Hapless victim Sudharani Baske, 70-year-old widow, arrested as a dreaded Maoist
Photo: Pintu Pradhan

A FEW WEEKS after he was released from two years in jail, Binayak Sen, the gentle and now famous doctor from Chhattisgarh, was asked what he thought of the Maoist crisis and the government’s response to it. It’s like watching two locomotives hurtling towards each other, he replied. Bent upon colliding even when all the warning signals are clearly flashing. And you can do nothing to stop it.

On April 6, not the first but the loudest of many tragic collisions came to pass. The Maoists ambushed a heavily armed CRPF battalion in the jungles of Dantewada, and blew up an armoured vehicle. Within hours, 76 jawans were dead. The sheer, staggering loss of life — the spiraling pain that would ripple through small anonymous homesteads in UP and Haryana and Delhi — took your breath away. Here again, were the poorest of the poor, being sent out to execute the most draconian face of the State. These 76 dead were just a punctuation: more jawans would be sent out, more jawans would be killed. The poor being set to kill the poor. If ever there was reason to rethink strategy, surely, here it was.

But if you watched television studio debates that night or read many of the newspapers the next morning, something more terrifying — and tragic — than the physical image of hurtling locomotives would have become evident: you’d have seen the pistons driving these locomotives to self destruct. Livid, one-sided conversations: ill-informed, deaf, uncurious. And, most damagingly, simple-minded.

How can a parliamentary democracy broker peace with an armed group whose resolve is to overthrow it and seize state power?

Exterminate the terrorists! Wipe them out! The entire nation is united: launch an all-out war. Bring on the airforce. Didn’t we pull it off in Punjab? Haven’t the Sri Lankans pulled it off with the LTTE? Why are you “intellectual sympathisers” talking of root causes and development and urging other approaches? Are you on the side of the savages? Are you condoning Maoist violence? Why are you raising questions about police atrocities and State neglect? How can you equate our violence with their violence? How can you lump the good guys with the bad guys?

On the other side, less loud but equally intractable are voices hurling blanket abuse at the State. Ignoring the slow fruits of 60 years of democracy; ignoring the genuine moral challenges the Maoists present; ignoring the inevitable corruptions of armed rebellion; willing to overlook the dangerous imperfections of one political position to vanquish the other.

The maoists ask, why should they lay down arms when the only reason tribal welfare has become an issue is due to the power of the gun?

Part of the reason why the Maoist debate rouses such anger is that its fundamental cliché is that it is a complex issue. Yet none of the public positions trotted out by its most voluble stakeholders really tell the whole truth. Anger then is inevitable: it arises out of each side finding itself willfully and inadequately described.

This is why, drowned by the fierce volume of media debates, those who hold a third position feel an added helplessness — the helplessness of being strapped bang centre in the path of rushing trains. Yet if there is anything that can make the collision screech to a halt, it is this position: this saving in-betweeness. Which makes it imperative to outline what the third position is.
And turn up its volume.

War seed Karam Kanni, whose husband was killed by the Salwa Judum in Jan 2009
Photo: Vijay Pandey

THE SIGHT of the 76 dead jawans might have some Indians baying for blood: more war, more jawans. For other Indians though, on April 6, as coffins were loaded on to trucks in the eerie silence of night, and wrapped in the national flag for their moment of pomp the next morning, the image crystallised some of the deepest and most troubling questions that underpin the Maoist crisis. What sort of a society are we creating? What sort of a society have we become? How will this cycle of violence end? The Maoists might have a lot to answer for, but where will we find the answers to the imperfections in ourselves? We can exterminate them physically, but what are we going to do with the big, rebuking questions they have unleashed around us?

This is not the self-flagellation of bleeding-heart liberals that the war hawks make it out to be. In fact, ironically, it is underscored by the same concern as the death mongers: how can one neutralise Maoist influence in India? Only it seeks deeper answers than merely killing them; it seeks more sustainable strategies. Strategies more introspective and self-transformative.

It is true the State could exterminate the Maoists. As Home Minister P Chidambaram said a few hours after the bloodbath in Dantewada, “We might lose more people, many more may die, but the State will ultimately prevail. It might take two or three years, but we have to give them a firm response. If they have declared war on the State, we will launch an all-out offensive against them.” Set aside the disturbing assumptions in that statement. Ask merely the common question at hand: but will this “wipe them out”? The curious thing is, according to insiders, the Maoist politburo itself feels that Operation Green Hunt might eliminate one-third of their cadres. But will this really “wipe them out”? The State has crushed the Naxal movement thrice before — in Bengal, in Bihar, in Andhra Pradesh. Each time thousands of Indian citizens have been killed; each time the Maoists have resurrected themselves. This is the fourth big wave. Are we finally going to accept their challenge and address “root causes”, or are we going to content ourselves with killing tens of thousands of our poor every decade?

