Exclusive essay: India in crisis

A powerful indictment of Indian democracy by the Booker Prize-winning novelist and activist.

The law locks up the hapless felon
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

Anonymous, England, 1821

In the early morning hours of 2 July 2010, in the remote forests of Adilabad, the Andhra Pradesh State Police fired a bullet into the chest of a man called Cherukuri Rajkumar, known to his comrades as Azad. Azad was a member of the politburo of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), and had been nominated by his party as its chief negotiator for the proposed peace talks with the government of India. Why did the police fire at point-blank range and leave those tell-tale burn marks, when they could so easily have covered their tracks? Was it a mistake or was it a message?

They killed a second person that morning – Hem Chandra Pandey, a young journalist who was travelling with Azad when he was apprehended. Why did they kill him? Was it to make sure no eyewitness remained alive to tell the tale? Or was it just whimsy?

In the course of a war, if, in the preliminary stages of a peace negotiation, one side executes the envoy of the other side, it is reasonable to assume that the side that did the killing does not want peace. It looks very much as though Azad was killed because someone decided that the stakes were too high to allow him to remain alive. That decision could turn out to be a serious error of judgement – not just because of who he was, but because of the political climate in India today.

The Trickle-down Revolution

Days after I emerged from the Dandakaranya forest in central India, where I had spent two and a half weeks with the Maoist guerrillas, I found myself charting a weary but familiar course to Jantar Mantar, on Parliament Street in New Delhi. Jantar Mantar is an old observatory built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur between 1727 and 1734. In those days it was a scientific marvel, used to tell the time, predict the weather and study the planets. Today it's a not-so-hot tourist attraction that doubles up as Delhi's little showroom for democracy.

For some years now, protests – unless they're patronised by political parties or religious organisations – have been banned in Delhi. The Boat Club on Rajpath, which has in the past seen huge, historic rallies that sometimes lasted for days, is out of bounds for political activity now, and is available for picnics, balloon-sellers and boat-rides only. As for India Gate, candlelight vigils and boutique protests for middle-class causes – such as "Justice for Jessica", the model who was killed in a Delhi bar by a thug with political connections – are allowed, but nothing more. Section 144, an old 19th-century law that bans the gathering of more than five people – who have "a common object which is unlawful" – in a public place, has been clamped on the city. The law was passed by the British in 1861 to prevent a repeat of the 1857 Mutiny. It was meant to be an emergency measure, but has become a permanent fixture in many parts of India. Perhaps it was in gratitude for laws like these that our prime minister, while accepting an honorary degree from Oxford, thanked the British for bequeathing us such a rich legacy: "Our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy and our police are all great institutions, derived from British-Indian administration, and they have served the country well."

Jantar Mantar is the only place in Delhi where Section 144 applies but is not enforced. People from all over the country, fed up with being ignored by the political establishment and the media, converged there, desperately hoping for a hearing. Some take long train journeys. Some, like the victims of the Bhopal gas leak, have walked for weeks, all the way to Delhi. Though they had to fight each other for the best spot on the burning (or freezing) pavement, until recently protesters were allowed to camp in Jantar Mantar for as long as they liked – weeks, months, even years. Under the malevolent gaze of the police and the Special Branch, they would put up their faded shamianas and banners. From here they declared their faith in democracy by issuing their memorandums, announcing their protest plans and staging their indefinite hunger strikes. From here they tried (but never succeeded) to march on parliament. From here they hoped.

Of late, though, democracy's timings have been changed. It's strictly office hours now, nine to five. No overtime. No sleepovers. No matter from how far people have come, no matter if they have no shelter in the city – if they don't leave by 6pm they are forcibly dispersed, by the police if necessary, with batons and water cannon if things get out of hand. The new timings were ostensibly instituted to make sure that the 2010 Commonwealth Games that New Delhi is hosting go smoothly. But nobody's expecting the old timings back any time soon. Maybe it's in the fitness of things that what's left of our democracy should be traded in for an event that was created to celebrate the British Empire. Perhaps it's only right that 400,000 people should have had their homes demolished and been driven out of the city overnight. Or that hundreds of thousands of roadside vendors should have had their livelihoods snatched away by order of the Supreme Court so city malls could take over their share of business. And that tens of thousands of beggars should have been shipped out of the city while more than a hundred thousand galley slaves were shipped in to build the flyovers, metro tunnels, Olympic-sized swimming pools, warm-up stadiums and luxury housing for athletes. The Old Empire may not exist. But obviously our tradition of servility has become too profitable an enterprise to dismantle.

