Weapons of mass desperation

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Lalgarh, in fact, is a textbook case for the Naxal riddle. Over the last six months, mainstream Indian media has been agog about the “Naxal menace” in Lalgarh. But almost no one thought to ask, was the flare up in Lalgarh in May sui generis? Does an entire society become Maoist overnight? Very few bothered to report that the trouble in Lalgarh began after the Maoists attempted an assassination of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya earlier this year. In retaliation, the Bengal police rounded up and brutalised scores of innocent tribal boys in neighbouring Lalgarh, who had nothing to do with the attack. After several months of this sort of general, untargeted police oppression, angry and desperate, the tribal community spontaneously organised themselves as a resistance force, fighting the might of the Indian State with nothing more than traditional tools – pick-axes, bows and arrows. A few weeks later, it appears, Kishenji, a Maoist leader from Andhra Pradesh arrived to raise the ante, teaching tactics of struggle, meshing solidarity with guns and advice. The State responded with increased force and brought in paramilitary forces — a dry run for Operation Green Hunt. After several days of heavy fire, ironically using Maoist jargon, the State declared Lalgarh had been “liberated”. But, the truth is, it has been on burn ever since. The attack on the CPM office is only the most recent expression of simmering anger in the area.

As Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian and the only human rights activist on ground zero in faraway Dantewada where Operation Green Hunt is to be launched, says, “We can all be agreed on the premise that Naxalism is a problem, but why are these poor people attracted to a politics that will end in death? Have we created such a heinous system that death is more attractive than the deprivations and humiliations this system doles out? If that is so, why should I defend this system? All that these people want is food, health care, school, clothes and their legitimate right over their land. Yet, instead of weaning them away by strengthening the democratic process, if we are going to run our democracy only on the strength of weapons, I fear we are entering a dangerous and irrepairable state. We are headed for civil war.” Men like Himanshu should know. For 17 years, he has functioned like an ICU on the edges of a wounded society, providing education and health care, painstakingly drawing tribals into the electoral and constitutional process. The government, loath to undertake the trouble, has been happy to outsource its functions to him. Yet now, it is deaf to his wisdoms. Worse, it hasn’t even consulted him.

WHICH BRINGS us to the element of water in the Naxal metaphor. People who say human rights activists and the questions they raise are antinational, would be surprised to know what men like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee themselves have had to say earlier about the Naxal riddle. Not to mention a galaxy of judges and constitutionalists.

In 2006, the Planning Commission asked an expert committee for a report on development challenges in “extremist affected areas.” The committee comprised senior officers like former UP police chief Prakash Singh; former intelligence head, Ajit Doval; senior bureaucrats like B. Bandopadhyay, EAS Sarma, SR Sankaran and BD Sharma; and activists like Bela Bhatia and K Balagopal. The report submitted in October 2008 had some visionary analysis and recommendations.

“The main support for the Naxalite movement,” it said, “comes from dalits and adivasi tribals”: the element of water: the infinite constituency in which Naxal leaders swim. Dalits and adivasis comprise a staggering one fourth of India’s population, yet are disproportionately destitute and low on the Human Development Index scale. Worse, they suffer the most humiliation and indignity: the proverbial insult on injury. The report is an exhaustive anthology of the causes for rural discontent and violence — recording meticulous data and case studies — but at the heart of its argument, it places the “structural violence implicit in our social and economic system” as the key explanation for Naxalite violence. Slamming the neoliberal directional shift in government policies, it urges a “development centric” rather than “security centric” approach to the Naxal problem.

The discourse on Naxals is marked By propaganda on one side and infantile ignorance and simple-mindedness on the other

Curiously, three years earlier in 2005, human rights lawyer Kannabiran had written a letter to Dr Manmohan Singh reminding him of his own report as a Planning Commission Member in 1982 and one written by Pranab Mukherjee in 2002 that had come to the same conclusion. As Bela Bhatia says, “With all this insight and understanding already with them, it is completely mystifying why they should go against their own intuition and recommendation and take a security-centric route. Actually,” she adds, “it is not mystifying. It only makes the character of the Indian State more clear.”

