Today’s dharma is the Constitution

Where The Acorn interprets the Mahabharata

Continuing the discussion on Naxalism, Gautam Sen points to an op-ed by Nandini Sundar, a sociologist from the Delhi School of Economics, and a member of the Independent Citizen’s Initiative (ICI) that investigated the situation in Chattisgarh in July 2006. Similar to the position the ICI takes in its report, Dr Sundar’s op-ed equates violence conducted by state authorities and violence conducted by non-state authorities (Maoists and the anti-Maoist Salwa Judum militia). This is perhaps a pacifist middle-ground position, but is untenable as an organising principle for a democratic nation. It has been rejected by the Maoists themselves: Mupalla Lakshmana Rao (Comrade ‘Ganapathy’), the Maoist chief, retorted that “those who imagine themselves to be impartial referees in class war and try to set the rules equally for both sides will ultimately end up as apologists for the oppressors, in spite of their good intentions and sincere attitude.”

Dr Sundar attempts to find a basis for the “middle-ground” position by taking recourse to the Mahabharata and codes of conduct according to dharma.

If both must fight, ignoring saner counsel, let me draw their attention to another aspect of the Mahabharata. As Matilal points out, it was indeed a dharmyuddh, but only because both parties were expected to observe certain laws of dharma, or codes of conduct in war. [New Indian Express]

Now, quite clearly, it is untenable to suggest that the Indian state allow the literal Hindu dharma to guide its behaviour. Beyond a literal interpretation though, the idea that the actions of the king and his subjects are circumscribed by a code of conduct, or dharma, in its contemporary form simply indicates that the government and citizens are subject to the Constitution. And the Constitution empowers the government to use force—under laws, checks and balances. It forbids others, for instance the Maoists, from doing so.

The correct interpretation of the Mahabharata is that the government must behave according to the Constitution (and disband the Salwa Judum), but also, defeat the Maoists who, by rejecting the Constitution, are on the side of adharma.

Just how serious is the Naxalite threat?

The Indian home minister doesn’t understand the nature of the problem

Just how does Shivraj Patil justify his government’s underperformance over handling the Naxalite insurgency? Well, by understating the threat. Don’t look at 10 states and 180 districts that form the ‘red corridor’, he told parliament. For only 300 of the 14,000 police stations in the country are affected, and the Naxalites were responsible for a mere 700 incidents of violence, constituting a mere 1.1% of the total insurgency and terrorist related incidents in the country. “The Naxalite threat should not be exaggerated to create fear psychosis among people”, Mr Patil told the Rajya Sabha.

Let’s not even ask Mr Patil whether 14,000 police stations are enough to serve a billion people, and whether there are enough of them in the areas where Naxalites are holding sway. Let’s not ask how they arrived at the figure of “700” attacks. But to downplay a threat merely because it can be made too look small in numbers is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the risk it poses. For instance, Pakistan has only 0.3% of the world’s nuclear warheads, or only 0.02% of the total megatonnage. So is the risk from Pakistan exaggerated? It is not numbers and percentages, but a subjective assessment of what the numbers mean that determines how we should assess a threat.

For a start, 700 incidents are 700 too many. Second, as Shlok Vaidya describes it, the Naxalites’ strategy involves “hollowing out the state instead of offering an existential threat”. In other words, unlike terrorists, they control the rate of escalation of violence to ensure that it remains subliminal. The fact that Naxalites plan to overthrow the state over decades rather than overnight should not make the risk any less serious.

If Mr Patil had argued that countering Naxalites does not need the same kind of urgency as fighting terrorists, he would perhaps have a reasonable point. But downplaying a threat—and telling citizens they suffer from a fear psychosis—can only be interpreted as an attempt to unapologetically cover-up sheer incompetence.

The good citizens of India should have reason to worry about the confusion plaguing the top leadership of the UPA government: one the one hand Prime Minister Manmohan Singh describes Left-wing extremism as the most serious internal security threat, and on the other, his home minister declares that it should not be exaggerated lest it scare the people.