Part of the mounting ironies around Operation Green Hunt is that, contrary to the broad brush with which the Home Ministry and others in the Establishment have taken to tarring civil society, many activists and concerned citizens stretching deep into the far left are extremely disturbed by the growing militarisation of the Maoist movement. “I am completely unequivocal about this,” says Binayak — a man the State had jailed as being a ‘big Naxal leader’ — “violence cannot be the answer. This growing militarisation cannot be the way forward.” Others too, both underground and overground who might otherwise share Maoist views on social transformation, are murmuring disapprovingly about “Left adventurism”. As a former member of the People’s War Group and close aide of their towering leader Kondapalli Seetharamaiah says, “I have lived in the jungles. I have been in jail. I have been tortured by the police. And I have seen the idealism and zeal with which the Maoists work in the jungles. But I no longer believe violence can be the path.”

‘We’re at the start of a long earthquake. The right to insurrection arises when constitutional guarantees fail,’ says KG Kannabiran

Yet the big, thorny conundrums persist. Home Minister P Chidambaram might repeatedly be calling for talks with the Maoists saying he is not asking them to lay down arms but merely asking them to “abjure violence” — almost flamboyantly urging them to give him just 72 hours to turn the discourse around. But it a measure of the deep scorn and distrust on both sides that even a hint of talks arouses two viscerally cynical reactions: the State says it’s merely a ploy on the part of the Maoists to gain time and regroup; the Maoists says it’s merely a ploy on the part of the State to bring them over ground and smash their hideouts. The shadow of the failed talks and its bloody aftermath in Andhra Pradesh in 2005 looms large.

At a deeper level, the possibility of talks with the Maoists breaks down prima facie on two genuinely sticky points: How can a State committed to parliamentary democracy (no matter how flawed) broker peace with an armed group whose stated resolve is to overthrow it and seize State power by 2050? Are events in Nepal a possible roadmap for the way forward? Will the Maoists privilege their ideals of social justice over their ambition to seize State power through protracted war? Will they somehow function as a pressure lobby within the framework of Indian democracy, slowly changing the political system from within? As the late and highly respected human rights activist K Balagopal said, this might contravene the very basis of their ideology, but are the Maoists right to hostage current generations of tribals to some promise of a future utopia that may never come?

After all, 76 Jawans dying over 76 days is not as bad as 76 Jawans dying in one day. A couple of deaths a day can’t embarrass the state

On the other hand, equally, the Maoists might ask, why should we lay down arms and join Indian democracy? Has the Indian State ever demonstrated that it speaks to peaceful people’s movements? The only reason tribal welfare has even entered contemporary national discourse — even as mere lip service — is because of the power of the gun. Many civil society and people’s movements leaders have been urging Chidambaram to side-step the Maoists and talk to them on the same issues of social justice that the Maoists are raising. They challenge that if they are allowed to work in those areas, they will be able to reduce Maoist influence. But he steadfastly refuses. He is bent on “area domination” through force. It seems only nuisance value can trigger offers for talks, not ethical consciousness.

(In fact, one of the most disturbing trends triggered by Operation Green Hunt is the way civil rights activists are increasingly being outlawed by the State: mocked, arrested, sidelined, pigeon-holed — merely for seeking answers beyond easy binaries. So it is that Gandhian activist Himanshu Kumar has been hounded out of Chhattisgarh — his ashram demolished by the State in Dantewada and a diktat put out that no one should rent their home out to him; and a Home Ministry dossier on him grows by the day. So it is that in Bengal, just a few days ago, activist Kirti Roy was arrested for organising a people’s tribunal on police torture. The police had filed a case against him for attempting to impersonate the judiciary.)

