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Home > Dissident Left Archive > An Ancient Sickness

An Ancient Sickness

by Dilip Simeon, 8 January 2009

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“Whether you could admit an injustice if you despise the one you injured”
— Elias Canetti

If truth is war’s first casualty, a state of permanent war will lead to the complete dissipation of truth. And if truth is to be understood not just as fact, but more significantly, that which remains through the shimmering flux of appearances, then it may only emerge via dialogue, no matter how severe the words chosen. As long as someone is actually listening. The pursuit of political goals via annihilation will only lead us into the abyss of nihilism. It is that abyss towards which the Indian polity is proceeding; and the responsibility for this rests (in different degrees), with the ruling establishment as well as its radical opponents.

Decades ago, during the first Naxalite rebellion, I was witness to momentous happenings in the sub-continent. Disregarding the election that had given the Awami League a majority, Pakistan’s Army launched a crackdown in East Pakistan with the backing of the Chinese government. Millions of refugees fled to West Bengal. Chairman Mao shook hands with Kissinger as Vietnam continued to be bombed. The JVP insurrection in Sri Lanka was smashed by a government that enjoyed the support of India, Pakistan, the US, China and the USSR. The Naxalite movement was thrown into confusion. Many comrades loyally repeated the Chinese Communists’ line blaming India and the Soviets for the crisis. But some were distressed that they seemed to be driven by great-power ambition, rather than world revolution. Why could not the Chinese press inform their public of the atrocities taking place in Pakistan? Was not China a socialist country? Why should socialism need lies to sustain itself? Should not Chinese workers have known what the Pakistan Army was doing with the tanks and guns supplied to them by the Peoples Republic of China? A question made its first appearance in my mind - is truth a mere plaything of power? At a broader level, the events of 1971 marked the beginning of disarray in the ultra-left movement, reflected in the bitter factionalism of extremist politics. Similar to the disruption caused by Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, it raises the question of why the communist movement has been riven for decades with issues of democracy and the freedom of thought.

A gross but telling Americanism describes the deliberate ignorance of something staring us in the face as an “elephant in the drawing room”. One such creature is the lawlessness of the Indian establishment, with its middle-class support base. It’s no secret that India’s parties and leaders maintain private armies and captive mobs. Over the past 25 years, thousands of innocent Indians have perished at the hands of hooligans owing allegiance to the parties that swear by the Indian Constitution. Not only do they intimidate voters at election time, but every so often they also instigate the mass murder of hapless Indians defined as enemies. Those responsible for these crimes are never punished, rather, policemen who allow them to happen are routinely rewarded, and leaders who unleash their dogs of war somehow rise to great heights. The Congress Party presided over the massacre of Sikhs in 1984, but finds it difficult to pass a resolution of condolence in Parliament. The Hindutva politicians are openly implicated in the Gujarat carnage of 2002. Not only do they lack remorse for their sadistic cruelty towards their victims, but flaunt Narendra Modi as Hindu Hriday Samraat. It requires little imagination as to what makes him larger than life in the eyes of his devotees. The politically literate population of Mumbai and Maharashtra bestowed godfather status upon Bal Thackeray. This man’s inglorious career was based upon the incitement of street gangs to vandalise the shops of South Indians in the name of Shivaji. The Mumbai elite, including Congress politicians, prostrated themselves before this mafia for decades. Mr Advani is now outraged to see Thackeray’s descendants attacking North Indians. What about the North Indians who perished in the aftermath of the assault on Babri Masjid? Nau sau chuhe khaa kar billi Haj ko chali.

