THE recent killing of 24 jawans of the Eastern Frontier Rifles in the Silda area of West Midnapore, close to the troubled Maoist-dominated Lalgarh reminds us, as if we needed reminding, of the violent conflict marking parts of our countryside. The gruesome killings of the EFR jawans have been widely condemned, as they should be. The West Bengal state secretary of the CPI(M), Biman Bose, has termed the Maoist operation as a ‘war against democracy.’
From all accounts, the attack was led by an adivasi woman in her thirties – Jagari Baskey – who has been described as a ‘woman with a cobra-like hypnotic gaze.’ As one of the shopkeepers of Silda market told Times of India reporters, ‘(H)er eyes were intense. One look and you knew she meant business.’ There were reportedly other women participating in the operation as well. Jagari Baskey, of course, has already emerged as a mythical figure, her legend relayed through the media. It is difficult to miss the feeling of secret admiration lurking behind the accounts offered by the locals. And so, as one reads through these reports, it is evident that it is an entirely different world out there.
Popular narratives, even when they are opposed to the brutality of the killings, clearly portray that much of the urbane, sophisticated indignation at the killings arises because all we see is the ‘freeze shot’ of a movie that has been on for a long time – a movie where killings, rape, brutality, implication in false police cases and even torture by uniformed agents of the state is a daily affair. It has been a long time since people hereabouts have known peace in their everyday lives. ‘Uniformed brutes’ was probably the only ‘form’ in which they encountered the state. Thus, as one newspaper report put it, it was many years ago that the local adivasis, the Lodhas and the Sabars, first ‘invited’ the ‘forest party’ (bon parti) to come to their area.
They did not invite the ‘bon parti’ to Jangal Mahal because they thought the party would give them development. So, let us get one shibboleth out of the way at the outset. Yes, there is virtually no development – roads, schools, health centres – available to the adivasis of the area. There have even been some starvation deaths in the region in recent years, indicative of the abysmal conditions that obtain. There probably was a time when some basic ‘development’ might have helped. But what seems to have made matters intolerable is not so much the supposed lack of development, but a vicious combination of local power nexuses – forest contractors, the police and the local CPI(M) – which together has so far held the population of the area under its iron grip. And this is what the adivasis are at war against in Lalgarh today. The moment of providing ‘development’, if ever there was any, has clearly passed.
Lalgarh, in that sense, is a typical area of Maoist influence. Yet, while there is sufficient evidence to show that even though the Maoists have been operating in the area for a couple of decades, they were at best a marginal force. It was really the mass uprising against continued police harassment from November 2008 onwards that finally opened the floodgates for them. The situation reached an insurrectionary level only after the electoral defeat of the CPI(M) and the Left Front in May-June 2009 – for this was when the power bloc started showing cracks. And the Maoists stepped into the breach.
In many other areas of Maoist influence as well, there is no difference in at least one thing: alongside the absence of development is the complete impunity with which local power blocs exploit, harass and torture local adivasi populations. This is what provides the Maoist movement its greatest attraction.
Of late, however, something else has happened. If once ‘development’ meant, at the very least, provision of basic amenities to ordinary people, it no longer does, not at least in dominant discourse. Despite tall talk of ‘human development’ and ‘inclusive growth’, progress, particularly economic progress, seems to have been reduced to an obsessive fascination with GDP and the Sensex. And higher growth rates require accelerated and more frenetic exploitation of ‘natural resources’ – forests, mines, land cleared of populations for setting up new steel plants and other industrial projects. In the years since the 1990s, it is this imperative that has been driving our leaders and planners – Capital is the new God and whatever it demands must be provided. If adivasis have to be cleared off their traditional habitats, so be it. In the end, we are told, everything is for the Nation’s development and, of course, what is good for capital is good for the nation. (Remember the old American saying: What’s good for General Motors is good for America?)
It is not simply the ‘lack’ of development but precisely the Thing-Itself, in the way it is conventionally understood, that is the problem. The regions where the Maoists have been in ascendance are precisely the areas where new corporate designs for clearing land are being put in place. And while there indeed are many similar places where non-violent resistance and militant mass struggles have been reported, in areas where there are no mass struggles, ‘Maoism’ certainly begins to look like an attractive option.
How then do we understand this phenomenon called Maoism? As a symptom, maybe? The symptom of a malaise that is slowly and steadily eating away at the body politic. The story of ‘Maoism’ reminds us that there is something seriously wrong somewhere – with our democracy, our justice system and with our priorities of ‘economic growth’.
This issue of Seminar attempts to put together a range of different positions that, hopefully, will help us better understand both the story of Maoism, as well as the other story which runs beneath. There are positions that defend the Maoist movement, as also those that provide a friendly critique; there are positions that present their criticism of the Maoist worldview and praxis head on and others which believe that the symptom – the insurgency – needs treatment (counter-insurgency) as well. Moving away, and beyond, engagements with Maoist theory and worldview are other narratives that map the terrain on which the conflict is taking place.
There is, however, one recurrent problem with taxonomy that needs to be addressed to aid comprehension. ‘Maoism’ is both a genus and a species. As genus, it refers to a whole range of currents that trace their lineage back to the revolt in Naxalbari in 1967. And while most of these currents have adopted some form of a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ tag to describe themselves, it is only two of them (out of the scores that emerged from that burst of ‘spring thunder’) that merged to form the CPI (Maoist). This is the species-Maoism that is under discussion. It may thus help, in order to avoid unnecessary confusion, to use the term ‘Naxalite’ to specifically refer to the genus-Maoism and ‘Maoist’ when referring to the specie.
Far too often, in official parlance, all these terms dissolve into each other – or into that even more nebulous term, left-wing extremism. Such a conflation by the powers-that-be and mainstream media helps thereby to brand all varieties of militant struggle in the countryside as ‘Naxalite’ or ‘Maoist’ or ‘left-wing extremism’, and thus delegitimize them all. Equally, human rights groups questioning the actions of counter-insurgency forces or groups like the Salwa Judum, are far too often derided as Maoist sympathizers. The fact, however, is that most of the Naxalite groups and parties have to varying degrees moved away from the politics of nihilistic armed violence that distinguishes the CPI (Maoist). Tarring them all with the same brush is not merely simplistic – it can be destructive – as it contributes to the endlessly bloated sense of the Maoist’s strength while, at the same time, marginalizing all other tendencies.