Camp fire The Silda camp in Bengal, two months after it was razed by the Maoists
Photo: Pintu Pradhan

This taunting question about the nature of the Indian State then is one we might well ask of ourselves. If the tribals lay down arms, will the State keep its promises, or will it ride like a storm over them, seizing their lands and stealing their resources as it has done elsewhere? And why does the Indian State have such a dismal record of speaking to people’s movements espousing just demands? The Bhopal Gas victims have never taken to arms. For 25 years they have walked the 800 miles to Delhi again and again, camping in Jantar Mantar and asking for justice: have they got it? Far from it. Instead, Dow Chemical was invited to set up shop in Nayachar in West Bengal. Worse, the Indian government is in the process of signing a nuclear agreement that will excuse foreign investors from paying damages in the event of a leak. And protestors are no longer allowed to camp overnight in Jantar Mantar — Indian democracy’s designated site for people’s protest.

Unfortunately, the epic list of questions doesn’t stop here. Were the people of Nandigram and Singur made stakeholders in the projects that would displace them from their emerald land? Why was the draconian Land Acquisition Act and malafide SEZ Act not thought through in equitable ways, on the sheer basis of the State’s benevolent intention? Why was the State ramming its projects through? Why did it take violent people’s resistance for these Acts to go back to the drawing board? Why are workers in Delhi being uprooted from colonies they have lived in for 30 years and being pitchforked into far-flung wastelands where there are no schools, no health centres, no toilets, no roads, no public transport merely to beautify the city for 12 days of Commonwealth Games? Why do the people of Sohanbadra in UP have to walk miles through arsenic sludge and breathe fly ash from thermal plants? Why is it that almost every industrial project in India turns into a human rights violation — either in terms of land or labour or environmental violation or human health?

The truth is, as long as the poor suffer silently, Indian democracy chugs along, doing little. If people protest peacefully, no one cares: not the media, not the government. If they organise themselves in outrage, they are berated for being disruptive and crushed. If they have grown too powerful to be crushed, the State offers talks. As eminent lawyer KG Kannabiran, who was part of the Committee of Citizens that brokered the (failed) peace talks between Maoists and the YSR Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh and is today a faintly dejected man, says, “We are experiencing the beginning of a long and terrible earthquake. Why doesn’t the Indian State follow the Constitution? Why doesn’t it act on its own Planning Commission Report on Naxal-affected areas which advocates a development-centric approach? Forget the Maoists. Even Locke and Laski said the right to insurrection arises when constitutional guarantees fail.”

The massacre of April 6 then places us at a potent crossroad. We could choose the path of escalated violence that will lead to a bloody civil war in the heart of the country. Or we could step back and choose the long march to social transformations that will leach away the attraction the oppressed have for the Maoists. On the first path, pain and futility stretches vast on either side. Increasing Maoist violence on one side: more police stations attacked, more jawans dead, more informers executed. Amplifying mistakes of the State on the other. Set aside 60 years of neglect, just three years of the Salwa Judum had notched up a terrifying roster of violence: 640 villages forcibly evacuated, lakhs of tribals forced to flee or live in camps, tribals set against tribal, homes burned, chickens and grain stolen, women raped, young boys dead. The Judum might now officially be declared a misadventure but it increased tribal disenchantment with the Indian State and pushed thousands more into Maoist arms.

Now Operation Green Hunt is doing exactly the same: for every “genuine” Maoist ideologue arrested or killed, hundreds of ordinary people — minors, old folk, just adults scratching out a survival — are being arrested or killed. It enrages many in political and media circles when this is said, but the truth is, quite apart from “root causes” — the structural violence in Indian society that stretches back through time — every cluster of deaths, every crisis in the contemporary Maoist saga has an irretrievably muddied chain of cause and effect.

As GN Saibaba, a Delhi University professor and an activist ‘black-marked’ by the intelligence apparatus, says, “Ultimately nobody wins a war. You can only win in an ideological and social domain.” So which route will India choose now? The knee-jerk, short-term logic of violence and counter-violence? Or the statesman’s game?

At one level, ‘the flags of our fathers’ draped around the dead jawans remind us of the soaring ideals on which India was founded, the articles of faith that keep us together as a nation. Few — positioned anywhere on the political spectrum — can deny that the Indian Constitution is a shining document and a real existential and political counter-challenge to the Maoists. Every deformity in the Indian polity today is a corruption of the Constitution. But as organising principles for society go, there can be very few documents in the world that are more sophisticated and far-seeing. And more capable of reconciling India’s inherently mammoth contradictions. Yet, at another level, ‘the flags of our fathers’ recalls the Clint Eastwood film that exposed the empty gestures and faux patriotism of war-torn America in the 1940s. Like the flag hoisted merely for a photo-op in the film, beneath the saber-rattling talk of “our jawans” and calls for retaliation, there lurks a terrible cynicism.

