Soon after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) was banned. This was in part because Gandhi’s murderer, Nathuram Godse, had once been a member of the RSS; and in part because RSS leaders played a crucial role in the polarization of Hindu-Muslim relations that led to that tragic event. For over a year, the head of the RSS, M. S. Golwalkar, languished in jail. Finally, in July 1949, the organization was unbanned and the leader freed after they agreed to adhere to the Indian Constitution and eschew the use of violence.
This history is not entirely irrelevant to the policies the Government of India may consider in their dealings with the Communist Party of India (Maoist). That party is at present banned; because it promotes armed struggle and refuses to recognize the Indian Constitution. As a consequence, the forests of central and eastern India have witnessed intense conflict between the Indian state and Maoist rebels. Shocking crimes have been committed by both sides; with the main victims being the tribals and poor peasants caught in the middle.
Now, the Maoist offer of a seventy-two day ceasefire offers the (admittedly slender) hope of a temporary respite. The Maoists have demanded that their party be unbanned and their leaders under arrest released. It is hard to see how these conditions can be met unless the party lays down arms and accepts the Constitution. Since this is unlikely, the Government may consider another precedent, which comes from its dealings with Naga insurgents. This keeps the question of the Constitution in abeyance, while promising safe passage to the leaders who are at large (in this case, in exile), allowing them to travel for talks with the Indian state.
In the short-term, the Government of India might invoke the Naga model and follow the offer of a cease-fire by speaking to the Maoists. In the medium-term, it must look to the RSS model, whereby a group that once refused to recognize the Indian Constitution comes around to working within it. While in private some RSS leaders may still dream of a Hindu Rashtra, in public they have accepted the legitimacy of the Indian state. In the same fashion, the Maoists must be persuaded, over a period of time, to give up their fantasy of a communist dictatorship, and work within the plural, multi-party democratic process mandated by the Constitution of India.
In dealing with the Maoist problem, the Government needs to focus on the here and now; on tomorrow; and on the years to come. For the rise of Maoism in recent decades is based on the deep discontent of our tribal communities. They were ignored in the colonial period, and have been oppressed in the decades since independence. The national movement, under Gandhi’s direction, worked hard to make Dalits, Muslims and women part of the mainstream. These efforts were not wholly successful. But the tribals were left out of the purview of the freedom struggle altogether. Since 1947, meanwhile, they have fared even worse than Dalits and Muslims in terms of access to education, health care, and dignified employment. They have also suffered disproportionately from displacement, having to abandon their homes and lands for development projects that ultimately benefit Indians who are not themselves tribals.
The Maoists have taken advantage of this long historical experience of marginalization and exploitation. But they have been equally helped by the recent policies of State Governments. Until about ten years ago, there were virtually no Maoists in Orissa; but then that State chose to hand over tribal lands wholesale to mining companies. When the tribals protested, they were branded as ‘Naxalites’; a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the fact of their displacement opened up a space for the Maoists to move into. The insurgents now have a considerable presence across several districts of highland Orissa.
In West Bengal, the growth of Naxalism has been helped by the politicization of the district administration. Superintendents of Police and District Magistrate are expected to consolidate the control of the ruling party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), rather than concern themselves with rural development or law and order. To make matters worse, the bhadralok culture of Bengali Communism condescends to the tribals, who have never been represented in the party’s leadership, and unlike Hindu or Muslim peasants have never been the focus of targeted welfare schemes. In Jharkhand, meanwhile, local MLA’s and Ministers have got themselves into the habit of regularly bribing the Maoists, thus emboldening them further.
The errors and crimes of other State Governments pale into insignificance when compared to the misdemeanours of the Chattisgarh Government. In 2005, the State decided to arm a vigilante group, called Salwa Judum, to take on the Maoists. In a bizarre and deeply destructive example of bipartisanship, the Salwa Judum were jointly promoted by the BJP Chief Minister, Raman Singh, and the Congress Leader of the Opposition, Mahendra Karma. Given open license by the administration, the vigilantes embarked on looting, killing, burning, and raping villages and villagers they deemed to be sympathetic to the Naxalites.
As a conseqence of this intensification of the conflict, almost one hundred thousand people were rendered homeless in Dantewara district alone. Between them, Raman Singh of the BJP and Mahendra Karma of the Congress have thus been responsible for displacing more people than the dams on the Narmada River. Far from controlling Naxalism, their policies have actually played into the hands of the adversary. In a recent interview, the Maoist spokesman Azad claimed that ‘thanks to Salwa Judum, our war has achieved in four years what it would have otherwise achieved in two decades’.
In all these States, the tribals have suffered in good part because they are a vulnerable minority. Chattisgarh and Jharkhand were formed to protect the adivasi interest; yet the tribals in both States constitute only around 30% of the population. In Orissa the proportion is just over 20%; in Gujarat and Rajasthan, under 15%; in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and West Bengal, less than 10%. Everywhere, the tribals are outnumbered and outvoted by the non-tribal majority. The political disadvantage is compounded by a social and economic one—everywhere, the non-tribals have more land, wealth, status, and influence. The levers of political power, of economic power, of the courts, and of the media, all lie outside the grasp of the tribals. In all the States of the Union, and regardless of which party is in power, the policies of the Government are overwhelmingly biased against the tribals.
The rise of Maoism is one of perhaps five major challenges facing the country (the others, in my view, are the continuing violence in Kashmir, Manipur and other border states; the corruption of our political class and of the state more generally; the growing inequality between the rich and the poor; and the rapid pace of environmental degradation). To tame and contain this challenge requires clear thinking and hard work. To begin with, one must put a stop to the cycle of violence and counter-violence, and facilitate talks between the state and the rebels. Next, one must work patiently to wean the Maoists away from the cult of the gun, thus to reconcile them with the rule of law and multi-party democracy. Finally, one must seriously attempt to renew public institutions and to frame better policies, so that tribals can come, at last, to enjoy the fruits of equal citizenship.
Like those other challenges, Maoism can only be overcome if our political parties work together rather than in rivalrous opposition. It is crucial that parties and leaders not be contained by the logic of the electoral cycle; rather, they should take a view that is at once short-term, medium-term, and long-term. Such visionary and selfless thinking may perhaps be too much to ask of the present generation of Indian politicians.