Over the past few months, the government has poured tens of thousands of heavily armed paramilitary troops into the forest. The Maoists responded with a series of aggressive attacks and ambushes. More than 200 policemen have been killed. The bodies keep coming out of the forest. Slain policemen wrapped in the national flag, slain Maoists, displayed like hunter's trophies, their wrists and ankles lashed to bamboo poles; bullet-ridden bodies, bodies that don't look human any more, mutilated in ambushes, beheadings and summary executions. Of the bodies being buried in the forest, we have no news. The theatre of war has been cordoned off, closed to activists and journalists. So there are no body counts.
On 6 April 2010, in its biggest strike ever, in Dantewada the Maoists' People's Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) ambushed a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) company and killed 76 policemen. The party issued a coldly triumphant statement. Television milked the tragedy for everything it was worth. The nation was called upon to condemn the killing. Many of us were not prepared to – not because we celebrate killing, nor because we are all Maoists, but because we have thorny, knotty views about Operation Green Hunt. For refusing to buy shares in the rapidly growing condemnation industry, we were branded "terrorist sympathisers" and had our photographs flashed repeatedly on TV like wanted criminals. What was a CRPF contingent doing, patrolling tribal villages with 21 AK-47 rifles, 38 INSAS rifles, seven self-loading rifles, six light machine-guns, one Sten gun and one two-inch mortar? To ask that question almost amounted to an act of treason.
Days after the ambush, I ran into two paramilitary commandos chatting to a bunch of drivers in a Delhi car park. They were waiting for their VIP to emerge from some restaurant or health club or hotel. Their view on what is going on involved neither grief nor patriotism. It was simple accounting. A balance sheet. They were talking about how many lakhs of rupees in bribes it takes for a man to get a job in the paramilitary forces, and how most families incur huge debts to pay that bribe. That debt can never be repaid by the pathetic wages paid to a jawan, for example. The only way to repay it is to do what policemen in India do – blackmail and threaten people, run protection rackets, demand payoffs, do dirty deals. (In the case of Dantewada, loot villagers, steal cash and jewellery.) But if the man dies an untimely death, it leaves the families hugely in debt. The anger of the men in the car park was directed at the government and senior police officers who make fortunes from bribes and then so casually send young men to their death. They knew that the handsome compensation that was announced for the dead in the 6 April attack was just to blunt the impact of the scandal. It was never going to be standard practice for every policeman who dies in this sordid war.
Small wonder then that the news from the war zone is that CRPF men are increasingly reluctant to go on patrol. There are reports of them fudging their daily logbooks, filling them with phantom patrols. Maybe they're beginning to realise that they are only poor khaki trash -- cannon fodder in a rich man's war. There are thousands waiting to replace each one of them when they're gone.
On 17 May 2010, in another major attack, the Maoists blew up a bus in Dantewada and killed about 44 people. Sixteen of them were Special Police Officers (SPOs), members of the dreaded government sponsored people's militia, the Salwa Judum. The rest of the dead were, shockingly, ordinary people, mostly Adivasis. The Maoists expressed perfunctory regret for having killed civilians, but they came that much closer to mimicking the state's "collateral damage" defence.
Last month in Bihar the Maoists kidnapped four policemen and demanded the release of some of their senior leaders. A few days into the hostage drama, they killed one of them, an Adivasi policeman called Lucas Tete. Two days later they released the other three. By killing a prisoner in custody, the Maoists once again harmed their own cause. It was another example of the Janus-faced morality of "revolutionary violence" that we can expect more of in a war zone, in which tactics trump rectitude and make the world a worse place.
Not many analysts and commentators who were pained by the Maoist killing of civilians in Dantewada pointed out that at exactly the same time as the bus was blown up by the Maoists, in Kalinganagar, Orissa, and in Balitutha and Potko in Jharkhand, the police had surrounded several villages and had fired on thousands of protesters resisting the takeover of their lands by the Tatas, the Jindals and Posco. Even now the siege continues. The wounded cannot be taken to hospital because of the police cordons. Videos uploaded on YouTube show armed riot police massing in the hundreds, being confronted by ordinary villagers, some of whom are armed with bows and arrows.
