There is no statuette
to measure the miles lovers
cover to torch a police station,
their down or breasts not fully grown
as the ideals they die for.
Hunger too dies.
-Rabindra K Swain, Taking Sides
When dreams die, dreamers who had inspired and led youngsters to the killing fields have to search for ways to cope with the debacle. Some withdraw from public life. A few sell their pasts to secure a comfortable future. Religion, academia and commerce attract the more enterprising among the former visionaries. Invariably, the leftover nihilistic adventurers continue to live within the strands of their memories, until the disgrace of defeat forces them to commit suicide. Japanese samurais, for instance, knew that there was no disgrace in the ultimate sacrifice, and hara-kiri was in fact the last escape from a life of diminished dignity and besmirched honour. Along these lines, Kanu Sanyal (1929–2010) probably thought that there was no point in continuing a life that had ceased to be relevant to the causes he had championed. On 23 March 2010, the last remaining initiator of the Naxalbari movement committed suicide by hanging himself in his native Hathighisha village, near Siliguri. Perhaps he was disillusioned that the standard-bearers of the proletarian revolution now believe in blowing up entire patrols rather than in targeting individual exploiters.
In an unconnected but related event, in mid-April 65-year-old Digendra Rajbanshi hung himself in front of the palatial headquarters of his Marxist-Leninist party in Kathmandu. During the early 1970s, inspired by the Naxalbari uprising, some enterprising Nepali youths, including Rajbanshi, had started what was known as the Jhapali Movement, named after the district in which the movement began. But over the years, he saw his dreams sacrificed on the altar of power politics. A new bunch of armed revolutionaries had claimed the legacy of the Jhapali Movement, and his former comrades had morphed into the ‘class enemy’ they had once wanted to behead. In the process, Rajbanshi had lost all hope, and been reduced to a skeleton of his revolutionary self.
Very few among the Twitter Generation know of the fascination Naxalbari once held for the youth of Southasia. Though it may have failed to achieve its goals, the ideals Naxalbari set forth is likely to survive in different forms for as long as there is crass inequality, gross injustice and rampant exploitation in society. If anything, the massacre at Dantewada, in Chhattisgarh, and its aftershocks show that the confrontations of the future might well be bloodier, messier and more widespread than ever before.
One of the least publicised facts about India’s democracy is how the rich have hijacked all its processes, through their control over money, muscle and the media. Many mukhiyas drive around in the latest Marutis, sarpanchs ride Bolero SUVs, lawmakers are frequent passengers on private jets, and helicopters have become the favoured mode of transport for powerful politicians. London-born and Calcutta-educated former international civil servant Shashi Tharoor, who is often pilloried in the press for showing a penchant for the highlife, was probably only slightly less hypocritical than several of his colleagues in the Indian Parliament, a body that bristles with crorepatis and criminals. Indeed, estimates suggest that more than 300 out of the 543 members in the Lok Sabha are multi-millionaires. Perhaps part of their collective fortune comes from breaking the laws that they make – over a quarter of all MPs have criminal charges pending against them in various courts. All this takes place in a country where the Central Planning Commission has accepted that the number of people living below the poverty line (BPL) account for 37.2 percent of the total population. Yet the major concern of the ruling class is not BPL, but rather the projected INR 300 billion commercial enterprise called the Indian Premier League (IPL), which has less to do with the game of cricket than with the glamour of branding.
Entrepreneurs of the proletarian revolution too have been unable to resist the temptation of an international brand name. When the Indian Naxalites realised that the Nepali Maoists, latecomers to leftwing extremism, had hogged the limelight, pushing their older and more widespread uprising to the margins of public memory, they too embraced the ideology of Maoism, lock, stock and barrel. If rumours are to be believed, Nepali Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai was the officiating priest at the renaming ceremony when the People’s War Group decided to merge with the Maoist Communist Centre of India to become the Communist Party of India (Maoist) sometime in 2004, without changing its political goals or strategic methods. Like any other brand in the market, Maoism too perhaps owes more to the oxygen of publicity than any of its inherent strengths.
Culturally consecrated by the Man Booker Prize and socially anointed to the priesthood of dissent by Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, writer-activist Arundhati Roy is an intellectual brand name in her own right. She uses the legitimacy acquired through peaceful protests to confer respectability upon the politics of violence. In contemporary India, few have faith in Mohandas K Gandhi’s convictions. He once said, “I can find a thousand causes to die for, but I have never found a single cause that I can kill for.” In all this, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is credited with having coined the most powerful slogan of the brand war, terming the ‘Maoist menace’ the biggest threat to India’s internal security. Roy, meanwhile, ridicules this characterisation, dwelling upon the poverty and suffering of the Adivasis in Chhattisgarh. But narcissism seems to be at the heart of the brand war, with all protagonists believing that, with truth on their side, they can ignore the laws of the land and the norms of propriety. The truth, however, is lost somewhere in the clamour for revenge in the name of justice.
The Indian media – visual as well as print – is treating the conflict between the Maoists and the militarists as if it were merely a contest for market share between two competing cola brands. For the comfortable classes in the cities, Adivasis that die in armed encounters or police officers that fall during insurgents’ ambushes evoke little empathy. The poor of India are denizens of a different country, and both the merchants and the Maoists of the mineral-rich Adivasi belt have made allowances for this fact.
The general-secretary of the All Indian Congress Committee and former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, has correctly identified the unholy nexus between the Maoists and mercantilists of Chhattisgarh. As he pointed out in a much-discussed piece in the Economic Times recently, it is hardly a coincidence that communalists invariably win from communist-dominated constituencies at election time. The top echelons on both sides have realised the importance of ghee on chapatti, while the hungry fight it out in the ravines.
A paranoid chatteratti may portray the Maoists as monsters waiting to devour their privileges, but the ideologues of the class war probably know that they are fighting against impossible odds. In any drawn-out war, luck is invariably on the side with the bigger battalion – even more so when the advantage of numbers is also bolstered by the force multipliers of better intelligence, more firepower and aggressive combatants engaged in ‘patriotic duty’. The shrillness and jingoism in the Indian media is perhaps meant to prepare the ground for police excesses that will be committed in the name of public security.
In the circle of free-market fundamentalists, it is impolite to mention the name of Mahatma Gandhi. That is as it should be: After all, what did the old man in the loincloth know about the digital ‘revolution’, double-digit growth rates or the idea of India as a Southasian Empire? But the ideologues of Maoism in Southasia could perhaps advance their cause more peacefully if they paid a little more attention to the man they have loved to hate for decades. As Kanu Sanyal and Digendra Rajbanshi have shown, the glory lies in dying for a cause rather than killing wantonly while chasing the mirage of utopia.
The Chinese have given a decent burial to Maoist ideals, embracing Dengism (“It does not matter what the colour of the cat is, so long as it catches mice”) with the fervour of neophytes. Among the two great Asian ideas of the 20th century, Maoism has clearly failed. Gandhi’s experiments to find a way out of collective misery have not even been tried. Perhaps only Gandhian satyagraha can check the fire of nihilism that has begun to engulf Southasia. Indian Maoists know who their enemies are; they need to be a little wary of friends who condone their violent methods.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.