Naxalites and human rights activists

Even well-intentioned people can become pawns in the Naxalites’ insidious propaganda war

Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite country is a very important book, for it offers an excellent account of the nature of the Naxalite threat. The Naxalite movement thrives on disillusionment and disaffection. It collects unaddressed grievances and unredressed complaints and channelises them into anger against the “Indian State”. It tells rape victims, dispossessed tribals and bullied villagers that the target of their ire is not the local landlord, policeman or politician but that abstraction called the “State”. Indeed, beyond seductive dogma and the logic of the inevitability of armed struggle to upturn the status quo, it offers no positive solutions. The fact both Communism and Socialism failed doesn’t matter to the Naxalite leadership, ideologues and sympathisers: people in remote, backward districts of India don’t know 20th century history.

Child soldiers
Photo: Alok Putul

If Naxalite leaders rally support for themselves through mobilising local disaffections into a movement against the State and its symbols, their ideologues and sympathisers play an important role in the broader strategic psychological warfare. By dissing India’s economic achievements, by spreading canards about the ‘failure of neoliberal reforms’, by an incessant, exclusive focus on the negative side (in the name of ‘dissent’), by playing up the myth of “the two Indias” and even championing violence, these opinion makers create a context that lulls the the average Indian citizen into thinking that there is something legitimate about the Naxalite movement. The left-leaning and left-wing commentariat has succeeded where the Islamists have failed. The average Indian believes that the Naxalites are not quite as serious a threat as the jihadis—although Naxalites hold sway over a broad swathe of territory. Little wonder then that Indian politicians feel no serious pressure to do anything about the Naxalite threat. [Related Post: The clash of convictions and the remaking of the world of war]

Even where there was significant public outcry, the UPA government decided that its perceived vote-banks were more important than national security: it is not half as serious about the jihadi threat as it should be. But where there was lesser public attention, it literally abdicated its responsibility. The presence of the incompetent Shivraj Patil at the home ministry didn’t help. So while the Naxalites consolidated into a nationwide movement years ago, the central government continues to claim that this is essentially a matter for the states, and it would only play a co-ordinating role.

In the absence of a coherent national anti-insurgency strategy states were left to their own devices. Y S R Reddy’s government in Andhra Pradesh, got into bed with the Naxalites in order to win the election. It was a mutually beneficial bargain: the Naxalites took a breather (after being pummelled by the previous government led by Chandrababu Naidu) and regrouped. It ended predictably, when the negotiations failed and the Naxalites went back to their armed struggle. Why predictably? Well, because “armed struggle” is an inseparable part of the Naxalite dogma: Prachanda, the leader of Nepal’s Maoists, is being criticised for relenting on this even after they formed the government.

If this was the situation in Andhra Pradesh, a state with relatively higher capacity, what of places like Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, where state capacity is extremely weak? Faced with fighting a war with what they had, they engaged in some extremely flawed strategies. As The Acorn argued two years ago, setting up Salwa Judum, an extra-constitutional counter-insurgency force, was a big mistake. So was the draconian law which suspends the freedom of the press. The Chattisgarh authorities identified the problems correctly. But the tools they used to solve these problems were ill-considered, hamfisted and ultimately counterproductive. Chattisgarh’s government and political leaders cannot escape responsibility for these bad moves—but in the absence of cohesion, determination and resources from New Delhi, it is not surprising that they chose that course. Understandable, but still not acceptable. But it’s no use criticising the Chattisgarh authorities for their dubious strategies. The anti-insurgency war against Naxalites is a national one. The Union Home Ministry should be held to account for its sins of omission that directly caused Chattisgarh’s sins of commission. The next government has a job cut out—and parties would do well to put their anti-Naxalite war strategy in their manifestos.

If Left-leaning commentators and Naxalite sympathisers are batting for the Naxalites, what should one make of genuine liberal human rights activists? It is possible to construct a reasonable argument, like a fellow INI blogger did, that violations of human rights by the government must be criticised every time they occur. The danger with this, though, is that well-meaning individuals and groups can inadvertantly end up batting for the Naxalites. The Naxalites derive greater benefit when reputed individuals and organisations criticise the government. In the psychological war, NGOs and human rights groups end up strengthening the Naxalites to the extent they add fuel to the fire of disillusionment and disaffection. Rights activists and do-gooders would do well to heed the old injunction primum non nocere—first, do no harm.

There are bound to be some who evaluate this trade-off and argue that holding the government’s feet to the fire is important in the even larger context of democratic accountability and good governance. Well, to be taken as bona fide, such individuals and organisations must unequivocally condemn Maoism and violent armed struggle. They must also unambiguously accept that only the state has the normative legitimacy to use violence. In other words, there is no room for moral equivalence: it is fair to criticise the government and government officials for their failings. But it is necessary to make the distinction between the State’s legitimate right to the use of violence and the Naxalite’s armed struggle.

