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Substitute for the state

The Maoists stress that 'development' is expropriation and rather than making poor its beneficiaries, it has made them its victims, writes Prem Shankar Jha.

india Updated: Jul 27, 2007 00:24 IST

The economy continues to grow at more than 9 per cent. Corporate profits are breaking records. The foreign exchange reserves have touched $ 216 billion. The share market is booming as never before. The one small cloud on the horizon, a sharp decline in consumer demand, may soon dissipate for the Finance Minister has hinted that interest rates may soon come down? All this is happening just when the international media have noticed the gathering discontent in China and are asking, for perhaps the first time, whether India may not indeed be the better bet in the long run.

Indians are, therefore, basking in the glory of recognition. Didn’t Goldman Sachs predict something like this in its BRICS report of 2004? Success is also making us belligerent: Witness India Inc.’s angry response to the Prime Minister’s criticism of the inordinate increases in salaries that it has awarded to itself.

This self-congratulation is premature. The Indian economy has overcome many structural hurdles to growth and efficiency in the past decade and has every reason to be proud of its achievements. Nor is there any need to deny the catalytic role that a younger generation of Indian entrepreneurs has played in the transformation. But anyone who believes that the future is assured is living in a fools’ paradise. What he or she takes to be a tranquil sea is but an oasis of calm sheltered by a small lee shore. There is a storm building up in the country which is particularly dangerous, because it has not one but two epicentres. The cross winds that these are capable of generating could sink the Indian state.

The first is the developing Maoist threat in central India. The second is the slow, but unstoppable, spread of the battle between Empire and Nation that is tearing West Asia apart, across the Himalayan wall into the Indian sub-continent. The cocoon of peace in which we live is, therefore, becoming ever more fragile.

This article is devoted to the first problem — the developing rebellion in the countryside. How little the government and the media understand the seriousness of the Maoist threat is reflected in their continuing use of the terms ‘Naxalites’ and Maoists as homonyms. This is not accidental. Naxalism has been around for a long time, and has not so far posed a serious impediment to development. We should not, therefore, lose too much sleep over their reincarnation as Maoists.

This is pure self-delusion. There is little resemblance between the Naxalism of the 1960s and 1970s and the Maoism of today. The Naxalite movement began in West Bengal in the late 1960s, was infiltrated by the Bengal police, turned upon itself, and was ruthlessly crushed. Its leaders took refuge in the jungles of adjoining states in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and along the Kerala-Karnataka border. For the next three decades it was a fringe movement in about a quarter of the country’s districts, but making little dent on the lives of people outside its immediate pockets of influence.

All this changed in October 2004 when 22 Naxalite groups came together to form the CP(Maoist). This time, behind the tired exhortations to wage ‘class struggle’ and ‘revolution’ they had a definite agenda. It was to stop the alienation of land from the tribals, the harijans and the marginal farmers — the poorest of the poor — in the name of development. The Maoists made it clear that what the government, the media and the intelligentsia called ‘development’ was expropriation. Instead of making the poor its beneficiaries , it made them its victims.

For the first time after decades the Maoists have begun to draw mass support from the jungle-dwellers, and the rural landless poor. Urban India first became aware of the qualitative change in the challenge it faced when, in 2005, a thousand Maoists invaded Jehanabad in Bihar, drove away the police, opened the jails to set their comrades free, and carried away the arms in the Kotwali. For more than half a day the writ of the Indian State ceased to run in Jehanabad. Since then groups of armed Maoists have fought pitched battles with large contingents of the police in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Orissa.

The government has responded by calling a succession of meetings with state home ministers to work out a strategy to contain the Maoist challenge. All of them have ended with demands by the state governments for police reinforcements, and better arms and communications. But police repression can easily backfire. Recently, supposed informers offered to lead a police party to a large Naxalite encampment, but led it into an ambush instead in which 25 policemen lost their lives. The arms that the Maoists seized show, beyond serious doubt that behind the façade of ‘police action’ the state government has declared virtual war upon the Maoists. For the police is using front-line weapons — AK 47s, and the new ultra-light and accurate INSAS infantry rifles. The encounter also shows that for now at least, it is the Maoist who are winning.

How has revolutionary violence regained its attraction for the poor? If the press releases are a reliable yardstick, then in not one of the meetings devoted to the ‘Naxalite problem’ did the central and state governments make an effort to probe its causes. And yet the answer is staring us in the face.

Development requires land, and whenever land is acquired, even if it is ‘forest’ or ‘revenue’ land ‘owned’ by the government, someone loses his or her traditional rights of usage. The rapid acceleration of development in the past 15 years has increased the pace at which these rights are being taken away. Worse still, as the post-liberalisation ‘development fever’ has spread to the state governments, they have become increasingly insensitive to the plight of the losers from economic development. To cite just one example, when tribals asked the Orissa government in 2005 for the return of land acquired to build the Rourkela steel plant but allowed to lie barren for decades, they were met with bullets. On other occasions they were simply arrested and carted off to jail.

The Maoists are gaining a following because the poor are becoming convinced that they can obtain no redress from the democratic system. After 11 general elections and an equal number of state elections they know that their elected representatives have only to reach the state capital to put up their ‘for sale’ signs.

It is a telltale indicator of where the pulse of the new India beats that the alienation of land only came to its attention when Tata Motors faced resistance in Singur. The police firings and needless deaths that resulted forced the Centre to take the state completely out of the business of acquiring land for Special Economic Zones. But it did even this grudgingly, for in the guidelines it carefully avoided reference to the land that it intended to acquire for 342 hydel projects. For the acquisitions, which will require twenty times as much land as the SEZs, the State will continue to exercise the right that a British government gave to itself in 1894, of taking over the natives’ land whenever it wanted, provided it was for a ‘public purpose’.

The victimisation of the poor will therefore continue. And the ranks of the Maoists will continue to swell.