The limits of violence

Photo: Karen Haydock

India's Maoist movement is today the site of multiple paradoxes. On the one hand, many groups that would have unequivocally condemned the movement a decade ago for its violent methods are today increasingly prepared to see whether it has anything of value to offer – keeping open the question of violence. This change of heart has largely been brought around by the extreme insensitivity of the state – a change that ideological persuasion long failed to achieve. On the other hand, by increasingly relying on violence, including more arbitrary forms of it, the Maoist movement is receding farther and farther from any meeting point with such open-minded groups. In the era of neo-liberalism, many activists are not objecting as vociferously to violence in the 'interests' of the people as they once did, given that the current global socio-economic set-up is widely seen as an instrument of visible and invisible violence, the victims of which are the most vulnerable communities. But nearly all would still insist that the use of violent methods is nothing more than an exceptional option. Here is where the Maoists have yet to come around.

Andhra Pradesh offers a good case study of the compulsions that underlie the choice of violent methods of struggle, as well as the unpleasant consequences of the decision to take up arms. The Maoist movement owes its political character to the vicissitudes of its unfolding in both Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. But today, the movement is at its lowest ebb ever in Andhra, pushed to the corners of forest hideouts and into neighbouring Orissa and Chhattisgarh. At the same time, the movement is more prominently in the thoughts of politically active people than at almost any time in the past. Whether that interest can help the movement to truly break the shackles of repression, however, is a question that no close observer can avoid posing.

Too frequently, the discussion of revolutionary violence proceeds from the theoretical formulation made by the Naxalite movement – the stage of development of Indian society within the Marxist-Leninist paradigm, under which armed struggle is the only path to egalitarian revolution. However, neither the Naxalbari uprising nor any violent struggle undertaken by the Naxalites thereafter arose purely from this political belief. Instead, particular situations on the ground always made the choice a real possibility, and therefore made the theoretical belief more persuasive. Dogmatists on either side of the debate between violence and non-violence rarely understand that the average human being is simply not dogmatic in this particular issue. Moral pragmatism, coupled with abhorrence of any unnecessary or unjust use of violence, would about sum up the common person's attitude. When the very capacity for large-scale violence leads the activist to ignore this attitude, a gap develops – one that the activist will perforce come to rue someday.

Sangham to dalam
In Andhra Pradesh, the Naxalite movement's initial political dogmatism (usually blamed on Charu Majumdar, though he was probably not the only one to be blamed), which branded all mass activity as 'un-revolutionary', gave way to an important realisation. Even for the violent overthrow of the state, there is still a need to organise the people on their immediate social and economic demands, while simultaneously educating them about the preferred long-term strategy of armed struggle.

Soon after the lifting of the State of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, there was a mass upsurge in Karimnagar District, followed quickly in the other Godavari basin districts of Telangana. The communities that took part in this action were the poorest and socially lowest in the area, and they had organised around issues of wage, land and social oppression, all intricately linked with the larger issues of caste and gender. The targets of the movement – landlords as well as representatives of the state – knew that the Naxalites were behind this process of organisation, and also that the Naxalites believed in violence. But the struggle itself was by the unarmed poor, though of unprecedented determination and confidence. A few landlords of particularly vicious disposition were killed by the Naxalite cadre, but these acts could only be seen as 'supplementary' to the struggle of the people, not as a substitute for that struggle. The organisational centre was the agricultural labourers union, or Raythu Coolie Sangham (generally just known as the Sangham), and not the underground armed squads, known as dalams.

The state came down most heavily during this phase of the Naxalite movement, pointing to the rebels' violence as justification. At that stage, however, the violence was no more than what the mainstream political parties themselves were indulging in. The difference here was that this was not violence in the interest of the individual or faction, but rather in the interest of the most downtrodden communities. That should have put the movement on a higher moral plane, but morality is the last thing that dictates government policy, then or now. In reality, the fear was palpable in political circles that the rural socio-economic structure – the intact preservation of which is one of the fundamental compromises on which the Indian polity is based – was in danger of being irreparably shattered by the Naxalite movement.

The paradox is that this is what in the end did happen, in spite of all of the state's repression. As a mere idea, upsetting social hierarchies is as potent as any actual redistribution of property, and if the redistribution could be halted by force, the idea could not. It was unstoppable, and thus went ahead. And it cannot be overstated that if the downtrodden no longer feel downtrodden in Telangana, the credit goes substantially to the Naxalites. While it is sometimes said that the commercialisation of the rural economy would have had the same effect sooner or later, this is a spurious line of argument, for two reasons. First, few would suggest that no other force would have been able to achieve the results achieved by the Naxalite movement. Second, while commercialisation may well have been able to put an end to some of the more obnoxious forms of social thought and relation, it would not have engendered social consciousness of the type that the Naxalite movement succeeded in sowing within India's low social classes.

Escalation and breakdown
Rather than contemplating the might-have-beens of history, let us look at what the Naxalite groups did in response to state repression. The party, known for a long time as People's War, decided on retaliation without giving up mass struggle – in theory, at any rate. In the meantime, the other major party, known as the Chandra Pulla Reddy group, decided on resistance based primarily on the people, without giving up armed struggle. The difference was in the emphasis on armed struggle versus mass struggle. In the end, neither really succeeded, though it could be said about the People's War – now called the CPI (Maoist) – that the jury is still out.

