A collection of essays on the Maoist movement aims to cover all sides of this complicated issue, but fails to ask what the tribals think
From the picturesque, tree-lined Bukit Timah campus of the National University of Singapore, where the Institute of South Asian Studies is housed, academic Robin Jeffrey, former Times of India journalist Ronojoy Sen and young graduate Pratima Singh have launched an ambitious effort to chronicle the bloody and complex Naxal movement that continues to burn through the heart of India.
Yet, the achievement of More than Maoism: Politics, Policies and Insurgencies in South Asia, featuring 22 articles and 12 interviews, lies not only in comprehensively covering the distinct but related facets of an incredibly complicated uprising that remains dominant in the Indian public discourse, but also in its timing.
It coincides with the incidents involving Alex Paul Menon, the collector of restive Sukma district in south Chhattisgarh, who was in Naxal custody for 12 days after being abducted on April 21 from a remote village.
For an anthology that covers a wide sweep, both in terms of decades — from the insurrection in Naxalbari, started in 1967, to date — and developments, it starts predictably with an article by Prasenjit Duara that seeks to establish a link between Mao’s revolution in China and India’s insurgency using what he calls a “spatial narrative”. He argues that popular uprisings, particularly in China, were “started, organized and consolidated in the peripheral regions because the space afforded protection from the state and elite power”.
Duara’s assertion that adivasi communities are “very conscious of their modern rights not only in the local or Indian context” but also as part of a larger global phenomenon is somewhat curious. However, the following chapter, a literature review of the insurgency in India by John Harriss, delves deep into why the movement has gained the traction that it enjoys today. He addresses critical questions about the support base, leadership and the rationale behind mass mobilisation, and reasons that a weak government “renders insurgency more feasible and more attractive, due to weak local policing or inept and corrupt counter-insurgency practices”.
Harriss then explores the chronology of the Naxal movement, a theme that carries through in the subsequent piece by Sumanta Banerjee, a former journalist and one-time Naxal activist, who recalls his involvement in the early 1970s and then presents his argument as to why a ceasefire between the state and the insurgents is necessary. He believes that not only are the lives of thousands of poor civilians at stake, but also that the Naxals need to preserve their cadres from “the ruthless attack by the state”.
Banerjee posits that the current strategy of India ultra-Left must change. “It is being felt that the old tools to fight capitalism that were valid and successful in the twentieth century need to be replaced by more modern and sophisticated mechanism,” he says. “An alternative model of economic development from a socialist perspective” is required.
But it is really Ronojoy Sen’s account of the Naxalite movement in erstwhile Calcutta, based on conversations with those who were involved in their student days, that infuses the first dose of much-needed colour into the tome.
Sen’s piece is short but honest, and a particular line by Dipesh Chakrabarty, a student of Presidency College in the 1960s and now a professor at the University of Chicago, is as revealing as it is amusing: “Many of the urban youth who went, red-guard style, to liberate villages in the late 1960s came back within weeks with acute bowel problems”.
What follows is a detailed look at the Maoist insurgency in Nepal by S D Muni, academic and former diplomat. He traces how the movement grew in the Himalayan state at the end of the last century and its emergence as a force in parliamentary democracy.
While Muni raises questions about the consequences of bringing the ultra-Left into the mainstream, the next three chapters — covering such movements in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — add little value to the overall narrative, unconvincingly supplying a “South Asia” perspective in a predominantly Indian milieu. That is because the magnitude of the movements there has been small and their actual impact minimal.
It is the anthology’s next section, led by University of Delhi sociology professor Nandini Sundar’s ardent piece entitled “Insurgency, Counter-Insurgency and Democracy in Central India”, that explores some key debates pertaining to the Naxal movement in present-day India.
Sundar looks, for instance, at the issue from three different standpoints: that of security, which says that Naxals have lost their ideology; the “root cause” perspective that argues that poverty and lack of development have propelled the movement; and the revolutionary perspective, which portrays the Naxal upsurge as a result of structural violence.
In Chapter 13, Pratima Singh attempts something unique: an analysis of the websites of India’s 35 worst-affected districts, in terms of the Naxal insurgency, and suggests that poorly developed websites could represent limited capacity in the district administration.
Although it carries much numeric analysis, Singh’s effort is ultimately disappointing. For example, her argument that well-constructed district websites can work as “feedback mechanisms” and make governance more participatory is partly fallacious. In most of India’s Naxal-hit districts, basic utilities such as clean drinking water and electricity are conspicuous by their absence, let alone computers and Internet access!
Then, Akansha Mehta’s delivers an insightful chapter on the role of women in the insurgency, comprising some 40 per cent of the total cadre. She writes about women’s organisations within the larger movement, the spectre of victimhood that drives many women towards the Naxal system and the need to understand the entire insurgency keeping in mind the experiences and voices of women.
Next, Om Prakash provides a detailed account of the attempted negotiations between the Naxals and the state government in Andhra Pradesh during the last decade, which underlines the role of civil society and the centrality of land to this protracted conflict. While activists were able to bring the state and the rebels to the same table, the issue of land remained a major point of contention.
But it is the final few sections of the book — particularly “Perceptions”, mostly a collection of journalistic travelogues in the affected areas and interviews with Naxal leaders, cadre, academics, and the police — that provide the real insight into India’s simmering Naxal movement. It vividly describes the setting, the people, their lives and voices, without the constraints of academic writing.
By drawing on rich personal experiences, and speaking to the very individuals that drive the insurgency, the perspective of journalists like Suvojit Bagchi, Harivansh, Shoma Chaudhury, Kunal Majumder and former scribe Sudeep Chakravarti build on some of the theory laid down in the first half of the anthology.
And although the editors attempt to cover all bases, including how security specialists and the police perceive the movement, More than Maoism fails to accommodate one critical viewpoint: that of the thousands, if not millions, of impoverished tribals caught in the crossfire.
How “a group of illiterate, ill-fed, sickle-cell-ridden, frightened and half-lost tribal people”, in the words of Suvojit Bagchi, feel about what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh famously considers India’s worst internal security threat can barely be ignored.
But then, crafting a book set in India’s dangerous, forested hinterland from spotless Singapore must have its own challenges.
MORE THAN MAOISM
POLITICS, POLICIES AND INSURGENCIES IN SOUTH ASIA
Editors: Robin Jeffrey, Ronojoy Sen and Pratima Singh
Price: Rs 1,250