9-5. No matter how far you’ve come from, have a place to stay or not, if you don’t leave by 6, you’re forcibly dispersed.
It was early spring, the sun was sharp, but still civilised. This is a terrible thing to have to say, but it’s true: you could smell the protest from a fair distance. It was the accumulated odour of a thousand human bodies that had been dehumanised, denied the basic necessities for human (or even animal) health and hygiene for years, if not a whole lifetime. Bodies that had been marinated in the refuse of our big cities, bodies that had no shelter from the harsh weather, no access to clean water, clean air, sanitation or medical care. No part of this great country, none of the supposedly progressive schemes, no single urban institution has been designed to accommodate them. Not the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, not any other slum development, employment guarantee or welfare scheme. Not even the sewage system—they shit on top of it. They are shadow people, who live in the cracks that run between schemes and institutions. They sleep on the streets, eat on the streets, make love on the streets, give birth on the streets, are raped on the streets, cut their vegetables, wash their clothes, raise their children, live and die on the streets.
If the motion picture were an art form that involved the olfactory senses—in other words, if cinema smelled—then films like Slumdog Millionaire would not win Oscars. The stench of that kind of poverty wouldn’t blend with the aroma of warm popcorn.
The people at the protest in Jantar Mantar that day were not even slum dogs, they were pavement-dwellers. Who were they? Where had they come from? They were the refugees of India’s shining, the people who are being sloshed around like toxic effluent in a manufacturing process that has gone berserk. The representatives of the more than sixty million people who have been displaced, by rural destitution, by slow starvation, by floods and drought (many of them man-made), by mines, steel factories and aluminium smelters, by highways and expressways, by the 3,300 big dams built since Independence and now by Special Economic Zones. They’re part of the 830 million people of India who live on less than twenty rupees a day, the ones who starve while millions of tonnes of foodgrain is either eaten by rats in government warehouses or burnt in bulk (because it is cheaper to burn food than to distribute it to poor people). They are the parents of the tens of millions of malnourished children in our country, of the two million who die every year before they reach the age of five. They are the millions who make up the chain-gangs that are transported from city to city to build the New India. Is this what is known as enjoying the “fruits of modern development”?
What must they think, these people, about a government that sees fit to spend nine billion dollars of public money (2,000 per cent more than the initial estimate) for a two-week sports extravaganza which, for fear of terrorism, malaria, dengue and New Delhi’s new superbug, many international athletes have refused to attend? Which the Queen of England, titular head of the Commonwealth, would not consider presiding over, not even in her most irresponsible dreams. What must they think of the fact that most of those billions have been stolen and salted away by politicians and Games officials? Not much, I guess. Because for people who live on less than twenty rupees a day, money on that scale must seem like science fiction. It probably doesn’t occur to them that it’s their money. That’s why corrupt politicians in India never have a problem sweeping back into power, using the money they stole to buy elections. (Then, they feign outrage and ask, “Why don’t the Maoists stand for elections?”)
Standing there, in that dim crowd on that bright day, I thought of all the struggles that are being waged by people in this country—against big dams in the Narmada Valley, Polavaram, Arunachal Pradesh; against mines in Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand; against the police by the adivasis of Lalgarh; against the grabbing of their lands for industries and special economic zones all over the country. How many years (and in how many ways) people have fought to avoid just such a fate. I thought of Maase, Narmada, Roopi, Nity, Mangtu, Madhav, Saroja, Raju, Gudsa Usendi and Comrade Kamala (my young bodyguard during the time I spent with the Maoists in the jungle) with their guns slung over their shoulders. I thought of the great dignity of the forest I had so recently walked in and the rhythm of the adivasi drums at the Bhumkal celebration in Bastar, like the soundtrack of the quickening pulse of a furious nation.
I thought of Padma with whom I travelled to Warangal. She is only in her 30s but when she walks up stairs, she has to hold the banister and drag her body behind her. She was arrested just a week after she had had an appendix operation. She was beaten until she had an internal haemorrhage and had to have several organs removed. When they cracked her knees, the police explained helpfully that it was to make sure “she would never walk in the jungle again”. She was released after serving an eight-year sentence. Now she runs the ‘Amarula Bhadhu Mitrula Committee’, the Committee of Relatives and Friends of Martyrs. It retrieves the bodies of people killed in fake encounters. Padma spends her time criss-crossing northern Andhra Pradesh, in whatever transport she can find, usually a tractor, transporting the corpses of people whose parents or spouses are too poor to make the journey to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones.
The tenacity, the wisdom and the courage of those who have been fighting for years, for decades, to bring change, or even the whisper of justice to their lives, is something extraordinary. Whether people are fighting to overthrow the Indian State, or fighting against Big Dams, or only fighting a particular steel plant or mine or SEZ, the bottomline is that they are fighting for their dignity, for the right to live and smell like human beings. They are fighting because, as far as they are concerned, “the fruits of modern development” stink like dead cattle on the highway.
On the 64th anniversary of India’s Independence, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh climbed into his bullet-proof soapbox in the Red Fort to deliver a passionless, bone-chillingly banal speech to the nation. Listening to him, who would have guessed that he was addressing a country that, despite having the second-highest economic growth rate in the world, has more poor people than 26 of Africa’s poorest countries put together? “All of you have contributed to India’s success,” he said, “the hard work of our workers, our artisans, our farmers has brought our country to where it stands today.... We are building a new India in which every citizen would have a stake, an India which would be prosperous and in which all citizens would be able to live a life of honour and dignity in an environment of peace and goodwill. An India in which all problems could be solved through democratic means. An India in which the basic rights of every citizen would be protected.” Some would call this graveyard humour. He might as well have been speaking to people in Finland, or Sweden.
Sonia Gandhi and son carry out the task of running the Department of Compassion and Charisma to win elections. Their decisions appear progressive, but are actually symbolic.
If our prime minister’s reputation for “personal integrity” extended to the text of his speeches, this is what he should have said:
“Brothers and sisters, greetings to you on this day on which we remember our glorious past. Things are getting a little expensive I know, and you keep moaning about food prices, but look at it this way—more than six hundred and fifty million of you are engaged in and are living off agriculture as farmers and farm labour. But your combined efforts contribute less than 18 per cent of our GDP. So what’s the use of you? Look at our IT sector. It employs 0.2 per cent of the population and accounts for 5 per cent of our GDP. Can you match that? It is true that in our country employment hasn’t kept pace with growth, but fortunately 60 per cent of our workforce is self-employed. Ninety per cent of our labour force is employed by the unorganised sector. True, they manage to get work only for a few months in the year, but since we don’t have a category called “underemployed”, we just keep that part a little vague. It would not be right to enter them in our books as unemployed. Coming to the statistics that say we have the highest infant and maternal mortality in the world—we should unite as a nation and ignore bad news for the time being. We can address these problems later, after our Trickle-Down Revolution, when the health sector has been completely privatised. Meanwhile, I hope you are all buying medical insurance. As for the fact that the per capita foodgrain availability has actually decreased over the last 20 years—which happens to be the period of our most rapid economic growth—believe me, that’s just a coincidence.
“My fellow citizens, we are building a new India in which our 100 richest people, millionaires and billionaires, hold assets worth a full 25 per cent of our GDP. Wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands is always more efficient. You have all heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the broth. We want our beloved billionaires, our few hundred millionaires, their near and dear ones and their political and business associates, to be prosperous and to live a life of honour and dignity in an environment of peace and goodwill in which their basic rights are protected.
Warrior for whom? Rahul with the Dongria Kondhs in Orissa
“I am aware that my dreams cannot come true by solely using democratic means. In fact, I have come to believe that real democracy flows through the barrel of a gun. This is why we have deployed the Army, the Police, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Border Security Force, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Pradeshik Armed Constabulary, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Eastern Frontier Rifles—as well as the Scorpions, Greyhounds and Cobras—to crush the misguided insurrections that are erupting in our mineral-rich areas.
“Our experiments with democracy began in Nagaland, Manipur and Kashmir. Kashmir, I need not reiterate, is an integral part of India. We have deployed more than half-a-million soldiers to bring democracy to the people there. The Kashmiri youth who have been risking their lives by defying curfew and throwing stones at the police for the last two months are Lashkar-e-Toiba militants who actually want employment, not azadi. Tragically, 60 of them have lost their lives before we could study their job applications. I have instructed the police from now on to shoot to maim rather than kill these misguided youths.”
At a rally organised after Vedanta’s licence was cancelled, Rahul Gandhi declared himself ‘a soldier of tribal people’, even if Congress policies hinge upon the displacement of tribals.
In his seven years in office, Manmohan Singh has allowed himself to be cast as Sonia Gandhi’s tentative, mild-mannered underling. It’s an excellent disguise for a man who, for the last 20 years, first as finance minister and then as prime minister, has powered through a regime of new economic policies that has brought India into the situation in which it finds itself now. This is not to suggest that Manmohan Singh is not an underling. Only that all his orders don’t come from Sonia Gandhi. In his autobiography (A Prattler’s Tale), Ashok Mitra, former finance minister of West Bengal, tells his story of how Manmohan Singh rose to power. In 1991, when India’s foreign exchange reserves were dangerously low, the Narasimha Rao government approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an emergency loan. The IMF agreed on two conditions. The first was Structural Adjustment and Economic Reform. The second was the appointment of a finance minister of its choice. That man, says Mitra, was Manmohan Singh.
Over the years, he has stacked his cabinet and the bureaucracy with people who are evangelically committed to the corporate takeover of everything—water, electricity, minerals, agriculture, land, telecommunications, education, health—no matter what the consequences.
Sonia Gandhi and her son play an important part in all of this. Their job is to run the Department of Compassion and Charisma and to win elections. They are allowed to make (and also to take credit for) decisions which appear progressive but are actually tactical and symbolic, meant to take the edge off popular anger and allow the big ship to keep on rolling. (The best example of this is the rally that was organised for Rahul Gandhi to claim victory for the cancellation of Vedanta’s permission to mine Niyamgiri for bauxite—a battle that the Dongria Kondh tribe and a coalition of activists, local as well as international, have been fighting for years. At the rally, Rahul Gandhi announced that he was “a soldier for the tribal people”. He didn’t mention that the economic policies of his party are predicated on the mass displacement of tribal people. Or that every other bauxite “giri”—hill—in the neighbourhood was having the hell mined out of it, while this “soldier for the tribal people” looked away. Rahul Gandhi may be a decent man. But for him to go around talking about the two Indias—the “Rich India” and the “Poor India”—as though the party he represents has nothing to do with it, is an insult to everybody’s intelligence, including his own.)
Manmohan’s appearance as Sonia’s tentative, mild-mannered underling is excellent disguise for a man who in 20 years has ushered in an economic regime which has brought us to this.
The division of labour between politicians who have a mass base and win elections, and those who actually run the country but either do not need to (judges and bureaucrats) or have been freed of the constraint of winning elections (like the prime minister) is a brilliant subversion of democratic practice. To imagine that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are in charge of the government would be a mistake. The real power has passed into the hands of a coven of oligarchs—judges, bureaucrats and politicians. They in turn are run like prize race-horses by the few corporations who more or less own everything in the country. They may belong to different political parties and put up a great show of being political rivals, but that’s just subterfuge for public consumption. The only real rivalry is the business rivalry between corporations.
A senior member of the coven is P. Chidambaram, who some say is so popular with the Opposition that he may continue to be home minister even if the Congress were to lose the next election. That’s probably just as well. He may need a few extra years in office to complete the task he has been assigned. But it doesn’t matter if he stays or goes. The die has been rolled.
In a lecture at Harvard, his old university, in October 2007, Chidambaram outlined that task. The lecture was called ‘Poor Rich Countries: The Challenges of Development’. He called the three decades after Independence “the lost years” and exulted about the GDP growth rate which rose from 6.9 per cent in 2002 to 9.4 per cent by 2007. What he said is important enough for me to inflict a chunk of his charmless prose on you:
“One would have thought that the challenge of development—in a democracy—will become less formidable as the economy cruises on a high growth path. The reality is the opposite. Democracy—rather, the institutions of democracy—and the legacy of the socialist era have actually added to the challenge of development. Let me explain with some examples. India’s mineral resources include coal—the fourth-largest reserves in the world—iron ore, manganese, mica, bauxite, titanium ore, chromite, diamonds, natural gas, petroleum and limestone. Common sense tells us that we should mine these resources quickly and efficiently. That requires huge capital, efficient organisations and a policy environment that will allow market forces to operate. None of these factors is present today in the mining sector. The laws in this behalf are outdated and Parliament has been able to only tinker at the margins. Our efforts to attract private investment in prospecting and mining have, by and large, failed. Meanwhile, the sector remains virtually captive in the hands of the state governments. Opposing any change in the status quo are groups that espouse—quite legitimately—the cause of the forests or the environment or the tribal population. There are also political parties that regard mining as a natural monopoly of the State and have ideological objections to the entry of the private sector. They garner support from the established trade unions. Behind the unions—either known or unknown to them—stand the trading mafia. The result: actual investment is low, the mining sector grows at a tardy pace and it acts as a drag on the economy. I shall give you another example. Vast extent of land is required for locating industries. Mineral-based industries such as steel and aluminium require large tracts of land for mining, processing and production. Infrastructure projects like airports, seaports, dams and power stations need very large extents of land so that they can provide road and rail connectivity and the ancillary and support facilities. Hitherto, land was acquired by the governments in exercise of the power of eminent domain. The only issue was payment of adequate compensation. That situation has changed. There are new stakeholders in every project, and their claims have to be recognised. We are now obliged to address issues such as environmental impact assessment, justification for compulsory acquisition, right compensation, solatium, rehabilitation and resettlement of the displaced persons, alternative house sites and farmland, and one job for each affected family....”
Allowing “market forces” to mine resources “quickly and efficiently” is what colonisers did to their colonies, what Spain and North America did to South America, what Europe did (and continues to do) in Africa. It’s what the Apartheid regime did in South Africa. What puppet dictators in small countries do to bleed their people. It’s a formula for growth and development, but for someone else. It’s an old, old, old, old story—must we really go over that ground again?
Homing in Chidambaram, arriving in Parliament (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
Now that mining licences have been issued with the urgency you’d associate with a knockdown distress sale, and the scams that are emerging have run into billions of dollars, now that mining companies have polluted rivers, mined away state borders, wrecked ecosystems and unleashed civil war, the consequence of what the coven has set into motion is playing out. Like an ancient lament over ruined landscapes and the bodies of the poor.
The home secy’s promised 1,75,000 policemen over the next 5 years. It’s a good employment model: hire half the population to kill the other half (fool around with the ratios if you like).
Note the regret with which the minister in his lecture talks about democracy and the obligations it entails: “Democracy—rather, the institutions of democracy—and the legacy of the socialist era have actually added to the challenge of development.” He follows that up with the standard-issue clutch of lies about compensation, rehabilitation and jobs. What compensation? What solatium? What rehabilitation? And what “job for each family”? (Sixty years of industrialisation in India has created employment for 6 per cent of the workforce.) As for being “obliged” to provide “justification” for the “compulsory acquisition” of land, a cabinet minister surely knows that to compulsorily acquire tribal land (which is where most of the minerals are) and turn it over to private mining corporations is illegal and unconstitutional under the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act or PESA. Passed in 1996, PESA is an amendment that attempts to right some of the wrongs done to tribal people by the Indian Constitution when it was adopted by Parliament in 1950. It overrides all existing laws that may be in conflict with it. It is a law that acknowledges the deepening marginalisation of tribal communities and is meant to radically recast the balance of power. As a piece of legislation, it is unique because it makes the community—the collective—a legal entity and it confers on tribal societies who live in scheduled areas the right to self-governance. Under PESA, “compulsory acquisition” of tribal land cannot be justified on any count. So, ironically, those who are being called “Maoists” (which includes everyone who is resisting land acquisition) are actually fighting to uphold the Constitution. While the government is doing its best to vandalise it.
Between 2008 and 2009, the ministry of panchayati raj (village administration) commissioned two researchers to write a chapter for a report on the progress of panchayati raj in the country. The chapter is called ‘PESA, Left-Wing Extremism and Governance: Concerns and Challenges in India’s Tribal Districts’. Its authors are Ajay Dandekar and Chitrangada Choudhury. Here are some extracts:
“The Central Land Acquisition Act of 1894 has till date not been amended to bring it in line with the provisions of PESA.... At the moment, this colonial-era law is being widely misused on the ground to forcibly acquire individual and community land for private industry. In several cases, the practice of the state government is to sign high-profile MoUs with corporate houses and then proceed to deploy the Acquisition Act to ostensibly acquire the land for the state industrial corporation. This body then simply leases the land to the private corporation—a complete travesty of the term ‘acquisition for a public purpose’, as sanctioned by the act....
There are cases where the formal resolutions of gram sabhas expressing dissent have been destroyed and substituted by forged documents. What is worse, no action has been taken by the state against concerned officials even after the facts got established. The message is clear and ominous. There is collusion in these deals at numerous levels....
The sale of tribal lands to non-tribals in the Schedule Five areas is prohibited in all these states. However, transfers continue to take place and have become more perceptible in the post-liberalisation era. The principal reasons are—transfer through fraudulent means, unrecorded transfers on the basis of oral transactions, transfers by misrepresentation of facts and mis-stating the purpose, forcible occupation of tribal lands, transfer through illegal marriages, collusive title suits, incorrect recording at the time of the survey, land acquisition process, eviction of encroachments and in the name of exploitation of timber and forest produce and even on the pretext of development of welfarism.”
In their concluding section, they say:
“The Memorandums of Understanding signed by the state governments with industrial houses, including mining companies, should be re-examined in a public exercise, with gram sabhas at the centre of this inquiry.”
Here it is then—not troublesome activists, not the Maoists, but a government report calling for the mining MoUs to be re-examined. What does the government do with this document? How does it respond? On April 24, 2010, at a formal ceremony, the prime minster released the report. Brave of him, you would think. Except, this chapter wasn’t in it. It was dropped.
P. Chidambaram, some say, is so popular with the Opposition that he’ll still be home minister even if the Congress loses the next elections. It doesn’t matter. The die’s already cast.
Half a century ago, just a year before he was killed, Che Guevara wrote: “When the oppressive forces maintain themselves in power against laws they themselves established, peace must be considered already broken.”
Indeed it must. In 2009, Manmohan Singh said in Parliament, “If left-wing extremism continues to flourish in parts which have natural resources of minerals, the climate for investment would certainly be affected.” It was a furtive declaration of war.
(Permit me a small digression here, a moment to tell a very short Tale of Two Sikhs. In his last petition to the Punjab governor, before he was hanged by the British government in 1931, Bhagat Singh, the celebrated Sikh revolutionary—and Marxist—said: “Let us declare that the state of war does exist and shall exist so long as India’s toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites. They may be purely British Capitalist or mixed British and Indian or even purely Indian.... All these things make no difference.”)
If you pay attention to many of the struggles taking place in India, people are demanding no more than their constitutional rights. But the Government of India no longer feels the need to abide by the Indian Constitution, which is supposed to be the legal and moral framework on which our democracy rests. As constitutions go, it is an enlightened document, but its enlightenment is not used to protect people. Quite the opposite. It’s used as a spiked club to beat down those who are protesting against the growing tide of violence being perpetrated by a State on its people in the name of the “public good”. In a recent article in Outlook (May 3), B.G. Verghese came out waving that club in defence of the State and big corporations: “The Maoists will fade away, democratic India and the Constitution will prevail, despite the time it takes and the pain involved.” To this, Azad replied.
It was the last piece he wrote before he was murdered (Outlook, July 19, 2010).
“In which part of India is the Constitution prevailing, Mr Verghese? In Dantewada, Bijapur, Kanker, Narayanpur, Rajnandgaon? In Jharkhand, Orissa? In Lalgarh, Jangalmahal? In the Kashmir Valley? Manipur? Where was your Constitution hiding for 25 long years after thousands of Sikhs were massacred? When thousands of Muslims were decimated? When lakhs of peasants are compelled to commit suicide? When thousands of people are murdered by state-sponsored Salwa Judum gangs? When adivasi women are gangraped? When people are simply abducted by uniformed goons? Your Constitution is a piece of paper that does not even have the value of a toilet paper for the vast majority of the Indian people.”
After Azad was killed, several media commentators tried to paper over the crime by shamelessly inverting what he had said in that piece, accusing him of calling the Indian Constitution a piece of toilet paper.
If the government will not respect the Constitution, then perhaps we should push for an amendment to the Preamble itself. “We, the People of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic” could be substituted with “We, the upper castes and classes of India, having secretly resolved to constitute India into a Corporate, Hindu, Satellite State....”
The insurrection in the Indian countryside, in particular in the tribal heartland, poses a radical challenge not only to the Indian State, but to resistance movements too. It questions the accepted ideas of what constitutes progress, development and indeed civilisation itself. It questions the ethics as well as the effectiveness of different strategies of resistance. These questions have been asked before, yes. They have been asked persistently, peacefully, year after year, in a hundred different ways—by the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, the Koel Karo and Gandhamardhan agitations—and hundreds of other people’s movements. It was asked most persuasively and perhaps most visibly by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the anti-dam movement in the Narmada Valley. The Government of India’s only answer has been repression, deviousness and the kind of opacity that can only come from a pathological disrespect for ordinary people. Worse, it went ahead and accelerated the process of displacement and dispossession to a point where people’s anger has built up in ways that cannot be controlled. Today, the poorest people in the world have managed to stop some of the richest corporations in their tracks. It’s a huge victory.
