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India’s missing links

Naxalism is entering a new phase, fed as it is by the oxygen of the states' failure in its duties towards its own people, writes Sudeep Chakravarti.

india Updated: Jun 22, 2008 20:35 IST

Recent attacks on police posts, announcement of de facto ministries by the Communist Party of India (Maoist), a raid on Essar’s factory in Chhattisgarh to protest the state’s signing several billion dollars worth of memoranda with corporations for mining and power — all these have raised a flutter of questions. The key one: are Maoists in a last-gap phase or are they ever more powerful?

"It’s do or die," a Maoist sympathiser told me last week, during a conversation in which he spoke passionately of ‘social reconstruction’. Rebuild. Whatever the polemic, the statement is based on the abysmal state of play in India beyond the space taken for granted by middle India and its ruling classes, and India’s propensity to create great anger and resentment.

Maoists are not only in the forests of India. They are spreading influence in non-forested areas of Vidarbha and Marathwada in Maharashtra, industrial hotspots in Orissa, the villages of West Bengal, plantation areas of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and even in Punjab and Haryana. Maoists are today allied with civil society groups, from those protesting displacement on account of large projects to those protesting ill treatment on account of caste. Besides several thousand armed cadre, Maoist sympathisers number several tens of thousands.

A former Karnataka Home Minister estimated at least 5,000 families in Bangalore to be sympathetic to the Maoist cause.

India is witnessing what could be termed Naxalism Mark IV. This comes after Mark I in the late 60s and early 70s across West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Orissa; a stubborn Mark II in the 80s; a prescient Mark III in the 90s with the spread into the Dandakaranya region in central India and the seed of a guerrilla force; and the largely consolidated, organised conglomerate of the CPI(Maoist) of today. There will likely be a Mark V even if the Indian State steamrolls the Maoists. Putting down is not the same as staying down.

We need to consider why a person would place his life on the line against the undeniable might of India’s State apparatus. Maoism is not our greatest internal security threat. Poverty, non-governance and corruption continue to be. Maoist rebels merely mirror India’s own failings as a nation. Their presence suggests abdication by the State in an area that equals a third of India.

The Maoist movement comprises people treated poorly, denied livelihood and justice, and other ideals enshrined in the Constitution. Their leaders see in India’s present realities a certain futility of purpose, what provides their belief in violent change to begin anew. Moreover, this past decade, growing socio-economic disparity and a deepening sense of that killer reason — absence of hope — is driving people in vast pockets of rural India, what I call ‘Out Land’, closer to the edge. ‘Out Land’ is out there, out of sight and out of mind. Some call the process ‘privileging violence’: unless people take up arms, they are not listened to.

Agriculture may account for only a fifth of India’s economy, but over two-thirds depend on agriculture to make a living.

Here, indebtedness arising from increased input costs and social evils such as dowry, crushing interest rates charged by private moneylenders, and unsold produce on account of depressed prices are key reasons for suicides.

To put things in perspective, the average number of farmer suicides in a year in the past decade has exceeded by nearly five times the number of those that annually gain admission to IITs. Seen another way, it is quite lunatic to believe half a million BPO employees will transform 600 million rural folk.

A chief of the Indian Army as well as a Minister of Defence have stated publicly that they would not directly battle Maoist rebels. Evidently, the army is willing to engage external enemies of India, those that wish to break from the Union of India, the idea of India — but not citizens whose rise and spread is entirely on account of the continual abasement of fundamental rights.

And what after attaining the goal of revolution? As we have seen in Nepal, Maoists there will perhaps find it easier to rebel than to rule, as they deal not only with the absence of war, but the pinch of peace. Controlling half of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly is not the same as a landslide mandate. There is the spectre of being held accountable for any failure in development.

The relative primacy of Maoists in Nepal does not mean India’s Maoists will soon attain it. That country was at a dead-end, politically and economically, allowing leftwing extremism to leapfrog ahead. In India, there is some forward movement, in certain pockets even astounding movement. India’s Maoists acknowledge their task is made more difficult precisely on account of India’s growth. But the Maoist leadership and cadre tellingly see no reason to give up their chosen path.

To combat them, the State provides two questionable examples. One is of the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, which pits tribal against vigilante tribal, a cynical strategy to divert attention from failures of governance and socio-economic development. The other example is that of Andhra Pradesh, where the Maoists are on the defensive, on account of a largely successful, ruthless policing strategy. But the vacuum of enforced peace is not filled with development beyond the half-baked urban bling of Greater Hyderabad, leaving vast territory vulnerable to recurring anger.

India continues to be at war with itself.

(Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country)