Archive for the ‘Indian Media’ Category
everything looks like a nail. Earlier this week, India’s home ministry threatened to prosecute intellectuals and civil society groups who help ‘spread’ the Naxalites ideology. This rather draconian threat has been heavily criticised domestically and internationally. According to Human Rights Watch:
“The Indian government should think twice before trying to silence political discussion and demanding endorsement of its views on Maoist groups,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The recent views expressed by the Indian government against so-called sympathizers could be understood as carte blanche by local authorities to harass and arrest critics of Indian government policy.”
In order to help prevent the ‘spread’ of Maoist ideology, the home ministry has threatened to prosecute so-called violators under the 1967 Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. It is not at all clear what would entail ‘spreading’ Maoist ideology. The term is so nebulous and meaningless that it could apply to individuals and groups who provide no material support (or are not even sympathetic to) the Maoists, but are critical of the government’s actions.
The Director General of Police in Chhattisgarh has been considering whether to lay charges against Arundhati Roy for her piece in Outlook India. If history is any guide, it is very unlikely that Roy will be prosecuted for her work. Rather, the threat is better read as a green-light to security agencies operating in the Red Corridor to go after local journalists and NGOs.
The 2005 Chhattisgarh Special Security Act is a draconian law that has made it virtually illegal to meet with or write about the Maoists in that state. To date it has never been used against a foreign or Delhi-based individual. In fact, I was in Chhattisgarh in 2008 doing some research. In spite of having clearly violated provisions in the law, I was actively assisted by local politicians and security personnel. The law has been used to ban small NGOs and detain local journalists and activists such as Binyak Sen. The goal of the act is to provide a chilling effect on the local population as a means of allowing the government to behave with minimum scrutiny and accountability. This latest threat by the home ministry has the same purpose.
It is true that there is a segment of the urban intelligentsia that has been guilty of romanticising the Naxalite rebel. This is inevitable in a vibrant democracy. The irony is that there is a very real nexus between the Maoists elements of the political and business classes in the Red Corridor. This nexus is the result of shared material and political interests between the various groups. Threatening journalists and writers will do nothing to address the region’s real problems.
Now that the media has taken notice of the Maoist insurgency there have been a slew of features coming out from both the domestic and the international press. One of the things I love about India is its vibrant and extensive English language media. While the quality can be spotty, the fact that there are so many newspapers and magazines means that there’s always something interesting to read. And, now that urban India has noticed the war raging in its hinterlands, there are a hell of a lot of good journalists on the story.
Each month, I’ll provide a brief roundup of features which I think our worth reading.
Smita Gupta, writing for Outlook, makes a journey to Chhattisgarh where he spends time with the state elites in Raipur and visits Bastar to meet with the villagers who are caught in the midst of war. While the piece doesn’t provide many new insight into the war, it does bring into sharp relief the dilemmas and the suffering of the local tribal population who are caught between the state and the rebels. It also shows the collusion which exists between the Maoists and the governing elite.
The second feature is from India Today. Shafi Rahman visits the Maoist ‘liberated zones’ to report on the governance structures that the rebels have set up in areas which they control. Well worth a read as it provides a rare glimpse into the actual workings of the civil component of the ‘revolution’. The Maoists have been able to establish alternative systems of government partly through force, but also because of the vacuum which exists in the most backward parts of the country where historically the state has had a minimal presence. Rahman puts a human face to this reality.
This is entirely anecdotal and non-scientific, but, I’ve heard a number of people note that the India media payed more attention to the Maoist attack against the police in West Bengal than it did to the near simultaneous Pune German Bakery bombings. This is an interesting development. I’ve been arguing for a long time that the media has payed far more attention to so-called ‘Muslim’ terrorism than it has to Naxalite violence simply because the former affects the country’s elite. Maoist and police violence against the rural poor could be safely ignored. Have we reached a tipping point where urban India now feels threatened by the Maoists? Or am I reading too much into this.
One of the most underreported developments in Naxalism in 2009 has been the emergence of a new leadership cadre that is guiding the CPI (Maoist) in an entirely new tactical direction. Less conservative and reclusive than has historically been the case, the new West Bengal-based group has chosen to undertake bold (and brutal) actions calculated to garner media attention. This has included the beheading of a captured police inspector in October and a dramatic train hijack during India’s election campaign. This was preceded by the capture of Lalgarh in West Bengal, a move seemingly calculated to demonstrate to India and the world that the Maoists were a force to be reckoned with.
All of this suggests a dramatic re-orientation in Naxalite tactics. Historically, the Maoists have been a tactically conservative force. Rather than court media attention, they preferred to work quietly, expanding their reach and power methodically and patiently. Their leadership has been notoriously recalcitrant and media shy. What has changed? Significant numbers of party leaders, most notably Kobad Gandhi, were arrested in 2009 as the Indian government has improved its counter-insurgency intel apparatus. As a result, a new crop of people with different tactical ideas has emerged. This new face of Maoism has been best personified in Kishenji, the Andhra born, West Bengal-based rebel.