When the government uses the ploy of peace talks to draw deep-swimming fish up to the surface and then kill them, do peace talks have a future? Does either side want peace or justice?
Those who have risen up are aware that their country is in a state of Emergency. They are aware that like the people of Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland and Assam, they too have now been stripped of their civil rights by laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA), which criminalise every kind of dissent—by word, deed and even intent.
During the Emergency era, grim as it was, people still allowed themselves to dream of bettering their lot, to dream of justice. When Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency on the midnight of June 25, 1975, she did it to crush an incipient revolution. The Naxalite uprising in Bengal had been more or less decimated. But then millions of people were rallying to Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for ‘Sampoorna Kranti’ (Total Revolution). At the heart of all the unrest was the demand for Land to the Tiller. (Even back then, it was no different—you needed a revolution to implement land redistribution, which is one of the directive principles of the Constitution.)
Hail Britannia Securitymen at CWG HQ (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)
Perhaps our Preamble should read, “We, the upper castes and classes of India, having secretly resolved to constitute India into a Corporate, Hindu, Satellite State....”
Thirty-five years later, things have changed drastically. Justice, that grand, beautiful idea, has been whittled down to mean human rights. Equality is a utopian fantasy. The word has, more or less, been evicted from our vocabulary. The poor have been pushed to the wall. From fighting for land for the landless, revolutionary parties and resistance movements have had to lower their sights to fighting for people’s rights to hold on to what little land they have. The only kind of land redistribution that seems to be on the cards is land being grabbed from the poor and redistributed to the rich, for their landbanks which go by the name of SEZs. The landless (mostly Dalits), the jobless, the slum-dwellers and the urban working class are more or less out of the reckoning. In places like Lalgarh in West Bengal, people are only asking the police and the government to leave them alone. The adivasi organisation called the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (pcapa) began with one simple demand—that the Superintendent of Police visit Lalgarh and apologise to the people for the atrocities his men had committed on villagers. That was considered preposterous. (How could half-naked savages expect a government officer to apologise to them?) So people barricaded their villages and refused to let the police in. The police stepped up the violence. People responded with fury. Now, two years down the line, and many gruesome rapes, killings and fake encounters later, it’s all-out war. The pcapa has been banned and dubbed a Maoist outfit. Its leaders have been jailed or shot. (A similar fate has befallen the Chasi Mulya Adivasi Sangh in Narayanpatna in Orissa and the Visthappen Virodhi Ekta Manch in Potka in Jharkhand.)
People who once dreamt of justice and equality, who dared to demand land to the tiller, have been reduced to demanding an apology from the police for being beaten and maimed—is this progress?
Fine tooth Securitymen on a combing operation in Dantewada (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)
During the Emergency, the saying goes, when Mrs Gandhi asked the press to bend, it crawled. And yet, in those days, there were instances when national dailies defiantly published blank editorials to protest censorship. (Irony of ironies—one of those defiant editors was B.G. Verghese.)
What must they think, the people who live on less than Rs 20 a day, of nine billion dollars of public money on a two-week show? Not much. For them, this kind of money is science fiction.
This time around, in the undeclared emergency, there’s not much scope for defiance because the media is the government. Nobody, except the corporations which control them, can tell it what to do. Senior politicians, ministers and officers of the security establishment vie to appear on TV, feebly imploring Arnab Goswami or Barkha Dutt for permission to interrupt the day’s sermon. Several TV channels and newspapers are overtly manning Operation Green Hunt’s war room and its disinformation campaign. There was the identically worded story about the “1,500-crore Maoist industry” filed under the byline of different reporters in several different papers. Almost all newspapers and TV channels ran stories blaming the pcapa (used interchangeably with “Maoists”) for the horrific train derailment near Jhargram in West Bengal in May 2010 in which 140 people died. Two of the main suspects have been shot down by the police in “encounters”, even though the mystery around that train accident is still unravelling. The Press Trust of India put out several untruthful stories, faithfully showcased by the Indian Express, including one about Maoists mutilating the bodies of policemen they had killed. (The denial, which came from the police themselves, was published postage-stamp size hidden in the middle pages.) There are the several identical interviews, all of them billed as “exclusive”, with a female guerrilla about how she had been “raped and re-raped” by Maoist leaders. She was supposed to have recently escaped from the forests, and the clutches of the Maoists, to tell the world her tale. Now it turns out that she has been in police custody for months.
The atrocity-based analyses shouted out at us from our TV screens is designed to smoke up the mirrors, and hustle us into thinking: “Yes, the tribals have been neglected and are having a very bad time; yes, they need development; yes, it’s the government’s fault, but right now there is a crisis. We need to get rid of the Maoists, secure the land and then we can help the tribals.”
Perhaps it’s in the fitness of things that what’s left of our democracy is traded in for an event to celebrate the British empire. The Old Empire may be dead, not the tradition of servility.
As war closes in, the armed forces have announced (in the way only they can), that they too are getting into the business of messing with our heads. In June 2010, they released two “operational doctrines”. One was a joint doctrine for air-land operations. The other was a doctrine on Military Psychological Operations which “constitutes a planned process of conveying a message to select target audience, to promote particular themes that result in desired attitudes and behaviour, which affect the achievement of political and military objectives of the country.... The Doctrine also provides guidelines for activities related to perception management in sub-conventional operations, specially in an internal environment wherein misguided population may have to be brought into the mainstream”. The press release went on to say that “the doctrine on Military Psychological Operations is a policy, planning and implementation document that aims to create a conducive environment for the armed forces to operate by using the media available with the Services to their advantage”.
A month later, at a meeting of chief ministers of Naxalite-affected states, a decision was taken to escalate the war. Thirty-six battalions of the India Reserve Force were added to the existing 105 battalions, and 16,000 Special Police Officers (civilians armed and contracted to function as police) were added to the existing 30,000. The home secretary promised to hire 1,75,000 policemen over the next five years. (It’s a good model for an employment guarantee scheme: hire half the population to shoot the other half. You can fool around with the ratios if you like.)
Two days later, the army chief told his senior officers to be “mentally prepared to step into the fight against Naxalism.... It might be in six months or in a year or two, but if we have to maintain our relevance as a tool of the state, we will have to undertake things that the nation wants us to do”.
By August, newspapers were reporting that the on-again-off-again option of using the air force was on again. “The Indian air force can fire in self-defence in anti-Maoist operations,” the Hindustan Times said. “The permission has been granted but with strict conditionalities. We cannot use rockets or the integral guns of the helicopters and we can retaliate only if fired upon.... To this end, we have side-mounted machine-guns on our choppers that are operated by our Garuds (IAF commandos).” That’s a relief. No integral guns, only side-mounted machine-guns.
As war closes in, the armed forces have announced that they too are getting into the business of messing with our heads by using “media available to the Services”.