Now there has been a controversy brewing for several months over the arrest of Dr Binayak Sen (see Offstumped’s coverage). The Supreme Court has turned down his bail application, yet sections of the media have been projecting him as an innocent being victimised by the state. Innocent or guilty, only the courts can tell (and he has unfettered access to them). But the media campaign itself is playing into the hands of the Naxalites (and is an example of the Chattisgarh authorities’ unsophisticated response to the psychological war).

28 thoughts on “Naxalites and human rights activists”

  1. I’d like to hear a “theory of human rights” that justifies the extraordinary preoccupation with state’s violation of human rights to the extent almost of ignoring the far larger violations by those waging a war against the state.

  2. Hi,

    Not pertinent to the post but wanted to bring to your attention.

    Please read this excellent interview of Kiren Rijiju

    Your comments are solicited.

    Thank you
    Nilesh

  3. Nitin wrote:

    … They must also unambiguously accept that only the state has the normative legitimacy to use violence.

    This leaves the citizenry defenseless against unrestrained State’s use of violence on its own citizenry. From the Holocaust through the Apartheid to the legally sanctioned gruesome death penalties in Iran for blasphemy and apostasy, history is replete with examples of this. The extensive discussions surrounding the second amendment right to bear arms in the U.S. have much to say on this. For e.g. please read (long), Nicholas J. Johnson, Beyond the second amendment: an individual right to arms viewed through the ninth amendment. I quote:

    … This [analysis] ignores the dynamics of conflict, particularly the use of force by a state against its own citizens… it leads any prospective dictator to think through such questions, the individual, anonymous ownership of firearms is still a deterrent today to the despotism it was originally intended to obviate… In the words of the late Senator Hubert Humphrey: “The right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safe-guard against a tyranny which now appears remote in America but which historically has proved to be always possible.” … One difficulty is that our debate is in large part about the future. Structurally, the argument for an armed citizenry is similar to the debate over environmental and other issues–viz., that it is utter foolishness to eliminate assets that may prove useful in the future based on the naive assumption that our needs, opportunities, and problems will remain static.

    I don’t believe that it is prudent to lend only the State, the legitimacy to use violence against its citizens. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”

  4. >> I don’t believe that it is prudent to lend only the State, the legitimacy to use violence against its citizens. >>

    The right to bear arms does not in any way impact the concept of monopoly over the use of force. Bearing arms is one thing – using them is another. The United States offers no protection in the latter case. Upon selecting to use your arm(s), you will immediately be drawn into an escalation challenge from the government. This is what I believe Nitin is emphasising here. The Indian state is not enforcing this monopoly in the heartland. Social justice, grievances can only be delivered if the states monopoly is restored.

    Escalate how far ? Far enough to put it just beyond the reach of challengers.

  5. RF,

    Conflating this with the right to bear arms (for self-defence and recreation) is misleading. I support the right to bear arms, and use them in self-defence.

    But there’s a qualitative difference between keeping a weapon for deterrence or for defence versus launching an armed struggle. The latter has to do with the use of violence as a political tool in order to affect public policy outcomes. That is what I oppose.

  6. Nitin,
    Read carefully Jefferson’s quote and the excerpts from Johnson’s article. They go beyond self-defense and recreation. In these views, arms in the hands of the people is a plausible deterrent to State tyranny. I am opposed to armed struggle or violence as a political tool to influence policy, too. I don’t agree, however, with the idea that the [threat of] violence should be in the exclusive domain of the State – even if it were a democratically elected one. If we granted that exclusivity, why would the State permit its citizenry to keep weapons?

    RC,
    If non-violence could deter State violence, why is it implausible to think that a threat of violence from all the people can, too?

  7. RF,

    I differ from the Jeffersonian position: I do not believe that armed citizens can deter state tyranny. Look at Balochistan or Afghanistan—classic cases of gun bearing citizens and a weak state. Or where there are insurgencies in India: the state is not deterred by armed gangs. [Btw, I’ve differed with the Gandhian position on non-violent struggle in a recent post]

    If we granted that exclusivity, why would the State permit its citizenry to keep weapons?

    Two reasons: because there is no reason not to (subject to the harm principle) and as a practical matter, because the state’s monopoly over violence does not mean it can protect citizens at all times and in all places. I’d say there is a case for allowing citizens to keep guns, but circumscribe their use.