Kishenji is a new kind of Naxalite leader. He has actively courted media attention- holding numerous press conferences and maintaining regular correspondence with prominent journalists. He has demonstrated a flair for the theatrical:
Kishenji had a seven-minute telephone conversation with West Bengal Principal Secretary (Environment) Madan Lal Meena complaining about polluting mines earlier this week, the Chief Minister was forced to accept the state intelligence machinery’s failure to locate the Maoist leader, who is on the run.
It remains to be seen how effective this tactic will be. While Kishenji has succeeded in garnering interest in the Maoist movement (and perhaps gained the support of segments of the urban population), much of the Naxalite’s strength stems precisely from their patient expansion. By refusing to draw attention to themselves, the government of India has felt little public pressure to respond, creating a space for he gradual expansion of Maoist territory. A new strategy centred around engagement with the press and audacious assaults against the state carries a great deal of risk.
While the Calcutta Telegraph is an virulent anti-Leftwing newspaper, in spite of its overt bias, it is one of the most solid sources of journalism in the country. And, as a creature of West Bengal, it has consistent coverage of Naxalism.
According to the Telegraph, Chidambaram, the Union Home Minister, will be attending a meeting sponsored by civil society groups in Dantewada. The Telegraph:
Chidambaram’s assent is being interpreted by civil society groups wanting to avert armed confrontation as a “victory against hawks in government” who have been pushing a military response to the recent Maoist surge in parts of central and eastern India.
Two things come to mind: 1) the visit seems to be a sensible strategy for a broader ‘hearts and minds’ counter-insurgency strategy and, 2) it’s going to be a hell of a security nightmare.
The ‘Voice of the Indian Revolution’ has returned. In late 2008, the Kerala-based People’s March magazine was banned after the arrest of its editor. According to the Hindustan Times, the publication ban was overturned after the Press Registrar Appellate Board declared that the proscription was invalid as no formal charges had been brought against the magazine by the government. Good for them. Aside from my academic interest in having access to an English language publication which at least semi-represents the views of the CPI (Maoist), it seems that banning propaganda is a particularly crude and ineffective way at combating a highly sophisticated insurgency. If anything, publications such as People’s March can help provide the government with some insight into the current intellectual and tactical direction of the guerillas.
As for the magazine itself, a PDF of the latest issue can be found here. I haven’t yet been able to track down a website.
Here’s a great clip from Sudeep Chakravati, journalist and author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, speaking at the Crossword Book Awards 2008 (sorry… the video’s hosted at Rediff and I can’t seem to embed it).
Chakravati is one of the most astute (and accessible) observers of Naxalism in India. He has an admirable ability to humanise the story without obscuring the larger issues. If there were more people of his calibre tracking the insurgency, perhaps the debate would be less polarised between those who see the Naxalites as mere terrorists and those who see them as virtuous revolutionaries. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Found an article from 2007 in the Hindustan Times which does a good job of comprehensively and succinctly summarising the history of the Naxalites.
There’s a good piece on the recent election violence in India. Link. The author points out the obvious:
“On the first day of polling, the insurgents killed 18 persons in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa. Of these, 11 were security personnel. No one died at the hands of any terrorist of jihadi persuasion.”
Terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam clearly garner far more attention and the government devotes more resources to them than they do to the Maoists (curious about the comparative figures… will try to find them). This is understandable. Actions such as the attacks on Mumbai in late 2009 are important because: 1) they are dramatic events which are orchestrated with the intent of attracting media coverage; 2) urban terrorism affects political, business and social elites, precisely those people who are well situated to influence public policy. These attacks (for all of their horrific consequences) are made-for-tv events. Maoist violence in isolated, rural parts of the country simply does not have the same cache.
I think that this is a mistake. The insurgency thrives because large parts of India has been neglected by the government. Unlike the spectacular attacks of jihadists, the Maoists strategically benefit from obscurity as they slowly seize more territory. This is a far greater threat than anything that has happened in Mumbai or Bangalore.
The first phase of India’s four week long general election was held last week. Voting was held in many of the areas most affected by the insurgency. The Communist Party of India (Maoist), the main rebel group, called an electoral boycott, threatening to sever the thumb of any one whose hand bore the indelible ink which is used to cast a vote.
At least 19 people were killed across the country as the Maoists demonstrated their ability t0 conduct simultaneous, co-ordinated strikes.
As the BBC writes:
“There were more than a dozen other incidents where insurgents attacked polling stations, kidnapped voting officers and fought fierce gun battles with security forces.”
While the Indian media has extensively (if superficially) covered the attacks, I can’t help but think that once the election is over the war will again become largely ignored. Tactically and strategically this serves the Maoists well in this phase of their ‘People’s War’.