There are alternatives to Naxalism

…and armed struggle is blocking out conventional political movements

The recent post and op-ed on Naxalites and human rights sparked a good debate. It is also a timely and important one. Yesterday, Gautam Sen posted a longish entry on his blog responding to some of the issues raised last week. It is a well-composed post, not least because it reserves such delectable phrases as “the laptop bombardiers for India Shining” to describe Offstumped, and just perhaps, The Acorn. While Yossarin will certainly love that description, Mr Sen can rest assured that the only “alignment” between the Indian National Interest and the Nixon Center is on Realism in international affairs. [And ironically, Realism suggests that there are no permanent “alignments” between nations, only permanent interests.]

Mr Sen correctly notes that the main issue is about the state’s “normative legitimate monopoly on violence”. He then goes on to ask why the State has this monopoly and what kinds of violence can it employ. These questions have unambiguous answers. First, the State has the monopoly over violence as part of a grand contract between citizens—who give up some of their individual freedom in order to enjoy the security (a public good) that the State provides. Without security and law & order, society follows the ‘rule of the jungle’, matsya-nyaya, or law of the fish, in Ancient Indian parlance [1, 2]. The Indian State’s monopoly over violence, therefore, safeguards equality and creates the necessary conditions for human development. Morally, the nature of the State is important in the context of the monopoly over violence, but we are dealing with India, a constitutional democracy. Yes it’s imperfect, except for the alternatives.

Second, what kinds of violence can it employ? Only those authorised by the Constitution and the laws that follow from it. But what if it exceeds its brief? Well, both unconstitutional laws and unconstitutional acts by state officials can and should be challenged in court. And such challenges are fairly common in the Indian context. Mr Sen’s feeling that “Pai doesn’t want to constrain the hands of the state in the exercise of its legitimate right to violence” is misplaced. It may be that he didn’t notice the condemnation of the extra-constitutional militia and the restrictions on press freedom—in the post, in the op-ed and in the link to March 2006 post. “In principle” The Acorn argued two years ago, “maintenance of law and order is the government’s responsibility. It cannot outsource back to the citizens what citizens outsourced to it in the first place…It is naive to think that a society, especially one outside the mainstream, will be able to (turn) swords into ploughshares on its own, or that the government will be able to persuade it to do so. Tribal militias may show effective results in the short-term. But in the longer term, they are likely to become part of a larger problem.”

Mr Sen then goes on to ask why “Pai never (concerns) himself with what causes the violence, either by the state, or by non-state actors?” On the contrary, Pai does, perhaps obsessively. But he does not accept explanations that suggest that a “rape victim, dispossessed tribal or bullied villager” will automatically join an armed movement against the state. Only an extreme degree of frustration causes people to resort to violence. And even then, the violence is local and targeted against immediate perpetrators of injustice. It takes something else to mobilise this into an “armed struggle” against the state. For someone who claims he does not support the Maoists, it is strange that Mr Sen cannot see the difference between local disaffection, even violence; and people’s war.

It is from this point onwards in Mr Sen’s post that the moral relativism and moral equivalence begins to creep in. In a bizarre rhetorical question, he asks “But from whom would you reasonably expect a greater responsibility in upholding law and order—the state, or those who fight it?” We should expect no responsibility in upholding law & order from the Naxalites, and entirely by the state. Not for a single instant have I expected otherwise. But that’s not the issue. The point I made was that human rights activists must be alive to the context.

Activists who criticise only the state and spare the Maoists cannot be taken seriously. But those who “abhor violence of all kinds – both by Naxalites and the state” are freeriders at best and hypocrites at worst: for they use the very security that the state provides (through its monopoly over violence) to condemn it. It is entirely possible for reasonable people to agree that the methods used by the state are wrong, but it is entirely another matter for us to condemn the state for using force to ensure internal security. Does Mr Sen not know that “armed struggle” is not merely a tactic for the Naxalites, but central to their dogma? They differ from your garden-variety Communists in the sense that they believe violence is the only way. Say hello to Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.

