Saturday, July 28, 2007

India's Naxalites --- Insights on Extremism

India is the world's largest democracy.

That remarkable statement came to my attention as an undergraduate nearly forty years ago. With a major in history and political science as an allied field, I was able one quarter to study both politics and history of "South Asia," as the academics would have it, in two classes, one with a poly sci teacher, the other with a history teacher. (I tried to get away with submitting a single term paper for each but it didn't work. I had to craft two separate papers.) They call it "South Asia" to reflect the division of the former British Raj into two countries, India and Pakistan. Back to the line above...

One of today's perplexing questions is why and how the world has managed to incubate a large and growing population of extremists whose savage tactics spread like a virus through a global community on the road to modernity and enlightenment. Preening capitalists strut statistics showing that world poverty is on the decline as a world market stewards resources in a way that makes a rising tide lift every one's boat. Even Starbucks, announcing yet another retail increase, is doing its part in the greening of coffee sources and pushing industry to "fair" pricing for growers.

Extremism, however, is no mystery. Nor is it new. It endures for years through generations of neglect and isolation. In the same way that poverty and scarcity are part of the economic free market, the dispossessed and alienated are an unmentionable part of "democracy," the elbows and heels of the body politic.

Read this article in The Nation carefully and let the images of modern terrorism rest quietly in your mind. Maybe it's just me, but as I read all I could think of was the methods by which a small group of determined extremists successfully set the Al Qaeda franchise in motion. it's not really very different from Lenin's vanguard of the proletariat.

The Indian Maoists are referred to by friend and foe alike as Naxalites, after the village of Naxalbari in north Bengal, where their movement began in 1967. Through the 1970s and '80s, the Naxalites were episodically active in the Indian countryside. They were strongest in the states of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, where they organized low-caste sharecroppers and laborers to demand better terms from their upper-caste landlords. Naxalite activities were open, as when conducted through labor unions, or illegal, as when they assassinated a particularly recalcitrant landlord or made a daring seizure of arms from a police camp.

Until the 1990s the Naxalites were a marginal presence in Indian politics. But in that decade they began working more closely with the tribal communities of the Indian heartland. About 80 million Indians are officially recognized as "tribal"; of these, some 15 million live in the northeast, in regions untouched by Hindu influence. It is among the 65 million tribals of the heartland that the Maoists have found a most receptive audience.

Who, exactly, are the Indian tribals? There is a long-running dispute on this question. Some, like the great French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, merely saw them as "Hindus lost in the forest"; others, like the British ethnographer Verrier Elwin, insisted that they could not be so easily assimilated into the mainstream of the Indic civilization. While the arguments about their cultural distinctiveness (or lack thereof) continue, there is--or at any rate should be--a consensus on their economic and political status in independent India.

On the economic side, the tribals are the most deeply disadvantaged segment of Indian society. As few as 23 percent of them are literate; as many as 50 percent live under the poverty line. The state fails to provide them with adequate education, healthcare or sanitation; more actively, it works to dispossess them of their land and resources. For the tribals have the ill luck to live amid India's most verdant forests, alongside India's freest-flowing rivers and atop India's most valuable minerals. As these resources have gained in market value, the tribals have had to make way for commercial forestry, large and small dams, and mines. According to sociologist Walter Fernandes, 40 percent of those displaced by development projects are tribals, although they constitute less than 8 percent of the population. Put another way, a tribal is five times as likely as a nontribal to have his property seized by the state.

On the political side, the tribals are very poorly represented in the democratic process. In fact, compared with India's other subaltern groups, such as the Dalits (former Untouchables) and the Muslims, they are well nigh invisible. Dalits have their own, sometimes very successful, political parties; the Muslims have always constituted a crucial vote bank for the dominant Congress Party. In consequence, in every Indian Cabinet since independence, Dalits and Muslims have been assigned powerful portfolios such as Home, Education, External Affairs and Law. On the other hand, tribals are typically allotted inconsequential ministries such as Sports or Youth Affairs. Again, three Muslims and one Dalit have been chosen President of India, but no tribal. Three Muslims and one Dalit have served as Chief Justice of India, but no tribal.
This twin marginalization, economic and political, has opened a space for the Maoists to work in. Their most impressive gains have been in tribal districts, where they have shrewdly stoked discontent with the state to win people to their side. They have organized tribals to demand better wages from the forest department, killed or beaten up policemen alleged to have intimidated tribals and run law courts and irrigation schemes of their own.

More at the link to read and think about.

Like it or not, this is hearts and minds stuff. In the business world we say if you don't make someone happy you can be sure that someone else will...and that is how customer loyalty is lost forever.

Politics is the same as the retail food business, except that the product is political power instead of chicken or pizza. Check this out...

We got a sharp insight into the Maoist mind in an extended interview with a Maoist senior leader. He met our team, by arrangement, in a small wayside cafe along the road that runs from the state capital, Raipur, to Jagdalpur, once the seat of the Maharaja of Bastar. There he told us of his party's strategies for Bastar, and for the country as a whole.

Working under the pseudonym "Sanjeev," this revolutionary was slim, clean-shaven and soberly dressed in dark trousers and a bush shirt of neutral colors. Now 35, he had been in the movement for two decades, dropping out of college in Hyderabad to join it. He works in Abujmarh, a part of Bastar so isolated that it remains unsurveyed (apparently the only part of India that holds this distinction), and where no official dares venture for fear of being killed.
Speaking in quiet, controlled tones, Sanjeev showed himself to be deeply committed as well as highly sophisticated. The Naxalite village committees, he said, worked to protect people's rights in jal, jangal and zameen--water, forest and land. At the same time, they made targeted attacks on state officials, especially the police. Raids on police stations were intended to stop police from harassing ordinary folk. They were also necessary to augment the weaponry of the guerrilla army. Through popular mobilization and the intimidation of state officials, the Maoists hoped to expand their authority over Dandakaranya. Once the region was made a "liberated zone," it would be used as a launch pad for the capture of state power in India as a whole.

Sanjeev's belief in the efficacy of armed struggle was complete. When asked about two landmine blasts that had killed many innocent people--in one case members of a marriage party--he said that these had been mistakes, with the guerrillas believing that the police had hired private vehicles to escape detection. The Maoists, he said, would issue an apology and compensate the victims' families. However, when asked about other, scarcely less brutal killings, he said they were "deliberate incidents."

We asked Sanjeev what he thought of the Maoists in neighboring Nepal, who had laid down their arms and joined other parties in the framing of a republican Constitution. He was emphatic that in India they did not countenance this option. Here, they remained committed to the destruction of the state by means of armed struggle.

Again, thanks to Abbas Raza at 3QD for the pointer, one of the people connecting the dots. The image is so plain I am amazed that more people can't seems to catch on. Even blogging about it leaves me feeling tired and helpless.

Referring back to that opening line, democracy (or representative government or whatever you want to call it) offers little or no natural protection against extremism or terrorism. The organized tyrannies of China, Venezuela and Iran are not where modern terrorists are active. James Baldwin said "The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose."

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