INDIA'S FORGOTTEN WAR – blogging naxalism.

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I love India. This is why I write this blog and this is (mostly) why I chose to leave up a career in development for the poverty of student life. I’ve had to remind myself of this week. Writing a PhD is tedious. It’s the same shit over and over: sit, read, write. Repeat ad nauseam. 

I now have date  for when I’ll be going to the country to do my fieldwork. I’ll be there after the monsoons in mid-June.

Studying Naxalism is a study of India’s failures. Academia, at its best, is rooted in criticism: speaking truth to power (the court advisors and ‘public intellectuals’ who turn this on its head are, I suppose, academic in their own way). This is the ethic that informs my work.

The risk is that this can lead to a self-defeating cynicism and nihilism that misses the point of intellectual work. Work that should (in its humble way) contribute to making the world a better place.

I haven’t been to India since 2008.  I’ve begun to forget why it is that I’m doing what it is I’m doing and need to remind myself of why it is I care about what I do. I care because India has been good to me.

I first went there in 2002. I’d landed a post-undergraduate paid internship in South Africa with the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA). Three days before I was to fly to Jo’burg, I was caught up in a police investigation. 300 blank passports had been stolen from the office in which my (then) girlfriend worked. The two of us were sucked into the ridiculous vortex of a post-9/11 investigation – an investigation that was both absurd and incompetent.

Within 10 months we were both ‘cleared’, but, I had been prevented from leaving the country and the internship had collapsed. The organization I was to work for, the National Co-operative Alliance of South Africa, had fallen victim to the acrimonious, ‘winner-take-all’ politics of post-Apartheid.

CCA did their best to find something else for me. They had done some work in the past with the International Co-operative Alliance in Delhi and decided to send me to India.. I wasn’t at all interested. All that I ‘knew’ about India I had learned from Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom (human sacrifice, famine, eating eye ball soup). I had no interest in the country.

My first memories of the country are landing in Delhi on a cold and foggy January night. I remember feeling smothered by the charcoal braziers of the arrivals terminal, chaos and the drive to the hotel. It was a particularly cold winter and there were fires burning by the side.

Not an auspicious beginning. But it was a beginning. Within a few weeks of being in the country my ‘interest’ (this is what it was at first) grew. During my internship I spent more time in the field than I did in the office. From Himachal Pradesh, to Rajasthan, to Bombay to coastal Andhra Pradesh. I had the privilege of travelling across a large part of the country. While my work there wasn’t of much value (NGO work often isn’t), it did make me fall in love with the country.

I’ve worked in India a number of times since my first visit. I’ve met brilliant people, some of who became my friends, some of whom I had the privilege of only meeting once.

I was once (jokingly) told by a friend of mine from Chennai who I lived with in London that I was an Indophile. I am. And I don’t apologize for it. This is who I am and this why I do what I do.

In the spirit of the Pillowbook of Sei Shonagan (but with far less skill), here are a some thoughts:

I like the way that the sun rises above the peaks of the passes into Ladakh on a crisp winter morning.

I like the damp smell of death and life after the rains in Kerala.

I like seekh kebabs. I like the beef ones my friend took me to eat in Nizamudin. They were secret, like buying drugs.

I like the ones I ate too many of too often on the street by my house.

I like the ones my Tamil friend drove me to on the way back to Chennai.

I didn’t like the ones at the Afghani place so much but the beer was good.

I like the blast of heat while riding a camel in the Thar Desert.

I like the moon over Jodhpur.

I like wondering through the streets of Pondicherry and finding a good baguette.

I like going to festivals in Goa at two in the morning and throwing coconuts at a large chariots pulled by dozens of people.

I like drinking beer until late at night in Chennai with friends. Getting more from a ‘secret’ liquor shop on motorcycle and then listening to my friends argue about caste, history, meaning.

I like shopping in creaky old bookshops where all of the books are covered in plastic, but there are so many of them

I like riding a bike on the East Coast Road.

I like meeting strangers who want to practice their English and invite me to their mother’s house in a town where I don’t know anyone

I like my friends.

I could write on, but I have to stop somewhere. I look forward to more time spent in India.

