There is, at the moment, a big red fire blazing away in southern West Bengal, which may or may not have been put out by the time this article appears. That is not the point, however; the point is that these fires will rage and ravage again and again. India – or at least its impoverished and long-neglected eastern flank, from Bengal, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, right down the Coromandel Coast along Orissa, Andhra Pradesh as well as parts of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – is in the convulsive grip of Naxalism, and nobody quite has a remedy. The government, at any rate, does not, because it has gotten the diagnosis sorely wrong. Naxalism is, undeniably, a law-and-order problem, but it is not that alone; the violence Naxalites often wreak is a virulent symptom, not the disease itself. And until the government realises that, its remedies are doomed to failure. The state government’s 22 June ban on the Naxalites following the outbreak in Bengal is a mere updating-the-books exercise, nothing more. Maoist groups have long been banned; it is only that the government had not taken cognisance of their merger into one group. The ban has not helped in the past, and it is unlikely to work any magic now.
There has scarcely been an element to the government’s counter-Naxalite initiatives that goes beyond police or military measures – ban, kill, crush, exterminate. It is not so easily done, as the expanding sphere of Naxalites suggests. Led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – who has often called Naxalites the most significant internal security threat to India, and likened them to a malaise that needs to be wiped out – New Delhi authorities are in the process of concocting strong medicine. But it will be the wrong medicine if its only ingredients are metal and khaki. To anyone possessed of common sense, the requirements of rooting out Naxalism should be apparent at a mere glance of their sphere of influence – is it any coincidence that Naxalites are prospering in exactly the same region that is also India’s most underfed and exploited?
The Naxalite-dominated areas are not merely the most socio-economically backward. They are also areas in which the so-called new global economy is being granted platforms – the opening of natural resources to multinationals and national big industry, the creation of SEZs, the allowance to outside interests to prospect for profit. Not only is much of this happening without taking into account local interests; often it is taking place at the expense of local communities. Displacement is a huge issue, and is at the core of agitations in Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. If the state is perceived by people as inert to their interests, they will be tempted to find solutions through those that offer them – in that region, the Naxalites.
Red scar over India
The state, at its benevolent best, is a painter of signs, no more. That has been the story in the Naxal belt, so called. The narrow road from Raipur through the Bastar forest to Konta on the northern Andhra frontier sees the flowering of myriad welfare slogans: Educate Your Child. Pox And Polio Cripple, Inoculate Your Child. Small Family, Happy Family. Drink Clean Water, Drink Milk. Preserve the Forest. Use Condoms, HIV Kills. Hunger kills too, but that is not an assigned slogan anywhere. And the painter’s done his painting and left, anyhow. See you when the next allotment arrives to put up more exhortations. Meanwhile, ponder my sage advice on the walls.
No roads, no power, no water, no intimations even of an effort made. A squat structure that a mangled strip of metal announces itself to be a jail; its walls are tumbled, its insides abandoned to the ravages of the bush. The state has withered to remnants. Bastar, the staging post of the Naxalite rebellion and verily its operational headquarters, is a starved chicken’s neck pincered at the tri-junction of Orissa, Andhra and Maharashtra. Its many treasures have been reaped and carted away for profit by incessant coloniser-contractor waves. Its ecology has been scratched and smashed by cynical hunters of fortune – leopard skin, deer meat, iron ore, bauxite. They have scavenged Bastar to the bare bone.
If Indians do not often hear of the fires flaming here, it is probably because this is too famished a flank, and too far away from the news centres. The nether half of a newly created state that has mostly remained outside of the pale of consciousness. Bastar, when it was a single district, would have counted among India’s largest, but nine out of ten still would probably fail to locate it on a map. Something tribal, somewhere remote.
The natives of the land have been left to eke out their inhuman indices. Literacy begins at nil, and strains to reach 21 percent in pockets. Nearly 700 of the 1220 villages have no schools; and where there are schools, they are mostly shuttered. Only 59 villages have primary health centres, but only in name. Death due to disease and malnutrition is rampant. Eighty-four percent of the Adivasis remain marginal agricultural workers, often having to migrate in search of daily wages. Most of Bastar still lives an essentially pre-modern existence. The arterial roads are excellent, and there is surplus power; but that only deepens the ironies. Both have been used by the outsider to exploit and extract Bastar’s riches; both have limited uses for the Adivasi. The state mostly slept on its slogans and promises. It filled the legislative bodies with the minimum required by quotas, and it painted more slogans.