The one favour Operation Green Hunt has done ordinary people is that it has clarified things to them. Even the children in the villages know that the police work for the "companies" and that Operation Green Hunt isn't a war against Maoists. It's a war against the poor. There's nothing small about what's going on. We are watching a democracy turning on itself, trying to eat its own limbs. We're watching incredulously as those limbs refuse to be eaten.
. . .
Of all the various political formations involved in the current insurrection, none is more controversial than the CPI (Maoist). The most obvious reason is its unapologetic foregrounding of armed struggle as the only path to revolution. Sumanta Banerjee's book In the Wake of Naxalbari is one of the most comprehensive accounts of the movement. It documents the early years, the almost harebrained manner in which the Naxalites tried to jump-start the Indian Revolution by "annihilating the class enemy" and expected the masses to rise up spontaneously. It describes the contortions it had to make in order to remain aligned with China's foreign policy, how it spread from state to state, and how Naxalism was mercilessly crushed.
Buried deep inside the fury that is directed against them by the orthodox left and the liberal intelligentsia is their unease with themselves and a puzzling, almost mystical protectiveness towards the Indian state. It's as though, when they are faced with a situation that has genuine revolutionary potential, they blink. They find reasons to look away. Political parties and individuals who have not in the last 25 years ever lent their support to say, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or marched in solidarity with any one of the many of peaceful people's movements in the country, have suddenly begun to extol the virtues of non-violence and Gandhian Satyagraha. On the other hand, those who have been actively involved in these struggles may strongly disagree with the Maoists, may be wary, even exasperated, by them, but they do see them as a part of the same resistance.
It's hard to say who dislikes the Maoists more – the Indian state, its army of strategic experts and its instinctively right-wing middle class, or the Communist Party of India (CPI) and Communist Party of India (Marxist), usually called the CPM, and the several splinter groups that were part of the original Marxist-Leninists or the liberal left. The argument begins with nomenclature. The more orthodox communists do not believe that "Maoism" is an "ism" at all. The Maoists in turn call the mainstream communist parties "social fascists" and accuse them of "economism" – basically, of gradually bargaining away the prospect of revolution.
Each faction believes itself to be the only genuinely revolutionary Marxist party or political formation. Each believes the other has misinterpreted communist theory and misunderstood history. Anyone who isn't a card-carrying member of one or the other group will be able to see that none of them is entirely wrong or entirely right about what they say. But bitter splits, not unlike those in religious sects, are the natural corollary of the rigid conformity to the party line demanded by all communist parties. So they dip into a pool of insults that dates back to the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, to the great debates between Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, to Chairman Mao's Red Book, and hurl them at each other. They accuse each other of the "incorrect application" of "Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought", almost as though it's an ointment that's being rubbed in the wrong place. (My earlier essay "Walking With the Comrades" landed directly in the flight-path of this debate. It got its fair share of entertaining insults, which deserve a pamphlet of their own.)
Other than the debate about whether or not to enter electoral politics, the major disagreement between the various strands of communism in India centres around their reading of whether conditions in the country are ripe for revolution. Is the prairie ready for the fire, as Mao announced in China, or is it still too damp for the single spark to ignite it? The trouble is that India lives in several centuries simultaneously, so perhaps the prairie, that vast stretch of flat grassland, is the wrong analogy for India's social and political landscape. Maybe a "warren" would be a better one. To arrive at a consensus about the timing of the revolution is probably impossible. So everybody marches to his or her own drumbeat. The CPI and the CPM have more or less postponed the revolution to the afterlife. For Charu Majumdar, founder of the Naxalite movement, it was meant to have happened 30 years ago. According to the Ganapathy, current chief of the Maoists, it's about 50 years away.
