Insurgencies of despair, uprisings of hope

Two truths

Twin determinations

Two sets of values

An unproven person

Has been created inside

The existing individual

— Naresh Mehta in "Sansay ki Ek Raat"

Afghanistan continues to burn in the inferno of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Unlike the colonial forces of the earlier era, the army under US command likes to think that maintaining law and order is not a part of its brief in occupied territories. It seems to operate with a divine mission — Bush II prefers the term 'crusade' — to eliminate its designated enemies, with little or no concern for collateral damage. In the indiscriminate bombings by helicopter gunships high in the air, safe from the sniper bullets of insurgents on the ground, all kinds of people die. Among the victims are women, the elderly, the young and infirm. But for those who keep the score in Kabul, all the dead are counted as remnants of Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists on the run. As if giving a label to the victim justifies the killing.

East of the Durand Line, the situation is hardly any better in Pakistan, where US forces routinely cross over in search of fugitives from the vengeful regime in Kabul. This happens despite the fact that General Pervez Musharraf has posted 70,000 troops in tribal areas, at the beck and call of Americans hunting Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters and sympathisers. The deadly attack by fidayeen suicide bombers in the Kashmir Valley continues, despite the fact that the 742-km Line of Control that divides the region between India and Pakistan is one of the most fiercely guarded ceasefire lines in the world. In Jaffna, the volatile peace still holds, but no one knows when it is going to snap in the absence of a lasting solution to the festering ethnic conflict.

Elsewhere in Southasia, left extremism is spreading like a prairie fire. By consistently ignoring the seven parliamentary parties' attempts at moderating the Maoists, the horse-and-buggy-age monarchy of Nepal has added fuel to the fire of rebellion. The Communist Party of India (Maoist) is now a formidable force in the region, with its guerrillas operating in 170 districts of 15 states across the country, which cover 40 percent of its geographical area and 35 percent of the Indian population. The Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations of South Asia (CCOMPOSA) may just be an exotic acronym for now, but with the possibilities of leftwing extremism rising up in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the next wave of insurgency to shake up the Subcontinent will probably be in the realm of politics, rather than ethnicity, religion or culture.

Insurgencies of despair

Islamist Jihadis and Hindutva obscurants have eyes in the backs of their heads. There is no doubt that the Shariat is a fine document, but any attempt to run a contemporary society on the basis of rules framed one-and-a-half millennia ago is absurd. Even more bizarre is the response of Hindutva militants who believe in fighting fire with fire, and wish to re-enact another all-consuming Mahabharata for their version of monopolistic truth. Proponents of militant Hinduism often ignore the most fundamental lesson of the Mahabharata epic: In any war fought to settle scores, it is the manifest destiny of everyone to die defeated.

Cultural insurgencies are rooted in the past, look towards history for inspiration, and have no vision for anything that has not been tried in myths and memories. Failure is thus an integral part of all revivalist ideologies. The Taliban wrote the script of their own downfall by gouging out the Buddhas from the rocks of Bamiyan. Even though American excesses in Afghanistan vastly exceeded the atrocities being inflicted by occupation forces in Iraq, there is no way that retro-extremists such as Omar and Osama will ever get the reluctant respect extended even to a confirmed dictator like Saddam Hussein. It is unlikely that the bombers of the Hanuman Temple in Benaras, Nishter Park in Karachi or the Jama Masjid in Delhi will ever be feted anywhere by the oppressed. They may have taken great personal risks, hit headlines, received attractive compensations from their sponsors, extracted revenge or been promised happiness in the afterlife. But whenever and wherever these soldiers of the past die, they will die in extreme loneliness – unkempt, unwept and unsung.

