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India's Defining Moment

By Trevor Selvam

07 November, 2009

Lately, there is substantial discussion going on in the non-Maoist leftist and democratic circles about the “democratic space” in the Indian political arena. Amongst erstwhile Naxalites, various CPI (ML) name tag bearing overground Naxalites, longstanding civil libertarians and human rights lawyers, single issue NGO groups, environmental and anti-globalization activists, anti-nuclear activists, to tribal and rural welfare organizers, union organizers, longstanding Gandhian organizers, hesitant sympathizers of the Maoists in the academic milieu to the social scientists and journalists who make repeated appearances on TV talk shows. This is possibly a great development, if both the Maoists and the non-Maoist believers in fundamental social change don’t screw things up big time, in the next few months. The Maoists are entrenched in their tribal strongholds. Their approach to mass movements that are not led or organized by them, especially in non-tribal areas, seem to be still at a non-mature stage. The non-Maoists and especially the NGO organizations have no developed plans to unify their struggles towards a single All-India platform that envisages even peaceful overhaul of the current order. And yet, everyone demands the right to occupy the “democratic space.” Maoists and non-Maoists alike.

Without cultural evolution, the democratic space cannot be reinforced.

Much to the chagrin of all Indians, India is not culturally tuned in for democratic change, despite all the trappings, institutions, systems and legislative paraphernalia in existence. The reasons are perhaps not so anthropologically or sociologically profound.

Basic honesty, fairness, a sense of equity, sober choice of words is rare in the fabric that constitutes Indian polity. Patronizing, mischief-bound, gross exaggerations dominate; inappropriate and sometimes mendacious use of hyperbole is widespread, never mind the ridiculous attempts to mix the phoren with Bollywood stylizations. Sycophancy, crass worshipfulness, vague religious and spiritual cross references and dynastical angles are thrown in frequently. Sober reflections and well-researched positions are rare. This is a pre-industrial and feudal society with high technology at its disposal. Nothing could be more deceptive, as a result.

Within the forces that want progressive change and are working towards it, there are the cosmopolitanized sections who are relatively media savvy and have some ability to participate and intercede on behalf of democratic forces. Then there are those who are campaigning principally through vernacular pamphlets and have failed to use the new media with expertise. Neither are having a profound impact on defining the democratic space.

Despite all the industrial growth and development hype, India remains socially backward and more so in the urban landscape. And in fact, even when we are faced with an important and critical national debate, as we are faced with now, the talking heads on TV, deflect, lie, engage in double-talk, get peripheral, dodge essential discussions, go out of focus, get argumentative about marginal issues, bring up non-essential issues, engage in tit-for-tat discussions and resort to dishonesty. The so-called civil society commentators on TV, also engage in the same double talk. They cannot come clean or rise above their petty affiliations. How can the democratic space be agreed upon, if the definers are not culturally evolved with democratic sensibility? There is no harm in admitting that the western sense of liberal democracy is the only available norm and one might as well make the best out of it, despite its warts. How can real issues be discussed, when repressed thoughts dominate? How can democratic concepts be instilled when debates are conducted in a round about fashion? Indians make an apostolic credo out of non-violence. Before expressing their support for this or that movement, everyone makes it a point to pay their dues at the alter of non-violence. This is a form of self-imposed repression. Perhaps the resistance politics of the subjugated and the colonized never made it to the shores of India. Surely Fanon, Camus, Galeano, Ho Chi Minh, Cabral, Guevara, Walter Rodney, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and countless others did not suffer from the moral tempest of whether to state boldly or hide from the fact that armed resistance is necessary when all other tactics have failed. The Indian state, in its present manifestation, practices the same repressive violent policies as that of the erstwhile French in Algeria, the erstwhile apartheid regime of South Africa and the current Israeli regime in Palestine. In fact, there has never ever been a convergence of US, Israeli and Indian interests as now. So what is the piety of imposing the shackles of non-violence on the penniless and destitute of India?

Aside from the issue of non-violence and violence, the cultural functioning of the state vis-à-vis corruption, scams, police encounters, political tie-ups and the sorry state of the Indian Law courts, give further evidence of the non-democratic culture of India.

When Indians engage in high level black money scams and corruption, the black money is laundered in a feudal style! When Indians want to sell a slick new gadget or product, where they engage in sexism, age-ism, racism and invariably make fun of the “village idiot.” When social commentators are asked to reflect on core socio-economic issues, they must first clear the decks by calling the Maoists bandits and criminals, and then they go about talking about their pet issues where violence has been widely used. When the BJP and the CPI(M) talk about law and order, it is like America talking about World Peace.

