INDIA'S FORGOTTEN WAR – blogging naxalism.

Posts Tagged ‘Insurgency

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.


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

The Last Hurrah?

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I received an apt comment on this blog from Andrew Gibbons last December:

This site seems to have become India’s forgotten blog.

Andrew has a point. During the previous year and a half, I haven’t written anything of note on NaxalWar. Aside from laziness, I blame my academic work.

The blog has suffered because of the kind of writing I have to do. A PhD requires that I write things that are ‘publishable’ and the conventions of academia are formal. Blogging (at least when done well) is somewhere between formal writing and ranting. Finding this balance has become harder.

Two things have happened. First, the old aphorism that the more you know the more you realize that you don’t know has smacked me in the head. Much of what I have written on this blog I wouldn’t write now. The more I read about the Maoist affected areas, the less certain I am about my conclusions. The insurgeny is complex as hell and my thinking has become less certain.

Second, my work is now at the stage where I feel as I have little to say until I get into the field.  I started this blog largely because  I felt (and still feel) that most of what is written about the Maoists is shallow, superficial and unthinkingly ideological. What often passes for journalism, think tank ‘insights’ and academic work is, if I were being generous, crap. It’s often worse than crap, it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because the ‘story’ which most journalists, academics and ‘experts’ tell leads to policies that are not only ineffectual and counter-productive, but are brutal and destructive.

Many people writing about the Naxalites don’t know what it is they’re talking about. The story of the insurgency is a human story with real human consequences. The work of ‘experts’ sitting in Delhi, Bombay or London often tell us more about their deadlines than they do about the conflict.

I’ve reached a point where I feel I have very little to say until I do my fieldwork. I’ve toyed with the idea of archiving this blog and starting a new one that I could use for my thoughts, musings and observations from the field. I dunno… I haven’t yet decided whether to shut NaxalWar down or turn it into something new.

Before I make a decision, however, there will be at least one more post. While sitting at a pub this afternoon– me. a pint and The Economist– I read an article about Indian energy needs, an article that is screaming for a response. And after that, who knows. Perhaps NaxalWar is merely moribund, perhaps it’s dead. I haven’t yet decided.

Written by Michael

January 25, 2012 at 4:57 pm

World Politics Review

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It’s a bit lazy, but here is some of my most recent thinking on Naxalism. It was published a few weeks back in a really solid up and coming policy mag World Politics Review. It’s behind a firewall, but they offer a trial subscription. Check it out:

Written by Michael

March 21, 2011 at 6:06 pm

What’s up with West Bengal?

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I’m considering my locations for fieldwork next summer. West Begal is one of them. Out of all of the fronts of the war, this one is the most confusing, complex and enigmatic. There are a lot of players (some of them in the central government) and a lot of questions. I’ll be writing more about what I think may be happening. In the meantime, I’d love if any of my readers might pitch in with their view. Is it a strictly power related play between political factions? Is it tribal? What is it?

I’d love to hear from you.

Written by Michael

October 14, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Posted in West Bengal

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Bread and Circuses (at least today)

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It’s hard not to be cynical about the Indian government’s strategy when one reads rubbish like this:

The police and paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) force set up a medical camp and distributed gifts to local tribals in the Maoist-affected Chandrapur village in Orissa’s Rayagada District.

Apparently they even organized a magic show! Wow. So shiny. I’m still not clear how any of these ad hoc, one off (and largely irrelevant) acts of charity by the Indian government constitute any sort of counterinsurgency strategy that  could assist the adivasi people become autonomous and empowered communities in India able to  exercise their democratic citizenship.

I have no doubt that the local commander in charge of this initiative has the best of intentions. But, once the clowns go home and the food runs out, the systematic exploitation and marginalisation of India’s eastern tribal populations will continue. There is no rabbit in the hat.

EDIT: And to preempt some criticisms of my admittedly snarky post, yeah, I have no doubt the kids dug the magic show. Hell, I loved magic shows when I was a boy and I was hardly lacking in toys and other childhood distractions. And, no doubt the medical care will make a real difference in some people’s lives. I have no intention of minimising this. The fact is, however, this is not part of some ‘relief’ mission- it is an ad hoc initiative being conducted under a counterinsurgency strategy. It is short term and misses the point.

Written by Michael

October 14, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Decentralised Insurgency and ‘Rogue’ Elements

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It seems increasingly likely that Naxalites were involved in the recent train derailment. The most plausible explanation is that ‘rogue’ elements loosely ties to the CPI(Maoist) were responsible. The party central committee, recognising the public relations disaster caused by the murder of over a hundred civilians has promised to crack down:

The Maoists have denied responsibility for the incident and blamed the sabotage on the ruling Marxists.

But now they have indicated that they would punish leaders of the local militia if they were found to be behind the attack.

“Anybody, even if they are found close to us, will be punished if their involvement is proved beyond doubt,” Comrade Akaash said.

Kudos to Shlok over at Naxalite Rage for predicting this possibility far sooner than I did. His post can be found here.

To me this is extremely plausible as one of the strengths of the Maoist movement has been decentralised structure. This has enabled flexibility in tactics and resilience against state repression. On the other hand, decentralisation has its drawbacks to an insurgency as this attack has demonstrated.

Written by Michael

June 3, 2010 at 3:08 pm

The Plot Thickens….

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The more I think about it, the more I believe that the Naxalites were not responsible for the recent train derailment. It contradicts their modus operandi. They do not do terrorism. And they have denied responsibility. Even when they fuck up, they admit responsibility. For example, the destruction of a bus in Chhattisgarh which killed scores of civilians was caused by the CPI(Maoist). They admitted responsibility and apologised. They’re hardly angels, but this is not they way they operate. They’re far more tactically clever than this.

The railway minister is now claiming it was a ‘conspiracy’. Yes, Mamata has an agenda as the head of the Trinamool Congress. And her hands are hardly clean. But, something about this doesn’t smell right. Feel free to tell me I’m an idiot.

Written by Michael

May 29, 2010 at 6:24 pm