I was at Jantar Mantar because a thousand pavement dwellers from cities all over the country had come to demand a few fundamental rights: the right to shelter, to food (ration cards), to life (protection from police brutality and criminal extortion by municipal officers).

It was early spring. The sun was sharp, but still civilised. This is a terrible thing to have to say, but it's true – you could smell the protest from a fair distance: it was the accumulated odour of a thousand human bodies that had been dehumanised, denied the basic necessities for human (or even animal) health and hygiene for years, if not a whole lifetime. Bodies that had been marinated in the refuse of our big cities, bodies that had no shelter from the harsh weather, no access to clean water, clean air, sanitation or medical care. No part of this great country, none of the supposedly progressive schemes, no single urban institution has been designed to accommodate them. Not the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, not any other slum development, employment guarantee or welfare scheme. Not even the sewage system – they shit on top of it. They are shadow people, who live in the cracks that run between schemes and institutions. They sleep on the streets, eat on the streets, make love on the streets, give birth on the streets, are raped on the streets, cut their vegetables, wash their clothes, raise their children, live and die on the streets.

If the motion picture were an art form that involved the olfactory senses – in other words, if cinema smelled – then films like Slumdog Millionaire would not win Oscars. The stench of that kind of poverty wouldn't blend with the aroma of warm popcorn.

The people at the protest in Jantar Mantar that day were not even slum dogs, they were pavement-dwellers. Who were they? Where had they come from? They were the refugees of India's shining, the people who are being sloshed around like toxic effluent in a manufacturing process that has gone berserk. The representatives of the more than 60 million people who have been displaced, by rural destitution, by slow starvation, by floods and drought (many of them man-made), by mines, steel factories and aluminium smelters, by highways and expressways, by the 3,300 big dams built since independence and now by Special Economic Zones. They're part of the 830 million people of India who live on less than 20 rupees a day, the ones who starve while millions of tonnes of foodgrain are either eaten by rats in government warehouses or burned in bulk (because it's cheaper to burn food than to distribute it to poor people). They're the parents of the tens of millions of malnourished children in our country, of the two million who die every year before they reach the age of five. They're the millions who make up the chain gangs that are transported from city to city to build the New India. Is this what is known as "enjoying the fruits of modern development"?

What must they think, these people, about a government that sees fit to spend $9bn of public money (2,000 per cent more than the initial estimate) for a two-week-long sports extravaganza which, for fear of terrorism, malaria, dengue and New Delhi's new superbug, many international athletes have refused to attend? Which the Queen of England, titular head of the Commonwealth, would not consider presiding over, not even in her most irresponsible dreams. What must they think of the fact that most of those billions have been stolen and salted away by politicians and Games officials? Not much, I guess. Because for people who live on less than 20 rupees a day, money on that scale must seem like science fiction. It probably doesn't occur to them that it's their money. That's why corrupt politicians in India never have a problem sweeping back into power, using the money they stole to buy elections. (Then they feign outrage and ask, "Why don't the Maoists stand for elections?")

Standing there, in that dim crowd on that bright day, I thought of all the struggles that are being waged by people in this country – against big dams in the Narmada Valley, Polavaram, Arunachal Pradesh; against mines in Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, against the police by the Adivasis of Lalgarh, against the grabbing of their lands for industries and Special Economic Zones all over the country. How many years (and in how many ways) people have fought to avoid just such a fate. I thought of Maase, Narmada, Roopi, Nity, Mangtu, Madhav, Saroja, Raju, Gudsa Usendi and Comrade Kamla (my young bodyguard during the time I spent with the Maoists in the jungle), with their guns slung over their shoulders. I thought of the great dignity of the forest I had so recently walked in and the rhythm of the Adivasi drums at the Bhumkal celebration in Bastar, like the soundtrack of the quickening pulse of a furious nation.