Mumbai’s Police Commissioner recently flaunted his proximity to Raj Thackeray, the man who hounded thousands of Indian citizens out of Maharashtra in blatant violation of law. The Congress Chief Minister waited for ten days to arrest him, and released him in as many minutes. Last November, West Bengal’s Left Front sent partisan vigilantes to Nandigram to violently ’recapture’ territory over which it had legal authority all along. Shortly thereafter, it permitted a group of Muslim fanatics to hound Taslima Nasreen from Kolkata. These facts suggest that goondaism has become a mode of governance. India’s Home Minister cannot ensure basic safety for ordinary Indians in his home state, but muses about sub-contracting the policing powers of the state to private security agencies. It’s already happened sir, have you heard of the Ranvir Sena? Or the Salwa Judum, the so-called “peace movement” in Chhattisgarh that has the backing of the BJP and Congress and has been accused of committing punitive rapes and killings? These private militias enjoy state support. The Salwa Judum has recruited minors as Special Police Officers, and its atrocities are rarely registered in FIR’s, marking an extension of impunity to an extra-legal force. The Home Minister wants special legislation to deal with extremism. What about the extremists at his elbow? Even the President has referred to mob violence as a result of the failure of Indian justice. Yet our mainstream political intelligentsia glibly ask Naxalites to respect the law without any sense of irony. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s assessment, it is not Naxalism but the criminal justice system that is the biggest security threat facing the country.

If our ruling classes have scant respect for constitutional norms, the revolutionary world-view is a more complex issue. India has a tradition of militancy that includes crusades for self-determination and communist insurgency. These movements derive energy from real grievances, but their impact falls hardest upon ordinary people. A cursory glance is enough to see this. In August 2000, nearly a hundred persons were killed in eight massacres in Kashmir, most of them brick-kiln workers from central India. In mid-August 2004, 9 school-children were killed by the ULFA in Assam (these militants profess to be Marxists). Two days later, the CPI-Maoist gunned down nine persons in Andhra Pradesh, including a legislator, his son, driver and a municipal employee. In September 2005 it slit the throats of 17 villagers in Giridih. In February 2006, 25 tribals were killed by a landmine in Chhattisgarh. Another blast on March 25 killed 13 persons. In June 2007, 3 electricity workers were killed in a bomb blast set off by the comrades.

What makes these fighters for justice so cynical towards human suffering? The core value of Brahmanic - or Platonic - tyranny is the conviction that their superior knowledge and good intentions give them corporal power over lesser mortals. This assumed superiority provides radicals with justifications for irrevocable acts. (How close to Manu they are!). One side name its victims anti-national, the other calls them anti-people. As Gandhi once said, “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?” It is one thing to claim ultimate knowledge of history, quite another to insist that this knowledge transforms hooliganism into virtue. Violent movements gain the odour of sanctity when directed at un-democratic governments. But their core assumption remains authoritarian, because the people on whose behalf the radicals speak have no say in their actions. The Muslims of undivided India never collectively asked the Muslim League to represent them, nor did Hindus make a communal request to the RSS or Hindu Mahasabha to fight for them. India’s workers and peasants have never shown an overwhelming inclination to obtain representation via the communist movement, despite its undoubted stature. (Although communists do set up class organisations, and win ’bourgeois’ elections). The dozens of vanguard parties of the proletariat have no claim to legitimacy apart from the assertion that they alone are the genuine representatives of the class. This is not the only problem. There is no agreed basis for anyone to judge their claim. Criticism is seen as heresy (the Inquisition lives!) and disagreement is denounced as evidence of an alien class interest, just as those who criticise Hindutva are automatically deemed to be anti-Hindu. You are either with them or against them - a familiar cast of mind for crusaders.

That the Indian polity is in severe regression from its own democratic promise is a point made by many critics. But that democracy itself must be rejected, is not a conclusion that many people would share with the Maoists. To the contrary it is precisely the ruling classes for whom democracy is inconvenient. They have undermined it for decades, via the Emergency to the creeping authoritarianism of the communalists, punctuated by onslaughts on the bodies and properties of Indian citizens. This is why the ideal of overthrowing the constitutional order by force is debatable. Right-wing radicals have already launched this process. Is it in the public interest for left-extremists do the same? Sadly, they cannot see that a non-violent agitation for the enforcement of minimum wages, resistance to encroachments on panchayat lands, the right to work and dwelling rights of the urban poor, would catapult them to centre-stage. Whereas their current behaviour will only shift the focus to the violence and strengthen authoritarian tendencies in the polity.

