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We have reached the turning point

Sadly, I do not see an alternative. There may be ways of reaching out to the tribals, bypassing the Naxalites. But all that will have to wait. First, the State must reassert the rule of law. Then, it will finish off the Maoists. And only then, will we tackle the serious issue of social justice, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Apr 26, 2010 18:36 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

If there is one thing we are all agreed on, it is this: last week’s ambush of a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) party by the Maoists which left around 76 soldiers dead must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. No matter which side of the political divide you are on — right-wing hardliner or radical jholawallah — the violence is indefensible.

But I wonder if we fully recognise the consequences that will inevitably flow from the ambush. Whatever happens next will not be very pleasant.

In every complicated political situation, there is usually a turning point, a stage when people say ‘enough is enough’. I suspect we have now reached that point. Till now, many educated Indians have been ambivalent about the government’s offensive against the Maoists for a variety of reasons. Many believe that there must be a better way of handling the revolt.

Now, even those who have been reluctant to whole-heartedly endorse the military offensive will concede that there is no alternative.

Of course, it is a tragic and terrible thing for a government to use force against its own people. But there comes a time when a government has to assert itself. Otherwise, its authority simply fades away.

Public pressure can force a State to be more reasonable or flexible. But we cannot expect it to voluntarily abdicate its authority. If the violence reaches an unacceptable level, if the State’s own forces are being massacred with impunity, then the government has no choice: it has to assert its authority with all the might at its command.

Because we depend on the State’s authority for the maintenance of law and order and our own security, we react badly when this authority is flouted. Our insecurity leads to rage and anger.

That accounts for the intolerance we have witnessed over the last few days. This explains why people like Ravi Shankar Prasad (speaking presumably in his capacity as BJP’s chief spokesman) demand action against anyone who sympathises with the Maoist cause. Prasad is not alone. The public anger is now palpable.

Ironically, Maoist sympathisers have lost out because of the actions of the Maoists themselves. Activists frequently make the point that the issue is one of mining rights. In their view, adivasis are being chased away from their homes only so that corporate fat-cats can get at the minerals beneath the soil.

This may or may not be a valid point of view but nobody is listening any longer. By murdering soldiers in cold blood, the Maoists have settled the argument. India is now ranged on the other side and in this battle between us (the State and its citizens) and them (the Maoists) the complexities of the larger problem have been forgotten.

Though terrorism and insurgencies often inflict serious damage on the State and its agencies in the early years of the conflict, history has taught us that in the long-run, the Indian State always wins. No matter whether it is Nagaland, Naxalbari or anywhere else, it is impossible for revolutionaries/ insurgents/terrorists (pick the one you like) to match the immense resources of the State.

Until the battle is resolved, however, the ones who suffer the most are the very people the revolution/insurgency is supposed to benefit. Because the State knows no other way of fighting insurgencies, security forces routinely raid villages, arrest innocent men, kill bystanders and unleash a reign of terror.

Initially, the insurgents argue that all this will work in their favour: “The army is ensuring that the ordinary people turn against it.” But in the long-run — whether in Punjab or in Mizoram — ordinary people tire of being trapped in an endless conflict and public sentiment inevitably turns against the militants.

The State knows this. And it is prepared to wait.

In recent years, Indian policy makers have been strengthened in their resolve to fight violent revolutionaries by the example of Nepal. When the Maoists started mobilising in the Nepali hinterland, the regular police fled and closed down their police stations.

The Indian government tried to persuade the Nepali authorities to use the army to crush the Maoists. The Nepalis were reluctant. So, India helped Nepal raise a paramilitary force called the Armed Police. When this force proved inadequate, India urged Nepal to reconsider using the army before it was too late.

The Nepalis lacked the political will to reach a decision and eventually the Maoists came to virtually dominate that country.

India is not Nepal. But we have learnt the lesson of that experience. Our policy makers will not make the same mistakes. Our Maoists will be crushed no matter how long it takes the Indian State to do this.

But there are deeper questions surrounding the Maoist revolt that need to be answered. It is fashionable now to say that the adivasis have gained nothing since Independence. And to some extent, the figures speak for themselves.

The scheduled tribes number 85 million people in India (though that figure includes those in the North-east, where the situation is entirely different). Some estimates suggest that adivasi lands constitute up to 20 per cent of India’s entire territory. But something like 2/3rds or more of all adivasis are still illiterate.

Hence, say some activists, the poor adivasis have no choice but to turn to the Maoists because the Indian State has failed them.

Actually, it is not that simple. Take the case of the Harijans (Dalits, if you like), who have been at the bottom of the social pyramid for centuries. Post-Independence, we offered Harijans and adivasis the same sorts of things: affirmative action, seats reserved in Parliament, etc. Because they were concentrated in certain areas, adivasis could swing elections in a way that Harijans could hardly ever do. Two new states — Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh — are adivasi-dominated.

So why is it that the Harijans have accessed the political system, have thrown up the likes of Mayawati and have successfully demanded the attention of the Indian State while the adivasis are still seen as helpless victims?

Put it another way: why is the same system that empowers Harijans regarded as so useless by so many activists that they claim that the adivasis have no choice but to support those who commit murder in their names?

It is an important question and I have still to hear a convincing answer.

So, as I said at the beginning, the future is not bright. The State will retaliate and it will do so with the full support of the Indian people. There will be massive collateral damage and blood will be shed. Innocents will die and the conflict will escalate.

Sadly, I do not see an alternative. There may be ways of reaching out to the tribals, bypassing the Naxalites. But all that will have to wait. First, the State must reassert the rule of law. Then, it will finish off the Maoists. And only then, will we tackle the serious issue of social justice. As regrettable as this is, the Maoists have left us with no choice.

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Apr 10, 2010 23:23 IST