Like those they have been sent out to battle with, these jawans are the weakest links in the Indian chain. They are merely another face of the poverty they have been sent out to vanquish. In the same breath that they speak of the terror of the Maoist attack on them, they speak of the inhuman conditions they live in, the lack of training, the lack of basic living facilities.

Besides, what is the SOP the jawans are being berated for not following? SOPs — “standard operating procedures” — dictate that jawans should walk single file or ride on motorbikes in Maoist territory. That way, if a mine goes off, only a couple of jawans will die: not enough to embarrass the State, not enough to make the evening news. After all, 76 jawans dying over 76 days is not as insupportable as 76 jawans dying in one day. It’s not human life and sorrow and “the deaths of innocent men” that’s got us in a twist then: it’s an imagined slap on the imagined face of the nation. And to avenge that slap, we are willing to trot out more cannon fodder: more ill-equipped jawans, more terrified boys. Caught between poverty and duty.

It is untrue that there is political unanimity on the military approach to the maoist crisis.  The congress party is richly divided on this

Also, the uncomfortable truth is, the Maoists may have a lot to answer for, but tragic as it is, the massacre of April 6 is not the most damaging of them. Sections of the media might call them “terrorists” and “savages” for the attack in Dantewada, but if terrorism is defined as anonymous hits on civilians, the Maoists’ night-time massacre of sleeping villagers in Jamui in Bihar last year counts as a much worse blot. The April 6 attack was an episode between combatants — an inevitable by-product of a poorly addressed conflagration. And the worst part is it could well happen again.

For this reason alone, contrary to the almost colonial outrage about “savages” burning the airwaves, for many patriotic Indians, the death of these 76 jawans could be read as a catalyst for turning up the volume on the third position on the Maoist debate. (It might soothe those baying for escalated State action to remember that top cop KPS Gill — the hero of Punjab — and Ajit Doval, former Intelligence Bureau chief, both feel that, in its current form, Operation Green Hunt is something of a strategic misadventure.)

OF THE many half-truths on the back of which the Maoist crisis is currently escalating, the biggest lie is that there is political unanimity on Operation Green Hunt. For the moment, Home Minister P Chidambaram may be the loudest voice from the UPA government and he may (ironically) enjoy the fervid support of the BJP and CPMin treating the Maoists as merely a “law and order problem” and declaring an “all-out offensive” on them, but Chief Ministers Shibu Soren and Nitish Kumar, and Union Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee are not the only politicians uncomfortable with this stance. The Congress party itself is richly and positively divided on this. And though their silence so far is baffling, the heartening fact is that many of its most powerful leaders hold the third position. Or variants of it. As one particularly powerful Congress insider says, “There has to be a middle way between the zero strategy of the Home Ministry in UPA 1 and the George Bush-like utterances of the Home Ministry in UPA 2. It’s getting more ludicrous by the day.”

‘if the Tatas and Ambanis can own vast tracts that the state deems as sacred, how can community property be usurped by it?’ asks Aiyar

What is this third position then? The first and primary relief of the third position is that it is not a monolithic one: it is no soundproof room blocking out all argument that challenges its notions. It recognises that India is a complex country to run. It recognises that Home Minister Chidambaram is partially right in saying a State cannot let 234 districts slip out of its hands and some targeted use of force is called for to re-dominate those areas. But in the same breath it recognises that military action alone is suicidal. “Compassionate governance” cannot be a verbal frill attached to a machine gun. It has to be the primary soldier, the captain of the guard. In the third position, courage lies in rethinking fundamental directions of our society. It lies in acknowledging that Maoists are not merely demonic outsiders but a complex grid of Indians driven in equal parts by ideology, desperation and new political awakening.

As veteran Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar says, “It is ridiculous to attack everyone just because they have a view on the Maoist issue as anything more than just a ‘menace’. While there’s no alternative to a State defending itself to a challenge by insurgents, we have to ask ourselves why this insurgency is confined to 5th Schedule Areas (ie, tribal) areas. And as long as our ideas of development is restricted to gains for people like Vedanta and POSCO and Tata and Essar and the Mittals, and we allow them to exploit tribal resources, the tribals are bound to see this development not as desired but disruptive. The point is, we have to define the difference between ‘participatory development’ and ‘aggressive development’.”