Proponents of armed struggle like to remind us of reality. Non-violence gets us nowhere, we have no option, they say. Where has the decades-long bloodletting in Palestine, Sri Lanka, Nagaland and Ireland taken the resistance? Violence is not radical, but rooted in the lizard’s brain within us; its goal is not a final solution (do we remember who last used that phrase?), but only an ever-receding point on an endless spiral. It is not amenable to political control. Rather, in its shadow political distinctions get blurred and killing becomes an automatic process. The original Naxalite leadership told us that the 1970’s would be “the decade of liberation”, the red flag would fly atop Red Fort by 1975. Their ideological descendants still say that history is a law-governed process, and that they are the lawyers. Charu Mazumdar is known for the remark that “he who has not dipped his hands in the blood of the class enemy can hardly be called a communist.” His favourite answer to every question was an exhortation to murder, and his chilling contribution to India’s political vocabulary has been the word ’annihilation’. This was one of the most bloodthirsty ideologies of our times. Maoist ’liberation’ was an authoritarian and militarist project at its inception.

The extreme left aims at capturing state power, its ideology is statist. The Naxalite movement is intellectually driven. Radicals mesmerised by certitude formulate an absolutist politics beyond the scope of disagreement, and propagate it to people whose physical or moral destitution makes them sympathetic to nihilist ideologies. The combination of intellectual backing with natural human vengefulness is a deadly mixture. But the closer we get to reality, the faster does the scenario lose its romance. The declining days of Naxalism’s first phase saw comrades knifing Calcutta’s traffic policemen and slitting jugular veins with razor blades. There were beheadings and decapitations. (The police for their part had floated an informal ’police guerilla force’ that was entering homes and shooting suspects in their beds). Today’s Maoists have blown up bus-loads of commuters ’by mistake’, killed electricity workers traveling to repair sub-stations and murdered working women with sticks and stones in front of their families. What is the ethical basis of an ideology whose adherents claim a divine right to kill anyone they want? If extra-judicial killings by the state are reprehensible, do they become virtuous when committed by the comrades? Do we prepare the soil for a just society by combining the role of judge and executioner? Should socialists hold themselves to a higher or a lower standard than the system they criticise? What does the experience of killing do to the mind and emotions and to speech? If fascist ideologies understand society in military terms that stress heroism, masculinity and youth, then we are close to erasing the distinction between socialism and its mortal enemy.

Contrary to revolutionary doctrine, Indian democracy is an achievement of the people, not a conspiracy of the ruling class. Contrary to orthodox liberal wisdom, capitalism cannot co-exist indefinitely with democracy. The need to pacify the population to enable capitalistically-defined growth will generate further attacks on democratic norms. India’s demographic arrangements already possess an aspect of apartheid, and the shameless avowal of communal politics is an example of the extremism of the Indian establishment. We may look forward to gated communities, special economic zones and outsourced security. There will be more displacements and refugee camps. The structure that will implement this scheme will be driven by pure pragmatism - left and right make no difference here. However, ’peoples war’ is another form of the suspension of politics. Insurgent resistance to the above developments will further undermine democracy. Machismo will supervene rationality and women’s struggles for empowerment will be set back. Ironically, the revolutionaries’ programme calls for more capitalism, on the argument that the capitalism we already have is not the genuine variety. In a certain mental universe, all we may look forward to is one or other brand of communist-administered capitalism. More people will turn to God for assistance.

Vast numbers of people are dissatisfied with the mis-governance of the Indian elite. Horrible crimes have been committed that would be a blot on the conscience of any democratic society. Many politicians and officials would be in jail if the justice system had worked properly. But it is equally true that people would be more sympathetic to radical left politics were they to be detached from killing. Non-violent agitation for far-reaching demands would be more difficult for the government to deal with than ’peoples war’. Democracy and violence are not alternate means to goals, they are loaded with substantial meaning and consequences. They can transform the aims of their proponents and they contradict one another. Liberation from violence and intimidation is in itself a major concern and is linked to issues of class, caste and gender discrimination. As such it ought to be on the agenda of every democratic party. The only way out of our predicament is mass civil disobedience around a radical non-sectarian popular platform. All pre-conceived political positions should be open for debate and revision. The seriousness of the situation demands nothing less.

February 24, 2008