Thursday 22 December 2016

Killing Fields of Dandakaranya

Discussion with Justin Podur, York University, Canada
Maoists in India: Tribals under siege

[Soon after this book was published, Prof. Justin Podur conducted a written discussion on the book as a preparation for his own succinct review. As winter sets in, killings are on the increase in the Maoist areas. By now it is almost like a natural order, like the seasonal hurricane or the debilitating drought. Killings on both sides will continue for years unless the civil society intervenes.]

Would you say your motivation to write this book was primarily humanitarian, or political, or would you reject that distinction?

I won’t reject the distinction since it is possible to intervene in a situation of conflict with purely humanitarian aims, such as supply of medicine, potable water, blankets, etc. without commenting on the forces engaged in the conflict. This is what Amnesty International and other organizations do. However, in the conflict involving adivasis under discussion, almost the entire effort is spent on critiquing/defending the forces without due attention to the adivasis themselves in terms of what they are going through due to the conflict. I am appealing for a political understanding of the humanitarian disaster to highlight why adivasis are the principal victims without being participants in the conflict. In that sense, the political and the humanitarian converge.

Although your book isn't heavy on theory, there is an interesting political perspective about political strategy in an electoral context like India's. It seems that your strategic disagreement with the CPI (Maoist) stems from these ideas. Could you summarize your perspective on what kind of left and movement strategies make sense in this context, and why?

This is related to the point about humanitarianism raised above. Too often, in fact almost without fail, insurgent movements are launched only with a political end in view, such as seizure of state power, without factoring in the immense cost to the populations. Suffering of populations is considered only as a tactical issue, not a fundamental political issue. The moral omission is even more glaring in cases such as Indian republicanism where not only alternative and less traumatic means are available to address and progressively ameliorate the misery of the masses, the professed political end itself is questionable. Since this general point applies to cases much beyond the Maoist insurrection, it is a theoretical point to that extent, drawing obviously on Gandhi’s thoughts on ends and means.

Related to #2, what do you say to those who, looking at the insurgencies in the northeast and Kashmir, the package of laws that enables the government to restrict fundamental freedoms, corporate control of the political process, the economic disenfranchisement of the vast majority of the population, say that the system is broken, and that trying to work within or use the system is bound to fail?

The operative clause is whether any effort, including massive resistance to the oppressive actions you list, is ‘bound to fail’. It is unclear whose prediction is the professed determinism here that over-rules acts of resistance as yet organised or even imagined. Insurgencies in Kashmir and the North-East lie in ruins now after decades of genocidal violence. In fact, some form of dialogue, some show of determined resistance, is beginning to generate solution spaces in favour of the population. But, as ever, there is a long way to go. I return to this.

South Africa and much of Latin America perhaps represent even more notorious histories of prolonged oppression than Kashmir and the North-East. Yet the end of apartheid in South Africa, and progressive electoral outcomes in Latin America, show how militant but peaceful mass resistance can achieve radical goals for the masses even in those brutal circumstances. As Chomsky has pointed out, the US was compelled to pull out and something like an elected government was installed in the ruins of post-Saddam Iraq. These things happened not due to guerrilla attacks on US forces but by militant movements often organised by the workers.

To get back to your specific point, as violent insurgency largely fizzled out, dazzling street movements have filled the Kashmir valley in the last six years or so. This has had a wider and more lasting effect in compelling the Indian state to take urgent measures to address each of the oppressive acts you mention. It is still a long way to go, but Kashmir today carries at least some measure of hope that was unthinkable a decade ago. Not surprisingly, the ‘radicals’ of all hues are not very pleased.

The debate around the CPI (Maoist) is completely polarized, but in your book you refuse the dichotomy, taking strong exception to the CPI (Maoist) and to those who are calling for the state to repress them. Do you think the polarization will mean that readers will miss the point of your book?

The rejection of the suggested ‘binary’ is a crucial point of the book. A polarized discourse is an inevitable consequence of insurgency when it is ruthlessly attacked by the state. This is not by itself a moral or a political problem if the insurgency is vastly popular and has genuine mass support, as in Vietnam and more recently in Nepal. Historically it means the emergence of a barricade. It is a huge problem when the insurgency itself is ‘predatory’ with vast masses of people caught in the crossfire. I discuss several cases in the book arguing for the required distinction.

