INDIA'S FORGOTTEN WAR – blogging naxalism.

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The Economist, Lazy Journalism and Brutality (or why I fell out of love after getting smacked in the face)

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I read a piece in the Economist that irritated me. It was about India’s energy future. Let me start with a premise. I love the Economist. I love its liberalism, sarcasm and sensible moderation. I’ve gone so far as subscribing, reading it in hard copy in spite of the fact that I have an e-reader and am otherwise 21st century.

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I look forward to Monday mornings when I get the ‘paper’ (as they, oddly, call themselves) in my mailbox. My love for the magazine is best expressed in a Seussian poem:

I read it on the train.

I read it on the plane.

I read it on the bus.

I read it with no fuss.

I read it before bed.

I read it for what’s said.

But this I won’t forget.

Why would I be upset?

Why would I be upset….

I opened my letterbox on Monday, put the magazine down with the intention of opening it when I had some free time. This afternoon I had a pint and sat down to read. An article drove me to blog.- I saw that someone had penned something called: “The future is black: Power is essential for India’s long-term growth. But electricity is unlikely to flow fast enough.”

What is the author saying? He/she is making the claim that India, as an emerging economic power, has increasing energy needs. Fair enough.

He/she is also making the point that India’s energy capacity falls far short of demand. Anyone who has spent time in Delhi, Bombay or anywhere else in the country, for that matter, knows this is a problem. Brownouts are all too common.

He/she then makes the point that India has explored numerous energy possibilities, ranging from nuclear power (not working because of ‘hostility from states and popular groups) to oil (promising, but reserves unlikely to3 be sufficient to meet growing demand). Ok. That makes sense. So, that leads to the following conclusion: coal is the way forward.

Why do I have problem with it? It’s lazy journalism. But, it’s more than that. It’s lazy journalism that could have adverse consequences for the people who live in India’s Maoist affected areas. The powerful may not be the average reader of the Economist, but the powerful do read the Economist. What their writers’ write has real world consequences. When they write dangerous and lazy crap, this is a problem.

As the Economist points out,reliance on fossil fuel is a problem. There are environmental risks from the use of coal, and fossil fuels in general. But, as the piece suggests, who are we in the West to deny countries like China and India the right to develop and reap the bounty of modern society as we have done for some time? I couldn’t agree more.

What is stopping India from tapping into the energy resources it needs for it’s growth?  It’s the state, of course:

Today east India remains coal’s heartland and control of the sooty stuff lies with one of the most important companies that most people have never heard of: Coal India.

It is a mighty odd beast. Its blood is of the public sector, with modest buildings, 375,000 staff, an empire of largely opencast mines and company towns, and even its own song. Its managers are proud scientists and engineers. And prices are fixed by the state, at far below international levels.

Ok. So now, the problem is reduced to a state monopoly. I’m not defending Coal India. They are probably as inefficient and bureaucratic as most corporate entities that the government in India runs. I get it. Is that really the problem?

Recently I read a piece by Kathy Le Mons Walker entitled, “Neoliberalism On The Ground In Rural India: Predatory Growth, Agrarian Crisis, Internal Colonization, And The Intensification of Class Struggle” (I can’t link to it as it’s a journal piece and access is restricted. For those of you who might be interested it’s in the Journal of Peasant Studies October 2008). Her argument is that India’s pattern of growth is displacing populations at a similar rate to that of China. The difference is that China is specializing in industrial production while India is specializing in service industries. Service industries cannot absorb as many people as consumer product industries and therefore, the logic of Indian development is genocidal.

While I don’t share her Marxist pessimism (nor do I share her worldview), I do wonder if she has a point. The coal reserves that India ‘needs’ in order to ‘develop’ are in areas populated by aidvasi. And what is happening in the adivasi areas right now is a resource war. India needs the coal. People live on top of the coal. There are also angry people with guns preventing you from getting the coal. In short, there are problems that go beyond Coal India.