Today, 40 years after the Naxalbari uprising, the main charge against the Maoists by the parliamentary left continues to be what it always was. They are accused of suffering from what Lenin called an "infantile disorder", of substituting mass politics with militarism and of not having worked at building a genuinely revolutionary proletariat. They are seen as having contempt for the urban working class, of being an ideologically ossified force that can only function as a frog-on-the-back of "innocent" (read primitive) jungle-dwelling tribal people who, according to orthodox Marxists, have no real revolutionary potential. (This is not the place perhaps, to debate a vision that says people have to first become wage-earners, enslaved to a centralised industrial system, before they can be considered revolutionary.)
The charge that the Maoists are irrelevant to urban working-class movements, to the Dalit movement, to the plight of farmers and agricultural workers outside the forests is true. There is no doubt that the Maoist Party's militarised politics makes it almost impossible for it to function in places where there is no forest cover. However, it could equally be argued that the major communist parties have managed to survive in the mainstream only by compromising their ideologies so drastically that it is impossible to tell the difference between them and other bourgeois political parties any more. It could be argued that the smaller factions that have remained relatively uncompromised have managed to do so because they do not pose a threat to anybody.
Whatever their faults or achievements as bourgeois parties, few would associate the word "revolutionary" with the CPI or CPM any more. (The CPI does play a role in some of the struggles against mining companies in Orissa.) But even in their chosen sphere of influence they cannot claim to have done a great service to the proletariat they say they represent. Apart from their traditional bastions in Kerala and West Bengal, both of which they are losing their grip over, they have very little presence in any other part of the country, urban or rural, forest or plains. They have run their trade unions into the ground. They have not been able to stanch the massive job losses and the virtual disbanding of the formal workforce that mechanisation and the new economic policies have caused. They have not been able to prevent the systematic dismantling of workers' rights. They have managed to alienate themselves almost completely from Adivasi and Dalit communities. In Kerala many would say that they have done a better job than other political parties, but their 30-year "rule" in West Bengal has left that state in ruins. The repression they unleashed in Nandigram and Singur, and now against the Adivasis of Jangalmahal, will probably drive them out of power for a few years. (Only for as long as it takes Mamta Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress to prove that she is not the vessel into which people should pour their hopes.) Still, while listing a litany of their sins, it must be said that the demise of the mainstream communist parties is not something to be celebrated. At least not unless it makes way for a new, more vital and genuinely left movement in India.
The Maoists (in their current as well as earlier avatars) have had a different political trajectory. The redistribution of land, by violent means if necessary, was always the centrepiece of their political activity. They have been completely unsuccessful in that endeavour. But their militant interventions, in which thousands of their cadre – as well as ordinary people – paid with their lives, shone a light on the deeply embedded structural injustice of Indian society. If nothing else, from the time of the Telengana movement, which, in some ways, was a precursor to the uprising in Naxalbari, the Naxalite movement, for all its faults, sparked an anger about being exploited and a desire for self-respect in some of the most oppressed communities. In West Bengal it led to Operation Bargadar ("sharecropper") and to a far lesser extent in Andhra Pradesh it shamed the government into carrying out some land reform. Even today, all the talk about "uneven development" and "exploitation" of tribal areas by the prime minister, the government's plans to transfer Joint Forest Management funds from the Forest Department directly to the Gram Panchayats, the Planning Commission's announcement that it will allocate Rs14,000 crore for tribal development, has not come from genuine concern, it has come as a strategy to defuse the Maoist "menace". If those funds do end up benefiting the Adivasi community, instead of being siphoned away by middlemen, then the "menace" surely ought to be given some credit. Interestingly, though the Maoists have virtually no political presence outside forested areas, they do have a presence in the popular imagination, an increasingly sympathetic one, as a party that stands up for the poor against the intimidation and bullying of the state. If Operation Green Hunt becomes an outright war instead of a "sub-conventional" one, if ordinary Adivasis start dying in huge numbers, that sympathy could ignite in unexpected ways.
