50 years of Naxalbari: No glorious red future awaits us. Nor corporate utopia
The richest sense of irony I ever felt was evoked by a PTI report, dated 13 May, 1997 from Siliguri, that a bust of Charu Majumdar had been decapitated.
It went on to report the bandh called by Naxalite leaders 'to protest against the cowardly act'. Shop-keepers were forced to down shutters. The report went on to quote the town mayor, who condemned the incident and said “the miscreants who beheaded the bust could not have any political identity, they were simply hooligans” - the Indian cliche for condemnation of insults to great personages.
Some 27 years prior to this cowardly act, Calcutta (as it then was) witnessed the Naxalite imitation of Mao's Cultural Revolution. This consisted in incendiary attacks on schools and colleges, violent disruption of examinations and the destruction of portraits and statues of famous figures from Bengal's history, including Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Rabindranath Tagore – not to mention Mahatma Gandhi.
Overriding protests by comrades such as Sushital Ray Chaudhuri, Charu Majumdar and his fiery ally, journalist Saroj Dutta, defended the iconoclasm of the revolutionary students, including their lack of knowledge of what they were doing: “Are the youth fully aware of the political implications?... Have they analysed the work of those whose statues they are destroying? No they have not! But still, they are doing the right things.”
He praised 'revolutionary' excesses and claimed 'the masses never make mistakes'.
Celebration of mindless violence
The celebration of mindless violence is now manifest in several quarters, not least in the name of the nation, the cow and the Millat.
Outbursts of violent rage are part of life, but it is another matter when they become intrinsic to some grand political design.
Albert Camus famously distinguished between crimes of passion and crimes of logic – the latter being his name for violence in the name of history. It is time we recognised that the two have combined in the politics of the past century, wherein the passions of the many were (and continue to be) deliberately manipulated by the few in the service of their projects.
Some ideologues have learned to infect politics with the masculine yearning for military glory and revenge against real or imaginary enemies. Such are the utopian visions of communalists of all hues. Others claim to possess knowledge of the truth of history – or its laws – which, to them, certifies the inevitable victory of their cause.
Claims to superior knowledge
All such movements base themselves on the claim to superior knowledge; and an advance self-exoneration for crimes they have committed or plan to commit. They are ideological movements, which by definition possess (or are possessed by) an absolute truth. But truth has a universal ambience, and cannot be tied to any particular nation or state or religion. Nor need we believe that the creator of the universe is particularly fond of this or that sliver of ground on an insignificant planet.
Ideology is the contemporary manifestation of religion. In its early days, the French Revolution attempted to enforce an atheistic worship of the nation. The deification of the nation soon assumed equivalence with the nationalisation of god.
Within the communist tradition (notwithstanding Marx's powerful sociological analysis of capitalism), there emerged the Leninist doctrine of the infallibility of the party. In this case, absolute truth was guaranteed by the laws of history, known to leaders like Lenin, Stalin and Mao.
Given the multiplicity of claimants to knowledge of god's will or history's laws, ideological scenarios are theatres of permanent conflict, both within and between the various camp-followers. Ideological movements are incipiently totalitarian, and the state-systems they seek to establish are imitations of theocracy, regimes of truth. Such movements are accompanied by extreme violence, directed both against the people they seek to represent; as well as their deemed enemies.
The never-ending character of ideologically inspired conflict in our time should alert us to its nihilist aspect. 'Nihilism' and 'annihilation' have the same root – nihil or pure nothingness. (Annihilation was Charu Mazumdar’s favourite word).
The perpetual suspension of the present for the sake of an ever-retreating glorious future is an expression of nihilism. So is the equivalence of speech with silence, the celebration of death in the name of martyrdom and the disregard for life, the treatment of humans as bio-mass.
Ideologues are uncomfortable with ordinariness, and seek to disrupt it. Undoubtedly, the brutality and injustice of our social order inspires some of us to destroy it root and branch. But the organisation of a killing machine as a means to obtain the final solution to injustice is a step into an abyss.
In my knowledge the only study that characterised Naxalism as a variant of nihilism was Rabindra Ray's The Naxalites and Their Ideology. Aside from reminding us that Naxalism is intellectually driven; and that its stress upon correct social knowledge as the precursor to a correct strategy is common to the entire communist tradition, he raises – crucially – the possibility that it is not the 'correct analysis' that leads to the appropriate strategy, but rather, the already-desired strategy that seeks its own analysis, its own 'right line'.
Following Mao blindly
Naxalism is the colloquial name for Indian Maoism. Its organisational form was inaugurated in 1969 as the CPI (ML). Extreme factionalism accompanied the birth of this party, with dissenting groups being dubbed counter-revolutionaries.
Charu's faction insisted that India's constitution was a mask for a semi-colonial system and had to be overthrown by a peasant rebellion similar to the one led by the Chinese Communist Party. The Telengana uprising of 1946-51 was a point of inspiration. The CPI (ML) insisted on a boycott of democratic politics in favour of immediate organisation of an agrarian armed struggle.
Naxalism was never a movement of peasants and tribals seeking to overthrow state power. Rather, this theoretical assertion was made by those who claim to represent the popular interest. The right to make this claim was derived from what the earliest Naxalites referred to as 'revolutionary authority'.
The mantle of authority was obtained from the Chinese Communist Party led by Chairman Mao. Their early attraction to China as the centre of the world revolution soon led to a blind support for Chinese national interests. This was accompanied by an evocation of the violent stream within Indian nationalism, harking back to Anushilan and Jugantar. Well might our commentators refer to them as anti-national – Naxalites see themselves as inheritors of anti-colonial terrorism, and as genuine patriots.
The pull of Maoism
Leaving aside the theoreticians, what attracts ordinary people to Maoism? The reason is not far to seek, but is papered over by the apologists of the system that has sustained Naxalism. It cannot be sufficiently emphasised that violence irrupts not on account of a lack of 'development' or from economic causes, but from humiliation and injustice.
Those who need evidence could research the forced land acquisitions, arrests of peaceful activists, forced resettlements of villagers, molestation of women, and incarceration of poor people for years on end, that are scattered all over the areas affected by corporate development.
They could also consider the allegation (November 2014) by a retired DG of the CRPF that certain state governments have a vested interest in insurgency.
No glorious red future
Naxalism has nothing to do with tribal matters per se. Rather, it is the misfortune of India's Adivasis that the lands they inhabit are rich in minerals.
The history of industrialisation in these regions is a story which can reveal much about the origins of Maoist extremism, but will our fire-breathing TV pundits and gung-ho patriots bother to examine the facts?
When people despair of obtaining fair treatment at the hands of state and society, they become attracted to vengeful ideologies. The nihilism of the Maoists is the mirror-image of the nihilism of a ruthless establishment. The first is suicidal, the second geared toward eternal conflict. Both sides could end the bloodshed easily if they wanted to – all it requires is the courage to critically examine one's own conduct and admit that ordinary people need peace.
Above all it requires that they remove their ideological spectacles and get back to ordinary life – something that will include struggles for justice but not murder. There’s no glorious red future waiting for us, nor a corporate utopia with malls accessible to everyone. But may we dare aspire to pass our days without fear?
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