Maybe “six months or in a year or two” is about as long as it will take for the brigade headquarters in Bilaspur and the air base in Rajnandgaon to be ready. Maybe by then, in a great show of democratic spirit, the government will give in to popular anger and repeal AFSPA, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (which allows non-commissioned officers to kill on suspicion) in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Kashmir. Once the applause subsides and the celebration peters out, AFSPA will be recast, as the home minister has suggested, on the lines of the Jeevan Reddy report. (To sound more humane but to be more deadly.) Then it can be promulgated all over the country under a new name. Maybe that will give the armed forces the impunity they need to do what “the nation” wants them to do—to be deployed in the parts of India against the poorest of the poor who are fighting for their very survival.
Maybe that’s how Comrade Kamala will die—while she’s trying to bring down a helicopter gunship or a military training jet with her pistol. Or maybe by then she will have graduated to an AK-47 or a Light Machine Gun looted from a government armoury or a murdered policeman. Maybe by then the media “available to the Services” will have “managed” the perceptions of those of us who still continue to be “misguided” to receive the news of her death with equanimity.
Manipur on fire Another face of resistance
So here’s the Indian State, in all its democratic glory, willing to loot, starve, lay siege to, and now deploy the air force in “self-defence” against its poorest citizens.
Self-defence. Ah, yes. Operation Green Hunt is being waged in self-defence by a government that is trying to restore land to poor people whose land has been snatched away by Commie Corporations.
One favour Operation Green Hunt has done the people is that it has clarified to them that the police works for the Companies and that Green Hunt isn’t a war against Maoists, but the poor.
When the government uses the offer of peace talks to draw the deep-swimming fish up to the surface and then kill them, do peace talks have a future? Is either side genuinely interested in peace or justice? One question people have is, are the Maoists really interested in peace? Is there anything they can be offered within the existing system that will deflect the Maoists from their stated goal of overthrowing the Indian State? The answer to that is, of course not. The Maoists do not believe that the present system can deliver justice. The thing is that an increasing number of people are beginning to agree with them. If we lived in a society with a genuinely democratic impulse, one in which ordinary people felt they could at least hope for justice, then the Maoists would be only be a small, marginalised group of militants with very little popular appeal.
The other contention is that Maoists want a ceasefire to take the heat off themselves for a while so that they can use the time to regroup and consolidate their position. Azad, in an interview to The Hindu (April 14, 2010), was surprisingly candid about this: “It doesn’t need much of a common sense to understand that both sides will utilise the situation of a ceasefire to strengthen their respective sides.” He then went on to explain that a ceasefire, even a temporary one, would give respite to ordinary people who are caught in a war zone.
The government, on the other hand, desperately needs this war. (Read the business papers to see how desperately.) The eyes of the international business community are boring holes into its back. It needs to deliver, and fast. To keep its mask from falling, it must continue to offer talks on the one hand, and undermine them on the other. The elimination of Azad was an important victory because it silenced a voice that had begun to sound dangerously reasonable. For the moment at least, peace talks have been successfully derailed.
There is plenty to be cynical about in the discussion around peace talks. The thing to remember is that for us ordinary folks no peace talks means an escalating war.
Over the last few months, the government has poured tens of thousands of heavily armed paramilitary troops into the forest. The Maoists responded with a series of aggressive attacks and ambushes. More than 200 policemen have been killed. The bodies keep coming out of the forest. Slain policemen wrapped in the national flag; slain Maoists, displayed like hunters’ trophies, their wrists and ankles lashed to bamboo poles; bullet-ridden bodies, bodies that don’t look human any more, mutilated in ambushes, beheadings and summary executions. Of the bodies being buried in the forest, we have no news. The theatre of war has been cordoned off, closed to activists and journalists. So there are no body counts.
Brute force CRPF jawans killed in Dantewada (Photograph by Reuters, From Outlook, September 20, 2010)
On April 6, 2010, in its biggest strike ever, the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) ambushed a CRPF company in Dantewada and killed 76 policemen. The party issued a coldly triumphant statement. Television milked the tragedy for everything it was worth. The nation was called upon to condemn the killing. Many of us were not prepared to—not because we celebrate killing, nor because we are all Maoists, but because we have thorny, knotty views about Operation Green Hunt. For refusing to buy shares in the rapidly growing condemnation industry, we were branded “terrorist sympathisers” and had our photographs flashed repeatedly on TV like wanted criminals.
What was a CRPF contingent doing, patrolling tribal villages with 21 AK-47 rifles, 38 INSAS rifles, seven SLRs, six Light Machine Guns, one stengun and one 2-inch mortar? To ask that question almost amounted to an act of treason.
The uprising in the Indian countryside poses a challenge not only to the State but also to resistance movements. It questions accepted ideas of progress, development, of civilisation itself.
Days after the ambush, I ran into two paramilitary commandos chatting to a bunch of drivers in a Delhi car park. They were waiting for their VIP to emerge from some restaurant or health club or hotel. Their view on what is going on involved neither grief nor patriotism. It was simple accounting. A balance-sheet. They were talking about how many lakhs of rupees in bribes it takes for a man to get a job in the paramilitary forces and how most families incur huge debts to pay that bribe. That debt can never be repaid by the pathetic wages paid to a jawan. The only way to repay it is to do what policemen in India do—blackmail and threaten people, run protection rackets, demand payoffs, do dirty deals. (In the case of Dantewada, loot villagers, steal cash and jewellery.) But if the man dies an untimely death, it leaves the families hugely in debt. The anger of the men in the car park was directed at the government and senior police officers who make fortunes from bribes and then so casually send young men to their death. They knew that the handsome compensation that was announced for the dead in the April 6 attack was just to blunt the impact of the scandal. It was never going to be standard practice for every policeman who dies in this sordid war.
Small wonder then that the news from the war zone is that CRPF men are increasingly reluctant to go on patrol. There are reports of them fudging their daily log-books, filling them with phantom patrols. Maybe they’re beginning to realise that they are only poor khaki trash, cannon fodder in a Rich Man’s War. And there are thousands waiting to replace each one of them when they are gone.
On May 17, 2010, in another major attack, the Maoists blew up a bus in Dantewada and killed about 44 people. Of them, 16 were Special Police Officers (SPOs), in other words, members of the dreaded government-sponsored people’s militia, the Salwa Judum. The rest of the dead were, shockingly, ordinary people, mostly adivasis. The Maoists expressed perfunctory regret for having killed civilians, but they came that much closer to mimicking the State’s “collateral damage” defence.
Last month, the Maoists kidnapped four policemen in Bihar and demanded the release of some of their senior leaders. A few days into the hostage drama, they killed one of them, an adivasi policeman called Lucas Tete. Two days later, they released the other three. By killing a prisoner in custody, the Maoists once again harmed their own cause. It was another example of the Janus-faced morality of “revolutionary violence” that we can expect more of in a war zone, in which tactics trump rectitude and make the world a worse place.
From demanding land to the tiller 35 years ago, revolutionary parties and resistance movements now fight for people’s rights just to hold on to whatever little land they have.
Not many analysts and commentators who were pained by the Maoist killing of civilians in Dantewada noticed that at exactly the same time as the bus was blown up by the Maoists in Dantewada, the police had surrounded several villages in Kalinganagar in Orissa, and in Balitutha and Potko in Jharkhand, and had fired on thousands of protesters resisting the takeover of their lands by the Tatas, the Jindals and Posco. Even now, the siege continues. The wounded cannot be taken to hospital because of the police cordons. Videos uploaded on YouTube show armed riot police massing in the hundreds, confronted by ordinary villagers, some of whom are armed with bows and arrows.