  8. 1. I have on previous occasion supported Dr.Binayak Sen. At a first pass, repeated bail rejections culminating in the SC rejection would lead me to change my opinion.

    However this is from the Wiki page. I do note that this is not unbiased.
    – On Dr.Sen’s computer (re offstumped’s blog piece on clinching evidence):
    “Meanwhile, the Central Forensic Laboratory in Hyderabad has given a “clean” certificate to Dr. Binayak Sen’s computer which was seized during the search of his house. No incriminating evidence was found in the computer.”

    – On the SC bail app:
    “The initial junior judge was subsequently replaced by another. On 8 December 2007, the Chhattisgarh government invited the senior member of this Bench to Raipur as the chief guest at the inaugural ceremony of a Legal Aid Centre, and extended its hospitality to him till 9 December 2007. The next day, upon the senior judge’s return to the Supreme Court in Delhi, the Bench dismissed Dr. Binayak Sen’s appeal for bail within approximately only thirty-five minutes.”

    2. NGOs and human rights groups end up strengthening the Naxalites

    I humbly disagree. When NGOs protest *wrongful* arrests/ prosecutions peacefully they provide legitimate alternatives within the system to the violent means of Naxalites and thus actually weaken them.

    3. It has been my guesstimate that Dr.Sen troubled the police authorities by showing up fake encounters and challenging human rights violations and the operations of the Salwa Judum. I have leaned to the conclusion that he has been ‘fixed’.
    If I get sufficient free time I will read up on this again.

    regards,
    Jai

  9. Jai,

    The full sentence reads: “In the psychological war, NGOs and human rights groups end up strengthening the Naxalites to the extent they add fuel to the fire of disillusionment and disaffection.” I also argue: There are bound to be some who evaluate this trade-off and argue that holding the government’s feet to the fire is important in the even larger context of democratic accountability and good governance. Well, to be taken as bona fide, such individuals and organisations must unequivocally condemn Maoism and violent armed struggle. They must also unambiguously accept that only the state has the normative legitimacy to use violence.

    It’s not a blanket argument against highlighting the errors of the government. Rather, that you have to be mindful of the context.

  10. >> If non-violence could deter State violence, why is it implausible to think that a threat of violence from all the people can, too? >>

    Interesting, but of secondary importance. We may never agree because this monopoly is the single most important prerequisite for statehood (in my opinion).

    My definition of state is a geographical area where there is one entity with a monopoly over the use of force. The state could be a democratic paradise, or pure tyranny – it is still a state. Atleast for purposes of qualification, the issue of monopoly is a simple test. Yes, Germany, SA, North Korea are bad, the fact it they were still states.

    Excuse me if this is blindingly obvious. Sometimes, it doesnt hurt to say it.

    If this is not a true assertion in some areas, then we dont have a state by my definition atleast. Then the only outlet then is for one of the parties to restore the monopoly and thereby satisfy the requirement for being called a state.

    Another option will be to redefine the geographical areas so that the monopoly condition is fulfilled by both parties, we then have two states.

    Until the monopoly is restored one way or another, we are in a period of flux as the parties sort it out. For lack of a better term, we have civil war.

    Terrorism is different, because it mostly does not involve holding territory or other assets by force. When it does (eg, Hazratbal, Kargil, even the Golden Temple) we kick it up a notch beyond terrorism. They just crossed the line, the state then has no option but to invite them into an controlled escalation.

  11. RC,

    Who knew that you were a brilliant exponent of Realism! What you say about states and monopoly over violence is right out of a Realist textbook. Needless to say, it’s a view I’m comfortable with.

    But in this argument, it leads us to a circle: a state is one which has monopoly over violence, and therefore only the state should have a monopoly over violence. I agree with the parts but the “and therefore” is troublesome.

    You might have meant this (and I might have misread you) but the argument perhaps is that the state must retain a monopoly over violence for its own survival. If we start with this, then the nature of the state is important—a state that exists to ensure the liberty of its own citizens has a different moral legitimacy than one that exists to enrich the dictator.

    But the nature of the state is less relevant, or not relevant at all, in international relations. Governments and regimes may change, but national interests don’t.

  12. @RC:

    We may never agree because this monopoly [over violence] is the single most important prerequisite for statehood (in my opinion) …

    I agree that we may never agree on this. Further, as Nitin has pointed out, if you defined state as the entity that had monopoly over the use of violence, there isn’t any scope for discussion, is there?

    I lean towards the Jeffersonian concept of minimal state, and very wary of granting anymore rights to the state than those absolutely necessary to guarantee the inalienable rights of individuals, and to a lesser extent, enforce contracts between them.

