The audacious ambush and bloody massacre of more than two dozen political leaders and their security guards in Darbha valley of Sukma district in south Chhattisgarh, raises again profoundly important questions about the legitimacy of violence as an instrument to battle injustice and oppression. Resistance to injustice is widely endorsed as the highest human duty in most cultures, but the debate is about the legitimacy of deploying violence in resisting and combating injustice.
I am convinced about the impossibility of altruistic violence. I strongly and consistently disagree with those, among them many liberal friends, who romanticise or rationalise resort to arms as justified to combat the structural violence of poverty, exploitation and State violence. Violence, even when deployed in the name of the oppressed, ultimately brutalises all, and the oppressed suffer the most. The only legitimate instruments to fight injustice, in my opinion, are non-violence and democracy.
There is no doubt that tribal residents of forested tracts of central India, which are currently in the throes of Maoist insurgency, are among the most impoverished people in the country. The India Human Development Report 2011 found the Scheduled Tribes the poorest social category, with their incidence of poverty at least three times more than other groups. Even more alarming is that this is the only major social group in which ‘poverty has hardly declined at all’.
I have served in some of these regions, and encountered these proud but despairing people, savagely dispossessed of their lands, forest and habitats, living with hunger and bondage. Their expropriation was partly by non-tribal landlords and moneylenders on whom they depended for loans to survive in lean months. But they were further pauperised by State policy. The colonial State introduced alien laws — which remained fundamentally unaltered in independent India — regulating land titles in ways that did not recognise traditional land ownership patterns and shifting cultivation. The ownership of forest produce shifted from forest dwellers to the State. Tribal people were further rapidly dispossessed by large dams and mining projects, initially in the public and increasingly in the private for-profit sector.
But do even these monstrous levels of expropriation and oppression justify the resort to weapons by armed guerrilla militia who fight in their name? I believe not. I am convinced that the killing of people, even in the name of justice for the oppressed, in the end will dehumanise all who engage in the bloodletting, and indeed those who condone it. It is impossible to build a just and humane society by means which are unjust and inhuman.
If we believe that oppression justifies violence by the victims and those who fight in their name, then logically we must also justify all those who resort to terrorist violence in the name of religion or ethnicity on exactly the same ethical grounds. Many Sikh terrorists in the second half of the 1980s traced their radicalisation to the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage. Tamil terrorists in Sri Lanka and Islamist terrorists also trace their motivation to similar real stories of unbearable cruelty and oppression. If we oppose terrorist violence because it targets civilians, fosters mindless cruelty and obstructs democratic institutions, exactly the same grounds require us to oppose Maoist violence as well.
The strategies deployed by Maoists include individual annihilation, summary executions, and terrorist violence such as the explosion of landmines resulting in large numbers of deaths. Many liberal thinkers sympathetic to Maoist violence are simultaneously opposed to the death penalty. We oppose the right of the State to take away human life — by imposing capital punishment after due process and consideration of evidence — on the grounds of human fallibility, the possibility of even the worst offenders redeeming themselves, and the sacredness of human life. How can we then support targeted killings decided by a small band of Maoist leaders or a people’s court for offences such as being a police informer or an exploiter? Even less can we support random civilian killings.
Reputed humanist SR Sankaran led a major civic effort to engage both the State and Maoists in a discussion around violence. He condemned Maoist violence for its focus more on ‘military actions rather than on the mobilisation of people for social transformation’. The arbitrary and violent actions of Naxalite parties contribute to ‘further brutalise the society and lead to the shrinkage of democratic space for mobilisation and direct participation of the people, impairing the very process of transformation that the movements claim to stand for’.
The recent killing of political leaders campaigning for the forthcoming elections, eliminating almost the entire senior leadership of one political party, was ultimately an assault on electoral democracy. With all its limitations, democracy alone carries within itself the seeds of a peaceful and enduring social and political transformation. Social movements for the poor must strive to deepen democracy, remedy its flaws, extend its frontiers, rather than collaborate in its demolition.
The State, for its part, must respond to violence and armed insurrection in ways that are lawful, restrained, and humane. The civilian population in these forested regions are living with intense hunger and fear — without schools, health centres, employment programmes, subsidised food and social security. Most are trapped between the competitive violence of security forces, Maoists and armed renegades. An escalated militarist response is precisely what the militants seek, as it will further destroy the frayed and debilitated morale and survival base of civilian tribal people. Encounter killings, jailing of innocent civilians under anti-terror laws and military adventures against one’s own people will only alienate them irrevocably.
The blood spilt in Darbha valley should serve as a sober reminder of the wages of runaway competitive violence: the violence of poverty, of armed militants and civilian militia, and of the security forces. In this battle, for India’s most impoverished people, the greatest casualty is hope.
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal