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November 4, 2009

Hope is the antidote to Naxalism

Two young auto rickshaw drivers were in the queue at the Road Transport Office (RTO). They had already lost two days’ income with no end in sight for their registration nightmare. They pointed to a decrepit old man standing outside, looking dejected in hot, humid Chennai. “He has been there for two days and has come all the way from Andhra Pradesh. Officials have been giving him the run around. A rich man can afford a tout but what will that poor man do?”

One of them added, “Naxalites should take over and ‘take care’ of all these bastards.”

A chill should shoot down our collective spine. If the urban annoyed of reasonably well governed cities feel this way, what do the helpless, in badly governed, feudal lands of India feel?

As one reads Comrades: A World History of Communism, a fascinating and sometimes sarcastic account of various attempts at utopia, one question keeps popping up—Why did communism take root in some but not other parts of the world? The author Robert Service, whose low opinion of communism is palpable, argues that communism was welcomed by people in societies that denied them basic freedoms. Unfortunately, these oppressed people found themselves living under an even more oppressive system.

Communist parties and their fellow travellers existed in practically every democratic, liberal and capitalistic society. In the 1920s and ‘30s, especially after the economic devastation in the wake of the Great Depression, it even appeared that many of these societies would go the communist way. But they didn’t.

The Communists’ misfortune was that these nations, even in the depths of economic misery, afforded their citizens basic freedoms and better governance. Even under glaring income and wealth disparities, most people could afford to be hopeful—if not they, their children would have a better life; opportunity for upward mobility existed. Hope — near and distant — acted as barrier to the growth of communist power.

Lands which denied its citizens any hope of upward mobility, justice and rule of law fell to communist revolutionaries, many of whom were motivated by visions of an egalitarian society devoid of class and the privilege of birth.

The constituency of Naxalism comprises of those devoid of justice and even the hope of progress. Most cadres come from groups like the tribals that have been traditionally and systematically abused for long. The so called Red Corridor covers areas that have not seen governance or growth worthy of a modern nation even while other parts of India practice a vibrant democracy and chalk near double digit growth.

Contrary to what the anti-liberalisation crowd says, these are not victims of liberalisation, but are areas untouched by liberalisation. Here, decentralised government is unknown. Crony capitalism and state-directed industrialisation usurp tribal land and resources, and rule of law, infrastructure and services that would have helped poor create wealth and a better future are non-existent.

The antidote to Naxalism, as syrupy as it may sound, is hope. Hope is no food package to be dropped from helicopters; it needs to be built though good governance at the local level. Central planning has failed the world over. The people, including and especially in remote areas must have the power and resources to script their future.

Countless crores are spent by central and state governments in the name of the poor, especially rural and tribal. This is not only wasteful, but very often, counterproductive as well. As a starting point, abolish all central government ministries that purport to work for the upliftment of the poor.

India Today (June 18th, 2007) found that abolishing, restructuring and merging about 20 central ministries — agriculture, human resources, tribal affairs, coal, rural and the like— will save the taxpayer around Rs 76,000 crores. Why not parcel this and more, say, equally to rural and tribal families and to Gram Sabhas? Let them decide where to dig canals and lay roads, how much fertiliser to buy, how, where and when to farm and so on. Growth and progress will follow.

Wealth and income transfers are realities in any society, especially democracies. No society will tolerate drastic  income and wealth disparities, especially in light of mass starvation and policy driven suicides.

Until self-governance and policy sanity is restored, the real issue is how transparent and efficient such transfer processes are. Are the intended recipients receiving the maximum allocated resources? Are there simple mechanisms the redress the wrong?

Cash transfer in various forms, combined with smart cards based identification, will bring much needed efficiency and transparency to poverty mitigation programs. Which hopefully would also be the death knell of centralised planning. Even the Left has extended great support for programmes like National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) which has effectively become a scheme of simple cash transfers.

