If your father was beheaded, his body abandoned on a deserted highway as a dare to the power of the State, how would you possibly explain it to your children? Frances Induwar’s ten-year-old son alternated between devastated tears and determined courage as he announced that he was going to be a policeman like his dad. He said he wanted to fight the Naxals who killed innocent people. It was an indelible image that should have seared our conscience and, once and for all, ended the debate about whether the worthiness of a cause can justify political violence.
And yet, here we are entangled in that old web of ‘ifs and buts’. Some worthy exceptions apart (people like Medha Patkar condemned the incident unequivocally), you would be surprised at how many activists continue to talk about the “terrorism of the State” each time they are asked about murder as a means of protest. One of them even announced grandly on national television that there had never been a “revolution” without “some violence.” Another launched a polemical assault on the evils of capitalism. It’s frightening to see how many people resist simple condemnation of violence and cling onto the clichéd, wishy-washy narrative of a Robin Hood fairy tale.
Actually, I think the Home Minister — easily the best man for the job we have had in decades — was spot on when he said activists had a moral dilemma. Were they going to continue to rationalise vigilante violence? Or would they encourage Maoists to abandon arms and take up the Centre’s offer for dialogue? After all, even Kashmir’s largest indigenous militant group, the Hizbul Mujahideen called a ceasefire (sadly for all of ten days) before talks first began with the Home Ministry in 2000.
Chidambaram — who is essentially liberal — has resisted easy labeling of Maoists in media clichés, arguing that, “not all Naxals are terrorists.” But no government can afford to just sit back and watch 40,000 square kilometres of India virtually secede from the nation. Today, over 2000 police stations are under Naxal control. You can either pretend the problem doesn’t exist — which is what the previous home minister did. Or you can make an attempt at tackling it head-on. Obviously, the solution cannot be some swoop-down-at-midnight-Nandigram-style operation where innocent tribals get crushed between the State and the Naxals.
But, at least the Naxal issue is now being debated in the mainstream — by the Cabinet, in the media and by development workers. This is a huge change from years of indifference, when the remoteness of the areas under Naxal influence and the lack of urgency by anyone in the administration, just relegated it to India’s heart of darkness, allowing the shadows to grow deeper and longer.
Yes, as Rahul Gandhi argued, the failure of governance may well be at the root of the malaise. It’s difficult to sell the idea of democracy to a people where participation in politics promises no relief from oppression. And yes, as we have seen in conflict zones across the country — Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, — the State can sometimes be a beast. Fake encounters, false allegations and exaggerated nationalism are guaranteed to be counter-productive and alienating.
Earlier, the irony of the government response to the Naxal challenge was that while Shivraj Patil hemmed and hawed and did pretty much nothing, a disastrous entity called the Salwa Judum was allowed to unleash mayhem in Chhattisgarh. Dressed up as people’s resistance to Naxal violence, the Salwa Judum was clearly a private militia backed by the state government.
It’s been beset by controversy including serious allegations of recruiting and arming children. But, unlike the Maoists, at
least the Salwa Judum could be taken to court. And the Supreme Court was clear. In 2008 it told the government, “You cannot give arms to somebody and allow him to kill.” The good news is that the Salwa Judum’s knives have been blunted and it’s been directed to stay out of all operations.
And while this dispensation in the Home Ministry is categorical that arming civilians is no answer, a sharp public condemnation could help in undoing some damage. The government also needs to move carefully in its crackdown on Maoist supporters and sympathisers. The long detention of Binayak Sen was reminiscent of similar mistakes made in the Kashmir valley where the due process of law was often abandoned. The government also needs to pay attention to genuine voices working on the ground. Development workers, like Himanshu Kumar, who have worked for years in Dantewada, have often raised a legitimate question. Why are poor, deprived people choosing a brand of politics that could end their lives?
It’s a question we will have to tackle sooner or later. But in the meantime, we desperately need a less polarised debate.
Heady stories of the 60s brand of rebellion cannot distract us from the brutality of what could become a civil war.
Equally, before urban India opines glibly on places it has never been to, we should reflect on our own lack of empathy with the deprivation of millions. But no matter what, we just cannot justify political violence.
The State’s excesses can be contained by the checks and balances of a judicial system. Our courts may be slow. But they usually end up on the right side of the law. Extra-constitutional violence, whether that of the Naxals or the kind unleashed by groups like the Salwa Judum, can have no place in our democracy.
Frances Induwar’s widow was asked by Rahul Gandhi what she thought was the best way to tackle the Maoists. Even in her moment of loss she found the grace to talk about how the state’s development needed to reach the poorest of the poor. But she also implored her husband’s killers to stop the violence. Will they listen to her?
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal