Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What happened with the Bhubaneshwar Rajdhani? Reflections on Dissent and Violence

By Nibedita Menon

From passengers’ eyewitness accounts, and those of the driver and assistant driver of the train (congratulations, for once, to Times of India and to Indian Express reporter Debabrata Mohanty for going beyond statements from police and other officials of the Indian state), this is what happened:

The train was running on schedule when the driver noticed logs on the tracks and a large mob of about 300 waving red flags, rushing towards the train. As the train screeched to a halt, stones were pelted (some passengers reported minor injuries from shattered window glass) and some men climbed into the driver’s cabin. Said the driver, K Ananth Rao and his assistant K G Rao to the ToI reporter, Sukumar Mahato, “They said they were holding up the train because the state had waged a war on tribals. We followed them and sat by the tracks.”

[The Indian Express story by Ravik Bhattacharjee and Kanchan Chakrabarty, unattributed to any source, claims "The Rajdhani Express was intercepted by a 1500 strong mob and its driver and his assistant were taken hostage."]

The PCAPA (People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities) claimed

a) it was not hostage-taking, but a rail abarodha (a blockade) of the train for flouting the rail roko call, when an indefinite bandh against atrocities by the joint security forces in the district had begun since morning.

b) it was meant to draw attention to the arrest of Chhatradhar Mahato, the PCPA leader. One of the slogans sprawling in red letters across the side of the train says, in English, Chhatradhar Mahato is a good man.

The passengers generally conveyed that they never felt a threat to their lives from the men, saying things like: “After about an hour they took pity on us since there were so many children with us, and they let us get back on the train” (Himanshu Patra, in Indian Express); “the commander said that we should report any attempt to harm us or loot us directly to him(Harish Verma in ToI); “They asked us to come down with our luggage one by one” (Hamid Khan, to ToI); “We thought they would loot us. But they did not harm anybody after we followed their orders” (Susanta Das, DNA)

What did they loot? Samosas, sandwiches, water cartons, blankets. State property in this case, it being the Rajdhani Express. Food, water and warmth – basic necessitites of life that most “citizens” of India cannot expect as a matter of course. The mobiles and walkie-talkies they took from the drivers were returned to them.

Most of the men were armed with tribal weapons (axes, swords, bows and arrows); some were carrying fire-arms. When security forces arrived, there was some firing from the forests, and then the crowd melted away.

The general sense among those who speak in the public domain (including fellow-kafialite Aman Sethi, with whom many an argument has been had in the past!) is that the Maoists have “learnt a lesson”.

But perhaps we need to be alert to something else altogether?

The PCAPA is not the CPI (Maoist), it seems worth stating. (Nor are all Maoists with the party that calls itself CPI-Maoist. One of the most pernicious conflations carried out by the mass media and the government – as well as unknowingly by intellectuals of integrity - which suits the CPI-Maoist very well, is the complete non-differentiation of of tribals taking up arms, Maoists in general, “Naxalites”, and the CPI-Maoist). This operation was not a Maoist one, it has all the hallmarks of a tribal action. No blowing up rail tracks, no hostages, no demands to blackmail the state with the lives of innocents – these are not the signs of a Maoist operation. There were Maoists among them, the PCAPA is now “backed” by CPI (Maoist), and why did it need this backing? Because a legitimate mass movement in Lalgarh against police atrocities in the wake of the bomb blast on Buddhadeb’s route, has been consistently demonized, dubbed Maoist, its members arrested without cause, and thus, step-by-step, driven by the state into the hands of the CPI (Maoist) – exactly what the bomb-blast was intended to accomplish. It was not meant to kill anybody, but to provoke the state to do what it does best - launch its war on terror so effectively as to make the most violent alternatives to democratic mass movements look like the only effective politics possible.

The arrest of Chhatradhar Mahato has been widely condemned, even by Left Front partner Forward Bloc. State general secretary Ashok Ghosh told PTI that Mahato, who has been in open contact with political leaders for some time and was issuing statements regularly, could have been arrested three months ago through the same process as today. So why now? Whom does it help?

The arrest was illegal (of course, most arrests in India are) – he was arrested by policemen posing as journalists, flouting a judgement of the Supreme Court that says that during arrest, arresting police must be in uniform and bear the official badge.

Mahato is no criminal, there are no criminal cases against him, he is the leader of a democratic mass movement against indiscriminate state action. The arrest is unacceptable by any standard or argument, whether strategic (‘why now’) or democratic.

What we now see emerging in the Rajdhani incident is a legitimate people’s mass movement protesting state atrocities, that had contained the CPI (Maoist) within its formation for months, now being driven into the control of that party.

Can this be the beginning of the democratization of CPI (Maoist) under the pressure of being part of a mass movement?

I doubt it. What many of us fear is really the case, is that the mass movement is going to come under the control of the inherently anti-democratic thrust of armed revolution as strategy to overthrow state power.

Let me be very clear, I’m not arguing that violence as such is “inherently anti-democratic”. I am not a pacifist. Spontaneous violence against the structural violence of the state and structure of private property, violence in self-defence, even pre-planned violent action designed to redress a specific situation – all of these possibilities always simmer just below the skin of normal society, and must be understood within the context of hideous, unrelenting, never-addressed injustice. As Eduardo Galeano puts it in The Upside-Down World:

“The killer instinct is an essential ingredient for getting ahead, a human virtue when it helps large companies digest small and strong countries devour weak, but proof of bestiality when some jobless guy goes around with a knife in his fist.”

Such acts of violence I will insist are justifiable political violence – from the long and glorious history of adivasi uprisings against repressive power, to the battered wife with an endlessly abusive husband, waiting for him to fall into a drunken sleep before stabbing him to death.

But make no mistake – this is not the violence enshrined in parties like the CPI-Maoist. Armed revolution as a strategy to overthrow state power involves two things – working towards becoming the state, and in the process, intense, paranoid secrecy. Both of these are what are inherently anti-democratic.

And to be fair, the CPI-Maoist is very up-front about its plans. Here are excerpts from its document, Urban Perspective, available freely on the web:

“In order to mobilize the broadest possible sections in struggle it is absolutely essential that we should utilize all possible open and legal opportunities for work (and not reject the use of legality). Broad mass organizations help the Party to have wide contact with masses, so that it can work under cover for a long time and accumulate strength…Broad, open and legal forms of organizing the masses have, however, to be combined with the strictest methods of secrecy, especially with regard to the link between the open and underground organization….

Thus we must be clear that the open revolutionary mass organization cannot be a permanent form of mass organization in the urban areas. It can and must be utilized in the periods and situations of legal opportunities, and we must be ever alert to make use of such opportunities whenever they arise…

Fractional Work – Here the Party works through the numerous traditional mass organizations that operate in the urban areas. These traditional mass organizations are the organizations normally set up by the masses to fight for their sectional interests or otherwise fulfill their needs. The Party, through its members or other activists, penetrates such organizations without exposing any links with the Party. Through the activities of the organization, the masses, while being mobilized for their sectional interests, are attempted to be drawn towards the revolution. This method of organizing, if properly conducted, offers the best opportunity for cover work for a long period of time… Once we have decided to do fractional work within an organization we should strive to achieve a leading position in it. This means we should be in a position to influence and guide the decisions of the organization. If it is necessary to takeover office bearers’ posts in order to achieve this influence, then we should make attempts to do so. Whether we take up office bearers’ posts or not, the important point in fractional work is the skillful exposure of the reactionaries and reformists leading or participating within these organizations. This exposure is essential to draw the masses away from their influence. This must however be done without exposing ourselves to the enemy. The forms of exposure will thus differ depending upon the concrete situation. In vast areas where risk of direct exposure of our fractional work activists is low, we can use propaganda by the secret revolutionary mass organization or even direct calls by the Party. In smaller areas like a single factory or slum we may have to mainly or only use word-of-mouth propaganda. Sometimes we can create artificial banners like ‘angry workers’, ‘concerned slum dwellers’, etc. for doing our propaganda. Very often we may have to use a combination of various methods. Whatever is the method it should be applied carefully, skillfully, and consistently… It should ensure that the masses are drawn away from the influence of reactionaries and reformists…

Party-formed Cover Mass Organizations – It sometimes becomes necessary for us to directly form mass organizations under cover without disclosing their link with the Party. Mostly, such a need arises due to the absence of any other suitable mass organization within which we can do fractional work…The methods of mass work too are not very different from the areas of fractional work. The main difference is of course that we do not have the task of exposure, as when working within the reactionary and reformist organizations…

Legal Democratic Organizations – These are the organizations formed on an explicit political basis with some or all aspects of an anti-imperialist, anti-feudal programme, and with a programme of action and forms of struggle that broadly fall within a legal framework. …The scope of the legal democratic organization is very wide, extending to the broad coalitions and alliances formed against repression, globalization, Hindutva, and right up to the all-encompassing bodies formed with the banners of anti-capitalism or people’s struggles. ..The legal democratic movement itself too can grow from strength to strength and remain on the correct political course only if we concentrate sufficiently and simultaneously on developing the secret Party core within it.”

In short, take over existing mass organizations when you cannot set them up, work towards subverting their exisiting processes by producing secret propaganda about those who are influential in it, and so on and on – always, always, utilize people towards a secret end that you know if you reveal out in the open, very few will be with you.

Having participated over the 1990s in many broad non-party, non-funded formations in Delhi against the state in general and against Hindutva politics, the inexplicable and bitter break-up of some of them is now tragically crystal clear to me.

And yet, my democratic instincts insist, even the CPI-Maoist must be given its place within the spectrum of political dissent. As one element of the spectrum.

The problem is, the party in its turn has no notion of legitimate dissent to its politics. If you’re not with it, you’re with the state. If it declares war on the state, it commits everyone within range – willing or unwilling, knowing and unknowing – to that war. And this war is no metaphor. The entire document quoted above is a document of war strategy – there is the party, and there is the “enemy”. The rest are to be utilized.

Another voice must emerge. Based on a critique of the state – of any state, of this state, of corporate greed in partnership with institutions masquerading under cover of democracy. But insisting also, always, on the legitimacy of dissenting voices within the dissent to the state.