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India must change the discourse from violence to democracy

by Manoranjan Mohanty, 30 October 2009

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Hindustan Times (New Delhi, 27 Oct. 2009) page 2

Maoist problem cries for attention

The government’s anti-Maoist offensive does not seem to have acquired the public support that the national leadership had anticipated. This is not to deny that Maoists have indulged in most reprehensible acts of violence, and this must be condemned. Currently the debates are squarely focused on issues that have pushed vast sections of tribal people in central India and elsewhere to armed struggle, mostly under the leadership of the Maoists. The fact that a number of such movements are taking place outside Maoist zones and are in defence of their livelihood rights has come to the centre of political discourse.

The elites, celebrating the rising of India, are now alive to the concern that the movements, both armed and unarmed, are taking place in resource-rich regions. Therefore, the central government’s military offensive in Chhattishgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal and elsewhere has been seriously questioned. The Citizens Initiative for Peace and many other civil society groups have strongly advocated dialogue with Maoists and other movement groups without preconditions. The home ministry’s anti-Maoist strategy, focusing on armed operations against Naxalite groups, has replaced a two-pronged strategy that the Indian state had pursued thus far.

The Naxalite challenge was considered both a "developmental issue" and "a law and order problem". In practice, however, in many states the police and paramilitary forces targeted Naxalite groups, staging false encounters and killing Naxalites and their alleged supporters, engaging in combing operations and arresting large numbers of people under various laws. During the 10 years after the Naxalbari uprising in 1967 in West Bengal, Congress leaders characterised it as an essentially agrarian movement warranting land reforms, poverty eradication and rural development. Some of the measures such as the statutory panchayati raj, the Integrated Rural Development Programme and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme may have been the result of the past approaches of the government leadership.

The current response of the Indian state that the home ministry has articulated heralds a new phase in Indian politics. Unless the causes of alienation of the masses are addressed, no amount of state repression can wipe out the phenomenon. Moreover, the Naxalites are a diverse political phenomenon spread all over the country. They have many streams other than the Maoists such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist-Liberation), which takes part in elections, and the CPI (ML-Coordination Committee), which stays away from both elections or armed struggle.

Undoubtedly the CPI (Maoist) has the largest base and has engaged the attention of the state. But because of the political-ideological character of the movements, the phenomenon cannot be crushed by physically eliminating some individuals and guerrilla groups. It has to be addressed politically through a series of developmental and democratic measures. The fact that the Naxalite movement has grown in strength during the past four decades is not because of the so-called laxity in police operations by the state. It is time to recognise that the movement has grown in the tribal areas because there is a new consciousness among the tribal people about their rights over their resources. Attitudes were one of compassion for the "primitive" tribals during the colonial period while plundering their forest products and minerals. Independent India sought to change that attitude to "tribal welfare" and had many schemes under that name. But it too continued the exploitation of the forest resources in the name of national interest. This process got a huge boost after India adopted the path of liberalisation and globalisation.

If the reality on the ground is appreciated, the first step is for the national leadership to change the discourse from violence to democracy. There are many serious challenges to the Indian state ranging from the alienation of the poor, minorities and nationalities to communal mobilisation. Home Minister P. Chidambaram has put the cart before the horse by saying that "unless the areas are cleared of the Naxalites, no development can take place". It is the persistence of poverty and exploitation of the tribals that have created the Maoist base.

The real challenge in places where the Maoists are active is to allow the local people to formulate their own development strategies through their gram sabhas (village councils) and people’s committees. The current debate is about an alternative paradigm of development that is not only oriented to achieve higher growth but also fulfils people’s right to social justice, cultural dignity, environmental sustainability and, above all, self-governance.

The author Manoranjan Mohanty is a former professor of political science, University of Delhi.