The one favour Operation Green Hunt has done ordinary people is that it has clarified things to them. Even the children in the villages know that the police works for the “companies” and that Operation Green Hunt isn’t a war against Maoists. It’s a war against the poor.
There’s nothing small about what’s going on. We are watching a democracy turning on itself, trying to eat its own limbs. We’re watching incredulously as those limbs refuse to be eaten.
Of all the various political formations involved in the current insurrection, none is more controversial than the CPI (Maoist). The most obvious reason is its unapologetic foregrounding of armed struggle as the only path to revolution. Sumanta Banerjee’s book In the Wake of Naxalbari is one of the most comprehensive accounts of the movement. It documents the early years, the almost harebrained manner in which the Naxalites tried to jumpstart the Indian Revolution by “annihilating the class enemy” and expecting the masses to rise up spontaneously. It describes the contortions it had to make in order to remain aligned with China’s foreign policy, how Naxalism spread from state to state and how it was mercilessly crushed.
The orthodox Communists do not believe that Maoism is an ‘ism’ at all. Maoists, in turn, call parliamentary Communists social fascists and accuse them of economism.
Buried deep inside the fury that is directed against them by the orthodox Left as well as by the liberal intelligentsia is an unease they seem to feel with themselves and a puzzling, almost mystical, protectiveness towards the Indian State. It’s as though, when they are faced with a situation that has genuine revolutionary potential, they blink. They find reasons to look away. Political parties—and individuals—who have not, in the last 25 years, ever lent their support to say, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or marched in solidarity with any one of the many peaceful people’s movements in the country, have suddenly begun to extol the virtues of non-violence and Gandhian satyagraha. On the other hand, those who have been actively involved in these struggles may strongly disagree with the Maoists; they are wary, even exasperated, but they do see them as a part of the same resistance.
Eyes left The Left biggies at a New Delhi rally (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook, September 20, 2010)
It’s hard to say who dislikes the Maoists more: the Indian State, its army of strategic experts and its instinctively right-wing middle class, or the Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India (Marxist), usually called the CPI(M), and the several splinter groups that were part of the original Marxist-Leninists, or the liberal left. The argument begins with nomenclature. The more orthodox Communists do not believe that “Maoism” is an “ism” at all. (The Maoists, in turn, call the mainstream parliamentary Communists “social fascists” and accuse them of “economism”—basically, of gradually bargaining away the prospect of revolution.)
Few would associate the word ‘revolutionary’ with CPI and CPI(M) any more. They have survived in the mainstream only because they have compromised their ideologies.
Each faction believes itself to be the only genuinely revolutionary Marxist party, or political formation. Each believes the other has misinterpreted Communist theory and misunderstood history. Anyone who isn’t a card-carrying member of one or the other group will be able to see that none of them is entirely wrong or entirely right about what it says. But bitter splits, not unlike those in religious sects, are the natural corollary of the rigid conformity to the party line demanded by all Communist parties. So they dip into a pool of insults that dates back to the Russian and Chinese revolutions, to the great debates between Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, to Chairman Mao’s red book, and hurl them at each other. They accuse each other of the “incorrect application” of “Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought”, almost as though it’s an ointment that’s being rubbed in the wrong place. (My earlier essay Walking with the Comrades landed directly in the flight-path of this debate. It got its fair share of entertaining insults, which deserve a pamphlet of their own.)
Other than the debate about whether or not to enter electoral politics, the major disagreement between the various strands of Communism in India centres around their reading of whether conditions in the country are ripe for revolution. Is the prairie ready for the fire, as Mao announced in China, or is it still too damp for the single spark to ignite it? The trouble is that India lives in several centuries simultaneously, so perhaps the “prairie”, that vast stretch of flat grassland, is the wrong analogy for India’s social and political landscape. Maybe a “warren” would be a better one. To arrive at a consensus about the timing of the revolution is probably impossible. So everybody marches to their own drumbeat. The CPI and the CPI(M) have more or less postponed the revolution to the afterlife. For Charu Majumdar, founder of the Naxalite movement, it was meant to have happened 30 years ago. According to Ganapathi, current chief of the Maoists, it’s about 50 years away.
Today, 40 years after the Naxalbari uprising, the main charge against the Maoists by the parliamentary Left continues to be what it always was. They are accused of suffering from what Lenin called an “infantile disorder”, of substituting mass politics with militarism and of not having worked at building a genuinely revolutionary proletariat. They are seen as having contempt for the urban working class, of being an ideologically ossified force that can only function as a frog on the back of “innocent” (read primitive) jungle-dwelling tribal people who, according to orthodox Marxists, have no real revolutionary potential. (This is not the place perhaps to debate a vision that says people have to first become wage-earners, enslaved to a centralised industrial system, before they can be considered revolutionary.)
If we lived in a society with a genuinely democratic impulse, in which people could at least hope for justice, the Maoists would only be a small, marginalised group of militants.
The charge that the Maoists are irrelevant to urban working-class movements, to the Dalit movement, to the plight of farmers and agricultural workers outside the forests is true. There is no doubt that the Maoists’ militarised politics makes it almost impossible for it to function in places where there is no forest cover. However, it could equally be argued that the major Communist parties have managed to survive in the mainstream only by compromising their ideologies so drastically that it is impossible to tell the difference between them and other bourgeois political parties any more. It could be argued that the smaller factions that have remained relatively uncompromised have managed to do so because they do not pose a threat to anybody.
Whatever their faults or achievements as bourgeois parties, few would associate the word “revolutionary” with the CPI or CPI(M) any more. (The CPI does play a role in some of the struggles against mining companies in Orissa.) But even in their chosen sphere of influence, they cannot claim to have done a great service to the proletariat they say they represent. Apart from their traditional bastions in Kerala and West Bengal, both of which they are losing their grip over, they have very little presence in any other part of the country, urban or rural, forest or plains. They have run their trade unions into the ground. They have not been able to stanch the massive job losses and the virtual disbanding of the formal workforce that mechanisation and the new economic policies have caused. They have not been able to prevent the systematic dismantling of workers’ rights. They have managed to alienate themselves almost completely from adivasi and Dalit communities. In Kerala, many would say they have done a better job than other political parties, but their 30-year “rule” in West Bengal has left that state in ruins. The repression they unleashed in Nandigram and Singur, and now against the adivasis of Jangalmahal, will probably drive them out of power for a few years. (Only for as long as it takes Mamata Banerjee to prove that she is not the vessel into which people should pour their hopes.)
No lonely furrow Maoist cadre in Dantewada jungles
Still, while listing a litany of their sins, it must be said that the demise of the mainstream Communist parties is not something to be celebrated. At least not unless it makes way for a new, more vital and genuinely Left movement in India.
The Maoists have been completely unsuccessful in the centrepiece of their politics: redistribution of land. But they have managed to shine a light on the structural injustice of our society.