It is in his final sentence that Mr Sen unambiguously justifies Naxalism: “so while I find the methods of the maoists morally abhorrent because they cause violence and suffering, I wonder what one is supposed to do when the institutional or legal alternatives to violence are so weak, scarce and ineffective?” Mr Sen either lacks imagination or is fatally seduced by Maoism, for he somehow cannot see alternatives. He makes two immense leaps of logic: first, that those with grievances must resort to violence, and second, that the violence must take the form of a mandatory armed revolution. This, in a country like India, which demonstrated that non-violence can defeat a superpower. This, in a country like India, where elected dictatorships were brought down by electoral politics and non-violent struggle. This, in a country like India, where leaders like EV Ramaswamy Naicker and Mayawati have demonstrated how conventional political mobilisation can upturn the status quo. [Also this, in a country like India, where not a single armed struggle has actually succeeded.]

If Mr Sen is genuinely concerned about the oppressed he would do well to realise that it is the Naxalites and their uncompromising insistence on violence that is standing in the way of democratic political mobilisation. As long as it is the Naxalites that mobilise popular disaffection, and not conventional political parties, the people are condemned to their oppression. Surely, right thinking people like Mr Sen would not want that?

14 thoughts on “There are alternatives to Naxalism”

  1. With his blanket justification of Naxalism it is hard to believe Mr Sen’s claim, in an earlier post, that he does not carry any brief for Maoists. Oppressive state and oppressed naxals seems to be a settled fact for him. I want question why Naxals don’t try to participate in elections with the tremendous funds they have at their disposal, and then use the representative mandate to peacefully address their grievances, and of those they claim to fight for. Short of that, their contentions are dubious, dangerous and unacceptable for India’s democracy.

    Aside: Nitin, some eloquent posts from you on the naxal topic on this and yossarin’s blog. Fresh insight and good work.

  2. Nitin,

    During the visit of Ramakrishna for talks with the AP Govt after the elections in 2004, there were few amusing stories. Many people used to visit him to address him their grievances. One was the mother of a dead comrade who asked for financial assistance as she was old and cannot make her ends meet. Response was “sorry this is against our principles”(we keep the loot, you take the dead).

    Fascintation for using the gun and living the tales of Robinhood were the inspirations for many to join these groups.

  3. I want question why Naxals don’t try to participate in elections with the tremendous funds they have at their disposal, and then use the representative mandate to peacefully address their grievances, and of those they claim to fight for.

    Naxals spend more than Rs. 60 Crores annually on weapons, and they posses the latest radio equipment. Clearly they have higher ambitions than running for elections.

  4. Maybe political empowerment will only happen with right-sized states. Right now the local voice may be insignificant unless polls in CG comes up with a very fractured verdict and huge coalitions are required.

    If Bastar were a state (bigger than Kerala) it may have a more local CM and better care of tribal interests. I remember being surprised at how the creation of Jharkhand resulted in a new set of leaders from a new set of populations in power, that I hadnt heard of before in united Bihar. Maybe India should have 60 states or so.

    regards,
    Jai

  5. Jai,

    Creation of smaller states takes the teeth out of the state.
    This leads to more populism where the new polity will play to the maoists to safegaurd their interests in the area(which is present today also, but will take a new dimension).

  6. Nitin,

    Your point seems to be that human rights activists take some kind of context into account when they cite government wrong-doing. And that they write disclaimers to the effect that they condemn the Maoists equally before listing what they consider to be state crimes against human rights.

    I think I am a moral relativist when it comes to state crimes. I think the state should be held to a higher level of accountability than the Maoists when it comes to violations of human rights. When we consider human rights violations by the state, I agree with you that sometimes they are unavoidable — but inserting a disclaimer to this effect while criticizing them at the same time would be counter-productive. Precisely because the state has a monopoly on violence it is uniquely placed to justify its human rights violations. And even in the worst cases, where one could argue that human rights violations are unavoidable, the fact remains that some inviolable rights did get violated and perhaps some lives were lost. And I think human rights groups do an important job in reminding us that whatever the final result, we didn’t do it right. Finally as Michael Walzer said if we are to have dirty hands, it is essential to show them to be dirty.

