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Notes on Indian Vietnam

by Shiv Visvanathan, 24 October 2009

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The Asian Age, 19 October 2009

This article is a set of observations, doubts and reflections on what is called the Maoist problem. It is an attempt to provide a wider framework so that we are not caught within the urgency and immediacy of action. One states this because facts have a framework and it is this that lets us read them in a particular way.

Listen to the narratives of Lalgarh, it sounds like a miniature Vietnam. A contingent of police begins a long march of 15 kms to intercept targets which are 2 kms away. The equipment is impressive — night vision rifles, AK-47s, the ubiquitous space maps backed by the equally ubiquitous informer. Statistics are rampant. Body count and number count of engagements, executions virtually serenade each other, creating the erotic machismo of war.

The newspaper becomes a literacy class in internal war, a geography lecture on some remote village which has not yet entered the middle-class imagination. The language combines the metaphors of dominance and the epidemic. Government dominated areas usually claim geography, the circle of control, Maoist areas appear as epidemic, as if Mao is now a virus. The third metaphor is always that of the powder keg and the volcano, the description is always that of the key village as explosive potential.

There is also an information war. The government creates a network of informants and the Maoists in turn frequently execute the poor tribals as "informers". Borrowing a page from quiz contests, the Maoists ask where the money from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme went.

Minor tyrants like panchayat leaders, ration-card shopowners get treated to the Hobbesian world of Kangaroo courts and kidnapping. It is not Marx that reappears but Thomas Hobbes as Lalgarh returns to a battle of all against all.

In the 60s, when the original Naxal battles took place, students in Delhi would give examples of the Dialectic. They would claim that the landlord’s head was thesis, the revolutionary sickle, anti-thesis and the beheaded landlord was synthesis. One does not hear such nonsense today but the ruthlessness of violence is more stark and indifferent.

The language also changes. A word often used for a troublesome village is laboratory. But the connotations are not of change or transformation but the idea of a test case. The emphasis is on repetition. If Lalgarh bodes repetition, it is threatening, therefore the state must subject it to erasure.

The normalcy of life changes. The privacy and sanctity of the body no longer holds good and bodily intrusion, humiliation rituals become the order of the day. The rituals of frisking, checking, mutilating and torturing follow in logical readiness.

One index of civilisation in any society is the state of children. Both the Indian state and Maoism fail miserably. The state talks of development yet it fails in these areas by the way it has ignored children. When Naxals offer simple solutions from home science or intermediate technology, the state looks hostilely at them. Yet in turn the Maoists today seem to be conscripting teenagers into the war. Those who refuse to join are executed.

The point I want to make is simple. If the Vietnamisation of war and the Africanisation of society increases, Lalgarh becomes a genocidal moment of history. Mr Chidambaram is familiar with governance yet in terms of most development indices India lags behind most African countries in terms of child health, mortality and nutrition. To argue it’s a case of benign neglect will not do. What one witnesses is the sheer illiteracy of governance. India is a failed state in these regions. Having failed to fight poverty it declares war against the poor.

Oddly, one word which has changed its valency in recent times is the village. It has become exotic and touristy. Just as cities have become science cities and Special Economic Zones, villages are being repotted as prefabricated villages for tourists and government display. As the village disappears from the imagination, sites like Singur, Lalgarh get tropicalised in the mind into regions of hell lush with insurgence, tribes and poverty.

We are a people who have retropicalised and reorientalised our geography. The village of the 50s and 60s has disappeared. It is this distancing which allows the middle class to use the language of security with the impunity and indifference and demand the bombing of our own people.

How does one read such a situation? Does one turn super patriot and demand the extermination of these Maoists? Does one treat it as a challenge to state power and justify any form of violence?

One is tempted to borrow two terms from the writings of the Italian philosopher, Georgio Agamben. Working from the logic from the camp and the failure of the Weimar regime, Agamben elaborated two concepts that might be useful here. The first is the idea of Bare Life (Homo Sacer) and the other is the idea of States of Exception.

Bare Life is skeletal life, a life which has no rights, which is treated as a zombie and an object of disposal. One is tempted to argue that the skeletalisation of poverty has driven "Bare Life" beyond the camps into ordinary life.

There are huge sectors of India where poverty has become pathological to such an extent that India is a failed development state. The Maoists might exploit this skeletalisation but their sympathisers have shown how simple exercises in hygiene and health might save a people.

Beyond skeletalisation stands the State of Exception. A democracy when threatened suspends the rule of law to save itself. In an ironic sense, it sacrifices democracy to save democracy. Security and Internal war becomes reasons to save the state. Oddly, the state of emergency survives long beyond the emergency, autonomous of its original cause. States of Exception accumulate like confetti destroying the vision of democracy.

The Vietnamisation of our society triggered by Bare Life and States of Exception has created a situation of deep and profound violence. It cannot be dealt through the logic of management. One needs to question the categories we constructed. In this lies the real challenge.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist