June 19, 2021
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Heading For A Bloodbath

Both sides -- the Maoists and the State -- are waging a dirty war. Between 'the violence of the oppressed' and an often brutal state, a powerful intervention spelling out a practical basis for a durable ceasefire remains elusive.

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Heading For A Bloodbath

To people desperately trying to avert a bloodbath in the forest belt, the recent PUDR statement on the massacre of 76 CRPF jawans in Dantewada caused considerable consternation, and Sumanta Banerjee’s response to it even more so. According to the PUDR statement,

‘As a civil rights organization we neither condemn the killing of security force combatants nor that of the Maoists combatants, or for that matter any other combatants, when it occurs’.

Sumanta Banerjee objected to the equating of Maoist violence and state violence, saying that

‘these soldiers, by being cannon-fodders of the Indian state, however tragic it might be, suffered the fate that – I’m sorry to say – they deserved…To come back to the latest incident of the Maoist attack on the CRPF camp in Chhattisgarh…. if we accept it as a part of a civil war, such killings are inevitable (just as the CRPF killings of Maoists) in a violent system that has been institutionalized by the Indian state. The difference between the CRPF violence (involving ‘false encounters’, raping of tribal women, burning their homes, etc.) on the one hand, and the Maoist violence on the other (which means attacks on oppressive landlords and the police and para-military forces like the CRPF which come to the aid of the landlords) - has to be distinguished by civil society groups’

Both the statement and the response assume that a civil war is already in progress, and therefore the killing of combatants is not illegal. But given the Centre’s decision not to send in the Army and Air Force, thereby implicitly recognising the conflict as a law and order problem rather than a civil war, is this assumption correct? Shouldn’t democratic rights activists examine the impact of escalating the conflict on the local civilian population? After the attack, villages close to it emptied, as their inhabitants fled fearing reprisals. This could have been foreseen. Is provoking such ‘collateral damage’ justifiable? Moreover, the deaths of rank-and-file combatants, all of whom come from the poorer strata of society, are surely also of some concern to civil society groups? 

In its other statements, PUDR accepts that even in a civil war the combatants have to abide by the laws of war. Therefore it condemned the beheading of Francis Induwar and the massacre of civilians by Maoists in Jamui in February. By contrast, Banerjee assumes that all Maoist violence is justifiable as the violence of the oppressed. Yet it is not clear that state and Maoist violence are so different, apart from the larger scale of the former. There are, of course, many examples of state security forces carrying out encounter killings for every case like that of Induwar, and massacres of civilians by security forces (as in Gompad) are also routine. Even if it is true that a full-fledged war is going on, these are war crimes. So is the recruitment of children, which both sides are doing in Bastar. Transfer of population from their villages to camps (which state forces have carried out in parts of Chhattisgarh) is a war crime or crime against humanity, as is rape, which has been used widely by the security forces in many states. Both sides are waging a dirty war, if war is what it is. 

Who started it? According to the Maoists and their supporters, their violence is merely a response to state violence; according to Home Minister P.Chidambaram, it was the Maoists who first declared war on the state. But here, too, the situation is not as clearcut as either side would like to present it. Spokesmen of the Maoist leadership (and they are always men) use some degree of subterfuge in presenting their case. For example, in the recent interview given by Azad to The Hindu, he claimed that Lalgarh’s peaceful mass movement against police atrocities turned into a revolutionary armed struggle due to brutal suppression by the state. But this is a travesty of the truth. In fact, the non-violent uprising organised by the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities, a mass organisation including Maoists but not confined to them, was undermined when the Maoists started beating and killing tribals who failed to comply with their orders, and it was only when they sidelined the PCPA and announced that they had taken over the area that the state government, which had been kept at bay for seven months, moved in. Furthermore, in the very same interview Azad said that ‘we want to achieve whatever is possible for the betterment of people’s lives without compromising on our political programme of new democratic revolution and strategy of protracted people’s war’. This merely confirms, as other Maoists have affirmed, that protracted people’s war to capture state power and carry out a new democratic revolution has been the strategy from the beginning, when the Naxalites began their struggles. So it appears that they were the first to declare war. 

Yet this view is also too simple, because it conflates the leadership of the party and its tribal cadre. For the leaders, it is true, protracted war was the strategy all along, it was not a matter of self-defence. But for the bulk of the tribal cadre that joined it, taking up guns was a response to experiences of horrific state violence, and motivated by self-defence and/or revenge. There is a short-term overlap between their aim of fighting against state oppression and the leadership’s aim of overthrowing the state, but the longer-term goals diverge sharply. This comes out clearly in Santosh Rana’s account as well as the Tehelka interview with Gurucharan Kisku, alias Marshall, a former tribal Maoist area commander. Kisku described how

‘Instead of the existing gram samitis (village councils), the party started creating alternative committees within the village consisting of people who were either close to or members of the party. The party’s declared objective was that all activity — social, cultural and economic — would be controlled by these committees. However, the leadership is non-tribal, and does not understand what it means to be Adivasi. The Adivasi identity is based on our village life, language and customs. I felt that this way, our culture was being destroyed.’