For the Economist, however, this doesn’t matter. It’s incidental. Unlike real journalism (say, I dunno… this piece from Scotty Carney and Jason Miklian), the magazine (or this ‘paper’, as they would) sees the problem as one of state industries. When it comes to actual people, well, hell, it’s a problem that can be summed up with this:

At Gondegaon, a vast opencast mine in the Nagpur field, engineers need more space to dump the earth and rock that is dug up with coal. A map shows the pit hemmed in by villages and scrub land. Acquiring the land, compensating the villagers and making sure they shift poses a challenge harder than geology, says the company. “We do not have a magic wand in our hand to increase production,” 

They don’t have a magic wand! What to do? But, according to The Economist, pesky villagers are incidental. They can be compensated. Lets ignore the fact that over 100,000 people have been displaced in India because of development, over 70% of those being adivasi. Let’s also ignore the fact that ‘compensation’, when there is any (and there usually isn’t) usually takes the form of meagre lump sumps. But (says the company and I’ll even pretend a quote from ‘the company’ rather than a particular source isn’t, umm… lazy), they have a problem bigger than GEOLOGY! They have VILLAGERS. Incidental. Coal India is the problem.

Of course, there Maoists are preventing business from mining the coal as well (I wonder if this too is a problem even bigger than Geology). The Economist recongises this with one line in a three page article:

In east India the firm faces another problem: most reserves are in remote areas where Maoist guerrillas operate.

As with the local populace, the Maoists are incidental to the problem Indian development and coal extraction. After all, there is Coal India.

The Maoists are not incidental. Nor are the adivasi. Until the government recognisez that something is going on, that these areas that they’d like to exploit are populated by human beings who may not like the state very much, they have a problem. The Maoists are a symptom of the relations between India and the local population. Maybe relations between India and her indigenous people have a tragic dimension that can only be resolved through violence. If that’s what is necessary to resolve India’s resource dilemma, at least have the decency to not write the indigenous out of the story. Don’t wave a magic wand that turns what is actually going on in India’s land of coal to a problem of corporate organization with ‘villagers’ and ‘Maoists’ becoming an incidental problem. Not only is this lazy, it’s dangerous.

The Economist wrote a story about coal that doesn’t talk about the place where the coal is. Badly done.

Written by Michael

January 25, 2012 at 5:23 pm

When all you have is a hammer…

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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.

Soutik Biswas on the Maoists

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I haven’t had many substantive posts recently. It’s the end of term and I’m swamped. I’m also working on some pieces on the Naxalites for a few publications. I’ll put up the links once they’re online.

The BBC has a really, really, really (!) good piece on the Maoists by the always solid Soutik Biswas. I have a few minor quibbles with what he has to say (in particular his link with the Maoists of the past and the Maoists of the present… they’re an entirely new rebel group that has re-constituted itself since the 1980s), but this observation is spot on:

As the toll rises, the conflict provokes a sharply polarised debate.

On the one side are the city-bred romantic revolutionaries. One perceptive analyst calls them a “Maoist-aligned intelligentsia vicariously playing out their revolutionary fantasies through the lives of the adivasis [tribespeople], while the people dying in battle are almost all adivasis”. They protest against the government’s plans to smoke out the rebels.

On the other, are supporters of strong state action who believe the security forces should annihilate the rebels and wrest back areas under their control. Collateral damage, they believe, is par for the course.

So India’s Maoist rebels, in the words of another commentator, are either “romanticised, eulogised [or] demonised”. It depends on which side you are on.

I couldn’t say it better. The debate lacks nuance. The Maoists are neither evil terrorists nor are they freedom fighters worthy of support. The only benefit of the Maoist insurgency is derivative. They have forced India’s elites to confront the marginalisation and miserable social conditions of much of its population. If a counter-insurgency strategy emerges that provides even a modicum of the services and political empowerment that citizens in a democratic state are entitled too, then some good has come out of the insurgency. I’m skeptical. But, I like to be proven wrong.

Written by Michael

March 17, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Fighting the Octopus

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(Source: The Hindu)

I’ve long argued that one of the strengths of the Naxalites has been their ability to associate themselves with the myriad struggles against injustice occurring across India. This has made them a decentralised, networked rebel movement. Failure in one part of the country does not necessarily translate into failure elsewhere.

Recently, I took flak for implying that the movement for a separate Telangana state would objectively benefit the Naxalites. At the risk of again inserting myself into an impassioned debate, there have been (unproven) claims that the Maoists have infiltrated the student protests at Osmania University.