Written by Michael

February 21, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Posted in Rant

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Objectivity and Maoist Insurgency

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My first comment!

My blog has been getting a respectable amount of traffic and I’d encourage anyone with an opinion or a thought to speak up. It’s great to know what people who share my interest think.

Now is a good time to clarify exactly what my, umm, ideological perspective on Maoism in South Asia is. On my coverage of the crisis in Nepal, a reader has said:

This article is inspired by all those anti maoist journalist of nepal.
In nepal journalist don’t cover new but always make news.

Had anybody seen that a nepali journalist speaking to cnn ibn not as journalist but a part’s spoke person…

I’m not a journalist and have never claimed to be. I do, however, try to be as ‘objective’ as possible. One of the many reasons that I’m interested in Naxalism (and South Asian Maoism in general) is my belief that they have tapped into deep and dangerous undercurrent of alienation, misery and rage amongst millions of people who have been failed by the economic, social and political system. Naxalism, in the first instance, is not a police problem.

Am I sympathetic to the ideology, goals and tactics of the Naxalites? Well, it depends on the day that you ask. Many of their immediate demands (such as their opposition to the alienation of tribal people from their lands in mineral-rich states like Jharkhand) are noble. The people whom they are purportedly fighting for have been failed by every institution in the country. On the other hand, the Naxalite’s ideology, their aims and some of their tactics are terrifying. I have a deep dislike of authoritarianism and cannot but think that much of the Naxalite concern for the interests of tribal groups and the lower castes is little more than tactical expediency.

As for Nepal, I am not at all ‘anti-Maoist’. It seems to me that all of the major players in the country (the Maoists, the other political parties and the army) are playing a dangerous game with the stability of the country and the future of her people. The leaked video of Prachanda’s speech to the leadership of the PLA did not just underscore the Maoist’s insincerity to building a democratic and pluralist Nepal, it also underscored the shallowness of the peace agreement. All of the actors are jockeying for control of the state. I may not much like the Maoists, but the reactionaries (to use a nice Marxist term) opposing them are even more unsavoury.

Maoism is a plant that grows from misery and desperation (terrible metaphor). That misery and desperation is real. If it takes the Maoists to get people to sit up and take notice, so be it.

Written by Michael

May 7, 2009 at 11:25 am

Mapping Naxalism- predictive political ‘science’

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The Only Map Around

everyone loves the only map around

I’m fortunate to have received my master’s in International Relations from the UK where positivism and empiricism doesn’t quite have the hold on the discipline as it does in the US. While using scientific tools to measure and predict social and institutional behaviour are valuable, all too often this type of work veers into the insanely hilarious realm of pseudo-science. Some of the papers I’ve had to read seem to be the cries of a discipline desperate to be taken seriously in a culture which values engineers over artists and numbers over words. Guess what, five line formulas with ‘quantified’ variables representing ephemeral concepts like ‘cultural stability’ or ‘religious conviction’ is inane, silly, and boring as hell… it’s a lot of things, but it ain’t science.

That aside, I do think that there is a paucity of good solid comparative data available on Naxalism in India. In particular, the claim is often made that one of the key key causes of Naxalism are poverty and underdevelopment. The Maoists are strong specifically in those parts of Indian which are the most backward.

Fair enough. This is intuitively plausible. But where is the data which tries to at least support this? Using, say, Maoist attacks/incidents as a proxy for Maoist strength in a cluster of districts and overlaying this with social indicators would be a valuable exercise. It would either support or weaken the counter-insurgency through development argument and would allow for at least some predictive thinking about Naxalite expansion.

This kind of exercise is, of course, flawed. Specifically, are attacks necessarily a proxy for strength? And as every first year undergrad knows, correlation does not equal causality. There could be any number of ’causes’ for Maoist activity… climate, governmental infrastructure, whether the local people like red. In either case, I do think it would useful if it is taken for what it is.

I’m going to start working on this today. It might take a while as anything below state-wide data in India is difficult, if not impossible, to find. Wish me luck! Hopefully something useful will come out of it. Everyone loves a nice map!

Islamic and Left Extremism

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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.

Written by Michael

April 20, 2009 at 10:40 pm