I thought of Padma, with whom I travelled to Warangal. She's only in her thirties but when she walks up stairs she has to hold the banister and drag her body behind her. She was arrested just a week after she had had an appendix operation. She was beaten until she had an internal haemorrhage and had to have several organs removed. When they cracked her knees, the police explained helpfully that it was to make sure she "would never walk in the jungle again". She was released after serving an eight-year sentence. Now she runs the "Amarula Bandhu Mithrula Sangham", the Committee of Relatives and Friends of Martyrs. It retrieves the bodies of people killed in fake encounters. Padma spends her time criss-crossing northern Andhra Pradesh, in whatever transport she can find, usually a tractor, transporting the corpses of people whose parents or spouses are too poor to make the journey to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones.

The tenacity, the wisdom and the courage of those who have been fighting for years, for decades, to bring change, or even the whisper of justice to their lives, is something extraordinary. Whether people are fighting to overthrow the Indian state, or fighting against big dams, or only fighting a particular steel plant or mine or SEZ, the bottom line is that they are fighting for their dignity, for the right to live and smell like human beings. They're fighting because, as far as they're concerned, "the fruits of modern development" stink like dead cattle on the highway.

~

On the 15 August, on th 63rd anniversary of India's independence, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh climbed into his bulletproof soapbox in the Red Fort to deliver a passionless, bone-chillingly banal speech to the nation. Listening to him, who would have guessed that he was addressing a country that, despite having the second-highest economic growth rate in the world, has more poor people in eight states than 26 of Africa's poorest countries put together? "All of you have contributed to India's success," he said, "the hard work of our workers, our artisans, our farmers has brought our country to where it stands today . . . We are building a new India in which every citizen would have a stake, an India which would be prosperous and in which all citizens would be able to live a life of honour and dignity in an environment of peace and goodwill. An India in which all problems could be solved through democratic means. An India in which the basic rights of every citizen would be protected." Some would call this graveyard humour. He might as well have been speaking to people in Finland, or Sweden.

If our prime minister's reputation for "personal integrity" extended to the text of his speeches, this is what he should have said:

Brothers and sisters, greetings to you on this day on which we remember our glorious past. Things are getting a little expensive, I know, and you keep moaning about food prices. But look at it this way – more than 650 million of you are engaged in and are living off agriculture as farmers and farm labour, but your combined efforts contribute less than 18 per cent of our GDP. So what's the use of you? Look at our IT sector. It employs 0.2 per cent of the population and earns us 34 per cent of our national income. Can you match that? It is true that in our country employment hasn't kept pace with growth, but fortunately 60 per cent of our workforce is self-employed. Ninety per cent of our labour force is employed by the unorganised sector. True, they manage to get work only for a few months in the year, but since we don't have a category called "underemployed", we just keep that part a little vague. It would not be right to enter them in our books as unemployed.

Coming to the statistics that say we have the highest infant and maternal mortality in the world – we should unite as a nation and ignore bad news for the time being. We can address these problems later, after our Trickle-down Revolution, when the health sector has been completely privatised. Meanwhile, I hope you are all buying medical insurance. As for the fact that the per capita foodgrain availability has actually decreased over the past 20 years – which happens to be the period of our most rapid economic growth – believe me, that's just a coincidence.

My fellow citizens, we are building a new India in which our 100 richest people hold assets worth a full 25 per cent of our GDP. Wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands is always more efficient. You have all heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the broth. We want our beloved billionaires, our few hundred millionaires, their near and dear ones and their political and business associates, to be prosperous and to live a life of honour and dignity in an environment of peace and goodwill in which their basic rights are protected.

I am aware that my dreams cannot come true by solely using democratic means. In fact, I have come to believe that real democracy flows through the barrel of a gun. This is why we have deployed the army, the police, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Border Security Force, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Pradeshik Armed Constabulary, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Eastern Frontier Rifles – as well as the Scorpions, Greyhounds and CoBRAs – to crush the misguided insurrections that are erupting in our mineral-rich areas.

Our experiments with democracy began in Nagaland, Manipur and Kashmir. Kashmir, I need not reiterate, is an integral part of India. We have deployed more than half a million soldiers to bring democracy to the people there. The Kashmiri youth who have been risking their lives by defying curfew and throwing stones at the police for the past two months are Lashkar-e-Toiba militants who actually want employment, not azadi. Tragically, 60 of them have lost their lives before we could study their job applications. I have instructed the police from now on to shoot to maim rather than kill these misguided youths.

In his seven years in office, Manmohan Singh has allowed himself to be cast as Sonia Gandhi's tentative, mild-mannered underling. It's an excellent disguise for a man who, for the past 20 years, first as finance minister and then as prime minister, has powered through a regime of new economic policies that has brought India into the situation in which it finds itself now. This is not to suggest that Manmohan Singh is not an underling. Only that all his orders don't come from Sonia Gandhi. In his autobiography A Prattler's Tale, Ashok Mitra, former finance minister of West Bengal, tells his story of how Manmohan Singh rose to power. In 1991, when India's foreign-exchange reserves were dangerously low, the Narasimha Rao government approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an emergency loan. The IMF agreed on two conditions. The first was structural adjustment and economic reform. The second was the appointment of a finance minister of its choice. That man, says Mitra, was Manmohan Singh.

Over the years he has stacked his cabinet and the bureaucracy with people who are evangelically committed to the corporate takeover of everything – water, electricity, minerals, agriculture, land, telecommunications, education, health – no matter what the consequences.

Sonia Gandhi and her son play an important part in all of this. Their job is to run the Department of Compassion and Charisma, and to win elections. They are allowed make (and also to take credit for) decisions which appear progressive but are actually tactical and symbolic, meant to take the edge off popular anger and allow the big ship to keep on rolling. (The most recent example of this is the 26 August rally that was organised for Rahul Gandhi to claim victory for the cancellation of Vedanta's permission to mine Niyamgiri for bauxite – a battle that the Dongria Kondh tribe and a coalition of activists, local as well as international, have been fighting for years. At the rally, Rahul Gandhi announced that he was a "soldier for the tribal people". He didn't mention that the economic policies of his party are predicated on the mass displacement of tribal people. Or that every other bauxite giri – hill – in the neighbourhood was having the hell mined out of it while this "soldier for the tribal people" looked away. Rahul Gandhi may be a decent man. But for him to go around talking about the "two Indias" – the "Rich India" and the "Poor India" – as though the party he represents has nothing to do with it, is an insult to everybody's intelligence, including his own.)

The division of labour between politicians who have a mass base and win elections to keep the charade of democracy going, and those who actually run the country but either do not need to win elections (judges and bureaucrats) or have been freed of the constraint of doing so (like the prime minister), is a brilliant subversion of democratic practice. To imagine that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are in charge of the government would be a mistake. The real power has passed into the hands of a coven of oligarchs – judges, bureaucrats and politicians. They in turn are run like prize racehorses by the few corporations which more or less own everything in the country. They may belong to different political parties and put up a great show of being political rivals, but that's just subterfuge for public consumption. The only real rivalry is the business rivalry between corporations.

A senior member of the coven is P Chidambaram, who some say is so popular with the opposition that he may continue to be home minister even if the Congress were to lose the next election. That's probably just as well. He may need a few extra years in office to complete the task he has been assigned. But it doesn't matter if he stays or goes. The die has been rolled.

In a lecture at Harvard, his old university, in October 2007, Chidambaram outlined that task. The lecture was called "Poor Rich Countries: the Challenges of Development". He called the three decades after independence the "lost years", and exulted about the GDP growth rate, which rose from 6.9 per cent in 2001 to 9.4 per cent by 2007. What he said is important enough for me to inflict a chunk of his charmless prose on you:

One would have thought that the challenge of development – in a democracy – will become less formidable as the economy cruises on a high-growth path. The reality is the opposite. Democracy – rather, the institutions of democracy – and the legacy of the socialist era have actually added to the challenge of development. Let me explain with some examples. India's mineral resources include coal – the fourth-largest reserves in the world – iron ore, manganese, mica, bauxite, titanium ore, chromite, diamonds, natural gas, petroleum and limestone. Common sense tells us that we should mine these resources quickly and efficiently. That requires huge capital, efficient organisation and a policy environment that will allow market forces to operate. None of these factors is present today in the mining sector. The laws in this behalf are outdated and parliament has been able only to tinker at the margins.

Our efforts to attract private investment in prospecting and mining have, by and large, failed. Meanwhile, the sector remains virtually captive in the hands of the state governments. Opposing any change in the status quo are groups that espouse – quite legitimately – the cause of the forests or the environment or the tribal population. There are also political parties that regard mining as a natural monopoly of the state and have ideological objections to the entry of the private sector. They garner support from the established trade unions. Behind the unions – either known or unknown to them – stand the trading mafia. The result: actual investment is low, the mining sector grows at a tardy pace and it acts as a drag on the economy.