    The key question is: how much do human rights activists actually succeed in deterring future violations? I think – not much. We’ve seen activists screaming themselves hoarse about violations so many times while the violations continue routinely. And that’s because the State is bigger and much stronger than all the activists combined. And public opinion is in many cases in favor of those violations (I think you seriously overestimate the effect that human rights activists have on the general public opinion – if anything they may even, by their sheer rhetoric, make more people believe that the government’s violations were justified). Its true, like you say, that these activists are using the very monopoly of the state on violence to protect themselves while they criticize the state. But I think the state can handle it. The activists do a valuable job, I think, in that if not now (since public opinion is in favor of violations), then at least later their activity is there to remind us that our hands are indeed dirty.

  7. Good response by Gautam Sen on his blog. No more references to mud-wrestling and pigs. The differences are clear and the conversation civil.

    The more I look at it, the more I am uncomfortable with the processing of Dr.Sen’s case. If there was any ‘clinching evidence’ that was presented to the judge at CG prior to the SC bail hearing, I hope it is made public. I also object to that offline and highly irregular meeting.

    I am not absolutely convinced that Dr.Sen was completely above board; he may have sympathized with the Naxals and in doing so was walking a risky but still legally safe line on the edge. Did he cross the line? I dont think the letter was sufficient evidence.

    The point is we dont need to be absolutely convinced. Reasonable doubt is enough to acquit. I do think he was fixed at least to the extent that somebody in the police ‘jumped the gun’ and arrested with insufficient evidence. That much seems clear.

    And as I commented earlier, it is quite likely that his arrest was meant as a warning to other rights groups, and others in PUCL to lay off the govt. This harassment just shrinks the middle ground. I hope he gets a clear, fair trial and good legal representation.

    regards,
    Jai

  8. scritic,

    We can disagree on moral relativism.

    But on the contrary I do believe that human rights activists have an important role to play. But as you point out correctly, they are rather ineffective. I think it is because they are ‘screaming themselves hoarse’ (literally, if you watch TV).

    Losing public support for a cause like human rights is counterproductive to their cause. When strategies yield contrary reasons, most rational organisations and people re-examine their strategies. They see what they must do to achieve their objectives. That, unfortunately, is not happening. Context is important.

    Of course, one can argue that activists will be remembered in history for chronicling the excesses of the state. But that’s not useful to current and potential victims.

  9. Nitin,

    I’m pretty sure we’re talking past each other but one last try.

    Your argument, it seemed to me was that human rights activists, because of their one-sided criticism of the State might push the State to restrict its own actions. This seems like a legitimate argument — that a State with its hands tied behind its back would not be an effective actor, say, in matters of internal security.

    The rejoinder to that is that the State is much more powerful than all human rights activists combined and uniquely positioned to (rightly and wrongly) justify its human rights abuses. Moreover, at least, in India, I believe that the State has rarely modified its actions when confronted with its human rights abuses. If human rights activists are able to restrict the State’s excesses – great. If not (and more often than not, they don’t) then they at least serve to remind us that our hands are dirty — something that is important in a constitutional democracy like ours — even if they are not able to avert human rights violations.

    But now you seem to say that if human rights activists inserted disclaimers to the effect that the State is right and the Maoists (or any sundry outfit, for that matter) are wrong and then listed State atrocities, public opinion will turn their way and they may in fact actually succeed in averting future human rights violations. I really hope you are right but I seriously doubt it. India is a huge far-flung country and the rest of India is prepared to take the Government’s word that the human rights violations it commits in Kashmir (to take a controversial example, or Bihar, or Chattisgarh) are essential and are done in good faith — well, then a resident of Mumbai, immersed in his own life, will see no reason to doubt it. I know the Acorn is big on Adam Smith but he did say this in his Theory of Moral Sentiments:

    Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

    My view on human rights groups is bleaker than yours. I think they have very little effect in terms of curbing human rights violations or in mobilizing public opinion. Toning their criticism down is not going to earn them any public good will – nor will they be able to mobilize public opinion (mostly human rights violations occur in far-flung areas, or they happen to people for whom most people wouldn’t want to agitate for anyway – prisoners, petty criminals, what have you. I’m not saying this is right but it is what it is.) But I’d like them to go about their job. I want them to chronicle every human rights abuse they are able to and they’re free to go to the courts or to the media with their findings. No context is required about who is right or wrong and I am fine with it if they are harder on the States than on the Maoists (to take an example). If this helps curb human rights violations to some degree – great. If not, I still want them to keep doing it to remind us that our hands are dirty.

  10. Nitin,

    I’m pretty sure we’re talking past each other but one last try.

    Your argument, it seemed to me was that human rights activists, because of their one-sided criticism of the State might push the State to restrict its own actions. This seems like a legitimate argument — that a State with its hands tied behind its back would not be an effective actor, say, in matters of internal security.

    The rejoinder to that is that the State is much more powerful than all human rights activists combined and uniquely positioned to (rightly and wrongly) justify its human rights abuses. Moreover, at least, in India, I believe that the State has rarely modified its actions when confronted with its human rights abuses. If human rights activists are able to restrict the State’s excesses – great. If not (and more often than not, they don’t) then they at least serve to remind us that our hands are dirty — something that is important in a constitutional democracy like ours — even if they are not able to avert human rights violations.

    But now you seem to say that if human rights activists inserted disclaimers to the effect that the State is right and the Maoists (or any sundry outfit, for that matter) are wrong and then listed State atrocities, public opinion will turn their way and they may in fact actually succeed in averting future human rights violations. I really hope you are right but I seriously doubt it. India is a huge far-flung country and the rest of India is prepared to take the Government’s word that the human rights violations it commits in Kashmir (to take a controversial example, or Bihar, or Chattisgarh) are essential and are done in good faith — well, then a resident of Mumbai, immersed in his own life, will see no reason to doubt it. I know the Acorn is big on Adam Smith but he did say this in his Theory of Moral Sentiments:

    Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

    My view on human rights groups is bleaker than yours. I think they have very little effect in terms of curbing human rights violations or in mobilizing public opinion. Toning their criticism down is not going to earn them any public good will – nor will they be able to mobilize public opinion (mostly human rights violations occur in far-flung areas, or they happen to people for whom most people wouldn’t want to agitate for anyway – prisoners, petty criminals, what have you. I’m not saying this is right but it is what it is.) But I’d like them to go about their job. I want them to chronicle every human rights abuse they are able to and they’re free to go to the courts or to the media with their findings. No context is required about who is right or wrong and I am fine with it if they are harder on the States than on the Maoists (to take an example). If this helps curb human rights violations to some degree – great. If not, I still want them to keep doing it to remind us that our hands are dirty.

  11. I think there is a great deal of after-the-fact rationalization (and some remorse) being shown by right-wing cadres regarding Dr. Binayak Sen’s chilling arrest by the state government. Dr. Sen was merely doing his job as a doctor and human rights practitioner, stoutly performing under the moral injunction requiring us all to be our brother’s keeper. I have no opinion, favorable or otherwise, about the Naxalites or the State, and would prefer if others did not conflate their preferences for one side or the other with Dr. Sen’s unjustifiable incarceration by the junta.

  12. Dear Fil Munas,

    I have no opinion, favorable or otherwise, about the Naxalites or the State, and would prefer if others did not conflate their preferences for one side or the other with Dr. Sen’s unjustifiable incarceration by the junta.

    You use of the word junta to refer to a constitutional, duly elected, democratic government. And you still expect people to be convinced that you have “no opinion, favorable or otherwise, about…the State”? Why hide behind the facade of being “neutral” between the Naxalites and the State?

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