In fact, a ‘predatory’ anti-state force can also precipitate polarisation in the face of massive counter-insurgency. As many authors including Robert Fisk had pointed out, there was a perceptible and growing opposition to ‘jehadi’ politics in the Islamic countries right after 9/11 despite decades of massive attacks by the US in the area. All that changed dramatically once the US attacked Afghanistan and recruitment for terrorist networks jumped many fold.  The horrible consequences are still playing out as the drone attacks continued.

At a much lesser scale, this has happened with the Maoist insurgency. It did not have a popular face until the Indian state attacked it around 2005 with a series of atrocious actions leading up to the operation green hunt. Maoists must have been waiting for this for decades. The inevitable polarisation followed as a consequence.

However, even if there is some popular support for the Maoists in some sections for reasons explained in the book, it is really a reflection of a genuine concern about the plight of the adivasis, not a political support to the party per se. Also, there is a growing discourse, outside the mainstream and the Internet (both accessed primarily by the elite sections of the population), in local papers and magazines, political handouts, forum reports and the like, which rejects both the statist and the Maoist options as tools of social justice for the poorest of the poor. Importantly, much of this critique ensues from radical grassroots forums who are parts of the generic naxalite framework to which Maoists also belong. In that sense, there is a serious internal criticism. I have taken some pains to unearth this literature and present it in the book to suggest where radical priorities currently reside.

The basic concern for the adivasis thus translates into a vast audience for the book if proper light is thrown on the predatory character of both the state and the Maoists from within the radical perspective itself. It is a thin line but worth consolidating in view of the grim consequences of the polarized discourse.

To put it another way, what would you say to those who think your book, in this context, helps the state? What about to those who say you should have gone to the area yourself?

The two questions are separate. So let me address them in turn.

(1) The polarized discourse does have the consequence of postulating a thick, monochromatic notion of state such that all non-Maoists are agents of the state. In this discourse, even naxalite critics of Maoists, some of whom initiated the original naxalite movement, and have spent their lives either in prison or in villages with people, are all agents of counter-insurgency. Several issues arise. I go into them in some detail in the book.

In contrast to totalitarian states, republican states with universal franchise are extremely complex entities either with zones of relative autonomy or, as some authors put it, a conglomeration of a variety of sub-states. The generic state is often in an unsteady equilibrium in turmoil both from the above and below. The simultaneous (and conflicting) existence of repressive and welfare aspects just highlights part of the complexity. So it is possible to occupy one zone of the state, such as the autonomy of the legal and electoral systems, to challenge some other zone, such as the police and the corporate system. Maoists themselves frequently demand strict adherence to law and human rights as the state deals with their arrested comrades. This picture is particularly valid for the plural complexity of the Indian state, ‘unmanageable’ from a classical European perspective.

No doubt the neo-liberal era, which unfolded around 1990, has led to a rollback of some of the welfare aspects of the state and a consolidation of the ruling classes. But the electoral system continues to place obstacles to further consolidation of capital and power as the parties are compelled to hand out progressively richer welfare measures to wider sections of the people to offset possible electoral reverses. In that sense, the electoral system is increasingly playing the role of advancing class war. Some telling cases are discussed in the book. It is possible even to argue that the state is turning out to be a hindrance to the globalised ruling classes.

From this perspective, Maoists are most welcome for the regressive aspects of the state. For the Maoists help create insurrectionary conditions in which people essentially lose their voice and all people’s forums, except those sanctioned and conducted by the Maoists, come to a halt. Again, several cases are discussed in detail in the book. There is then, some truth to the view that the Maoists are a mirror-image of the most ferocious aspect of the state, giving some indication of the prospects for a projected Maoist state.

(2)  There is a useful distinction between report and analysis. An analysis of a phenomenon, based on authentic, comprehensive, and timely reports from the ground, need not itself be based on its own “field-studies”. Excellent analysis of Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and even Vietnam are available where the authors based their analysis on diligent perusal of a variety of reports and historical studies.

In fact, there is no objective, "neutral" field-study of Maoist territory by any social scientist, anthropologist etc. simply bacause the Maoists won't let you in unless you agree to undertake a guided tour and report verbatim what they tell you. The only rigorous study of Bastar, Sundar (2007) is really more historical and is based on limited interactions with Adivasis in the non-Maoist areas. Even this much is no longer possible as Sundar has found out repeatedly. The recent books Chenoy & Chenoy (2010) and Padel (2010) claim some field-studies, but these are mostly for other areas and insurgencies.

Thus, the strategy adopted in the text is to cull whatever one can from four sources: (a) travelogues in Maoist territory by authors sympathetic to Maoists, (b) talking to and studying the reports of other naxalites who have some degree of ground-level contacts with Maoists historically, (c) seemingly reliable journalistic reports by reputed reporters of reputed newspapers (Aman Sethi of Hindu, Supriya Sharma of TOI, etc.) who have some real access to both Maoists and the police, (d) the Maoist documents themselves. A very determined effort was made to stay away from State-sponsored reports, and reports of parliamentary left, both of which are likely to be biased. The evidence in (a) to (d) was then cross-checked with each other to extract some stable facts. I do not know of any literature that has attempted this rigorously.

Unlike the mainstream discussions, which use the terms interchangeably, you make a distinction between Maoists and Naxalites. Why?

As noted, the distinction is already well-attested in the relevant radical literature. It is just that it is largely unknown to the general public and even to some of the recent writers on the topic who are not fully conversant with the history of the naxalite movement. So the first reason for making the distinction is to supply relevant information.

A second reason is to expose the Maoist claim that they are the true inheritors of the original naxalite movement, a massive peasant uprising in the late 1960s, that still justly fascinates radical imagination in India. The distinction highlights the fact that the peasant movement itself need not be equated with the communist organisation that followed since many democratic and revolutionary aspects of the original movement were vulgarized by the party which broke into many factions very soon as the movement fizzled out. Maoists represent perhaps the most despotic chain of factions that ensued from those divisions. The distinction thus empowers the analysis to use the views of the other factions as a critique of Maoists from within the naxalite movement itself, not from a statist point of view.

A third reason is that the state and the mainstream media routinely conflate the distinction. This enables the repressive arms of the state to target the entire spectrum of militant resistance as naxalite and attack a vast range of democratic movements accordingly. A clear articulation of the distinction thus opens some space for resisting these attacks.

One very interesting aspect of your book is that you use the most sympathetic accounts of the Maoists to criticize their practice. Specifically, their economic practice, their developmental practice, and their use of child soldiers. Can you talk about this analysis and has anyone tried to refute your analysis based on these sources?

As noted, an important political task was to criticize the Maoists from a radical point of view, that is, without falling into statist propaganda. The task of course is best carried out by examining the claims advanced in the most sympathetic accounts of the Maoist insurgency in the work of prominent and respectable authors through the internal details of the accounts themselves. Then the analysis becomes automatically immune from the charge that it is based on statist material. Notice that the accounts themselves are based on tall claims by the Maoists themselves. If their tallest claims reveal a dismal picture of their practice, it is easy to infer what the real picture is like. You thus get a hold on the reality without going there.

I am aware that this part of my analysis, originally published in various versions in ZNet, Outlook and Economic and Political Weekly, has been widely read and discussed. To an extent, it contributed to the turn-around in the otherwise polarized discourse. Given its textual basis, it is hard to refute it, and I know of no sustained attempt to do so. One argument somewhat apologetically suggested is that, in the condition of insurgency, it is hard to devote much attention to the welfare of the people. It is more of an admission than refutation.

To my mind the most important part of your book is the proposal for a way out of this war, which you acknowledge is grasping at straws, but which you argue is the only option left. Can you talk about this proposal and why you think all other options are no longer viable?

I go into much historical and ideological detail to argue that the basic problem is that the Maoist leadership will never give up arms and join democratic struggles, and the Indian state will use this opportunity to continue with counter-insurgency operations. In fact, the violence on both sides is likely to increase, and democratic movements on the ground have no means to thwart the escalation of arms. The clue to any solution to a ‘war’ between two predatory forces is to pay attention to the people caught in the crossfire, in this case millions of hapless adivasis spread over a vast area of dense forests. One general feature of any sustained insurgency is that they are able to entrench themselves in some stretch of population to acquire the foot-soldiers.

In the Maoist case, these soldiers happen to be young adivasis, often minors. A massive democratic effort to secure their meaningful rehabilitation with full dignity and livelihood could be the straw you mentioned. To emphasise, the effort has to be democratic, and not based on surrender to the security forces. The guerrillas will justly never give up arms en masse to the police given the brutal history of the conflict. A range of other measures are needed to lend democratic confidence to the process.

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