The Maoists (in their current as well as earlier avatars) have had a different political trajectory. The redistribution of land, by violent means if necessary, was always the centrepiece of their political activity. They have been completely unsuccessful in that endeavour. But their militant interventions, in which thousands of their cadre—as well as ordinary people—paid with their lives, shone a light on the deeply embedded structural injustice of Indian society. If nothing else, from the time of the Telangana movement, which in some ways was a precursor to the uprising in Naxalbari, the Naxalite movement, for all its faults, sparked an anger about being exploited and a desire for self-respect in some of the most oppressed communities. In West Bengal, it led to Operation Barga (a bargadar is a sharecropper), and to a far lesser extent in Andhra Pradesh, it shamed governments into carrying out some land reform. Even today, all the talk about “uneven development” and “exploitation” of tribal areas by the prime minister, the government’s plans to transfer Joint Forest Management funds from the forest department directly to the gram panchayats, the Planning Commission’s announcement that it will allocate Rs 14,000 crore for tribal development, has come as a strategy to defuse the Maoist “menace”. If those funds do end up benefiting the adivasi community, instead of being siphoned away by middlemen, then the “menace” surely ought to be given some credit. Though the Maoists have virtually no political presence outside forested areas, they do have a presence, an increasingly sympathetic one, in the popular imagination as a party that stands up for the poor against the intimidation and bullying of the State. If Operation Green Hunt eventually becomes an outright war instead of a “sub-conventional” one, if ordinary adivasis start dying in huge numbers, that sympathy could ignite in unexpected ways.
Among the most serious charges levelled against the Maoists is that its leaders have a vested interest in keeping people poor and illiterate in order to retain their hold on them. Critics ask why, after working in areas like Dandakaranya for 30 years, they still do not run schools and clinics, why they don’t have check-dams and advanced agriculture, and why people were still dying of malaria and malnutrition. Good question. But it ignores the reality of what it means to be a banned organisation whose members—even if they are doctors or teachers—are liable to be shot on sight. It would be more useful to direct the same question to the Government of India that has none of these constraints. Why is it that in tribal areas that are not overrun by Maoists, there are no schools, no hospitals, no check-dams? Why do people in Chhattisgarh suffer from such acute malnutrition that doctors have begun to call it “nutritional aids” because of the effect it has on the human immune system?
In their censored chapter in the ministry of panchayati raj report, Ajay Dandekar and Chitrangada Choudhury (no fans of the Maoists—they call the party ideology “brutal and cynical”) write:
“So the Maoists today have a dual effect on the ground in PESA areas. By virtue of the gun they wield, they are able to evoke some fear in the administration at the village/block/district level. They consequently prevent the common villager’s powerlessness over the neglect or violation of protective laws like PESA, for example, warning a talati, who might be demanding bribes in return for fulfilling the duty mandated to him under the Forest Rights Act, a trader who might be paying an exploitative rate for forest produce, or a contractor who is violating the minimum wage. The party has also done an immense amount of rural development work, such as mobilising community labour for farm ponds, rainwater harvesting and land conservation works in the Dandakaranya region, which villagers testified had improved their crops and improved their food security situation.”
In their recently published empirical analysis of the working of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) in 200 Maoist-affected districts in Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly, authors Kaustav Banerjee and Partha Saha say:
“The field survey revealed that the charge that the Maoists have been blocking developmental schemes does not seem to hold much ground. In fact, Bastar seems to be doing much better in terms of NREGA than some other areas...on top of that, the wage struggles, the enforcement of minimum wages can be traced back to the wage struggles led by the Maoists in that area. A clear result that we came across is the doubling of the wage rates for tendu leaf collection in most Maoist areas.... Also, the Maoists have been encouraging the conduct [sic] of social audits since this helps in the creation of a new kind of democratic practice hitherto unseen in India.”
All the talk of ‘uneven development’ by the PM today, the plans to transfer joint forest management funds to gram panchayats, has come as a strategy to defuse the Maoist menace.
Implicit in a lot of the debate around Maoists is the old, patronising tendency to cast “the masses”, the adivasi people in this case, in the role of the dim-witted horde, completely controlled by a handful of wicked “outsiders”. One university professor, a well-known Maoist-baiter, accused the leaders of the party of being parasites preying on poor adivasis. To bolster his case, he compared the lack of development in Dandakaranya to the prosperity in Kerala. After suggesting that the non-adivasi leaders were all cowards “hiding safely in the forest”, he appealed to all adivasi Maoist guerrillas and village militia to surrender before a panel of middle-class Gandhian activists (handpicked by him). He called for the non-adivasi leadership to be tried for war crimes. Why non-adivasi Gandhians are acceptable, but not non-adivasi Maoists, he did not say. There is something very disturbing about this inability to credit ordinary people with being capable of weighing the odds and making their own decisions.
In Orissa, for instance, there are a number of diverse struggles being waged by unarmed resistance movements which often have sharp differences with each other. And yet between them all, they have managed to temporarily stop some major corporations from being able to proceed with their projects—the Tatas in Kalinganagar, Posco in Jagatsinghpur, Vedanta in Niyamgiri. Unlike in Bastar, where they control territory and are well-entrenched, the Maoists tend to use Orissa only as a corridor for their squads to pass through. As the security forces are closing in on people and ratcheting up the repression, they have to think very seriously about the pros and cons of involving the Maoists into their struggles. Will its armed squads stay and fight the State repression that will inevitably follow a Maoist “action”? Or will they retreat and leave unarmed people to deal with police terror? Activists and ordinary people, falsely accused of being Maoists, are already being jailed. Many have been killed in cold blood. But a tense uneasy dance continues between the unarmed resistance movements and the CPI (Maoist).
On occasion, the party has done irresponsible things which have led to horrible consequences for ordinary people. In 2006, at the height of the tension between the Dalit and adivasi communities in Kandhamal district, the Maoists shot dead Laxmanananda Saraswati, leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a fascist outfit of proselytisers, working among adivasis to bring them “back into the Hindu fold”. After the murder, enraged Kandha tribals who had been recently converted to Hinduism were encouraged to go on a rampage. Almost 400 villages were convulsed with anti-Christian violence. Fifty-four Panna Dalit Christians were killed, more than 200 churches burnt, tens of thousands had to flee their homes. Many still live in camps unable to return. A somewhat different, but equally dangerous situation is brewing in Narayanpatna and Koraput, districts where the Chasi Mulya Adivasi Sangh (which the police say is a Maoist “front”) is fighting to restore land to adivasis that was illegally appropriated by local moneylenders and liquor dealers (many of them Dalit). These areas are reeling under police terror, with hundreds of adivasis thrown in Koraput jail and thousands living in the forests, afraid to go home.
Locals have to think very seriously about involving the Maoists in their struggles. Will its armed squads stay and fight state repression that inevitable follows Maoist “action”?
People who live in situations like this do not simply take instructions from a handful of ideologues who appear out of nowhere waving guns. Their decisions of what strategies to employ take into account a whole host of considerations: the history of the struggle, the nature of the repression, the urgency of the situation and the landscape in which their struggle is taking place. The decision of whether to be a Gandhian or a Maoist, militant or peaceful, or a bit of both (like in Nandigram), is not always a moral or ideological one. Quite often, it’s a tactical one. Gandhian satyagraha, for example, is a kind of political theatre. In order for it to be effective, it needs a sympathetic audience which villagers deep in the forest do not have. When a posse of 800 policemen lay a cordon around a forest village at night and begin to burn houses and shoot people, will a hunger strike help? (Can starving people go on a hunger strike? And do hunger strikes work when they are not on TV?) Equally, guerrilla warfare is a strategy that villages in the plains, with no cover for tactical retreat, cannot afford. Fortunately, people are capable of breaking through ideological categories, and of being Gandhian in Jantar Mantar, militant in the plains and guerrilla fighters in the forest without necessarily suffering from a crisis of identity. The strength of the insurrection in India is its diversity, not uniformity.