It is a sad irony that much of the Red Corridor is not only extremely poor, but extremely resource rich, with enough land for potential factories and advanced and efficient farming these regions are also rich in coal, uranium, bauxite and other minerals. But who owns all this wealth? No one and surely not the tribals under whose feet much of this wealth lies.

How one divides up natural resources like oil is clearly a challenge anywhere in the world. How much should each citizen of Iraq earn from the sale of a barrel of Iraqi oil? Yet there are solutions and these must be customised for local realities through a serious and deliberative process. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, is an attempt in this direction, albeit with loops and holes.

While General Electric can own and operate nuclear reactors around the world, why should the tribals of Jaduguda be condemned to inherit solely “disease, death and environmental destruction” from its uranium mines? Currently, in the absence of clear property rights, the tribals cannot even collect and use more mundane forest products, let alone be part of the military-industrial complex.

Improvements in the overall property rights framework must be hastened. Also, the division of resources among the original owners in a democratically consensual and transparent manner must be hastened.

Warriors who see the world through the prism of class rightly point out that caste and tradition, and not economics alone, are also causes for oppression and injustice. As an aside, this is interesting coming from class warriors, since caste and tradition  seem to have trumped class in much of India.

Undoubtedly greater devolution of power to panchayats, democratically protected participation of all castes and gender in governance, monitoring by activists and human rights agencies, greater assault on caste and gender atrocities and so on have made deep dents into oppressive and unjust structures that have existed for centuries. Programs like NREGS, cash transfers and vouchers for empowering the poor in education, insurance and health arealready showing signs of accelerating this much needed redistribution of power and dignity.

This brings us to the area where government institutions must focus: the rule of law. Most humans might tolerate oppression, injustice and abuse as ephemeral if convinced about the existence of legal and civilised recourse. A  functioning democracy would have enough safety valves with its judicial, police and civil society structures. But these too have atrophied in much of India, especially in the Red Corridor.

The much ballyhooed reform of police and judiciary must start, and along with this the ostensibly necessary, but much abused provisions like Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) must go. The very existence of provisions like this is, in a democratic society, a sign of decay of the rule of law and governance.

Finally, the Naxalites’ bluff must be called. There are two kinds of Naxalites: those who might join the democratic, parliamentary process when conditions are right or out of necessity; others constrained by ideological steel will negate current and future Constitutions, Parliaments and all organs of Indian democracy as a bourgeois confidence trick. The battle with the latter is eternal and needs to be fought with great stamina and long term vision. While empathising with their reading of conditions in much of India and the need for revolution, armed or peaceful, it would be foolish to deny or underestimate their long term objectives.

The power of ideology cannot be underestimated. Any group that pays obeisance to Marx—a pioneer in advocating violent revolution and one party dictatorship—and to Lenin, Stalin and Mao—main exhibits in the gallery of mass murderer—needs to be taken seriously. Further, the Naxalites are just one of the many groups of nihilists claiming to represent the oppressed.

But with the first group of Naxalites, the best way to prove the hollowness of their ideology and to defeat the rebellion would be to hand over power to the rebels through a fair democratic election. Communism has failed no matter which nation tried it and under whatever banner.

Let them have another chance to architect their ruins.The Red Corridor must have more democratic options. Naxalites who are willing to contest, win elections and implement their programmes must be encouraged. India is too large, too complex and too wise to fall apart, due to yet another tried and failed ideology. Call the red bluff.

If history of economic policy is any guide, the elected Naxalites will fall to the well-known ‘anti-incumbency’ factor (euphemism for the electorates’ rejection of a government that did not deliver). The debate is not whether Indian society needs a revolution or not. That it needs. The debate is what the revolution will replace the current reality with.

To hasten that revolution and what it brings, the rest of us only have very few, yet powerful, weapons like democracy, good governance and rule of law. These are too important to be left blunt in the hands of distant leaders and underdeveloped institutions. They must be sharpened.


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