While the claim may be little more than political propaganda by the Andhra government, I find it difficult to believe that there would be no Maoist involvement in the unrest. It is an area with an historically strong Naxalite base and the agitation has been blessed by the rebel leadership.

Infiltration would also fit into the Maoist playbook. Furthermore, I would go so far as saying that it would be tactically foolish for them to not get involved. I welcome any dissenting opinion.

Finally, there have long been rumours of a Maoist presence in the country’s large urban centres. This claim seems to have been lent some credence by Kobad Ghandy, the now imprisoned Maoist leader. Under interrogation, he has stated that the rebels have cadre in Delhi and a network of sympathisers among students and trade unionists in the city. How accurate this information is remains unclear.

I’ve spent far too much time blogging in the past few days and need to get back to my other work. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, so I had a lot of ground to cover.

Written by Michael

February 24, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Debordered Insurgency? Redux.

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A previous post made the point that one of the advantages that the Maoists have vis-a-vis the state is their capacity to wage a debordered insurgency inside federal India. What is less clear is how debordered the Naxalites are regionally.

There have long been rumours of collaboration between the Nepalese and Indian Maoists. However, since the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) ended their armed struggle and won a democratic election, a rift developed between the two parties.

Now that Nepal again seems to be on the brink and the Maoists are on the outside looking in, rumours of renewed contacts have re-emerged.

Prachanda, the Nepalese Maoist leader, has denied any link:

“During the 10 years that our party went underground and waged the People’s War, Prachanda met representatives from many communist parties in the world,” Shrestha said. “The meetings occurred due to the parties sharing the same interests and ideologies.

“However, after our party signed a peace agreement and returned to mainstream politics in 2006, there has been no link between us and any other underground party.”

If Nepal descends back into a war waged by even a minority of disgruntled Maoist factions, India would face an even more dangerous, debordered insurgency.

Debordered Insurgency

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Operation Green Hunt, India’s long-term, coordinated counter-insurgency push continues to face numerous challenges. The country’s federal structure has always made it extremely difficult to wage war against the Naxalites. While the state forces are bordered, the rebels are borderless. Military ‘success’ in one state has often simply meant a Naxalite withdrawal into another state. This has been most evident in the Warangal/Bastar region.

Once the heartland of the Maoists, the Andhra Pradesh government, through a combination of incentives and ‘smart’ force, reasserted state control in the region, virtually eradicating the Maoist presence. This was, however, largely accomplished because of a tactical retreat by the rebels. They simply crossed the border into neighbouring Chhattisgarh and have, in the years since, established the closest thing in Bastar to a ‘liberated zone’ that exists in the country.

One of the promises of Green Hunt was that the central government would spear head a coordinated, joint effort involving all of the states where the Maoists have a presence. In effect, the state would become as debordered as the Maoists, thereby eliminating a serious tactical disadvantage. This has not quite happened. Two states in particular, Jharkhand and Bihar, are proving to be a serious obstacle.

According to the Indian Express, the Jharkhand coalition government, led by the Mukti Morcha (a regional party rooted in the Jharkhand state-hood movement), has:

Opted out of several chief minister-level meetings to discuss the [Maoist] problem. And reports [state] that the government ended patrolling and left the Special Task Force, intended to take on Naxals, cooling its heels in its barracks.

This obstruction is allegedly connected to the Mukti Morcha’s links with the Maoists. The state is a hotbed of Naxalite activity and the ruling party has run a number of former rebels on its ticket. The Maoists are a powerful political force  and there are allegations that the government and the ruling elites have a comfortable and mutually beneficial relationship with the rebels.

Jharkhand illustrates one of the more serious problems faced by the Indian state: elite/Maoist collusion. Prominent business and political leaders have often found it easier to work with the Maoists than against them. By paying ‘taxes’ to the rebels, business receives  a level of security which the state is unable to provide. Politicians are able to tap into constituencies and gain votes from people in Maoist controlled areas and also gain support for oppositional campaigns against the government.

In West Bengal, for example, it has been alleged that the opposition Trinamool Congress has worked closely with the Maoists. Both want to topple the entrenched ruling Left Front government, so the argument goes. If this is true, it again presents a dilemma as the party is part of the ruling coalition in Delhi.

