Last week, a bunch of Miaowists met in Berlin. This small group — not to be confused with Maoists or the genuinely confusing group 'Maoist sympathisers' — gathered at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies) to exchange notes on 'Political Crises, State Responses: The 'Maoists' in India'.
The venue of an academic-monastic setting in the Berlin suburbs was perfect for a sober discussion, rather than the liberal vs nationalistic mudslinging that such occasions degenerate into as one approaches the subcontinent.
I'm not going to tell you whether Arundhati Roy or Noam Chomsky were there or not. But I will tell you that there were three people who gave a talk — Benjamin Zachariah of Sheffield University and currently a fellow at the Centre, Oeendrila Lahiri of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and dear old me of 'aitch tee ('Gesundheit!'). There were also four others who listened but also made interjections and asked the questions. These were people who wanted to know rather than to agree or disagree.
The three speakers agreed about two things: that a lack of development and governance in the areas controlled by Maoists has led to the current prickly situation; and that the term 'Maoist' was being bandied about not only by the Indian State in its avatar as a police State but also by 'public opinion' (a shadowy moniker itself) beyond definitional sense. These are, of course, standard textbook stuff.
A person wanted to know how much access the Indian media have while reporting violence committed by Maoists and government forces. The Miaowists agreed that either out of a lack of interest (after all, it's become a post-mortem number check with its accompanying standard imagery) or because of restricted access by the government, the Indian State-Maoists engagement is covered by the media in more 'switch on-switch off' mode rather than with dedicated interest.
Then after the first two speakers, there was a short documentary film: Gopal Menon's When the State Declares War on People. This spoiled the proceedings a bit for me. The film was essentially a roster of interviews with alleged victims of Indian State violence. It was pure agit-prop — not an attempt to understand what was going on but a confirmatory pamphlet. Having sound bites from Arundhati Roy and Mahesh Bhatt didn't help matters. And slow motion images of a security force member gripping a gun and walking to the background tune of heavy metal guitar riffs (he is 'aggressive', you see) was pure, pointless kitsch.
Thankfully, the third speaker followed and many questions were tabled. Some of them: a) Do some Maoist groups work independently of each other? b) What makes the Indian State not a Russian or a Sri Lankan one where it simply pulls out all the stops and with 'public opinion' backing it to the hilt, wages an all-out military war? c) If it's the inability to keep its end of the 'social contract' with its own citizens that has led to the present ongoing conflict, what kind of different developmental approach should the State take?
d) How can the media (and its critics) swivel the spotlight directly on to the dispossessed and powerless caught in the proverbial crossfire, instead of engaging in a battle of victimhood? ('What about the slain district cop who was a poor tribal himself?' vs 'What choice do they have but to support an armed struggle?') e) Is the lumping of the term 'Maoist' on 'sympathisers' and people living in Maoist-controlled areas not something the Maoists themselves encourage? ('The people are like water and the army is like fish' was Mao Zedong's formula for successful guerrilla warfare) f) How much is the conflict a class issue?
I liked the frankness. But for many people — left-wing, right-wing or chicken-wing — for whom this tussle is yet another confirmation of the 'other side' being a pack of running dogs of capitalism, Maoism or ventriloquism, the Miaowists are just another bunch of pussies.