[First published in The Hindu dated 11/11/17]
Fifty years after India’s first Naxalite uprising, the Maoist movement today has nearly disintegrated, with several movement leaders now dead, arrested or having surrendered. Ajay Gudavarthy’s edited collection of essays raises the vital question at this juncture: Is violence necessary for revolutionary change in a democracy? While not being completely dismissive of the ideology or the exigencies driving the movement on the ground, the book presents perspectives both from within and outside the Maoist movement illuminating its raison d’être as also limitations.
An Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Gudavarthy sets the tone for the book in the introductory essay outlining arguments in favour of, as also critical of Maoist violence. While acknowledging that violence is seen as a less viable strategy in allowing for contesting ideas in a democracy, he argues that Maoists are in armed conflict with the Indian state because while democracy initiates a complex process of inclusion and exclusion, there continues to be a minority that is necessarily structurally produced, which the promise of democracy fails to lure. For Maoists, revolutionary violence is a necessary mode of political mobilisation to counter the structural violence of the current political system.
While democratic sensibilities urge us to disapprove of such violence, Gudavarthy reminds us of the other forms of violence endemic to Indian democracy such as caste and religion-based violence. Raising this in the context of the 2002 Gujarat riots, the author argues that citizens in Gujarat elected the same government that oversaw the riots thrice. Yet, why is Maoist violence represented as more endemic while other forms of violence are seen as episodic, he asks? Various essays in this volume revisit this logic of revolutionary violence.
Means and ends
Is the use of political violence helping the Maoists achieve their goals? That non-violent means of negotiation such as kidnapping have failed the Maoists in securing what they want from the state has been highlighted by human rights activist G. Haragopal in his essay. He discusses how kidnapping state officials might have helped the Maoists to negotiate on behalf of the tribal poor with the government and demand the release of their comrade,s but the government cleverly avoided making any firm commitments to the abductors upon the release of the hostages.
Helping political leaders to capture power has also failed as a strategy for Maoists to achieve their goals. Sumanta Banerjee cites the example of Lalgarh to demonstrate how after the failed effort at assassinating CPI (M) Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya for his anti-Maoist stance in 2008, the Maoist leader Kishenji aligned with the Trinamool Congress and helped propel Mamata Banerjee to power in the hope that she would release their cadres who were in jail. But Kishenji was killed in an encounter after the TMC came to power.
Violence, thus, remains on the Maoist agenda, because with the state failing to live up to its commitments, the capture of state power became their ultimate goal. But, as Gudavarthy acknowledges, Maoist violence has claimed civilian life too, thus showing how it is inclined to the same arbitrariness of the state when deploying violence. In some cases, they have descended into meaningless bloodshed. Gudavarthy refers to how Naeem, a surrendered Maoist in Andhra Pradesh, turned into a serial killer.
Anand Teltumbde raises the vital question whether the Maoists in India have used armed struggle without ensuring if the social condition of the masses were ready for such a revolutionary struggle in the first place. That Marxism cannot provide a blueprint for revolution in Indian society seems to have been forgotten by those waging the war in India, he notes.
Chitralekha, Lipika Kamra and Uday Chandra provide an ethnographic peep into the movement revealing how ideology alone isn’t attracting cadres to the movement. Chitralekha notes that Maoist groups offer “sites for construction of individual identities” to tribal youth. She also shows how the collapse of the local economy drove rich Rajput family members to join Maoist groups in Hazaribagh, Bihar.
However, disillusionment with the ideological failure to erect a socialist and egalitarian social order and the descent of the leaderless troops into mindless violence has resulted in the committed leaders either surrendering to the police or taking to anti-social activities such as extortions.
Alternative model of development?
Given the limitations of what political violence has achieved, can Maoists’ claim of providing an alternative model of development, help legitimise their politics? Communist writer Varavara Rao describes the functioning of the Janatana Sarkar in Bhadrachalam and other Naxal-controlled regions in his essay, elaborating on their developmental initiatives such as land reforms, education and healthcare. But these have been met with violent backlash from the state.
Several lives have been sacrificed at the hands of the state’s anti-insurgency operations, but Rao notes that people are “fighting against this repression with brave heart and are sacrificing their lives to transform the future generations into new human beings.” One wonders who could gain from such development if one has to pay for it with one’s life. Rao also mentions the compulsory teaching of The Communist Manifesto as part of the syllabus in Sarkar schools. This again raises the question of how different this alternative ‘Sarkar’ is from the mainstream government of the day, whose political representatives too wish to modify school syllabi to thrust their view of the world on impressionable young minds.
Rao also talks about the need to condemn the government policy of sending TISS students to conflict areas as part of the rural employment guarantee scheme. This reveals a clear opposition on behalf of the Maoists to any form of government intervention that might be in the interest of the local population.
That 30 years of Maoist occupation in India’s backward regions hasn’t brought any remarkable progress has been emphasised by Neera Chandoke in her essay. The inhabitants in these regions continue to be malnourished and face high levels of infant mortality and illiteracy. The development model of the Janatana Sarkar is nothing short of being “mirror images of dominant development agendas.” Political violence without political mobilisation by the Maoists is a lazy way of doing politics, she concludes.
It is among the forest-dwelling adivasis of central India that the Maoist movement is strong today. That violence begets more violence is conspicuous, but how else could the adivasis, who suffer various deprivations, stake their claim to a better life and dignity? That question remains largely unanswered in this otherwise engaging collection of essays. Perhaps more than being a shortcoming of this book, it is a pointer as to where future scholarly effort ought to be directed.