Digvijay Singh, in his now famous oped in The Economic Times, did all of us an enormous favour by posing the right question: if the Naxalites are really as deserving of opprobrium (and bullets) as many of our leaders seem to believe, why are local tribal young men lining up behind them? Singh is also probably right in describing a lot of the Naxalite leaders as political entrepreneurs who are harvesting the anger of the local population to build profitable careers in rent extraction (my words, not his). But why is there so much anger?
Singh emphasises the need for a political solution to the Naxalite problem. If that means transferring political power to a local leadership — thereby making the insurgency their problem rather than ours — we have been there before. This is what we tried both in the final rounds of divisions of states as well as when states in the North-east got created. Without suggesting that the alternative would have been better, it is hard to claim that these were spectacular successes. All you have to do is think of Jharkhand.
Indeed, the history of decolonisation is full of instances in which the colonising power threw a national envelope around a set of populations united by not much of than a memory of being oppressed (which they certainly were); or worse, a population divided by a history of mutual antagonism that the colonial power might have initially instigated, with disastrous consequences.
Being founded in resentment, these states proved a fertile ground for the rise of a political class that quickly discovered that stoking the anger against the erstwhile oppressors and their alleged allies was a very effective way to conceal their incompetence and/or cupidity. And as the economies started failing under the pressure of too much greed — and too little deed — while frustrations rose, other identities, other dimensions of resentment, were called forth by canny politicians and the whole story ended all too often, usually with a little help from some friendly foreign country, in civil strife. This is the history, give or take a detail, of a big chunk of sub-Saharan Africa. Think Uganda, Nigeria, Rwanda, from the 60s to the 90s.
I don’t say this to imply that decolonisation was a bad idea. I say this to recognise the genius of our founding fathers, who knew that to be a nation we need more than resentment. We need an idea, and an ideal, and Jawaharlal Nehru, in Discovery of India, explicitly sets out to give us one. My strong hunch is that the fact that India has mostly escaped the kind of implosions that much of the rest of the decolonised world has had to deal with — despite a history of relentless brutality towards our lower castes and tribals, and a gaggle of corrupt leaders who are happy to invoke that history to justify their venality —has something to do with the power of the idea of
India has over all of us on so many of us, rich, poor, young and old.
India, of course, means very different things to each one of us: Gandhi, Nehru, elections, a chance to get into an IIT, the possibility of a job carrying bricks in Delhi, Shah Rukh Khan, Sachin Tendulkar. But it is something that invites us to focus beyond our immediate setting, with its disheartening realities. This is what has not worked in the Kashmir Valley, with tragic consequences, and to a lesser extent in the North-east.
If this is right, then we should worry that trying to turn the Naxalite problem into a set of local problems — the so-called ‘political solution’ — may not entirely be the right idea for the long run. It is the equivalent of what the colonisers tried, and it probably will not work for the same reason: because it leaves in place the idea of the rest of India as the source of oppression, from which some partial liberation was achieved.
The new leadership, especially if Digvijay Singh is right in thinking of it as comprising clever political operators, clearly has every reason to emphasise the history of oppression and resistance that brought them to power. And to the extent that the history provides them with a cover, it is not clear that they would be particularly interested in making the State function better. This, for example, is still how a lot of Jharkhand politics functions: Shibu Soren survives despite his many transgressions because he remains ‘the liberator’.
To really ‘solve’ the Naxalite problem we need to reclaim the idea of India for these unwilling people. For that, India has to be a promise — not as a source of war planes coming to intimidate, but as a not-so-distant place that is not indifferent to their fate.
The alienation among the tribal youth that underpins Naxalism today has a lot to do with the gap between the claimed policies of the State and the ground reality. The way to reverse that is to get the State to start delivering in these areas, working with the local leadership wherever possible, but not hesitating to fight it when it is not. And above all, never relenting to stake a claim for that greater ideal that can be India.
Abhijit Banerjee is Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics and Director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, MIT
The views expressed by the author are personal