    I don’t agree that the overarching objective of the state is or should be its own survival. There is a real danger that it’d turn the government “of the people, by the people, for the people” into a government “of the politicians, by the politicians, for the politicians” in power. It’s precisely what led Mrs. Gandhi’s regime to impose emergency and suspend the constitutional rights of the citizens. It’s also the scariest prospect faced by the people of the U.S. after 9/11, especially when it became known that the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 [Patriot Act II] was in the works. The last is an example of the tendency of the state to anoint itself with extra-constitutional powers, ostensibly in the name of external threats.

    For some interesting readings on this subject, checkout the papers on Alien and Sedition Acts at the Library of Congress, U.S.A..

  13. >> You might have meant this (and I might have misread you) but the argument perhaps is that the state must retain a monopoly over violence for its own survival. >>

    If we say that a state is sovereign within a given geographical boundary, I take it to automatically mean that this state has successfully assumed a monopoly within the said territory. I guess this is the standard Weberian definition.

    >>But the nature of the state is less relevant, or not relevant at all, in international relations. Governments and regimes may change, but national interests don’t. >>

    Very true. Whether the state uses the monopoly it has acquired to enrich the dictator or whether it seeks to cede as much space to personal liberty as possible – these are important. But only if the entity we are talking about has the characteristics of a state in the first place. We can talk about the nature of the state of Cuba, but we cannot about Chad.

    For the population, say in the undivided Bastar dist (which is bigger than Kerala, a fact that still amazes me). They are caught in the geographical territory where two parties are staking claim to the monopoly. This is an unpleasant situation. The naxals collect toll, taxes, and even deliver justice. The Indian state has police pickets and occassionally forays into this territory chasing Naxals/Maoists. The population actually could not care less if the Naxals won decisively and established their monopoly in that area. They could then carry on their lives under a Maoist Socialist government instead of a Communal Socialist government. Nepal is an example of that. This would in effect mean the Indian state is not sovereign as far as Bastar is concerned. There is unfinished work. A natural conclusion is that Bastar, then has the properties of an separate state except for purposes of foreign policy. This is the situation that Sri Lanka finds itself in and is determined to invite the rebels into an escalation challenge.

    Another issue before the Indian state (which claims to golmonopoly) is the nature of the territory in which the monopoly of force is being challenged. These are the only remaining swathes of forest left in India. The forest at Abuj Mand is 10,000 Sq Km, again a fact that stuns me. We are talking about prime, nature rich with lots of old growth teak/sal, mineral rich territory here. Read more at http://realitycheck.wordpress.com/2006/07/21/politics-of-entitlement-and-naxalism/ which I wrote after the Dantewada incident two years ago.

    Sorry for the rambling comment. Kudos to you for this and the latest article. This must be required reading for the “community of humans” who represent the monopoly, the honourable MPs.

  14. You mention that Dr. Sen has unfettered access to the legal system and lawyers. True, but in the face of insufficent evidence why is he still in jail? Does unfettered access to the legal system mean that justice is being done? Even the sessions judge, was so gripped by a bad conscience that he was unable to read out the charges in court. He asked Dr. Sen to read them out himself.

    Why is it that Sanjay Dutt, caught red handed with guns and grenades, been let out on bail but Dr. Sen been denied bail? Nothing incriminationg was found during the various searches conducted at his farm house, appartment and computer.

  15. Dear Dipankar,

    I am glad you agree that Dr Sen has unfettered access to the legal system and lawyers. While I have every sympathy for a family of someone accused of a crime and taken into custody, I still have faith in our legal system. Can our legal system be better? Undoubtedly. But given the imperfections, should we start assuming that the testimonies of the defence witnesses and the media as the truth? Surely not. [For surely, the corollary to this argument is that we should accept the prosecution’s case and declare the accused guilty]. So even given the imperfections, the legal struggle is the best way forward.

    While your passionate defence of Dr Sen is well-justified, I would urge you not to draw comparisons with other cases. I’m sure Sanjay Dutt’s relatives felt that he was being unduly punished then (when he was taken into custody under TADA) and now. But we believe justice was delayed, but done: not because what the media says, but because the court ruled so.] The danger of comparing Dr Sen’s case with someone else works to Dr Sen’s disadvantage—so many more people are in custody, as undertrials for years together, because many are too poor to afford good lawyers. The media doesn’t cover them either.