Is Operation Green Hunt doomed to failure? It’s too early to tell. What does seem clear is that as long as India is forced to fight a debordered insurgency with a bordered counter-insurgency, the odds are not good.

Media Roundup February 2010

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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.

Enjoy!

Written by Michael

February 24, 2010 at 2:19 pm

The Forgotten War

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Time Magazine has declared India’s Maoist insurgency to be the 3rd most under-reported story of 2009. I’m surprised that they even noticed. While media coverage internationally and domestically has been sparse, this has started to slowly change. For too long, the Naxalites could be ignored by the urban-based Indian elite as a problem which affected only small segments of the largely invisible rural poor. While events such as the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 threatened the safety and security of the countries chattering classes, what happened in the dusty forests of rural Chhattisgarh could easily be ignored. This has started to change. Perhaps, 2010 will bring increased coverage not only to the insurgency, but also to the scandalous conditions in which India’s rural poor exist. One can only hope.

Written by Michael

January 1, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Telangana as Farce

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Since my last post on the ongoing battle for an independent Telangana the story has taken a turn for the absurd. In early December, the central government unilaterally (and suddenly) declared their support for the creation of a new state to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh, leading to anger and sporadic violence. Opponents of the decision were particularly concerned with the status of Andhra’s capital, the wealthy technology hub Hyderabad situated deep inside Telangana. After the resignations of a number of Congress politicians in protest at the decision, the central government backtracked and announced that Telangana would only come into being after a process of talks involving all of the local political parties. Again, this lead to violence and resignations, only this time by disappointed Telangana activists. The talks are scheduled to begin on 5 January.

The central government’s handling of the issue has been inept and farcical. First, by rushing through a unilateral decision on the creation of a new state, the government alienated much of the population of Andhra. Then, by backtracking on their decision, they effectively alienated and angered all of those who had supported the initial decision. It’s a mess. Furthermore, the decisions of the government have greatly strengthened the hand of the Maoists.  As this (excessively pessimistic) piece in Pragati states:

Telangana is not only being formed with the support of the Naxalites, but will be encompassing the districts that are their stronghold. The security situation is bound to worsen further.

Not only is the creation of Telangana a potential boon for the Maoists, the muddled process that has so far marked its birth is tailor-made for strengthening their position. The Maoists have strongly supported calls for an independent Telangana. The central government’s moves have created a volatile situation in the state marked by a high degree of political mobilisation. By supporting the pro-Telangana forces, the Maoists have positioned themselves as an armed and disciplined force which can help a popular movement struggle against the central government’s duplicity. They have, for example, already called for a general strike for the 2 January.

If the Maoists play their hand well, they will be in position to gain a tremendous goodwill and popular support by acting as a force which is willing to fight for the sentiments and aspirations of the local population. They will be in an even stronger position to capture the newly independent state once it is created. Delhi could not have created conditions more beneficial for the Naxalites had it been closely collaborating with the Maoist leadership.

Written by Michael

January 1, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Telangana- The New Chhattisgarh?

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The central government has given into the demand for a separate Telangana state. Telangana, currently part of Andhra Pradesh state, has had an active independence movement since the late 1960s. Considering India’s proclivity for linguistic and cultural separation, the decision is not at all unexpected.

Far be it for me to disparage the aspirations of the people of the region,but I do think it’s important to note that Telangana is the traditional Naxalite heartland of Andhra, if not of the entire country. Their grip has weakened in recent years largely because of the state government’s effective deployment of the Greyhound para-police coupled with a policy of generous rehabilitation for surrendered rebels. Will this now change? I think that there is a very real risk of the new state becoming as insurgent affected as Chhattisgarh (which itself was created recently from a part of Madhya Pradesh). There are parallels. The new Telangana, like Chhattisgarh, will have fewer resources at its disposal than does Andhra. They will also need time to set-up an effective system of governance- time which they will not have in the Naxalite’s surge. Finally, what of the Greyhounds and the broader (and largely successful) Andhra counter-insurgency programme. Are we witnessing the beginning of India’s newest failed state?

UPDATE:

An interesting piece on how the Andhra police claimed the Maoists had infiltrated the recent protests for Telangana independence at Osmania University in Hyderabad. While the police may just be making this claim for political expediency, it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true.

Written by Michael

December 9, 2009 at 7:03 pm