Among the most serious charges levelled against the Maoists is that its leaders have a vested interest in keeping people poor and illiterate in order to retain their hold on them. Critics ask why, after working in areas like Dandakaranya for 30 years, they still do not run schools and clinics, why they don't have check dams and advanced agriculture, and why people are still dying of malaria and malnutrition. Good question. But it ignores the reality of what it means to be a banned organisation whose members – even if they are doctors or teachers – are liable to be shot on sight. It would be more useful to direct the same question to the government of India, which has none of these constraints. Why is it that in tribal areas that are not overrun by Maoists there are no schools, no hospitals, no check dams? Why do people in Chhattisgarh suffer from such acute malnutrition that doctors have begun to call it "nutritional Aids" because of the effect it has on the human immune system?
In their censored chapter in the ministry of Panchayati Raj report, Ajay Dandekar and Chitrangada Choudhury (no fans of the Maoists – they call the party ideology "brutal and cynical") write:
So the Maoists today have a dual effect on the ground in PESA areas. By virtue of the gun they wield, they are able to evoke some fear in the administration at the village/block/district level. They consequently prevent the common villager's powerlessness over the neglect or violation of protective laws like PESA, eg, warning a talathi, who might be demanding bribes in return for fulfilling the duty mandated to him under the Forest Rights Act, a trader who might be paying an exploitative rate for forest produce, or a contractor who is violating the minimum wage. The party has also done an immense amount of rural development work, such as mobilising community labour for farm ponds, rainwater harvesting and land conservation works in the Dandakaranya region, which villagers testified had improved their crops and improved their food security situation.
In their recently published empirical analysis of the working of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) in 200 Maoist-affected districts in Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which appeared in The Economic and Political Weekly, the authors Kaustav Banerjee and Partha Saha say:
The field survey revealed that the charge that the Maoists have been blocking developmental schemes does not seem to hold much ground. In fact Bastar seems to be doing much better in terms of NREGA than some other areas . . . on top of that, the wage struggles, the enforcement of minimum wages can be traced back to the wage struggles led by the Maoists in that area. A clear result that we came across is the doubling of the wage rates for tendu leaf collection in most Maoist areas . . . Also, the Maoists have been encouraging the conduct [sic] of social audits since this helps in the creation of a new kind of democratic practice hitherto unseen in India.
Implicit in a lot of the debate around Maoists is the old, patronising, tendency to cast "the masses", the Adivasi people in this case, in the role of the dim-witted horde, completely controlled by a handful of wicked "outsiders". One university professor, a well-known Maoist baiter, accused the leaders of the party of being parasites preying on poor Adivasis. To bolster his case, he compared the lack of development in Dandakaranya to the prosperity in Kerala. After suggesting that the non-Adivasi leaders were all cowards "hiding safely in the forest", he appealed to all Adivasi Maoist guerrillas and village militia to surrender before a panel of middle-class Gandhian activists (hand-picked by him). He called for the non-Adivasi leadership to be tried for war crimes. Why non-Adivasi Gandhians are acceptable, but not non-Adivasi Maoists, he did not say. There is something very disturbing about this inability to credit ordinary people with being capable of weighing the odds and making their own decisions.
In Orissa, for instance, there are a number of diverse struggles being waged by unarmed resistance movements that often have sharp differences with each other. And yet between them all they have managed to temporarily stop some major corporations from being able to proceed with their projects – the Tatas in Kalinganagar, Posco in Jagatsinghpur, Vedanta in Niyamgiri. Unlike in Bastar, where they control territory and are well entrenched, the Maoists tend to use Orissa only as a corridor for their squads to pass through. But as the security forces close in on peaceful movements and ratchet up the repression, local people have to think very seriously about the pros and cons of involving the Maoist Party in their struggles. Will its armed squads stay and fight the state repression that will inevitably follow a Maoist "action"? Or will they retreat and leave unarmed people to deal with police terror? Activists and ordinary people falsely accused of being Maoists are already being jailed. Many have been killed in cold blood. But a tense, uneasy dance continues between the unarmed resistance and the CPI (Maoist). On occasion, the party has done irresponsible things which have led to horrible consequences for ordinary people. In 2006 at the height of the tension between the Dalit and Adivasi communities in Kandhamal District, the Maoists shot dead Laxmananda Saraswati, leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a fascist outfit of proselytisers, working among Adivasis to bring them "back into the Hindu fold". After the murder, enraged Kandha tribals who had been recently converted to Hinduism were encouraged to go on a rampage. Almost 400 villages were convulsed with anti-Christian violence. Fifty-four Panna Dalit Christians were killed, more than 200 churches burned. Tens of thousands had to flee their homes. Many still live in camps, unable to return. A somewhat different, but equally dangerous situation is brewing in Narayanpatna and Koraput, districts where the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (which the police say is a Maoist "front") is fighting to restore land to Adivasis that was illegally appropriated by local moneylenders and liquor dealers (many of them Dalit). These areas are reeling under police terror, with hundreds of Adivasis thrown in Koraput jail and thousands living in the forests, afraid to go home.