This is how the Naxalites arrived here in the early 1980s, ploughing parched aspiration with seeds of an egalitarian revolution. They spread fast, because they had more to assist them than merely tribal disaffection: contiguity with Naxalite bases in neighbouring states; the forested, sparsely populated terrain; and, most of all, a state that, at least initially, just did not care. The Reds had free run, and they cried their slogans loud. End feudal exploitation! End Contractor Raj! Pay higher wages! Stop abusing women! Leave tribal land and its fruit to the tribal! They were fired by their zeal, and they quickly inspired sympathy and support. Where they could not inspire politically, they dominated by the gun. As they still do in large parts of Bastar, Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal.
The state’s – and the intelligentsia’s – response has been flawed on more counts than just seeing Naxalism as a law-and-order issue. Most of the time, they do not even bother to see that the Naxalites are there. They get noticed after a big strike, then are forgotten as the heat peters out and attention moves to other things. But the Naxalites are not a one-strike or two-strike issue. They do not cease to be after they have struck. They will not cease to be because the police or security forces have ‘strengthened vigil and brought in more reinforcements’.
This is an issue that needs constant and consistent attention. It needs integrated and comprehensive handling. It needs a basic rethink. It requires fundamental changes in the ways socioeconomic relations are structured. Governments – at the Centre and in the states – have scarcely paid attention to correctives; they have been pro-active on provocations. It is not enough to give the Naxalites a bad name and beat them and their hapless supporters. They are the symptom of a malaise that is largely the creation of the state. If the state is loath to recognise that, it is only contributing to the proliferation of Naxalism.
Of course, there are problems with and within Naxalism. Though they united recently under the Communist Party of India (Maoist) banner, Naxalites remain a many-splintered phenomenon, locked in dogmatic hair-splitting, in polemical and personal disputes, also in fratricidal violence. In Bihar, one of their oldest theatres, the Maoist Communist Centre and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation spent the better part of the last decade hunting each other down, rather than pursuing the cause of the rural sarvahara (proletariat).
In Andhra Pradesh, an intellectually more vigorous arena, the People’s War busied itself quarrelling with sympathisers. Kondapalli Seetharamaiah, the founder of the People’s War, died disowned by his cadres. The intellectual vanguard of the movement has long been advocating that the Naxalites break out of the narrow agrarian armed-struggle mould, and involve themselves in the battle against communalism and globalisation, in the battle for gender and caste equality. The armed jungle groups have been resisting, charting their own course. They have begun working through panchayats on irrigation and land-renewal schemes, but they are yet to bestow upon themselves a broader eyeview in a world that is fast morphing.
Naxalism has far from proved itself as a sustainable solution to the problems into which it tears. It is grand in end and principle – the call for an egalitarian society – but deeply flawed in method and tactic. It has often lost its way so grievously that even its articulate patrons in the civil-liberties and human-rights movement have stepped back to fault them.
In the jungles of Bastar, as elsewhere, the Naxalite project has run into roadblocks it cannot negotiate. It is not powerful enough to overthrow the state; it is not resourceful enough to carve out a constituency of its own – call it a parallel government. Eventually, somewhere, Naxalite strategy came up against avowed Naxalite intentions. Naxalites stopped Adivasis from picking tendu leaves, a key occupation, because contractors would not up the wages. Naxalites stopped Adivasis from picking contract jobs – roads, bridges, public buildings – because, again, the wages were not good enough. Eventually, there were no wages coming in at all, and the Adivasis were left more impoverished than earlier.
In Bihar, their tactics remain, at best, misguided. The creation of ‘liberated zones’ – a euphemism for snatching land from landlords at gunpoint and distributing it among the landless – has proved disastrous for the intended beneficiaries. They snatch away land, hand it out to sharecroppers and move on to the next potential ‘liberated zone’. The landless are left at the mercy of the landlord, who often has the police, the administration and the political power brokers all behind him – and who has been itching to retaliate. In the last few years, the Naxalites of central Bihar have also made Enemy Number One out of people who should have been their allies – the CPI (Marxist-Leninist), which has now shunned armed struggle to join parliamentary politics. The Naxalite has thus become a beast devouring its own children, bent upon punishing them for ‘betrayal’ of the cause and for nibbling away his base.
And policemen alone are not equipped to get the Naxalites out of their expanding constituency of darkness, because police solutions presuppose that Naxalism is a law-and-order problem, nothing more. Police solutions get it wrong at the very start, with the definition. That is the classic trap of lighting into symptoms without bothering to investigate the disease.
But fractious, confused, blundering and misdirected as they are, the Naxalites are still there to be contended with. Their constituency is expanding because the constituency of the disaffected is expanding. Institutions of the state are not there to rely on for either redressal or sustenance. Promises are dust that trails off behind the bandwagons of the netas. Who do people turn to? The landless? The jobless? The debt-ridden woe-begotten among us? If Naxalites have found new routes to the grassroots, directly or through the panchayat local government and self-help groups, it is a sign of a truant or an entirely withered state.