The state retaliation that started during mid-1985 resulted in a spiral that is yet to abate. Correspondingly, the dalam replaced the Sangham as the organisational focus of the struggle. Such a shift took place, for instance, in Adilabad, which witnessed severe food shortages. The early strategy of villagers raiding shops and granaries and redistributing the grain gave way to armed action by dalams, who looted not just food, but also money, and wantonly demolished households.

Similarly, in the place of struggles by the people of the Sangham for higher wages, villages started seeing wages go up because of threats by the party, made visible through posters demanding higher wages. Settlement of disputes by the party in the presence of and with the participation of the people was replaced by decisions by the dalam in the presence of just a few villagers. Those who disagreed with this process would stop going to these 'people's courts', so eventually the only audience at the adjudications would consist of the party loyalists.

All of this was taking place amidst heavy state repression: in 1992, the number of police 'encounter' killings crossed 200 for the first time; after 1996, it was in a rare year in which less than that number were killed. The People's War was also killing in equal numbers, mostly 'informers' whose identification was wholly subjective. In 1992, the People's War was banned, as were its mass organisations. Police torture became routine and increasingly vicious, while massive amounts of funding outfitted the security forces with sophisticated weaponry. The dalams followed suit, acquiring equally sophisticated weapons and becoming experts at various types of mines and explosives. So many police jeeps were blown up during this time – inevitably killing untargeted individuals as well – that the police eventually stopped using vehicles entirely in Naxalite areas, preferring to move on foot.

The radical dimension
Generalised violence draws a shroud of silence over events. It has the effect of shutting out both critical thought and assertiveness, which is fatal for the protection of human rights. Initiative rests instead with those who hold the guns, on whichever side they may be. Rebels who employ violence systematically attribute their decisions to 'the people', but the people in truth have little say in the matter. Instead, they become spectators to the political process, a clear denial of an essential democratic right. Those who agree with the rebels may well be content – and, to the extent that the majority agree with them, this contentment may appear universal. But contentment is no substitute for democracy, a fact that comes alive the day the agreement ceases.

The effects that insurgencies have on children have been widely discussed, but the ramifications go far beyond the young. It is a paradox that radical movements begin in response to pain and suffering, but the spiral of violence and counter-violence that accompanies such movements and the resultant state response generates considerable insensitivity, insecurity and fear. One way or another, this tangle of emotions almost inherently disallows respect for human rights. Repressive laws and extralegal measures undertaken by the state are promulgated on the backs of images of brutal violence, which likewise conjure feelings of growing insecurity. In such a situation, few deign to look at what exactly these repressive laws say or what exactly these repressive practices mean for the people – all the better for the state to spread a wide net, one that catches much more than those images of violence would seem to dictate.

Even the judiciary is not immune to the temptation to play on these insecurities. A full bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court recently rendered a judgement on fake encounters, essentially warning that those who infringe on the lives of others cannot ask for protection against state agencies. This essentially means that a 'terrorist' or 'extremist' can be shot dead by the police due to the fact that he himself, purportedly, does not hesitate to take lives in pursuit of his aims. In less violent times, such an inflammatory proposition would have met with immediate public rejection; but in the climate of fear created by frequent acts of arbitrary violence, there is considerable sympathy for such a dangerous, unprincipled stance.

Those who follow strategies that include violence can never be as careful as they may wish in their use of that violence. They begin by targeting only the enemies of the 'cause', but frequently fall prey to the logic of terror: it is not through the elimination of individual 'bad guys', but rather through the creation of a climate of fear in which enemies dare not function, that most effectively establishes the radical's dominion. 'Preventive violence', in which you claim a right to retaliate even before an enemy is fully formed, is not the brainchild of George W Bush, but an assumption common to strategies of violence of all kinds.

One of the more remarkable facts about Andhra Pradesh is that radical politics has become such a part of the common social consciousness, that it has allowed for the easy proclamation of 'arbitrariness' as a justifiable form of revolution. For a long time, the Maoists used to apologise for the arbitrary use of guns. But in more recent times, after their spread into Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, theirs is a much more cavalier and trigger-happy conduct. These days, the Maoists no longer apologise for arbitrary acts of violence. Indeed, the analyses the rebels publish on the Internet these days follow a time-tested strategy: publicise instances of state brutality; then sign off with the suggestion that, under such circumstances, the revolutionaries cannot be asked to be principled in their use of violence.

The need to safeguard and secure the lives of revolutionary fighters puts a premium on suspicion as a political strategy, which is in stark contrast to democratic mobilisation. So-called informers, moles and covert operatives are identified and ruthlessly killed, even when there is little more than suspicion as 'evidence'. And since only the poor would have information to give about a poor-people's movement, it is inevitably the poor who get killed in large numbers in the process.

Yet, again, the utter insensitivity of the state authorities to popular opinions and aspirations is continuing to impel many – who were hitherto against violence altogether – to consider the possibility that there may be some grain of truth in what the Maoists have been saying all this time. If this is to be the rope that helps the Maoists hoist themselves up, however, the rebels need to pay back the compliment by incorporating common human scruples into their understanding of violence: that it may be useful, at times even unavoidable, but that violence should never set the terms of political activity. And that the invariably, inherently, destructive impact of violence on democratic processes and practices must set the strictest of limits for its use.

This article is an edited version of the original, which is available with the author.

~ K Balagopal is a practicing lawyer and general-secretary of the Human Rights Forum in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.

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