For those who find the prospect daunting, Aiyar has an inspiring list of simple measures, constitutional provisions and visionary legislations that can begin to effect change. Read the 73rd Amendment along with Article 243G and 243ZD of the Constitution, he urges. Let all states governments implement PESA — (Provisions of the Panchayat [Extension to Scheduled Areas] 1996) — on the ground. Invoke the provisions of the Forest Act to give full ownership of forest produce to tribals. And watch the miracles start to flow.

=For middle-class audiences, PESA is probably the least known piece of legislation, yet it is sheer genius in its simplicity. It prescribes that no proposal of a Panchayat, no disbursal of funds, and no use of common property resources can be sanctioned without the permission of the Gram Sabha. Unlike the Panchayat which has elected members, the Gram Sabha includes every adult member of a village community. This consultative process is the most elemental step of a democracy and it effectively ensures that tribals can take full control of their lives, finances and functionaries — cutting out the corruptions of an alien bureaucracy.

Aiyar is not alone in these views. Congress veteran Digvijay Singh has written pieces in the media on the same lines. Rural Minister CP Joshi, who was handpicked by Rahul Gandhi (and whose ministry report on ‘State Agrarian Relations’ spoke of Operation Green Hunt as the “biggest land grab in the history of India”), also has similar views. “There is a failure of governance, a real crisis of credibility among the lower level functionaries. The whole judicial system, for instance, relies on the patwari andthanedar. If they tamper with an FIR or land paper, how can the system work? We have to think of alternative forms of governance. We have 32 states — let there be 10,000 forms of local government in them. We have to take the traditions of each community and work within that to implement democratic ideals.” At a press conference in Chhattisgarh, asked about the Maoist crisis, Rahul Gandhi himself said, “When governance fails to reach people, such movements are bound to gain strength.”

These ideas however cannot be postponed to some future utopia — a time when 234 districts have been recovered from Maoist control. “It is misleading to suggest all these areas have slipped out of government control,” says Aiyar. “Even in Naxal-affected areas, only some thanas are under their control. The rest are all under State control. We should immediately implement full-fledged Panchayati Raj and PESA in these thanas. We can win this only if we construct a real and shining alternative to the Maoist-led government.”

For that to happen, at the very least, in a sort of first sign of good intention, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh needs to retrieve the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and Panchayati Raj from the ciphers who now control it and give it to someone at par with the incumbent Home Minister. In fact, in the sort of neat ironies life sometimes offers, Home Secretary Gopal Pillai, who is seen as an able lieutenant to Chidambaram’s security-driven hard line, is married to Sudha Pillai, one of the country’s top civil servants on Panchayati Raj. Since, so far, governance has been promised at the heel of security — with disastrous consequences, for a while, perhaps, the wife should be foregrounded over the husband.

There are other urgent areas of redressal. As Aiyar says, “If the Tatas and Ambanis can own vast tracts of land and the government deems private property as sacred, how is it that we think of community property as something that the government can take over? The tribals have owned these forests since time immemorial. This tradition was only disrupted when the British entered the forests of Dandakaranya. Can’t democratic India restore the the rights over this forest back to its own people? Finally, if middle-class Indians can have shares in corporate projects, why can’t tribals be made stakeholders in projects that ursurp their land?”

So before the memory of the 76 jawans fades, here’s the question again: what route is India going to take now? When you ask the Home Minister — or chief ministers of Naxalaffected States — to seize the high moral ground and send out a message to their police and paramilitary forces that no excesses will be tolerated, they snap back — why are you pointing fingers at the State? What about the 55 CPM cadres the Maoists have killed in Bengal this year? What about the 11 jawans they have killed in Koraput? The trap of binary conversations.

It is futile to remind them that they are our elected representatives and democracy demands we hold them more accountable than the Maoists; futile to remind them that we expect the State to have a greater morality than the outlaws they are combating. Futile to assert that our constitutional concern about the nature of the Indian State does not equate to support for the Maoists. Violence can only legitimise itself by painting broad pictures of Good and Evil, by painting itself the Avenger. This is why, for defenders of Operation Green Hunt, condemnation of Maoist violence must ride on silence about the State’s.

In a telling detail, however, the widow of beheaded policeman, Francis Induwar understood that death does not come in different colours. Barely weeks after her husband’s gory murder at the hands of Maoists, she was pleading with the government not for revenge but a non-military approach to resolve the Maoist crisis. A cardinal rule of leadership that leaders often forget is the powerful symbolism of taking the unilaterally ethical stand. Not contingent on the good behaviour of others. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true.”

Maybe the death of these jawans will bring that message home to those men and women who wield most power in this country.