I shall give you another example. Vast extent of land is required for locating industries. Mineral-based industries such as steel and aluminium require large tracts of land for mining, processing and production. Infrastructure projects like airports, seaports, dams and power stations need very large extents of land so that they can provide road and rail connectivity and the ancillary and support facilities. Hitherto, land was acquired by the governments in exercise of the power of eminent domain. The only issue was payment of adequate compensation. That situation has changed. There are new stakeholders in every project, and their claims have to be recognised. We are now obliged to address issues such as environmental impact assessment, justification for compulsory acquisition, right compensation, solatium, rehabilitation and resettlement of the displaced persons, alternative house sites and farmland, and one job for each affected family . . .

Allowing "market forces" to mine resources "quickly and efficiently" is what colonisers did to their colonies, what Spain and North America did to South America, what Europe did (and continues to do) in Africa. It's what the apartheid regime did in South Africa. What puppet dictators in small countries do to bleed their people. It's a formula for growth and development, but for someone else. It's an old, old, old, old story – must we really go over that ground again?

Now that mining licences have been issued with the urgency you'd associate with a knock-down distress sale and the scams that are emerging have run into billions of dollars, now that mining companies have polluted rivers, mined away state borders, wrecked ecosystems and unleashed civil war, the consequence of what the coven has set in motion is playing out. Like an ancient lament over ruined landscapes and the bodies of the poor.

Note the regret with which the minister in his lecture talks about democracy and the obligations it entails: "Democracy – rather, the institutions of democracy – and the legacy of the socialist era have actually added to the challenge of development." He follows that up with a standard-issue. meaningless clutch of sops about compensation, rehabilitation and jobs. What compensation? What solatium? What rehabilitation? And what "job for each family"? (Sixty years of industrialisation in India has created employment for 6 per cent of the workforce.) As for being "obliged" to provide "justification" for the "compulsory acqusition" of land, a cabinet minister surely knows that to compulsorily acquire tribal land (which is where most of the minerals are) and turn it over to private mining corporations is illegal and unconstitutional under the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act. Passed in 1996, PESA is an amendment that attempts to right some of the wrongs done to tribal people by the Indian constitution when it was adopted by parliament in 1950. It overrides all existing laws that may be in conflict with it. It is a law that acknowledges the deepening marginalisation of tribal communities and is meant to radically recast the balance of power. As a piece of legislation, it is unique because it makes the community – the collective – a legal entity and it confers on tribal societies who live in scheduled areas the right to self-governance. Under PESA, "compulsory acquisition" of tribal land cannot be justified on any count. So, ironically, those who are being called "Maoists" (which includes everyone who is resisting land acquisition) are actually fighting to uphold the constitution. While the government is doing its best to vandalise it.

Between 2008 and 2009 the ministry of Panchayati Raj commissioned two researchers to write a chapter for a report on the progress of Panchayati Raj in the country. The chapter is called "PESA, Left-Wing Extremism and Governance: Concerns and Challenges in India's Tribal Districts"; its authors are Ajay Dandekar and Chitrangada Choudhury. Here are some extracts:

The central Land Acquisition Act of 1894 has till date not been amended to bring it in line with the provisions of PESA . . . At the moment, this colonial-era law is being widely misused on the ground to forcibly acquire individual and community land for private industry. In several cases, the practice of the state government is to sign high-profile MOUs with corporate houses and then proceed to deploy the Acquisition Act to ostensibly acquire the land for the state industrial corporation. This body then simply leases the land to the private corporation – a complete travesty of the term "acquisition for a public purpose", as sanctioned by the act.

There are cases where the formal resolutions of gram sabha expressing dissent have been destroyed and substituted by forged documents. What is worse, no action has been taken by the state against concerned officials even after the facts got established. The message is clear and ominous. There is collusion in these deals at numerous levels.

The sale of tribal lands to non-tribals in the Schedule Five areas is prohibited in all these states. However, transfers continue to take place and have become more perceptible in the post-liberalisation era. The principal reasons are – transfer through fraudulent means, unrecorded transfers on the basis of oral transactions, transfers by misrepresentation of facts and misstating the purpose, forcible occupation of tribal lands, transfer through illegal marriages, collusive title suites, incorrect recording at the time of the survey, land acquisition process, eviction of encroachments and in the name of exploitation of timber and forest produce and even on the pretext of development of welfarism.