People who live in situations like this do not simply take instructions from a handful of ideologues who appear out of nowhere waving guns. Their decisions of what strategies to employ take into account a whole host of considerations: the history of the struggle, the nature of the repression, the urgency of the situation, and quite crucially, the landscape in which their struggle is taking place. The decision of whether to be a Gandhian or a Maoist, militant or peaceful, or a bit of both (like in Nandigram), is not always a moral or ideological one. Quite often it's a tactical one. Gandhian satyagraha, for example, is a kind of political theatre. In order for it to be effective, it needs a sympathetic audience, which villagers deep in the forest do not have. When a posse of 800 policemen lays a cordon around a forest village at night and begins to burn houses and shoot people, will a hunger strike help? (Can starving people go on a hunger strike? And do hunger strikes work when they're not on TV?) Equally, guerrilla warfare is a strategy that villages in the plains, with no cover for tactical retreat, cannot afford. Fortunately people are capable of breaking through ideological categories, and of being Gandhian in Jantar Mantar, militant in the plains and guerrilla fighters in the forest without necessarily suffering from a crisis of identity. The strength of the insurrection in India is its diversity, not uniformity.
Since the government has expanded its definition of "Maoist" to include anybody who opposes it, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Maoists have moved to centre stage. However, their doctrinal inflexibility, their reputed inability to countenance dissent, to work with other political formations and, most of all, their single-minded, grim, military imagination makes them too small to fill the giant pair of boots that is currently on offer.
(When I met Comrade Roopi in the forest, the first thing the techie-whiz did after greeting me was to ask about an interview I did soon after the Maoists had attacked Rani Bodili, a girls' school in Dantewada which had been turned into a police camp. More than 50 policemen and SPOs were killed in the attack. "We were glad that you refused to condemn our Rani Bodili attack, but then in the same interview you said that if the Maoists ever come to power the first person we would hang would probably be you," he said. "Why did you say that? Why do you think we're like that?" I was settling into my long answer, but we were distracted. I would probably have started with Stalin's purges – in which millions of ordinary people and almost half of the 75,000 Red Army officers were either jailed or shot, and 98 out of 139 Central Committee members were arrested; gone on to the huge price people paid for China's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution; and might have ended with the Pedamallapuram incident in Andhra Pradesh, when the Maoists, in their previous avatar People's War, killed the village sarpanch and assaulted women activists for refusing to obey their call to boycott elections.)
Coming back to the question: who can fill that giant pair of boots? Perhaps it cannot, and should not be, a single pair of feet. Sometimes it seems very much as though those who have a radical vision for a newer, better world do not have the steel it takes to resist the military onslaught, and those who have the steel do not have the vision.
Right now the Maoists are the most militant section of a bandwidth of resistance movements fighting an assault on Adivasi homelands by a cartel of mining and infrstructure companies. To deduce from this that the CPI (Maoist) is a party with a new way of thinking about "development" or the environment might be a little far-fetched. (The one reassuring sign is that it has cautiously said that it is against big dams. If it means what it says, that alone would automatically lead to a radically different development model). For a political party that is widely seen as opposing the onslaught of corporate mining, the Maoists' policy (and practice) on mining remains pretty woolly. In several places where people are fighting mining companies there is a persistent view that the Maoists are not averse to allowing mining and mining-related infrastructure projects to go ahead as long as they are given protection money. From interviews and statements made by their senior leaders on the subject of mining, what emerges is a sort of "we'll do a better job" approach. They vaguely promise "environmentally sustainable" mining, higher royalties, better resettlement for the displaced and higher stakes for the "stakeholders". (The present minister for mining and mineral resources, too, thinking along the same lines, stood up in parliament and promised that 26 per cent of the "profits" from mining would go into "tribal development". What a feast that will be for the pigs at the trough!)
