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Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Congress’ doublespeak on Maoist terror isn’t confusion, it’s policy

by Jun 4, 2013

In 2008, a small group of investigators emerged from Chhattisgarh, appalled by the evil war India was engaged in. More than 640 villages, they reported, had been “burnt to the ground and emptied with the force of the gun and the blessings of the state”. Mahendra Karma’s death-squads had forced 350,000 adivasis into refugee camps, “their womenfolk raped, their daughters killed, and their youth maimed”. The slaughter had been “scripted by Tata Steel and Essar Steel” to gain control of giant iron-ore fields, “the biggest grab of tribal lands after Columbus”.

The author of this fine Maoist hyperbole was the government of India, in a report circulated at about the same time prime minister Manmohan Singh was telling police “left-wing extremism is perhaps the gravest internal security threat we face”.

Puzzled? Don’t be.

Ever since the 25 May massacre of Congress leaders in Chhattisgarh, the same memes have been playing themselves out yet again. India’s rural development minister, Jairam Ramesh, calls Maoists terrorists. Kishore Chandra Deo, tribal affairs minister, rejects force, saying the Maoists have a genuine political cause. Earlier, Digvijaya Singh and Mani Shankar Iyer took on P Chidambaram.
For the Congress, this doublespeak isn’t confusion: it is time-tested policy, the policy of the safer, saner course.

File photo of the Chhattisgarh attack on Congress convoy. PTI
File photo of the Chhattisgarh attack on Congress convoy. PTI

India’s Maoists have long enjoyed a curious relationship with the political order they wish to overthrow. In 1985,  People’s Union for Democratic Rights volunteers went to investigate the killing of a Maoist by police. “Manku Ram Sodhi, the Congress (I) MP from Bastar opined that the Naxalites were doing the work of Government”,  the report records. Another leader said the “Naxalite scare is being created to justify deployment of armed forces to protect the vested interests”. Even the superintendent of police told the PUDR the Naxalites “were doing the right thing”.

Making nice with the Maoists has long made perfect sense for everyone: it gave police a reason not to enforce the law, administrators an excuse not to work, and politicians potential allies.

Ever since the late 1960s, Maoists adroitly interjected themselves in varied political struggles.  In 1976, Nagabhushan Patnaik famously led 250 adivasis in a raid on a landlord’s house in Parvatipuram, seizing hoarded grain and destroying loan records. It wasn’t the first time Andhra Pradesh landless had risen up—but the theatrical violence, followed by a succession of savage killings, captured the imagination of many young radicals.

Maoists piggy-backed on industrial disputes in Andhra Pradesh; dalit resistance to upper-caste militia in central Bihar; adivasi struggles against forest guards and exploitative contractors in Bastar. They rarely intruded on the interests of mainstream politicians, though, and the kindness was mostly returned.

In 1983, for example, millionaire film star-turned-Andhra Pradesh chief minister NT Rama Rao described the Maoists as “true patriots who have been misunderstood by the ruling classes”.  That tradition continues. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has lauded the Maoists “ideological motivation at the higher level”. Mamata Banerjee demanded an end to offensive operations against them.
This is the safer, saner course.

Economic interests placed strains on this happy live-and-let-kill relationship. Listening to economists and corporate interests who were telling him that India needed the resources under adivasi land, the prime minister began pushing an aggressive anti-Maoist line around 2007.  P Chidambaram joined in, after taking charge of the home ministry in 2008.  Their campaign worried the Congress’ top leadership, though. Congress leaders had persuaded themselves that their legitimacy was founded on their reach among the rural poor. Rahul Gandhi went on to deliver his famous—if vapid—‘Two Indias’ speech in the company of a man alleged to have Maoist links.
The Congress leadership found allies among New Delhi’s élite liberals—a class of people whose ideological radicalism co-exists with privilege; people who live in upmarket homes, send their kids to private schools, enjoy single malt and cigars but would never, ever dream of cleaning their own toilets.

From around the time the counter-Maoist offensive began, voices sympathetic to Maoists began to regularly feature in official documents. The Planning Commission issued a report asserting that the Maoists “provide protection to the weak”. It conceded “that the level of violence they use tends to be on the high side”—“severe corporal punishment, including capital punishment”. Yet, it attacked security force operations, saying they were causing “alienation of common people”.

Like all good propaganda, these attacks had a solid foundation of truth: Salwa Judum’s cadre engaged in savage brutalities; innocents were killed, sometimes deliberately, by police.  From  the historian Ram Guha—who litigated against Salwa Judum in the Supreme Court—we know they didn’t, however, have a monopoly on barbarism. There isn’t, moreover, even one credible document which bears out the claim that 640 villages were “burnt to the ground”. Essar might or might not have been paying Salwa Judum—but it was also making payoffs to the Maoists.

Indeed, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh told Firstpost that the report his Ministry put out in 2008 — before he took office — was “mouthing Maoist propaganda”. That just begs the question, though, of why it was put out in the first place.

Liberal apologetics for Maoists, however, goes on. There’s a fascinating statement issued by Delhi university scholars condemning the massacre, but calling on “the state and central governments to exercise great restraint in their response”. There’s no call for the Maoists, though, to do anything—not even to hand over the killers for trial, for example. It’s language Kishore Chand Deo would agree with.

For their part, the Maoists want the government to “withdraw all kinds of paramilitary forces from Dandakaranya; to give up the conspiracy of deploying the Army in the name of training; to put an end to the interference of Air Force; to release all the revolutionary activists”. In return, they offer death to “pet dogs of the exploiter classes”.

The Congress—and the UPA government—seem to be the only ones who don’t know what they want.  They want a safer, saner course, but aren’t sure what it is.

There’s one single question the government needs to answer: is there a way forward other than killing? In 1996, Andhra Pradesh high court judges M Rao and S Nayak addressed the case of Appa Rao, an alleged Maoist operative responsible for the assassination of Deputy Inspector General of Police KS Vyas. Police action, the judges argued, would achieve nothing; there had to be “a saner and a safer course” The judges advocated a “peace commission, with a representative character inspiring confidence in all sections of the society”.  “This, we believe”, they concluded, “can bring about immediate cessation of police encounters and violence”.

Enthusiasts often applaud the judgment. They tend to ignore the fact that the story didn’t end with those rousing words.

Terrorism charges against Appa Rao were dropped by the High Court. He was eventually acquitted at trial, after witnesses—among them, now Director-General of Police Dinesh Singh, who was out jogging with Vyas the day of the attack—failed to identify him as the killer. In 2003, Appa Rao was alleged to have been the principal organiser of the 2003 attempt to assassinate Chandrababu Naidu.  He went on to become a key Maoist commander; the state government offered a reward of Rs 1 million for information leading to his arrest.

Then, in 2010, the Andhra Pradesh police ended Appa Rao’s life deep inside the Nettikonda forests.  The government rejected peace committees; it chose to kill. Yet, there’s one inescapable truth: from a peak of 508 killed in the conflict in 1998, violence in Andhra Pradesh has fallen to almost zero. Hundreds of people are alive—civilians, police, political Maoists—who wouldn’t otherwise be.
Perhaps, who knows, there isn’t a safer, saner course.


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