Despite all the violent efforts of the Indian armies and the government death squads known as the ‘Salwa Judum’, the Naxalite rebellion in India is far from suppressed. The Indian government recently claimed victory in forcing the Naxalites out of the poor state Andhra Pradesh, but current reports on the ground contradict the idea that the Naxal militias have actually been driven off. What’s more, the Indian state has hardly gained the propaganda war in the state either: a recent poll in the ‘Naxal-affected areas’ of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra indicated that among the group aged 25-50 (basically the young and middle aged workers, the basic constituent group for either side in terms of support) in the lower income categories B and C on the socio-economic scale indicated that 58% felt the Maoist movement had actually done the area good. Another one-third said the movement had the right intentions but used the wrong means to go about it, with just 15% being willing to describe them as bandits (‘goondas’).(1) For a movement repeatedly described by government and major media in India alike as “India’s biggest security threat”, this is a revealing figure.
As it is moving forward into new regions such as the state of Chattisgarh, what the Naxalite rebellion’s enduring popularity reveals is the sham nature of ‘the world’s largest democracy’. As recent as 2002 the famous critical writer Arundhati Roy was briefly jailed and forced to pay a fine for criticizing decisions of the country’s highest court, when she was found “guilty of criminal contempt of the supreme court by “scandalising it and lowering its dignity through her statements””.(2) Although defenders often point to the large-scale elections and the multiparty nature of Indian politics to support its alleged democratic nature, the history of India’s activities both within and without its borders show otherwise. India occupied and continues to occupy and repress the population of its ‘half’ of Jammu and Kashmir, even though a clear majority of the population desires independence; its persistent use of terrorizing methods, collective punishment and torture in the area is a story untold.(3) Its massive inequalities, both class and region-based, have time and again undermined the nature of its democratic process and made the substance of it a hollow sham. The first Naxalite rebellion in 1967 was a Maoist revolt to redistribute land in West Bengal state, after decades of ‘benign neglect’ by the ruling Congress party; the immediate occasion was the usual violence used by thugs hired by landlords against poor and ‘tribal’ people who attempt to use the legal, ‘democratic’ means to assert their rights to land. Though defeated with much violence, it achieved the goal of putting the interests of India’s hundreds of millions of poor on the agenda of ‘democratic’ India’s government for the first time, as well as greatly raising socialist consciousness among these groups and others – as proven by the fact that even now, West Bengal is one of the strongholds of Indian socialism in all its forms.
Even the heroes of its ‘democracy’ have repeatedly shown how little they care for the substance of it. In particular under Indira Gandhi the real nature of its rule, and that of the fabled Congress Party and the Gandhi clan, was revealed. When the high court declared her election to be fraudulent due to the use of coercion and bribery (widespread in any Indian election throughout the country), she simply declared a state of emergency and ruled by decree, imposing massive censorship and imprisoning tens of thousands of opponents (far more than the USSR had in all the period 1953-1990). Even Richard Nixon abided by adverse court decisions, but not so the ‘world’s most populous democracy’. India provoked war against China by putting troops across the internationally recognized borders, and so served as an instrument of imperialism, which it showed again by waging a pointless war against Pakistan over the Kashmir zone, in both cases causing much loss of life without gaining anything whatever. When Communist parties legally won power in democratic elections, such as in Kerala in the 1960s, the government – again Indira Gandhi – simply suspended their governance and took over power from the centre, a policy it still persists in applying in any region where elections might have unwelcome results (for example Jammu and Kashmir did not have meaningful elections for decades). In 1971, India again waged war with Pakistan, supporting the independence of what is now Bangladesh; although this likely was the best possible outcome, India’s willingness to use armed force against its neighbours and its aggressive nuclear policy in the same period shows the worst of intentions. What remains of the claim that democracies do not wage war on another? In Sri Lanka the Indian government intervened in the fight between the LTTE and the Sinhalese armies and caused such widespread destruction that both sides temporarily united to throw it out, indeed the only time the Tamils and Sinhalese ever cooperated on anything. Such is the nature of Indian ‘democracy’. It taints all that touch it, as is shown by the behavior of the Communist Party of India (Marxist); this party, following the strategy of the SPD in Germany before WWI, promotes a development of the bourgeoisie and its methods first as a necessary prerequisite for socialism. But the result is that it was the fiercest oppressor of the Naxalites in the first rebellion in West Bengal, and India’s ‘democracy’ has forced it to choose between supporting large landlords and exploiters of its natural resources and militant, unlawful methods – there is no middle way in countries as poor and unequal as India, as it is discovering to its discomfort.
What then is at the root of the resistance? It is the fact, so well expressed by Arundhati Roy in her interview by Shoma Chaudhuri, that “India is colonising itself”.(4) The supposed social-democratic policies of successive Congress governments have given the great mass of the country’s population very little. It is indeed remarkable how widespread mass hunger and low life expectations are in India when one compares it to countries beginning from a similar economic base but with different policies. As the famous Indian economist Amartya Sen has pointed out, “even before the recent economic reforms, China has been much more successful than India in its economic development in many significant respects. For example, the average life expectancy went up much more than in India, and well before the reforms of 1979 had already come close to the high figures that are quoted now (nearly seventy years at birth).”(5) What then do the Indians buy for their democracy, one as hollow as their stomachs? Of course, Sen criticizes the Chinese system for being unable to prevent the famine of the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which he blames on insufficient formal democracy such as “regular elections and a free press”. But there were elections in British India since the Government of India Act 1919, as Sen ought to know, and these did not prevent the great Bengal famine of 1943. Indeed these elections did not proceed under universal suffrage, but that proves the point: what matters is not the formal aspect but the substantial aspect, the degree to which a government is actually beholden to the great mass of its people. Sen may argue that there has not been a famine since independence, and the scientism of Western technocrats may claim that the ‘Green Revolution’ has solved such petty issues, but the reality in India is different. The result of the “licence Raj”, as ‘state socialist’ India has been fittingly called(6), is that even now 50% of all child deaths in India are due to malnutrition(7); where the ‘Green Revolution’ has raised the capital barriers to entry and the size of competitive farms to such a degree in India that thousands of farmers commit suicide over their debts in the country each year; and where, if one excludes China (whose progress has been based on different principles), the amount of hungry people has actually increased between 1970 and 1990, with food stocks per person in South Asia increasing by 9% and the percentage of people officially classified as ‘hungry’ also increasing by 9% in this same period(8).
As an opinion article in the Nation of Pakistan summarized it very well:
Naxalites are active in the areas where the poorest of the poor live. Primary government facilities, like schools and healthcare centres, are practically absent in the Naxal-in habited areas. Infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world owing to malnutrition and hunger. Estimates suggest the infant mortality rate to be at 47 percent in the Naxalite-affected regions of the country, a condition worse than Sub-Saharan Africa. According to ShankkerAiyar: “Each of the 80 worst Naxal-affected districts have no schools, poor healthcare, exploitative feudalism, no employment opportunities, and pathetic social infrastructure.” Over three lakh villages have no road connectivity. For example, Dantewada District of Chhattisgarh is on the list of 100 worst districts list for the past two decades. So, despite being well aware of the reasons that are behind the rise of Naxalism, the Indian government is only depending upon the use of force to end that problem. It is paying no heed to the problems that give rise to Naxalism. In fact, the Indian administration believes that Naxalism is a war that has to be tackled through force. It most of the time forgets that Naxals are alienated Indian citizens, and once their grievances are addressed the Naxal movement will come to an end. According to Arundhati Roy: “The people in India’s mineral heartland are tribals, who are the poorest of the poor, and the government’s war against India’s indigenous people is a frightening and unjust one.”
Is it any wonder then the people revolt? Who exactly threatens India, the Naxal rebels or the bourgeois cliques and mafioso landlords at the head of Indian government, who allow capitalism’s systematic violence to kill countless Indians more every year than any rebellion could achieve? Some say peaceful resistance should be pursued – did this not after all win India independence under the Mahatma? But the experience of ‘democratic’ India has shown this to be an illusion. As Roy has pointed out, the language and method of pacifism has been entirely co-opted by precisely the most repressive forces:
Non-violent movements have, for decades knocked on the door of every democratic institution in this country and have been spurned and humiliated. Look at the Bhopal Gas victims, the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The NBA for example, had a lot going for it, high profile leadership, media coverage, more resources than any other mass movement. What went wrong? People are bound to want to re-think strategy. When Sonia Gandhi begins to promote Satyagraha at the World Economic Forum in Davos it’s time for us to sit up and think. For example, is mass civil disobedience possible within the structure of a democratic nation-state? Is it possible in the age of disinformation and corporate-controlled mass media? Are hunger-strikes umblically linked to celebrity politics? Would anybody care if the people of Nangla Machhi or Bhatti mines went on a hunger-strike? Sharmila Irom has been on a hunger strike for six years. That should be a salutary lesson to many of us. I’ve always felt that it’s ironic that hunger-strikes are used as a political weapon in a land where most people go hungry anyway. We are in a different time and place now.
Therefore we as socialists must say: it’s right to rebel.
1) “58% in AP say Naxalism is good, finds TOI poll”. Times of India (Sep. 28, 2010).
2) “Arundhati Roy leaves jail after paying fine”. The Guardian (March 7, 2002).
3) For the poll figure, see Badri Raina, “Is Independence a Viable Option for Jammu & Kashmir?”. http://www.zcommunications.org/is-independence-a-viable-option-for-jammu-and-kashmir-by-badri-raina
4) Arundhati Roy and Shoma Chaudhuri, “India Is Colonising Itself”. http://www.countercurrents.org/roy260307.htm
5) Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford 2001), p. 181.
6) ‘State socialist’ here in the sense of the fake, bureaucratic ‘socialism’ of Bismarck and similar governments, who tried to dress up a stifling and corrupt autocracy in the red mantle of socialism.
7) Himanshi Dawan, “‘Malnutrition reason for 50% of child deaths'”. Times of India (May 11, 2010).
8) Peter Rosset, “Lessons from the Green Revolution”. Food First, http://www.foodfirst.org/media/opeds/2000/4-greenrev.html.
9) Mamoona Ali Kazmi, “Inequalities promoting Naxalism”. The Nation (Pakistan), (June 11, 2010).
10) Roy and Chaudhuri, op. cit.
In an earlier article you called the Naxalites’ victory an “impossibility” and said that they should enter parliamentary politics. Why has either side of this strategic calculation changed? How universal is this strategy? That is, is civil war (people’s war) an acceptable strategy other countries where democratic forms are compromised in some way, such as perhaps Colombia, China or the Phillipines?
Well more exactly I argued they should fight but not continue their strategy of actively opposing parliamentary politics, because I believe in Lenin’s approach of using parliamentary methods in countries where this is possible precisely to expose the limits and hypocrisy of this supposed ‘democracy’. This has not changed – it’s more that because in the first article I concentrated on analyzing the Naxalites as such and the perspectives of their movement, I have tried to balance this by writing about the nature of ‘democratic’ India in order to make more clear how legitimate it is to rebel against it, and to show what this ‘democracy’ really is. I think that this dual struggle – exposing the falsehood of such a ‘democracy’ on the one hand and fighting to actually win the political economic struggle on the ground on the other – is one that can well be followed in any country where there exists a serious basis for socialist insurgence and where the political system is ‘free’ enough to allow for legal organization and activity etc. So for example yes in the Philippines, but probably not in China.
Thanks for your response.
Have you written any articles about Indian history other than brief discussions of the Naxalite question? It’s an area where my understanding is limited and I always appreciate your perspective.
As you’ve said, the Left Front forces are fiercely against the Naxalites, perhaps because they expose the fact these parties have proven ineffective in resisting the rise of neoliberalism in India, even enabling such reforms. Still, it seems correct to me to say that there is a potential opening in elections for an “authentic Left” voice, especially given the positioning of Congress around themes like guaranteed work and the plight of the average person. That is, I think I agree with you that there is legal work to be done, and that this might prove decisive given the potential limits of the Naxalite movement.