  16. Dear Nitin,

    I could not agree more. Dr. Sen is just a poster boy for the many, many round the world. If you knew Dr. Sen personally, as I do, you would understand that a choice between two evils, however perfect, is no choice at all. Can you suggest an alternative while a talent is being wasted in jail? The many people who still wait for him to turn up at his clinic? At the Nagpur railway station a group of doctors detrained to wait for a connection to Raipur. they were on their way to attend a rally for Dr. Sen. While waiting, a fruit vendor asked one of the group where they were going. They said they were going to attend a rally for Dr. Sen. The fruit vendor took out 100 rupees and gave it to the group, as his contribution to Dr.Sen’s legal defence. Because Dr. Sen saved his father’s life when the vendor was a child. This is just one of the many moving testimonies. At the end of the day, one will have to ask where a nonviolent man serves his community best. In jail or in liberty? He is a prisoner of his own conscience anyway, which is his driving force.

  17. Dipankar,

    There is no doubt at all that he has contributed to the community and that people hold him in high regard.

    But I hadn’t heard of him before the controversy broke out; so I can only go by media reports and discussions with people who know about the issue. Now I’m aware of his condemnation of the state authorities and Salwa Judum, but I’m curious to know whether he has unequivocally condemned the Naxalites, especially the use of violence and armed struggle towards the pursuit of their goals.

  18. Nitin

    I have to disagree with you that Dr. Sen has full access to lawyers and to the justice system. You should know that on more than one occasion, his trial was conducted by videoconference, without the opportunity to confer with his lawyers. The court had to order that he be brought before the court, so that his rights as an undertrial are protected. He has little or very limited access to his lawyers, and all the discussions have to be conducted by his wife on his behalf. Visiting him in jail is a chancy affair, as I discovered through personal experience.

    To address your larger argument about the state’s monopoly on violence, by silencing those who are non-violent critics of government, and who advocate non-violent solutions within the laws and insist that the state operate within the Constitution, the state effectively strengthens the maoist argument that violence is the only effective remedy, and that the law is only for the rich and powerful. Lending credibility to its opponents is not what the state should be doing, unless it wants chaos and mayhem for its own cynical reasons.

    Let me also add that none of us – Dr. Sen included – hold any brief for the maoists, and never have. But how many cases can you cite when the law worked in a way that obviated the need to resort to violence to remove the grievances of those at the bottom of our shining India? The laws are there, they are supposed to work, but do they? If not, why not? The failure of governance that you refer to is essentially a failure to apply the law with justice and equity. It also includes mindlessly passing draconian laws that criminalize non-violent protest. Read the provisions of the Chhattisgarh Security Act, and see for yourself. Under its provisions, Sudeep Chakravarti could well be arrested for having written Red Sun.

  19. Gautam,

    Let me also add that none of us – Dr. Sen included – hold any brief for the maoists, and never have.

    I’m glad you don’t. Now, this blog is not so presumptuous as to pass judgement on Dr Sen, but for the sake of bringing facts and clarity into the debate, I had asked if there have been instances where Dr Sen has unambiguously condemned Naxalism and armed violence. Now Dr Sen is under no obligation to condemn the Naxalites as much as he has condemned the state authorities. But knowing that he has publicly condemned Naxalism will help us see him differently.

    But how many cases can you cite when the law worked in a way that obviated the need to resort to violence to remove the grievances of those at the bottom of our shining India?

    I hope that’s a rhetorical question. But this is exactly the kind of moral equivalence/justification of violence that is suspect in my eyes. By your argument, if violence is the answer, then why should only those at the ‘bottom of shining India’ be entitled to it? Why not those at other parts of the pyramid? Why is injustice against person/income-group A worse than injustice against person/income-group B? Injustice is injustice. If all those victims of injustice take to arms, what happens to society?

    You say you carry no brief for Maoists. Your moral equivalence and apology for violence makes that claim suspect. I condemn injustice, wherever, whenever, why-ever and to whoever it occurs. I condemn the use of violence, wherever, whenever, and by anyone. The only reason violence is justified in a civilised society is in the carefully ring-fenced case of “self-defence”. Even then “self-defence” is a mitigating factor, not a license. In this post, as well as in the op-ed, I’ve criticised Salwa Judum and the restriction on free speech. We know that’s wrong. Why can’t supporters of Dr Sen, at least those commenting on this post, also acknowledge that armed struggle is wrong?

  20. Nitin,
    The report in question has a whole section on Maoist violence (section 4). The report also mentions instances of coercion, fear and intimidation tactics on the part of the Maoists.

    As to “condemning the Maoists”, you can make your own judgement whether it does it strongly enough. Certainly it details and condemns its crimes. But there’s no legitimate reason to condemn the whole movement (the report details many mobilizations of communities and organization, which in my opinion are very healthy).

  21. Just to make it clear, on the whole, I don’t agree with the Maoists. But I believe the State should work towards a political settlement with them.

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