Bull-shit baffles, but only for so long. So, trappings or not, India remains drowned in feudal (that is undemocratic and extra-political/economic power deployment) culture. “Kaal ana ”(come back tomorrow) or “apply through proper channels” or “wait for the supervisor to come” have been the cornerstones of a growing class of users of peons, orderlies, servants, (PAs!—what an anachronism!) chumchas, scramblers, cooks, drivers, waiters, chai-fetchers and leftist men who still order their leftist women around. Respect for each other as human beings, the concept of gender equity is a distant reality. Indians believe in servers, in underlings, in people over whom they can wield undemocratic control. Respect, fairness and honesty are still not part of the modern Indian cultural equation.

Democratic debate also requires meticulous awareness about the constitutional laws of the land (irrespective of how they have been framed), a primary respect for individual rights and civil liberties, respect for physical space and the right to be heard with patience and civility. At the national level, India has several significant lawyers and human rights activists who have this acumen and experience. It is time they put their resources together and mount a historic challenge and a show cause notice against the current Home Minister ( a recent inductee into the Home portfolio and until recently a lawyer for the corporate criminals of the century, Enron) and even the gnomic Indian PM, whose economic credentials have been blown out of proportion. This is now imperative, that what the Maoists have raised through sometimes irrational activities be understood as Constitutional Issues. Never before in the post-independence period has fundamental constitutional issues been brought to the forefront with such intensity, as now. The PM knows that very well. He knows that the Naxalites have exposed India’s chancre, in his own words, the “poorest of the poor.”He has to either change the Constitution or he has to engage in settler colonialism. Those are his historic choices. Talking about law and order, violence, foreign hand, development etc is chimera; nice distractions, but only for a while. Because, I hope the PM has been advised, that the Naxalites are not a bad dream and they are not going away! So, it is imperative that Constitutionalists and legal experts understand this and put together all their resources to publicize this well-planned offensive by the Indian government against the Constitution.

There is a journalist from Chhattisgarh named Gladson Dungdung. He speaks softly, brings up issues very clearly (both his parents were murdered-he speaks from the heart and does not mince words. He has nothing to loose.) He does not use big words. I could listen to him for an hour, rather than listen to some of the scribes that NDTV and Times Now etc assemble as experts. We need people who speak like this. From the heart, with compassion and honesty. Feudalism does not allow such behaviour. Half-baked capitalist culture also does not allow for this. That is India’s dilemma. India is a half-baked pie. One half does not know, that the other half is raw. One half has separated from the other half. There are two Indias. If you go to West Mednipur and talk to tribals there, they speak from the heart. When you go to Chhattisgarh or Dantewada and speak to those who do not engage directly in Maoist activities, they speak from the heart. They are either angry and accept the Naxalites as the “sarkar” (government) or they are forlorn and say there is no hope for them or their children—what did they do wrong to deserve this?

Let’s talk, as well, about some distracting foul odour that is coming out of all this. There is a crop of these commentators, who have an ideological axe to wield. While claiming to derive inspiration from socialism, some of these frequent pop-up characters on talk shows have a rigid, hide-bound Eurocentric (and I daresay, 19th century) affiliation for a “working class and working class only” solution to social change. Deeply entrenched still in issues of Left Oppositionism and Permanent Revolution theory, these organization-less activists from the sixties and seventies, now occupy glitterati positions on national TV with the Arnab Goswamis and the Barkha Dutts. Not only do they hold a sectarian scorn for tribals, peasants and other rural activists ( “despotic” genes) , they are convinced that the entire Maoist movement from A-to Z is a continuation of the ultra nationalist anti-British movement, organized by societies like Anushilan and Jugantar in the 1920s! This was specifically stated several times on TV. There is a further pernicious attempt by them to impose on the Maoists “to abjure violence unconditionally.” Again, this is a new-found tactic, which has been craftily imbibed from a European socialist and liberal democratic tradition (where armed struggle is somewhat ridiculous to contemplate) and as well from a justifiable feminist response to violence in general, as a misogynist culture that is very prevalent in India. In essence, these folks remain ensconced in a 19th century European debate, while at the same time slyly use “non-violence” to establish some public credibility and “space” for themselves. (Incidentally Nandita Haksar, well-known human rights activist and lawyer, in an article regarding the Citizen’s Initiative for Peace, in Mainstream, states “If we closely examine the six demands we will see that the Resolution has fallen into the trap of the Indian State which wants the focus to be on the question of violence and not on the very real problems that the Maoists have focused on. It is interesting that many of those people who have very deep ideological differences with the Maoists, including Gandhians committed to non-violence, have also taken the position that the basic political issues must be addressed before there is any discussion on the use of violence by the Maoists.” ) These social commentators are on record, stating that the “government is factory-producing Maoists, out of tribals.” How regretful, that the mindless, original inhabitants of India have taken up arms to defend themselves after 62 years of Independence! Settler colonialism, as practiced in Australia, Israel, Canada and the United States is fast becoming a potent reality in India, where India’s own “nouveau” citizens are hell-bent on “clearing” the tribal lands of its first nations, irrespective of whatever the worth of Schedule 5. Like the thinking of true colonials of the Joseph Conrad era, they have construed that the Maoists have manipulated the minds of the tribals. The facts that these Maoists have been living for over twenty five years in this region and the majority of the Maoists leaders are tribals themselves, does not figure in their analyses.