This ‘character’ gets even more depressing when you know that barely a week ago, on 15 September, Arjun Sengupta, former economic adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi also wrote that “Naxalism is a cry that must be heard”. Responding to Dr Manmohan Singh’s admission that despite the State’s best efforts to contain the “Naxal menace”, violence was still on the rise, Sengupta wrote powerfully, “It is important to understand why this is so and in what sense Naxalite violence is different from other violent outbursts. Although it has always expressed itself as a breach of law and order with violence, murder, extortion and acts of heinous crimes, it may not be prudent to think of every protest movement of the disaffected people as a simple issue of law and order violation, and calling for its brutal suppression. This form of extremism, indeed, goes beyond law and order, fanning some deep-seated grievance. We must try to resolve those problems first, as otherwise the violence will remain insurmountable.”

(Way back in 1996, Justice MN Rao of the Andhra Pradesh High Court had also remarked in a judgment, “While left wing extremism is viewed as a problem by the administration, it is increasingly being perceived as a solution to their problems by the alienated masses.” Why is this so? That’s a question every self-styled jingoistic nationalist must ask themselves.)

Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee have both headed reports urging development centric approaches to Naxalism

As Sengupta reminds the prime minister, he is right to fear that Naxal violence will raise its head again and again, because at its heart is the deeper structural violence that our democratic Republic refuses to address: a violence that forces 77 percent of Indians to live on less than Rs 20 a day while 5 percent enjoy lives that border on obscene excess.

Structural violence: that’s an imaginative vacuum. For most urban Indians, the lives of tribals and dalits has no meaning, no face, no flesh. Our books no longer write of it, our films no longer evoke it, our journalists no longer cover it. It’s not just the poverty; it’s bumping into a face of the Indian State you have never seen before: brutal, illegal, rapine, pimped out to serve the interests of a few. Unless one travels into the silent smoky hole in the heart of this country — the remote jungles of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh; the desolate corners of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and Rajasthan, one cannot feel the dread of this question: How will Operation Green Hunt solve this? You might stealth-march a mythic army of COBRA commandoes into this imaginative vacuum, but how will that dissolve the “two categories of human beings” our nation has created? Operation Green Hunt may kill several hundred ‘informed revolutionaries’ and several thousand of the despairing poor who have taken up arms, but how will it address the birth of new anger — anger born out of bombing an old wound?

Naxals are often guilty of brutal violence. Their struggle to seize state power threatens india’s sovereignty

As anthropologist and historian Ram Guha says, “It’s like a house with three rooms. One room was already on fire. Instead of dousing that, you willfully set fire to another room, then bulldoze the whole structure down.”

ONE OF the key architects of Operation Green Hunt, Home secretary Gopal Pillai sits in a giant office in powerful North Block. At first meeting, he doesn’t seem the average cynic you expect Indian bureaucrats to be. An amiable, thoughtful man, he says he’s seen long years of service in the Northeast and knows what a security-centric approach can do to a people, how it can trigger a world of smoke and mirrors where nothing is what it seems and everyone is chasing someone’s shadow. He seems open and ready to listen. More, he is full of surprisingly honest admissions: Manipur is a society in collective depression, he says. Yes, raising the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh (which human rights activists have been crying hoarse about) was wrong; yes, the Naxals have often taken up causes and done work that the government should have. But, he adds, their violent disruptions are a real deterrence for governance. You have no argument with that.

Today, the biggest riddle for anyone concerned about a just world is the dilemma of violence as a tool of political struggle

According to him, then, Operation Green Hunt is being planned as a kind of “area domination”. “We want to take back control of the land; but we will only fire if we are fired against,” says he. “Lalgarh is the model; we want no collateral damage. Our real success will be in restoring civil administration in this area. PDS, mobile medical vans, stronger police chowkis, schools – that’s our goal.” You feel eager to believe him.

Part of the problem of administering the tribal villages in the jungles of Chhattisgarh is that they are lonely and farflung; also few in the district or political administration know the tribal languages. Operation Green Hunt has been long in the planning. Battalions of CRPF men and para-military forces across the country are being given crash courses for the impending operation. The Centre has sanctioned 20 new schools in jungle warfare; invited crores worth of bids for military equipment. Is there a similar hot-foot programme for training, sensitising and incentivising the civil administration? you ask. Has he invited civil society activists in the region for their inputs? Mr Pillai has a sudden shocked moment of self-recognition. No, he admits, and scribbles “training” and “dialogue” on a yellow notepad.

‘This operation is a dangerous trap,’ says a security hawk. ‘you are looking for Ram Lal, you’ll end up killing his relatives’

There is a month to go before Operation Green Hunt is launched. A familiar despair sprouts: the gap between stated intention and action. And miles of paper and good advice gathering dust in the Planning Commission.

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