Karma is not an excuse for Mao

There is no justification for the Maoist’s armed struggle

The ghastly ambush and murder of unarmed political leaders by Maoists in Chhattisgarh ought to focus the national discourse on the nature of the problem the India republic faces in the forested areas of Central India. Instead, the discourse is being distorted in two baleful directions. First, into a partisan “Congress vs BJP” shouting match. Second, and more dangerously, it is being purposefully led astray by arguments that position Maoist violence as a reaction to Salwa Judum, an anti-Maoist vigilante group whose leader, Mahendra Karma, was killed in the incidents.

Let us get the discourse back on line. The Communist Party of India (Maoist) is engaged in a war against the Republic of India. Violence and “armed struggle” are core part of the ideology, practice and empirical record of Maoist groups. The violence didn’t start in 2006, when Salwa Judum was created.

Rather, Salwa Judum was a reaction—albeit a deeply flawed and misguided one—to decades of Maoist violence. To argue that the Maoists escalated violence because of Salwa Judum—for instance, as Ramachandra Guha has done in The Hindu—would be to ignore the broader historical context. Also, would a “peace” imposed by the Maoists on a hapless tribal population be morally acceptable to the citizens of the Indian republic?

Therefore, the Chhattisgarh attack must be seen for what it is—an attempt to disrupt a democratic political process whose success could further marginalise the Maoists. (See our issue brief for details).

This blog has been a severe critic of Salwa Judum from the outset: the state cannot outsource its monopoly over the legitimate use of force. It does so at the risk of landing up in a moral quagmire. Salwa Judum was not merely unconstitutional, it was poor strategy. The use of surrendered militants in Jammu & Kashmir, for instance, undermined India’s counter-insurgency initiatives in the longer term. That lesson was not learnt, and was certainly not applied in Chhattisgarh. If Maoist depredations are explained away by commentators today, it is because of Salwa Judum. Of course, Maoist sympathisers and fronts would find other reasons to justify the violence, but Salwa Judum gave them one highly visible and easy target to hit.

Even so, the fact that Salwa Judum was a wrong move does not mean that killing Mr Karma is somehow justified. It is the strength of the Indian republic that citizens were able to get the Supreme Court to wind down Salwa Judum. Those who felt Mr Karma had crimes to answer for should have taken recourse to the legal system. Yes, cases take too long. Yes, some politicians get away on technicalities. Yes, sometimes judges are compromised. None of this legitimises Maoists killing Mr Karma and massacring many others. In fact, those who claim killing Mr Karma is legitimate cannot also claim Salwa Judum is not—unless, of course, get into the Orwellian territory of saying “unconstitutional actions are morally justified when our side does them, but illegitimate when our opponents do them.”

Salwa Judum is just one aspect of the reluctance and half-heartedness of the Indian establishment’s defence against the Maoists’ war on the republic. The Chhattisgarh massacre should inject moral clarity and lucidity into the public mind. The Indian republic must fight this war. It would be another mistake to use the armed forces for this task. Counter-insurgency needs a different sort of capacity. How to acquire this capacity and how to deploy it needs a far more nuanced debate than the one we have now.

Related Link: What kind of capacity does India need for counter-insurgency:a special report in Pragati on a panel discussion on this topic.