At another level, the duplicity and the outrageous postulations of the CPI(M) and the Trinamool about who is in bed with the Maoists secretly, gives away the huge cultural gap that exists between telling the truth and fabricating yarns. In no civil society can such blatant concoctions be even cooked up, never mind openly dispensed in the media. And yet it is standard fare in India. Every one practices violence and yet endorses non-violence with casual indifference in the media. And the media never points out to the CPI(M)s, the Congress, the BJP and the Trinamool that on a daily basis they are practicing violence in Bastar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and 24 Parganas.

Do the Maoists understand the democratic space?

No, they don’t. They don’t, because of two reasons. One, because they are products of this society and therefore have not liberated themselves culturally. Second, they are still encrusted by Stalinist organizational precepts.

Despite disclaimers they act in such a manner that the division between them and others are always distinct and made sharp. They approach mass organizations with glib analyses, of who can be labelled with what and therefore what to expect. They continue to label people, instead of understanding the social space and the mental processes that non-Maoist activists feel about civil rights, democratic rights. They display the arrogance of “armed strugglers” instead of the dignity of alliance builders. They come to implement a mandate, rather than support and assist a cause. They work in mass organizations and use “Maoist” terminology, instead of doing their democratic homework. They stand out, instead of standing in. They do not understand that struggles for civil liberties and democratic rights must attract mainstream bards, artists, lawyers, filmmakers, the stalwarts of the nation’s democratic conscience (whatever exists), the famous judges, the famous writers and famous scientists. They are not helping in creating the democratic space that is essential. In the seventies, the civil liberties movements were able to bring together such people. That is why Mrs. Gandhi’s Emergency was defeated. Now, the civil liberties movement has suffered somewhat and the largesse required to attract the conscientious stalwarts must again be regenerated. Maoists defend brutality in obtuse statements, instead of upholding the right to armed resistance. With the brutality of the Sangh Parivar and its various clones (who are now engaged in acts of open terrorism), the CPI(M) harmads and the Trinamool goons (who together have much more arms, than the Maoists), why are Maoists having such a hard time in drawing the line? Organizationally, the Maoists must be somewhat more open about the debates they are engaging in internally. They must a build a new organization and not replicate the old. They must infuse cultural democracy, have respect for dissent. Nothing hurt the Naxalites, internally, more than the treatment meted out to Sushital Rai Choudhuri in the seventies. It was the old dogged Stalinist culture of isolating the voices of dissent and discussion and dispensing summary proclamations about “centrism” and other misnomers for rigidity. Can this be changed? Is this possible in organizations where democracy as a culture is not prevalent in the society at large? It is one thing to have strong discipline in a military arm. It is another thing to control discussion in a political party, by non-democratic means. When Maoists make mistakes, they must formally apologize. To cover it up with hurtful bravado and alienating lingo, does not bode well. Unless Maoists go beyond the prevalent notions of “debate” and party line, they will not be able to attract the middle classes, the working class and the intelligentsia. They will not be able to assist in the formation of a democratic space. Maoists must realize that it is a fantasy to imagine an India enveloped by a Maoist revolution alone. India will have many forces combining together to create a democratic and revolutionary movement.

What have the NGOs done to the democratic space?

India’s NGO groups have damaged the democratic space, as well, by sticking to single issues, not uniting on a National Platform and not seeing the need for overall social change. They must now realize that what must bind them together are the violations of India’s existing constitutional guarantees, never mind globalization and its effects. Whether it is the damming of rivers, the deforestation, the forced clusterization of rural populations, the acquisition of fertile agricultural land for SEZs, lack of schooling, lack of health care facilities, rural employment, lack of hygiene--everything can be traced back to violations of the Indian constitution and its stated principles.

On Indian media, there are ads about the precocious kids of the nouveau riche, there are ads about farmers, and there are ads about workers. Has anybody ever seen an ad that reflects on India’s mountains, rivers and the PEOPLE who live there? They do not exist and there is nothing to sell to them! Twenty five percent of India’s population has been wiped off the tube! Can some smart capitalist with a burning entrepreneurial zeal (and a proud exponent of growth!) please come up with a low cost overnight snail trap (major source of protein for the tribals), perhaps a low-cost tree climbing sling, that does not lacerate the chest, perhaps a mosquito repelling leaf mattress for the new born tribal child, perhaps a small organic pouch for the tribal male to cover his modesty? There are several hundred million consumers waiting! No! They do not exist in India’s cultural mindset.

Without cultural emancipation, without awareness about the constitution, without honest, straight forward and distilled truth, the democratic space cannot be easily defined.


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