In their concluding section, they say:

The Memorandums of Understanding signed by the state governments with industrial houses, including mining companies should be re-examined in a public exercise, with gram sabhas at the centre of this inquiry.

Here it is, then – not troublesome activists, not the Maoists, but a government report calling for the mining MOUs to be re-examined. What does the government do with this document? How does it respond? On 24 April 2010, at a formal ceremony, the prime minster released the report. Brave of him, you'd think. Except, this chapter wasn't in it. It was dropped.

Half a century ago, just a year before he was killed, Che Guevara wrote: "When the oppressive forces maintain themselves in power against laws they themselves established, peace must be considered already broken." Indeed it must. In 2009 Manmohan Singh said in parliament: "If left-wing extremism continues to flourish in parts which have natural resources of minerals, the climate for investment would certainly be affected." This was a furtive declaration of war.

(Permit me a small digression here, a moment to tell a very short Tale of Two Sikhs. In his last petition to the Punjab governor, before he was hanged by the British government in 1931, Bhagat Singh, the celebrated Sikh revolutionary – and Marxist – said: "Let us declare that the state of war does exist and shall exist so long as India's toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites. They may be purely British capitalist or mixed British and Indian or even purely Indian . . . All these things make no difference.")

If you pay attention to many of the struggles taking place in India, people are demanding no more than their constitutional rights. But the government of India no longer feels the need to abide by the Indian constitution, which is supposed to be the legal and moral framework on which our democracy rests. As constitutions go, it is an enlightened document, but its enlightenment is not used to protect people. Quite the opposite. It's used as a spiked club to beat down those who are protesting against the growing tide of violence being perpetrated by a state on its people in the name of the "public good". In a recent article in Outlook, B G Verghese, a senior journalist, came out waving that club in defence of the state and big corporations: "The Maoists will fade away, democratic India and the constitution will prevail, despite the time it takes and the pain involved," he said. To this, Azad replied (it was the last piece he wrote before he was murdered):

In which part of India is the constitution prevailing, Mr Verghese? In Dantewada, Bijapur, Kanker, Narayanpur, Rajnandgaon? In Jharkhand, Orissa? In Lalgarh, Jangalmahal? In the Kashmir Valley? Manipur? Where was your constitution hiding for 25 long years after thousands of Sikhs were massacred? When thousands of Muslims were decimated? When lakhs of peasants are compelled to commit suicides? When thousands of people are murdered by state-sponsored Salwa Judum gangs? When Adivasi women are gang-raped? When people are simply abducted by uniformed goons? Your constitution is a piece of paper that does not even have the value of a toilet paper for the vast majority of the Indian people.

After Azad was killed, several media commentators tried to paper over the crime by shamelessly inverting what he said, accusing him of calling the Indian constitution a piece of toilet paper.

If the government won't respect the constitution, perhaps we should push for an amendment to the preamble. "We, the People of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic . . ." could be substituted with "We, the upper castes and classes of India, having secretly resolved to constitute India into a corporate, Hindu, satellite state . . ."

~

The insurrection in the Indian countryside, in particular in the tribal heartland, poses a radical challenge not only to the Indian state, but to resistance movements, too. It questions the accepted ideas of what constitutes progress, development and, indeed, civilisation itself. It questions the ethics as well as the effectiveness of different strategies of resistance. These questions have been asked before, yes. They have been asked persistently, peacefully, year after year in a hundred different ways – by the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, the Koel Karo and Gandhamardhan agitations – and hundreds of other people's movements. It was asked most persuasively and perhaps most visibly by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the anti-dam movement in the Narmada Valley. The government of India's only answer has been repression, deviousness and the kind of opacity that can only come from a pathological disrespect for ordinary people. Worse, it went ahead and accelerated the process of displacement and dispossession to a point where peoples' anger has built up in ways that cannot be controlled. Today the poorest people in the world have managed to stop some of the richest corporations in their tracks. It's a huge victory.

Those who have risen up are aware that their country is in a state of emergency. They are aware that, like the people of Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland and Assam, they too have now been stripped of their civil rights by laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA), which criminalise every kind of dissent – by word, deed and even intent.

When Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency at midnight on 25 June 1975, she did it to crush an incipient revolution. Grim as they were, those were days when people still allowed themselves to dream of bettering their lot, to dream of justice. The Naxalite uprising in Bengal had been more or less decimated. But then millions of people rallied to Jayaprakash Narayan's call for "Sampoorna Kranti" (Total Revolution). At the heart of all the unrest was the demand for land to the tiller. (Even back then it was no different – you needed a revolution to implement land redistribution, which is one of the directive principles of the constitution.)

Thirty-five years later, things have changed drastically. Justice, that grand, beautiful idea, has been whittled down to mean human rights. Equality is a utopian fantasy. That word has been more or less evicted from our vocabulary. The poor have been pushed to the wall. From fighting for land for the landless, revolutionary parties and resistance movements have had to lower their sights to fighting for people's rights to hold on to what little land they have. The only kind of land redistribution that seems to be on the cards is land being grabbed from the poor and redistributed to the rich for their land banks which go under the name of Special Economic Zones. The landless (mostly Dalits), the jobless, slum-dwellers and the urban working class are more or less out of the reckoning. In places like Lalgarh in West Bengal, people are only asking the police and the government to leave them alone. The Adivasi organisation called the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) began with one simple demand – that the superintendent of police visit Lalgarh and apologise to the people for the atrocities his men had committed on villagers. That was considered preposterous. (How could half-naked savages expect a government officer to apologise to them?) So people barricaded their villages and refused to let the police in. The police stepped up the violence. People responded with fury. Now, two years down the line, and many gruesome rapes, killings and fake encounters later, it's all-out war. The PCAPA has been banned and dubbed a Maoist outfit. Its leaders have been jailed or shot. (A similar fate has befallen the Chasi Mulya Adivasi Sangh in Narayanpatna in Orissa and the Visthappen Virodhi Ekta Manch in Potka in Jharkhand.)

People who once dreamed of justice and equality, and dared to demand land to the tiller, have been reduced to asking for an apology from the police for being beaten and maimed – is this progress?

During the Emergency, the saying goes, when Mrs Gandhi asked the press to bend, it crawled. And yet, in those days, there were instances when national dailies defiantly published blank editorials to protest censorship. (Irony of ironies – one of those defiant editors was B G Verghese.) This time around, in the undeclared emergency, there's not much scope for defiance because the media are the government. Nobody, except the corporations which control the media, can tell them what to do. Senior politicians, ministers and officers of the security establishment vie to appear on TV, feebly imploring Arnab Goswami or Barkha Dutt for permission to interrupt the day's sermon.

Several TV channels and newspapers are overtly manning Operation Green Hunt's war room and its disinformation campaign. There was the identically worded story about the "1,500-crore Maoist industry", filed under the byline of different reporters in several different papers. Almost all newspapers and TV channels ran stories blaming the PCAPA (used interchangeably with "Maoists") for the horrific train derailment at Jhagram in West Bengal in May 2010, in which 140 people died. Two of the main suspects have been shot down by the police in "encounters", even though the mystery around the train accident is still unravelling. The Press Trust of India put out several untruthful stories, faithfully showcased by the Indian Express, including one about Maoists mutilating the bodies of policemen they had killed. (The denial, which came from the police themselves, was published postage-stamp-size, hidden in the middle pages.) There are the several identical interviews, all of them billed as "exclusive", by the female guerrilla about how she had been "raped and re-raped" by Maoist leaders. She was supposed to have recently escaped from the forests and the clutches of the Maoists to tell the world her tale. Now it turns out that she has been in police custody for months.

The atrocity-based analyses shouted out at us from our TV screens are designed to smoke up the mirrors and hustle us into thinking, "Yes, the tribals have been neglected and are having a very bad time; yes, they need development; yes, it's the government's fault, and it's a great pity. But right now there is a crisis. We need to get rid of the Maoists, secure the land, and then we can help the tribals."

As war closes in, the armed forces have announced (in the way only they can), that they, too, are getting into the business of messing with our heads. In June 2010 they released two "operational doctrines". One was a joint doctrine for air-land operations. The other was a doctrine on Military Psychological Operations which "constitutes a planned process of conveying a message to select target audiences, to promote particular themes that result in desired attitudes and behaviour, which affect the achievement of political and military objectives of the country . . . The Doctrine also provides guidelines for activities related to perception management in sub-conventional operations, specially in an internal environment wherein misguided population may have to be brought into the mainstream." The press release went on to say that "the Doctrine on Military Psychological Operations is a policy, planning and implementation document that aims to create a conducive environment for the armed forces to operate by using the media available with the Services to their advantage".

