ON SEPTEMBER 22, 2009, India woke up to the news that the Delhi Police had captured a top Naxal ideologue, 58-year-old Kobad Ghandy – a South Bombay Parsi who had grown up in a giant sea-facing house in Worli, had gone to Doon School, and had studied for a CA in London before returning to India to work with the most destitute of Indian citizens in Maharashtra, before going underground in the 1970s. His wife Anuradha, a sociologist, went underground with him and died of cerebral malaria last year. (Malaria, particularly the lethal falciparium malaria, is a common affliction in the neglected heartland of central India.) Home Minister P Chidambaram called Ghandy the State’s “most important Naxal catch.”
On the night of September 22, Times Now had a prime time debate on the significance of Ghandy’s arrest. The aggressive rhetoric of anchor Arnab Goswami epitomised typical high urban attitudes to Naxal issues. If you happened to watch him anchor the show, several terrifying things would have become evident. Over this past year, the Home Ministry has been planning a major armed offensive against the Naxals, particularly in Chhattisgarh. According to reports, the plan involves stationing around 75,000 troops in the heartland of India — including special CRPF commandos, the ITBP and the BSF. Scattered newspaper accounts have spoken of forces being withdrawn from Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast; there is also talk of bringing in the feared Rashtriya Rifles — a battalion created specially for counter-insurgency work — and the purchase of bomb trucks, bomb blankets, bomb baskets, and sophisticated new weaponry. Minister Chidambaram has also said that if necessity dictates, he will bring in the special forces of the army.
The decision to launch such a massive armed operation on home ground — due to start this November — should have triggered animated political, civil society and media debate. But Operation Green Hunt — as the offensive is being termed — has been gathering force in almost complete silence. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister Chidambaram have variously called Naxals — or “Maoists” — “the gravest threat to India’s internal security.” Perhaps a military offensive against them is the answer, but is it the only answer? Is it the best answer? Will it provide a solution? Who will be impacted by this offensive? What will be its repercussions? Who are we really declaring war on? What are we declaring war on? Are we going into this with eyes wide open? Is there anything we should have learned from the seemingly irreparable psychological mess in Kashmir and the Northeast? These are the questions a democratic society should be asking. One can perhaps understand the well-heeled turning their back on such bleak issues. But with such a significant operation looming on the horizon, what can excuse the complete absence of debate from national political parties?
But silence, perhaps, is only the lesser worry. A few days ago, the government announced an ad blitzkrieg as part of its psychological offensive. “Naxals are nothing but coldblooded murderers” the ad screamed across all major news dailies. The visual showed a series of men, women and children brutally killed by Naxals.
On the night of September 22, discussing Kobad Ghandy, Arnab Goswami mouthed the same line. “Terrorist or ideologue?” he intoned, with the moral certitude of a man who has never got off his urban chair to trudge the interiors of the country. “Six thousand innocent Indians have been killed on Mr Ghandy’s ‘watch,’” he said (as if Kobad Ghandy was some Idi Amin figure presiding over a banana republic), “and yet human rights organisations and NGOs are asking for his release.” (Mr Goswami always reserves special scorn for human rights activists, as if they are a uniform sub-species of anti-national humankind, rather than men and women with differing and individual views.) “What about the 12-year-old girl the Naxals killed in Jharkhand?” he thundered. “What about the 15 CPM cadres they killed in Bengal last night?” Every time one of his panelists tried to introduce the larger political context behind Naxalism or a more complex argument, Mr Goswami swatted them down: “The question we are asking is very simple,” he said, “is he a terrorist or an ideologue? Is he responsible for violence or not? Can he be blamed for 6,000 dead or not?”
Watching the show was like straying into a child’s playroom, watching the grave judgments of infants playing at Good and Evil. As an individual point of view it would have counted for nothing, but as the voice of Times Now, currently deemed the most popular English channel, Mr Goswami’s unthinking edit line seems symptomatic of a wider, urban, English-speaking constituency. Coupled with the government ads, it presents the disturbing prospect of a public discourse that is marked by reductive official propaganda on the one side and infantile ignorance and simple-mindedness on the other. We can afford neither.
AT THE heart of the Naxal riddle, there are three primary questions: Who is a Naxal? What is one’s position on violence as a tool of struggle? And why is Naxalism on the rise across the country? To understand the first, try a useful metaphor. Imagine fish in water. Naxal leaders are the fish, finite, identifiable (even punishable); the water is the vast, infinite constituency they speak for. And swim in.
As Kobad Ghandy proves, a Naxal ideologue, commander or politburo leader can come from any milieu. The disempowered dalits of Andhra Pradesh, the destitute tribals of Chhattisgarh, the middle-class intellectuals of Bengal or the privileged rich of Bombay. These “informed revolutionaries” function at two levels. At a political level, they do not believe in parliamentary democracy (where they see power still concentrated in the hands of the feudal upper class) and their long-term objective is to seize State power for the people through armed struggle. In this, they threaten the sovereignity of the Indian State and many humanist thinkers, including men like K Balagopal of the Human Rights Forum, who was part of brokering peace talks between the government and Naxals in Andhra Pradesh in 2004, believe the State is within its rights to confront them. “The Maoists themselves would not tolerate such a challenge if they came to power,” says he. Balagopal is also critical of Naxal leaders creating “liberated zones” where the Indian State cannot function. “If they claim to be the voice of the people, can they pursue a political agenda that injures people — either by their actions or the repercussions they invite? Does the current tribal generation of Chhattisgarh want to sacrifice itself for a utopian future that may never come?”
It is true that in this prolonged ideological war, many Naxal attacks like the horrific one on the Ranibodli police station two years ago and the more recent one in Rajnandgaon embrace brutal tactics and almost fetishise violence. Even if these attacks are against an oppressive and corrupt police, it is a nobrainer to condemn them and say one is opposed to this violence. Or that their perpetrators should be punished.
But like dozens of other intellectuals, Balagopal points out that it is suicidal to focus only on this ideological war or resort to extrajudicial means alone to quell it. Can Naxalism really be wiped out by brute counter force? If that were so, Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s crackdown in Bengal in the 70s should have nailed it for all time. But the fact is, while stories of their own coercions are true, Naxal leaders enjoy wide support because they also espouse social-economic causes and empower people that the Indian State has ignored — criminally — for 60 years. Most Naxal cadres, therefore, are not “informed revolutionaries” fighting a conceptual war: they are beleagured tribals and dalits fighting local battles for basic survival and rights. Bela Bhatia, an activist, says she met a mazdoor in Bihar who was part of the cadre. “You can call me a Naxal or whatever you want,” he said. “I have picked up the gun to get my three kilos of annaj.”
Who is a naxal? Imagine fish in water. Naxal leaders are the fish, finite, identifiable. Water is their infinite constituency
The point is, should the Indian State be declaring armed war on its most despairing people? Is there no other way to empower them and wean them away from the gun and the seduction of the ‘informed revolutionary’? When Arnab Goswami evoked the 15 dead CPM members in Bengal last week, he forgot to mention that, according to newspaper reports (since no TV channel bothered to send teams there to find out) a 10,000-strong crowd of tribals had descended on the CPM office which was stockpiling arms in Inayatpur, near Lalgarh. When his panelists tried to draw his attention to this, he scathingly dubbed all 10,000 tribals as Maoists. Should “Operation Green Hunt” then stamp all 10,000 out? And if 10,000 Maoists had attacked an office, is it possible that only 15 people would have died? What is the real truth about the attack on the CPM office last week? And why was the superintendent of police, visiting a day later, unable to find any bodies? And why were the central paramilitary forces stationed there unable to prevent any of it?