The 6 April killing of 76 personnel of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in a Maoist attack in Dantewada, in Chhattisgarh, is seen by many as a turning point in the Maoist-versus-government war in India. “If this is not the wake-up call,” Home Minister P C Chidambaram said in Parliament, “then nothing will wake this country.” From the government, such rhetoric is to be expected, given that it sees the attacks as constituting an opportunity to rally support for an all-out assault. But in fact, far from a landmark, game-changing event, the Dantewada violence, in which some Maoists too lost their lives, is one more milestone on the steady descent into the pit that has plagued Maoist-affected parts of India for years.
New Delhi has responded with further sabre-rattling, in effect threatening to launch a no-holds-barred war against the Maoists. There was renewed talk of involving the military, particularly the Air Force, in the conflict, which was fortunately quickly shot down by Air Chief Marshal P V Naik. Meanwhile, all political parties have rallied behind the government, with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) having said, in the wake of reports that Chidambaram had offered to resign over the incident, that the home minister must stay on. Security analysts, while suggesting different tactics, ranging from all-out war to strategic targeting and assassination of key Maoist leaders, are likewise united in recommending an intensification of the conflict – a move that will doubtless lead to the loss of more lives.
On the Maoist side too there appears to be a hardening of positions. Of this, the Dantewada attack was the most dramatic example, but it was also preceded by the February attack on the Silda camp in West Bengal, which resulted in the deaths of 24 personnel of another paramilitary force, the Eastern Frontier Rifles. Offers for negotiations and ceasefires are now being made side by side with such attacks, leading to doubts about the seriousness of the Maoists.
Caught in the crossfire are the communities, mostly Adivasi, of Central India. These people are strictly ‘neutral’ or ‘innocent’, as some analysts would have it; but misconceived past initiatives such as creating armed militias like the Salwa Judum campaign in Chhattisgarh, and the lack of successful development initiatives, have only driven the people closer to the Maoists. The only time the state puts in an appearance in the forested regions where Maoism has evolved is as a predator, or as a middleman merrily selling land and resources on the cheap to domestic and multinational mining conglomerates. As such, with the Maoists among the few forces taking any practical, on-the-ground effort to mitigate the lot of these communities, the people are left with little choice but to turn to the Maoists for support. Helping the Maoist cause is the perception, not unfounded, that the Indian state refuses to take non-violent protest seriously.
But the violent campaign undertaken by the Maoists cannot be a solution either. Most importantly, such a move constricts the space for social movements which promise long-term and equitable development. Given the determination of the government to eliminate the Maoists, and to enforce state control over the territory in order to enable exploitation of the mineral and forest wealth there, it is not realistic to expect that the Maoists can force the government to back off or relinquish its role in furthering corporate interests. This is certainly impossible with the government’s understanding of Maoism still a throwback to the 1940s, positing a binary opposition between the state and the the Communists. The Indian state has an almost infinite capacity to bleed, as demonstrated in the longstanding conflicts in Kashmir and the Northeast. As happened in Nepal during the years of the Maoist insurgency, there is now a situation in which the poor are pitted against the poor. The security personnel, such as the jawans who were killed in Dantewada and Silda, come from a socio-economic stratum that is little different from those they are sent to fight.
Criminalising the middle
Though New Delhi is trying to build a consensus on quashing the Maoists, progressive opinion in India seems to be sympathetic to the Maoist cause, notwithstanding the militants’ strategies and tactics. This sympathy is strengthened by the government cracking down not only on the Maoists but on anybody whom they see as a Maoist ‘sympathiser’. A complaint has been filed against the writer Arundhati Roy under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA) for her recent essay “Walking with the Maoists” (Outlook, 29 March) on the grounds that the piece ‘created support’ for the militants. In this context, it is worth remembering the cases filed against Dr Binayak Sen in Chhattisgarh, who was also imprisoned for two years under the CSPSA until the Supreme Court granted him bail in May 2009. Such actions lead to the criminalisation of a more nuanced understanding of the conflict, which could serve as a means of mediation between the hardline positions being adopted by both sides and help bring them to the negotiating table. As things stand, the middle ground, which would offer a means of bringing an end to the violence, is being squeezed. The media is also culpable in lending support to the Rambo-like approach of the state, rather than building up a consensus that both parties be brought to the negotiating table (“Bloodthirsty Maoists”, read the opening line in a recent Times of India article).
Let us make no mistake about it: negotiations aimed at bringing an end to the conflict are the only way out of this steady descent. Both sides have to talk peace, and do it with the seriousness that such a drawn-out process demands, ensuring that conflict is not escalated in the interim. Both sides will have to make compromises and concede some ground to each other. New Delhi must concede to the demand, articulated by Maoist spokesperson ‘Azad’, that a mutual ceasefire be declared, rather than sticking to its own longstanding demand of unilateral renunciation of violence by the Maoists. On their part, the Maoists must recognise that attacks such as that which took place in Dantewada make it far more difficult for the government to move towards peace. As of now, a situation has arisen in which an irresistible force is meeting an insurmountable obstacle, and continued hostilities under such circumstances are likely to be counter-productive for both sides – and, most importantly, for those caught in the middle.