A month later, at a meeting of chief ministers of Naxalite-affected states, a decision was taken to escalate the war. Thirty-six battalions of the India Reserve Force were added to the existing 105 battalions, and 16,000 Special Police Officers (civilians armed and contracted to function as police) were added to the existing 30,000. The home minister promised to hire 175,000 policemen over the next five years. (It's a good model for an employment guarantee scheme: hire half the population to shoot the other half. You can fool around with the ratios if you like.)

Two days later the army chief told his senior officers to be "mentally prepared to step into the fight against Naxalism . . . It might be in six months, or in a year or two, but if we have to maintain our relevance as a tool of the state, we will have to undertake things that the nation wants us to do."

By August, newspapers were reporting that the on-again-off-again air force was on again: "The Indian air force [IAF] can fire in self-defence in anti-Maoist operations." The Hindustan Times said, "The permission has been granted but with strict conditionalities. We cannot use rockets or the integral guns of the helicopters and we can retaliate only if fired upon . . . To this end, we have side-mounted machine-guns on our choppers that are operated by our Garuds [IAF commandos]." That's a relief. No integral guns, only side-mounted machine-guns.

Maybe "six months or in a year or two" is about as long as it will take for the brigade headquarters in Bilaspur and the airbase in Rajnandgaon to be ready. Maybe by then, in a great show of democratic spirit, the government will give in to popular anger and repeal AFSPA, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (which allows non-commissioned officers to kill on suspicion) in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Kashmir. Once the applause subsides and the celebration peters out, AFSPA will be recast, as the home minister has suggested, on the lines of the Jeevan Reddy report (to sound more humane but to be more deadly). Then it can be promulgated all over the country under a new name. Maybe that will give the armed forces the impunity they need to do what "the nation" wants them to do – to be deployed in the parts of India against the poorest of the poor who are fighting for their very survival.

Maybe that's how Comrade Kamala will die – while she's trying to bring down a helicopter gunship or a military training jet with her pistol. Or maybe by then she will have graduated to an AK-47 or a light machine-gun looted from a government armoury or a murdered policeman. Maybe by then the media "available to the Services" will have "managed" the perceptions of those of us who still continue to be "misguided" to receive the news of her death with equanimity.

So here's the Indian state, in all its democratic glory, willing to loot, starve, lay siege to, and now deploy the air force in "self-defence" against its poorest citizens.

Self-defence. Ah yes. Operation Green Hunt is being waged in self-defence by a government that is trying to restore land to poor people whose land has been snatched away by Commie Corporations.

When the government uses the offer of peace talks to draw the deep-swimming fish up to the surface and then kill them, do peace talks have a future? Is either side genuinely interested in peace? Are the Maoists' really interested in peace or justice, people ask? Is there anything they can be offered within the existing system that will deflect the Maoists from their stated goal of overthrowing the Indian state? The answer to that is: probably not. The Maoists do not believe that the present system can deliver justice. The thing is that an increasing number of people are beginning to agree with them. If we lived in a society with a genuinely democratic impulse, one in which ordinary people felt they could at least hope for justice, then the Maoists would be only be a small, marginalised group of militants with very little popular appeal.

The other contention is that the Maoists want a ceasefire to take the heat off themselves for a while, so that they can use the time to regroup and consolidate their position. Azad, in an interview with The Hindu (14 April 2010), was surprisingly candid about this: "It doesn't need much common sense to understand that both sides will utilise the situation of a ceasefire to strengthen their respective sides." He went on to explain that a ceasefire, even a temporary one, would give respite to ordinary people who are caught in a war zone.

The government, on the other hand, desperately needs this war. (Read the business papers to see how desperately). The eyes of the international business community are boring holes into its back. It needs to deliver, and fast. To keep its mask from falling, it must continue to offer talks on the one hand, and undermine them on the other. The elimination of Azad was an important victory because it silenced a voice that had begun to sound dangerously reasonable. For the moment at least, peace talks have been successfully derailed.

There is plenty to be cynical about in the discussion around peace talks. The thing for us ordinary folks to remember is that no peace talks means an escalating war.

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