Ethnic uprisings, as in Kashmir, Assam and Jaffna, are somewhat different from cultural revivalism in the sense that they aspire to transform ethnic identities into political entities. But most ethnic insurgencies too are doomed to fail, as they seek to take revenge from some, rather than ensuring justice for all. Pundits were a minority in Kashmir Valley, but to prosecute them on the flimsy grounds of guilt by association with a certain religion was so atrocious that it destroyed the independence movement of Kashmiris for good. Every time insurgents in the Indian Northeast abduct or kill an innocent, the sacrifice of their cadres goes to waste and their cause suffers a setback. Most ethnic uprisings fail to mature into independence movements because the very premise of ethnic exclusivity is antithetical to nation-building. And wherever countries are built upon the idea of purity, they are cursed to remain in a constant state of war. The most illustrative case in point is Israel; but Pakistan is not much different, and Sri Lanka for the Sinhalese hurled the Isle of Serendipity onto a similar rollercoaster.

Cultural insurgencies and ethnic revolts are doomed to collapse in the long run, but they burn fierce as long as they last. Issues related to self and identity are so fissile that if ignited, the resulting fire consumes all of an individual's rationality. For causes related to culture, people die, often rushing towards their death with a grit and determination that would have made some real differences in society had they lived. But hope is not the motive force of ethnic uprisings and cultural insurgencies; they are propelled instead by despair. Regardless of the name given to their cause – nationalism, patriotism, or religious duty – the 'martyrs' of despair die essentially of rage.

The Page Three intelligentsia of New Delhi loves to point out that the cultural insurgencies of Kashmir and the Northeast affect only three percent of their national population, whereas leftwing rebellion is much more widespread and entrenched. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too has bought that line, and begun to portray the Naxalite revolt as the premier threat of this century. Perhaps the risk assessment is partially correct. Right-wingers tend to burn out or die out if monitored closely or consistently contained within a limited geographical area. The rebellions of the Left are altogether different. They are caused by the hope of an alternative future. Whereas cultural insurgents are willing to die, rebels of class-warfare would rather kill the enemy than sacrifice themselves for the cause. In communist ideologies, the 'cause' in any case is fluid and subjected to the whims of the leaders at the vanguard of revolution.

Uprisings of hope

There is a very popular proverb in Nepali, which says that axioms are not false and stories are not factual. But most analyses of communist uprisings are based on stories rather than axioms. John Reed wrote about the Russian Revolution in the 1922 Ten Days That Shook the World, and its grand narrative has continued to influence even the critical accounts of all subsequent class wars. No narration of the Mao phenomenon escapes the myths manufactured by Edgar Snow in his 1936 Red Star over China. Did Lenin and Mao do what they did strictly according to the maxims of Karl Marx, or did they go by their own interpretations? An honest answer to this question is necessary. There is no reason for all leftwing revolutionaries everywhere to forever bear the crosses of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.

Unlike the self-destructive trait of every cultural insurgency, leftwing rebellion begins with an alternative vision of a shared future. Once there is a plan, howsoever flawed, the space for negotiation remains. A communist revolutionary cannot succeed by dying; her cause survives only if she does. That is the reason leftwing insurgents concentrate on killing and do not embrace death as willingly as do the suicide foot-soldiers of identity politics.

Just as it used to be fashionable to be socialist in the 1970s and 1980s, these days it is chic to be ethnic and to sympathise with those who extol the slogan, "Say it with pride that we are Hindus". But the pride of being Hindu does not explain the widening gulf between the rich and poor. It does not stop subsidy-starved farmers from committing suicide. It does not say why a tractor buyer in Telangana has to pay higher interest rates than does an IT professional acquiring his second car in New Delhi.

The states of Southasia will have to deal simultaneously with both challenges – the insurgencies of despair and uprisings of hope – as they gear up to meet modernity. Adoption of Gandhian ideals would have lessened the stress in society and alleviated the need of violent uprisings. But that has already become a road not taken. Driving on the highways of capitalism is smooth, but the risks of fatal accidents are much greater at higher speeds.

Containment and control are the only tools to tackle rightwing regression; but to deal with leftwing resurgence, engagement is the more effective option. Should the understanding between parliamentary parties and Maoists succeed in Nepal, a template will hopefully emerge to design workable methods of mainstreaming leftwing insurgents. Meanwhile, the War on Terror is the wrong model to fight any insurgency in Southasia, be it of despair or of hope – a fact that has been proven beyond a shred of doubt.

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