Since the government has expanded its definition of “Maoist” to include anybody who opposes it, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Maoists have moved to centrestage. However, their doctrinal inflexibility, their reputed inability to countenance dissent, to work with other political formations and, most of all, their single-minded, grim, military imagination makes them too small to fill the giant pair of boots that is currently on offer.
Implicit in a lot of debate around Maoism is the tendency to cast “the masses”, the adivasis in this case, as the dimwitted horde, incapable of taking decisions of their own.
(When I met Comrade Roopi in the forest, the first thing the techie-whiz did after greeting me was to ask about an interview with me published soon after the Maoists had attacked Rani Bodili, a girls’ school in Dantewada which had turned into a police camp. More than 50 policemen and SPOs were killed. “We were glad,” she said, “that you refused to condemn our Rani Bodili attack, but then in the same interview you said that if the Maoists ever come to power, the first person we would hang would probably be you. Why did you say that? Why do you think we’re like that?” I was settling into my long answer but we were distracted. I would probably have started with Stalin’s purges—in which millions of ordinary people and almost half of the 75,000 Red Army officers were either jailed or shot and 98 out of 139 Central Committee members were arrested, gone on to the huge price people paid for China’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and might have ended with the Pedamallapuram incident in Andhra Pradesh, when the Maoists, in its previous avatar as People’s War, killed the village sarpanch and assaulted women activists for refusing to obey their call to boycott elections.)
Who for? Is the aluminium for other nations’ arms industries?
Coming back to the question: Who can fill that giant pair of boots? Perhaps it cannot, and should not be, a single pair of feet. Sometimes it seems very much as though those who have a radical vision for a newer, better world do not have the steel it takes to resist the military onslaught, and those who have the steel do not have the vision.
People are capable of being Gandhian in Jantar Mantar, militant in the plains, guerrilla fighters in the forests. The strength of the insurrection in India is its diversity, not uniformity.
Right now, the Maoists are the most militant end of a bandwidth of resistance movements fighting an assault on adivasi homelands by a cartel of mining and infrastructure companies. To deduce from this that the CPI (Maoist) is in principle a party with a new way of thinking about “development” or the environment might be a little far-fetched. (The one reassuring sign is that it has cautiously said that it is against big dams. If it means what it says, that alone would automatically lead to a radically different development model.) For a political party that is widely seen as opposing the onslaught of corporate mining, the Maoists’ policy (and practice) on mining remains pretty woolly. In several places where people are fighting mining companies, there is a persistent view that the Maoists are not averse to allowing mining and mining-related infrastructure projects to go ahead as long as they are given protection money. From interviews and statements made by their senior leaders on the subject of mining, what emerges is just a sort of “we’ll do a better job” approach. They vaguely promise “environmentally sustainable” mining, higher royalties, better resettlement for the displaced and higher stakes for the “stakeholders”. (The present minister for mining and mineral resources too, thinking along the same lines, stood up in Parliament and promised that 26 per cent of the “profits” from mining would go into “tribal development”. What a feast that will be for the pigs at the trough!)
But let’s take a brief look at the star attraction in the mining belt—the several trillion dollars worth of bauxite. There is no environmentally sustainable way of mining bauxite and processing it into aluminium. It’s a highly toxic process that has been exported out of their own environments by most western countries. To produce one tonne of aluminium, you need about six tonnes of bauxite, more than a thousand tonnes of water and a massive amount of electricity. For that amount of captive water and electricity, you need big dams, which, as we know, come with their own cycle of cataclysmic destruction. Last of all—the big question—what is the aluminium for? Where is it going? Aluminium is the principal ingredient in the weapons industry—for other countries’ weapons’ industries. Given this, what would a sane, “sustainable” mining policy be? Suppose, for the sake of argument, the CPI (Maoist) were given control of the so-called Red Corridor, the tribal homeland—with its riches of uranium, bauxite, limestone, dolomite, coal, tin, granite, marble—how would it go about the business of policymaking and governance? Would it mine minerals to put on the market in order to create revenue, build infrastructure and expand its operations? Or would it mine only enough to meet people’s basic needs? How would it define “basic needs”? For instance, would nuclear weapons be “a basic need” in a Maoist nation-state?
The day capitalism is forced to tolerate non-capitalist societies in its midst, the day it realises that its supply of raw material is not endless is the day when change will come.
Judging from what is happening in Russia and China and even Vietnam, eventually communist and capitalist societies have one thing in common—the dna of their dreams. After their revolutions, after building socialist societies that millions of workers and peasants paid for with their lives, both countries now have unbridled capitalist economies. For them too, the ability to consume has become the yardstick by which progress is measured. For this kind of “progress” you need industry. To feed the industry you need a steady supply of raw material. For that you need mines, dams, domination, colonies, war. Old powers are waning, new ones rising. Same story, different characters—rich countries plundering poor ones. Yesterday, it was Europe and America, today it’s India and China. Maybe tomorrow it’ll be Africa. Will there be a tomorrow? Perhaps it’s too late to ask, but hope has little to do with reason.
Can we expect that an alternative to what looks like certain death for the planet will come from the imagination that has brought about this crisis in the first place? It seems unlikely. The alternative, if there is one, will emerge from the places and the people who have resisted the hegemonic impulse of capitalism and imperialism instead of being coopted by it.
Here in India, even in the midst of all the violence and greed, there is still immense hope. If anyone can do it, we can do it. We still have a population that has not yet been completely colonised by that consumerist dream. We have a living tradition of those who have struggled for Gandhi’s vision of sustainability and self-reliance, for socialist ideas of egalitarianism and social justice. We have Ambedkar’s vision, which challenges the Gandhians as well as the Socialists in serious ways. We have the most spectacular coalition of resistance movements with experience, understanding and vision.
If there is hope, it lives not in climate change conference rooms. It lives low down on the ground, its arms around the people who battle everyday to protect the forests, mountains, rivers.
Most important of all, India has a surviving adivasi population of almost 100 million. They are the ones who still know the secrets of sustainable living. If they disappear, they will take those secrets with them. Wars like Operation Green Hunt will make them disappear. So victory for the prosecutors of these wars will contain within itself the seeds of destruction, not just for adivasis, but eventually, for the human race. That’s why the war in Central India is so important. That’s why we need a real and urgent conversation between all those political formations that are resisting this war.
The day capitalism is forced to tolerate non-capitalist societies in its midst and to acknowledge limits in its quest for domination, the day it is forced to recognise that its supply of raw material will not be endless is the day when change will come. If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them.
The first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination—an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfilment. To gain this philosophical space, it is necessary to concede some physical space for the survival of those who may look like the keepers of our past, but who may really be the guides to our future. To do this, we have to ask our rulers: Can you leave the water in the rivers? The trees in the forest? Can you leave the bauxite in the mountain?
If they say they cannot, then perhaps they should stop preaching morality to the victims of their wars.