Wait for the main act, Mr Raman

The yingge of Chennai

B Raman (at his blog) laments on how a once-great newspaper has been reduced to being Beijing’s mouthpiece: its reports on the recent protests rely on the Xinhua version of events. (linkthanks Atanu Dey)

But the worst is yet to come. N Ram can’t lose this opportunity to bring the editorial daggers out for the Dalai Lama. He’s done it before at times when Beijing had far less at stake.

My op-ed in Mail Today: Vengeance of the red complaint box

On the Naxalite threat

Excerpts from my op-ed piece in today’s Mail Today:

Now there has been a controversy brewing for several months over the arrest of Dr Binayak Sen. 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. Quizzed about the affair, (Sudeep) Chakravarti contends that Dr Sen is a soft target for the state. “Having him in jail” he argues “allows the state government and police a victory in the face of organisational and security disasters on the ground. But this is a pyrrhic victory. It stifles a moderate voice, and has done nothing whatsoever to curtail or solve in any way either the raging Maoist rebellion in Chattisgarh or issues of development”

Innocent or guilty, only the courts can tell (and Dr Sen has unfettered access to them). But the media coverage of the affair is playing into the hands of the Naxalites. In the absence of a nation-wide anti-insurgency strategy, will critical media coverage compel Chattisgarh and other weak states to take a more enlightened, sophisticated route? Given the situation on the ground, that’s unlikely. The interests of freedom and rights will be better served if the central government is compelled to really fight and defeat the Naxalites.

And then there is the non-security aspect of the anti-Naxalite strategy, wrongly characterised as the need for “development”. It misses the point because people don’t resort to violence because they lack development. They do so when there is a lack of governance. [MailToday JPG/Get the entire article in PDF]

Discuss this on the recent post on Naxalites and human rights activists

South America’s Pakistan

Venezuela’s support for left-wing terrorism is an international problem

Colombia conducts a raid against FARC, radical left-wing guerillas, holed out in neighbouring Equador. Equador lies to the South-west of Colombia. The raid is successful and several FARC guerillas, including a member of its senior leadership.Map:NYT

Equador protests. But that’s not all. Venezuela does too. In fact, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez cries foul before Equador does. He doesn’t stop there. He sends ten infantry battalion, including tank units to the border with Colombia. But here’s the thing—Venezuela doesn’t even share a border with the offended Equador. In fact, Venezuela lies to the North-east of Colombia.

Now, it was well known that Mr Chavez was extending “moral, diplomatic and political support” to the FARC guerillas for a long time. But Colombian forces seized a laptop during their recent raid that should do more than merely embarrass the Venezuelan president.

What may really have upset Mr. Chávez is the capture of Reyes’s laptop. According to Colombia’s top police official, General Oscar Naranjo, the computer contains evidence supporting the claim that the FARC is working with Mr. Chávez. General Naranjo said Monday that Reyes’s laptop records showed that Venezuela may have paid $300 million to the FARC in exchange for its recent release of six civilian hostages. Mr. Chávez had spun those releases as a triumph of his personal mediation.

General Naranjo said the laptop also contains documents showing that the FARC was seeking to buy 50 kilos of uranium, and the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo has reported that the records revealed the sale of 700 kilograms of cocaine valued at $1.5 million. The general added that the military found a thank-you note from Mr. Chávez to the FARC for some $150,000 that the rebels had sent him when he was in prison for his attempted coup d’etat in 1992. [WSJ]

State-sponsored terrorism, backed by high oil & gas prices, lives on. Leave the familiar parallel with Pakistan aside: the question is how long is it before international left-wing terrorists develop the international links, infrastructure and capabilities, like their jihadi counterparts?

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).

Gross asymmetry in the public space

China can shape Indian politics. India can’t return favour

The Communist Party of India (Maoist) (the Naxalites in common parlance) and its above ground sympathisers; Prakash Karat and the “Left” front; The Hindu (at least its editorial board); various NGOs—there a so many in India that bat for China.

Who speaks for India on the Northern side of the Himalayas?

(That this doesn’t startle anyone is the really startling bit.)