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.

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?