But let's take a brief look at the star attraction in the mining belt – the several trillion dollars' worth of bauxite. There is no environmentally sustainable way of mining bauxite and processing it into aluminium. It's a highly toxic process that most western countries have exported out of their own environments. To produce one tonne of aluminium you need about six tonnes of bauxite, more than a thousand tonnes of water and a massive amount of electricity. For that amount of captive water and electricity, you need big dams, which, as we know, come with their own cycle of cataclysmic destruction. Last of all – the big question – what is the aluminium for? Where is it going? Aluminium is the principal ingredient in the weapons industry – for other countries' weapons' industries. Given this, what would a sane, "sustainable" mining policy be? Suppose, for the sake of argument, the CPI (Maoist) were given control of the so-called Red Corridor, the tribal homeland – with its riches of uranium, bauxite, limestone, dolomite, coal, tin, granite, marble – how would it go about the business of policymaking and governance? Would it mine minerals to put on the market in order to create revenue, build infrastructure and expand its operations? Or would it mine only enough to meet people's basic needs? How would it define "basic needs"? For instance, would nuclear weapons be a "basic need" in a Maoist nation state?
Judging from what is happening in Russia and China, and even Vietnam, communist and capitalist societies eventually seem have one thing in common – the DNA of their dreams. After their revolutions, after building socialist societies that millions of workers and peasants paid for with their lives, both countries now have begun to reverse some of the gains of their revolutions and have turned into unbridled capitalist economies. For them, too, the ability to consume has become the yardstick by which progress is measured. For this kind of "progress" you need industry. To feed the industry you need a steady supply of raw material. For that, you need mines, dams, domination, colonies, war. Old powers are waning, new ones rising. Same story, different characters – rich countries plundering poor ones. Yesterday it was Europe and America, today it's India and China. Maybe tomorrow it will be Africa. Will there be a tomorrow? Perhaps it's too late to ask, but then hope has little to do with reason.
Can we expect that an alternative to what looks like certain death for the planet will come from the imagination that has brought about this crisis in the first place? It seems unlikely. The alternative, if there is one, will emerge from the places and the people who have resisted the hegemonic impulse of capitalism and imperialism instead of being co-opted by it.
Here in India, even in the midst of all the violence and greed, there is still immense hope. If anyone can do it, we can do it. We still have a population that has not yet been completely colonised by that consumerist dream. We have a living tradition of those who have struggled for Gandhi's vision of sustainability and self-reliance, for socialist ideas of egalitarianism and social justice. We have Ambedkar's vision, which challenges the Gandhians as well the socialists in serious ways. We have the most spectacular coalition of resistance movements with experience, understanding and vision.
Most important of all, India has a surviving Adivasi population of almost 100 million. They are the ones who still know the secrets of sustainable living. If they disappear, they will take those secrets with them. Wars like Operation Green Hunt will make them disappear. So, victory for the prosecutors of these wars will contain within itself the seeds of destruction, not just for Adivasis, but, eventually, for the human race. That's why the war in central India is so important. That's why we need a real and urgent conversation between those all those political formations that are resisting this war.
The day capitalism is forced to tolerate non-capitalist societies in its midst and to acknowledge limits in its quest for domination, the day it is forced to recognise that its supply of raw material will not be endless, is the day when change will come. If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate-change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers, because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them.
The first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination – an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfilment. To gain this philosophical space, it is necessary to concede some physical space for the survival of those who may look like the keepers of our past, but who may really be the guides to our future. To do this, we have to ask our rulers: Can you leave the water in the rivers? The trees in the forest? Can you leave the bauxite in the mountain? If they say cannot, then perhaps they should stop preaching morality to the victims of their wars.