He felt the whole strategy was wrong from the standpoint of Adivasis, but could not make his view prevail; indeed, ‘Whenever a tribal raises his voice against the Maoists, he is killed,’ he complained. It is very likely that the vast majority of tribal cadre, like Kisku, have no interest in capturing state power to carry out a new democratic revolution. From their point of view, it was the state that first declared war on them and pushed them into the ranks of the Maoists.  

The accounts by Rana and Kisku are valuable because they come from the perspective of insiders. They make it clear that there is no semblance of democracy in the areas controlled by the CPI (Maoist). All mass organisations are dominated by the party, with independent organisations and committees either being taken over or shut down. All dissent is crushed, if necessary by killing the dissenter. There is no freedom of association or expression, no room for alternative viewpoints or democratic debate, no means by which the leaders can be changed or replaced. This is the authoritarian vision that the party seeks to impose on its base areas in the tribal belt in the first instance, and then extend to the whole of India; the disconnect between precept and practice is even greater than that between the Indian Constitution and its persistent violation by the state. It is hard to see why anyone would choose this over India’s deeply flawed but vibrant democracy, with its multiple parties and innumerable non-party organisations, and differences of opinion at all levels (including within the cabinet) being aired in public. 

In terms of the party’s economic policy, this has been described in many pronouncements, including that of General Secretary Ganapathy in a recent interview . The party is committed to bringing about a New Democratic Revolution by a four-class bloc – workers, peasants, urban petty-bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie – against comprador bureaucratic capitalism, feudalism and imperialism. These formulations are lifted from Mao’s essay ‘On New Democracy’, which was written in 1940, at a time when a large part of China was occupied by Japan and the Western powers were jockeying for spheres of influence (hence ‘semi-colonial’), capitalist industry was in its infancy and the working class minuscule, and pre-capitalist relations dominated the countryside (hence ‘semi-feudal’). It was basically a prescription for a bourgeois revolution to be carried out by the four-class bloc under the leadership of the Communist Party. Agrarian revolution was aimed at breaking the power of feudal landlords and creating conditions for the development of a rich peasantry, and all this was expected to result in a mixed economy. Mao made it clear this was not a proletarian-socialist revolution. The Chinese Revolution was that country’s equivalent of Indian independence, carried out under different circumstances and by different means. Today, the bourgeois revolutions in both China and India have been carried out, people in both countries are struggling for democratic rights, and India is arguably ahead, in that democracy is formally accepted as the principle of governance even if it is repeatedly violated. For China in the 1940s New Democracy was a revolutionary programme, but for India in 2010 it is reactionary: for example, the ‘national bourgeoisie’ with which the CPI (Maoist) is allied includes the most viciously exploitative, oppressive and environmentally destructive capitalists to be found anywhere in the world

This doctrine of New Democracy has few takers, certainly not enough to wage a protracted armed struggle. But the state governments in this region and their police, along with the central government and its paramilitaries, are guilty of acting as recruiting agents for the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army by their criminal neglect of the Adivasis in the forest belt resulting in appalling levels of poverty, malnutrition, sickness and premature death, by displacing and dispossessing these communities of even the meagre resources left to them, by responding to non-violent resistance with torture, rape and murder, and by branding non-violent tribal rights activists as ‘Maoists’ and jailing or killing them. (Binayak Sen is the most famous, but there are thousands of others, including some outside the forest belt in states like Gujarat and Goa.) It is true that the central government has passed progressive legislation – like the Forest Rights Act, NREGA and the Right to Information Act – but there has not been anything like sufficient effort to strengthen these laws and plug loopholes through which corruption can enter, nor to ensure their implementation.  

Although the bulk of resistance remains non-violent, it is not surprising that a small minority of tribals have joined the Maoist armed struggle in the belief that it will get them justice. But in doing so, they betray their own cause. Unarmed civilians have no way of enforcing democratic control over armed forces who claim to act in their interest, and all such armed forces therefore become oppressors. Did the CPI (Maoist) consult villagers in the vicinity before launching its attack on the CRPF in Dantewada? If the majority of villagers had objected, would it have desisted? If the majority had remained silent out of fear and only one or two had objected, what would have happened to them? Why does it sound absurd even to ask these questions? The unarmed communities in the forest belt of central India are trapped in the crossfire of a ‘class war’ over which they have no control. And these communities suffer most from every escalation of the violence. 

Unless there is a powerful intervention that spells out a practical basis for a durable ceasefire, we are almost certainly heading for a bloodbath. The most urgent requirement is that both government and the Maoists should declare a ceasefire which is unconditional on both sides, and then engage in negotiations aimed at arriving at a more permanent compromise. Demands like ‘Abjure violence’ or ‘Withdraw security forces from Maoist base areas’ should be subjects of the negotiations, not preconditions for them. Just as urgently, and regardless of whether or not there are talks between Maoists and the government, the Centre should hold talks with all the numerous independent mass organisations in the region. Their demands – ranging from ration cards, health care, education, electricity and employment under NREGA to halting displacement and dispossession,  implementing Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 ( PESA) and the Forest Rights Act, disclosing the terms of the MoUs between state governments and various companies, and putting them on hold unless and until they obtain the consent of the local population – should be taken seriously, and immediate steps taken to implement them. There is no excuse for failing to do this, since these demands are all compatible with the legal and constitutional rights of adivasi communities.  

Rohini Hensman is a writer and researcher active in workers' rights, women's rights, anti-communal and anti-war movements


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