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Manmohanites, Maoists and Mahatmaists

by S. P. Udayakumar, 25 December 2011

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S. P. Udayakumar


December 25, 2011

Even a casual observer of Indian politics can easily discern the two extreme standpoints on contemporary India’s development: Manmohanites and Maoists.

Manmohanites believe strongly in the neoliberal development paradigm that is based on liberalization, privatization and globalization. As Manmohan Singh urges the Indian businessmen to “think big” in order “to face the brave new world of globalization,” Indian stockbrokers predict that stocks in infrastructure and engineering, energy, financial services, healthcare and food might do well over the next few years. Despite the rising crude prices and rupee appreciation, foreign direct investment does not seem to slow down. The ‘national good’ expenditure is growing substantially with the overall goal of achieving a superpower status with nuclear weapons, permanent seat in the UN Security Council and so forth.

If you doubt the Manmohanites’ logic and reasoning, policies and programs, results and rewards, you are often branded as a Maoist. Maoism often refers to Chairman Mao’s belief in the mobilization of the masses in large-scale political movements and to the egalitarianism that was prevalent during the Mao era. The concept of “People’s War” is so central to Maoism that the armed branch of the party is not distinct from the masses. In other words, intellectuals and party cadres become students of the masses first and then become teachers of the masses later. So Maoists have the needs and demands of the masses as the most important issues in order to conduct a successful revolution.

As the regressive bourgeoisie fail to develop, Maoists implement “New Democracy” in their territory in order to improve the material conditions so that socialism could be introduced eventually. For the Maoists, contradictions among the masses and contradictions between the masses and their enemies are the most important feature of a society. Since their revolution does not wipe out bourgeois ideology and the class-struggle continues, they wage a constant struggle against these ideologies and their social roots. This Cultural Revolution is another important tenet of Maoism.

The Maoists in India are often referred to as Naxalites referring to the Naxalbari movement that originated in West Bengal in 1967. The Maoists claim to be fighting for the rights of the tribal people in the forest belt around central India that contains huge deposits of mineral wealth. They tend to take on big mining companies and government agencies that violate the human rights of the tribal people. On the other hand, the government charges the Maoists with running an extortion economy under the guise of a popular revolution, blowing up railway tracks and police stations, keeping their territory away from modern development, and imposing their will on the uneducated rural people. In 2006, Manmohan Singh called the Maoists "the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country” and declared the CPI (Maoist) as a terrorist organization on 22 June 2009 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. By June 2010, the Indian government identified 83 districts in nine states as "Naxal-hit".

Leading “one of the largest and most successful people’s movement against nuclear power plant in India,” as a journalist friend has put it, some of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) activists call ourselves Mahatmaists. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) had become known as “Mahatma” (Great Soul) by the time he returned to India in January 1915. There are also others in India who are actually called Mahatma such as Mahatma Jyotirao Phule or revered as Mahatmas in politics such as B. R. Ambedkar, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Ram Manohar Lohia, K. Kamaraj, Jayaprakash Narain and so on. We in contemporary India have to incorporate the thoughts and ideas of all these and other leaders as one leader or one ideology or one party cannot take us all to salvation in today’s complex and complicated world.

The term ‘Mahatmaist’ is a lot broader and more comprehensive than ‘Gandhian’. Although ‘Gandhian’ generally refers to a follower of Gandhi and his ideas, it tends to allude to several wrong Gandhis in India today and gets identified strongly with the Congress party which Mahatma Gandhi had wanted to disband. Calling ourselves Mahatmaists mean emulating all the Mahatmas of our land, serving our fellow citizens as “servant leaders” and submitting ourselves to that service with dedication and determination. We try to resuscitate the traditional Indian political values of standing up for social justice, struggling for the collective good and sacrificing one’s life for such a struggle.

We, Mahatmaists, re-read the above-mentioned and other leaders more critically, reinterpret their philosophies, politics, economics and tactics more judiciously, and retrieve necessary tools for the new age politics. For instance, Bhikhu Parekh contends in his 1989 book Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination that Gandhi spent all his life fighting against the state and he shared the rebel’s deep suspicion and biased view of it. For him, human as a soul and the state (organized along the lines of modern science) as a ’soul-less machine’ could not co-exist. This product of material civilization was particularly unsuited to India because it had a spiritual civilization. So Gandhi felt the need for "a new type of non-statal polity" which he called ’enlightened anarchy.’

Under this ’ordered anarchy’ socially responsible and morally disciplined men and women would enjoy maximum freedom with minimum necessary order. This polity would be based on non-violence; place people at the center; build up courage, autonomy and a sense of power among them; foster strong and vibrant local communities; and regenerate Indian society and culture. It would have a central government but no centralized structure of authority; it would cultivate a sense of nationality but rely on autonomous and self-governing local communities.

Gandhi never considered himself a visionary or a philosopher but as a ’practical idealist’ who tried to combine high moral standing and a series of ’experiments with truth’. His ’Truth’ was neither positivistic nor absolutistic, and his efforts were ongoing experiments from which he kept learning valuable lessons all the time. He had a unique knack of communicating with the people of India by using indigenous metaphors and methods that had been there on the Indian masses’ psyche. Equipped with such flexibility and ingenuity, he could easily motivate the people of India for mass political action.

Both Mao and Mahatma can be seen as idealists. But some of the differences between them could be their understanding of state, social evolution, economic development and so on. Mao believed strongly that a new social reality that would be in harmony with his ideals could be formed through the actions of "dedicated revolutionaries". Gandhi also reached out to the masses insisting on their resistance and spiritual regeneration. He dreamt of a new, free Indian individual who would break free of the self-made shackles. Gandhi designated Nehru as his successor, saying, "I know this, that when I am gone he will speak my language." As Maoism has been replaced by Deng Xiaoping capitalism in China, Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas are seen as anachronistic and unrealistic in India.

The contemporary world of reckless capitalism, rampant industrialization and rabid globalization is desperately searching for a way out. “Occupy Wall Street” is one feeble manifestation of that search. The Maoists mobilize huge sections of rural populations to revolt against the establishment in guerilla warfare. We, Mahatmaists, are also anti-establishmentarians but we shun violence all together. Unlike Maoists, we believe that only homegrown political philosophies and ideologies would suit our specific political needs and wants. We struggle for Sarvodaya, the welfare of all and not just the rich and powerful. That order of socioeconomic-political justice can and must be obtained through Satyagraha, the soul-force. The destination of this political journey is, of course, what Jayaprakash Narain called, Total Revolution, marked by Truth (Satya) and Love (Ahimsa). And this nonviolent revolution has to be erected on the 3-Ps that Swami Vivekananda identifies: Purity, Patience and Perseverance; purity of means and ends; patience to achieve our dream India; and the perseverance to work for it. Welcome to Total Revolution! For a totally new India!

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