Book Review: Arundhati Roy and Comrades...

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...The Indian Maoist Movement

By Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed *

More than Maoism: Politics, Policies and Insurgencies in South Asia
Edited by: Robin Jeffrey, Ronojoy Sen and Pratima Singh
Publisher: Manohar, 2012, New Delhi 

On February 27, 2013 documentary filmmaker Ajay Bhardwaj and I went to see the celebrated writer Arundhati Roy. Sanjay Kak, Arjun Raina and a couple of other revolutionary leftists had also been invited for dinner. It was a memorable evening indeed.

I listened to their critique of the gross injustice meted out to the wretched of the earth in India. They very persuasively argued that the Indian constitution, committed to secularism and affirmative action, was not enough. The state had failed woefully to deliver even basic services and security to the vast millions of the Indian poor. They asserted that India was being sold out to international capitalism; the minorities were routinely discriminated against; women were subjected to constant harassment and male aggression; the people of Kashmir faced occupation and oppression; the Adivasis (tribal people) were been driven out of their natural habitats, which mining conglomerates were exploiting ruthlessly. The list of complaints was indeed a long one.

In this regard, it gives me an opportunity to share with the public a major scholarly work examining the Maoist insurgency in India in great detail. It greatly underscores what Roy and her friends said in regard to the most crucial conflict in India currently, the Maoist insurgency. More than Maoism: Politics, Policies and Insurgencies in South Asia, has been produced by the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), Singapore. I have contributed the chapter on Pakistan. The book is organised into six sections, each section consists of a number of articles. The six sections are: ‘Maoism’: Travels and Travails of an Idea; ‘Causes’ and ‘Indicators’; Perceptions; Security; Media; and Interviews.

The Maoist insurgency, earlier known as the Naxalite movement originating in the late 1960s in Naxalbari village of West Bengal faced extreme oppression and was defeated but the idea of a ‘people’s war’ continued to inspire revolutionaries. In its latest manifestation it emerged some time in 2004 in reaction to economic liberalisation and globalisation. Notions of India shining eclipsed the harsh reality of a ruthless onslaught on the tribal peoples and Dalits. Currently the Maoist swathe of activity is spread over several states in eastern, central and southern India. 

With regard to the economic causes one learns that the need for energy resulted in coal mining intensifying from the 1980s onwards. This was complicated when the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 did not adequately protect the rights of the tribal people. Thus they could not collect twigs or earn their livelihood through access to forest resources in a sustainable manner and found themselves outside the law. It was the tribal people who were hit by these loopholes in an otherwise important legislation to protect forests. Over time, corruption and the state’s complicity in facilitating the rapacious policies of mining companies and the land mafia further undermined the rights of the Adivasis, hence the attraction of the Maoist message of liberation through armed struggle. 

S Nayaran, who retired as adviser on economic affairs to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and a senior fellow at ISAS writes: “The state and its institutions are in decay, notwithstanding the rising Sensex and the mighty conclaves of the government and the rich. They are in decay because the institutions that deal with the public have become exploitative and whimsical — seeking to deal with all dissent with a heavy hand and meting out unfair laws to a mute population.”

The analysts agree that the police, paramilitary and security forces have used excessive force to crush the resistance. They consider it as a law and order situation whereas it is one of resistance to gross injustice and now an ideology of liberation has taken root among the poor. On the other hand, some analysts have raised doubts about the feasibility of a peasant revolution and some wonder from where the Maoists derive their weapons and money. Use of excessive force by the Maoists also takes place. In between are caught hapless tribals and other abject poor. 

Robin Jeffrey’s interview with Security Analyst P Ramana explains how the state is trying to tackle the insurgency through a strategy of control, hold and build. It means first bringing a disturbed area under control, then take measures to hold on to it and then build through economic development suited to that area. However, the insurgency continues.

A Brahmin revolutionary from Andhra Pradesh, Varavara Rao, had the following to say about the attraction of revolutionary Maoism:

‘Maoism...was ultimately a revolt against what he had known in childhood: a society of barriers,...Brahmins and untouchables, nonpolluting and polluting, beating and beaten. He had believed for a time that independence and a new republic would bring new ideas of justice, solidarity and common humanity. But those ideas had faded...From...the disappointment of a generation of like-minded souls, the Maoist cause was born (page 12).

Indeed much of what Roy and her friends deplore is corroborated by the book under review. The problem is that the modern state is too well equipped and motivated to crush internal challenges: class oriented or separatist. One can perhaps turn to Antonio Gramsci who realised the futility of an armed uprising in the troubled 1920s of Italian politics. Fascism was on the rise at that time. He therefore pleaded for the left to work within the bourgeois state to compel it to respect its commitment to the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. I would therefore urge a broader united front in favour of substantive democracy and economic justice within the framework of the Indian constitution and union. The Indian state should be held accountable to its own declared vision and mission. No doubt without the armed struggle being waged, the plight of the Adivasis would not have attracted so much attention, but it is doubtful if it can bring down the bourgeois state and the socioeconomic order it represents.

* The writer is a visiting professor, LUMS, Pakistan; Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; and Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Winner of the Best Non-Fiction Book award at the Karachi Literature Festival: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford, 2012; and Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Oxford, 2013. He can be reached at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

JULY 2018

Vol. 12 - No. 12


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