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Book Review

Revolution or Rebellion?

Monday 21 January 2013, by Hiren Gohain

Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion
by Gautam Navlakha (New Delhi: Penguin), 2012; pp 272,Rs 299.

No less a person than our prime minister has repeatedly called it “the greatest menace to our democracy and our path of development”. Yet the author of this first-hand report on the activities and inspiring vision of the Maoist party in its bases in the Dandakaranya region of central India shows Maoists developing and empowering the poorest, the most neglected and oppressed group/s in our society, in a determined and systematic manner. The present finance minister had remarked that the Maoists were blocking development and conspiring to keep the poor tribals of the region out of the ambit of development that unhindered mining would have brought about, an observation that is likely to be challenged by “civil society” groups familiar with the region and its people. Indeed the “development” promoted by the Indian state is apparently regarded by the tribals as the greatest menace to their lives and livelihoods, and has been grimly resisted by the putative beneficiaries in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Jharkhand with unconcealed hatred and uncompromising tenacity.

The first 25 pages of the book are devoted to deflating various myths floated by the ruling-class media and the government against Maoists. It turns out that at bottom the fighting in the area has arisen out of the eagerness of bureaucrats and politicians to promote the interests of greedy corporates, resulting in hundreds of memoranda of understanding (MOUs) that threaten to evict millions of tribals from the region they have inhabited for millennia and drive them to destitution and death. At stake is a mineral-rich land from where 30 million tonnes of coal worth $3.2billion had been exported by illegal mining companies in the five years up to 2009. Operation Green Hunt is not so much against Maoism as against resistance to this enormous plunder, now to be legalised through the MOUs (p 44ff). (Navlakha has bluntly called it a “war” by a state on its own people and from the other side of the barrier it is perceived as a justified armed struggle by an oppressed and deeply aggrieved people to preserve their lands, their identity and their dignity.) The Maoists have been the catalytic agents in the process of empowering the tribal people to work and fight for their own security and development, about the success of which the report does not leave the reviewer in any doubt. The Maoists, of course, have a broader and more forward-looking agenda and the tribal armed struggle is only an initial phase in the programme of a protracted revolutionary war. Personally I cannot see how the programme is to be extended to other regions of the country, for the same tactics are unlikely to succeed – in vastly different environments, and I am not privy to methods of mobilisation and struggle they might have worked out for other regions. A lot depends on their success in that task, even the ultimate sustainability of the success in Dandakaranya.

Let us read Navlakha’s account of their endeavour and achievement:

Sonu proudly said: ‘[T]here is almost no landless peasantry here today; however, initially there were in considerable numbers. Three lakh (3,00,000) acres of forestland were won over. So the first struggle within the village was launched around the land movement…Now people get food twice a day and they also possess land. The struggle against the forest department was thus combined with the struggle against the tribal chiefs’ (p 110).

In the entire Bastar and Gadchiroli region, only 2% of the land was irrigated. The movement took it upon itself to start building irrigation tanks in the village level. Along with this, there was a new phenomenon introduced in the form of the development of a cooperative system. …It is noteworthy that the Constitution of the JS (Janatam Sarkar, people’s government) mentions the following: Though there is private ownership over land, it (JS) will encourage collective work through mutual labour cooperation of the peasants in levelling the land, tilling, transplantations, weed removing, harvesting, growing vegetables, raising fruits, fish, cattle and other such agricultural and agriculture related works.

But local RPC members Narsingh and Kumma who showed me several collective farms, told me that they found penda (shifting) cultivation to be superior to more elementary forms of settled cultivation. One advantage with penda is that not only are yields higher but, along with Kohla or Kosra grain, a number of other crops can also be grown simultaneously (pp 112-13).

Honest Account

The agrarian programme is directed not only at feeding members of the party but also at improving the standard of living of the tribal villagers who had lived below a subsistence level. Further, members of the party uncluttered by the prejudice of learning were prepared to learn from facts and realise that some truths go against the learning found in books! There is freshness and some surprises in Navlakha’s close and methodical reports on various other efforts to transform tribal society and infuse the people with a new vision of life. One wonders if government schemes in their most successful versions have done any better in such a short span of time, and with so little waste and leakage.

I shall confine my remarks to the Dandakaranya story as reported by Navlakha. The account is honest, sincere and candid, and the author makes no bones about his bias, though in the interest of the proposed revolutionary project he tries to raise probing questions with local and regional leaders of the party. The narrative gives details of his arduous itinerary, and the author spares very little of his waking hours for any business except observing the process of transformation in the tribal society under the leadership of the party, ranging from improvement of agriculture through security of tenure and application of modern knowledge, through enhancing the status and power of women to spread of education and ideas of hygiene and sanitation and eradication of harmful old customs and beliefs. But Maoists seek not to impose their views dogmatically and dictatorially on the people, and allow them to discuss all new changes and innovations among themselves and take their own decisions.

Contrary to the impression created in and by the mainstream media, the author makes it clear that the party is not steamrolling its objectives and programmes on a hapless population but patiently earning their trust by taking part in their struggle for survival physically and culturally in an environment where genuine indigenes are beginning to feel surrounded by forces bent on robbing them of their ancestral hearths and homes and denying them their chance to a decent life. This again is not copied out of an orthodox Marxist (or Maoist, for that matter) copybook, but a lesson learnt specifically in circumstances peculiarly Indian. But there is some doubt in my mind about the programme of cultural education which teaches pupils from the early age of 10 years the tribe’s heritage as well as the party’s objectives and ideology not out of any liberal prejudice, but because such programmes entail some rote learning which might backfire later on (pp 165-66). While Navlakha had no opportunity during his 15 days’ visit, when he was also constantly on the move, to independently verify the claims made by cadres and leaders, the reader realises that the questions raised by him were sharp and searching enough to elicit from the party information on all aspects of an issue. Where the party itself had no answer they frankly said so. He also saw with his own eyes the paddy fields and the frugal medical service in operation as well as the cultural functions where the tribal people celebrated their traditional culture (suitably adjusted and modified to fit the moment of social transformation) with zest, to feel convinced that the party’s claims were not phoney but quite realistic. The impression assiduously created by the powerful bourgeois media that the Maoist programme was through and through militaristic is apparently a fraud, warfare being only the apex of a constant struggle to transform society from the bottom up, neglecting no vital aspect of life. At this point their military campaign is largely defensive, protecting the new land rights and other gains of the people against the armed forces of the state and the thoroughly illegal and monstrous Salwa Judum, a living retort to those who think the state is committed to the rule of law.

He pointedly asserts that the state has forfeited its right to claim legitimacy in the region precisely because it seems bent upon depriving the people by force of the very benefits it promises in its role as an impartial agency. True, in certain areas the state is desperately trying to prove its sincerity by implementing welfare schemes through the bureaucracy, but once the pressure is off such schemes are bound to regress into corruption and red tape. Navlakha, who admits to being partisan in his views, since he does not see in the present Indian “predatory state” any genuine intention of coming to the rescue of the pitilessly exploited and oppressed tribal people defines his findings thus: “Theirs is not a nihilistic project even when I concede that there are serious and inexcusable crimes they have committed” (p 224). The present reviewer tends to agree, though he has greater reservations because if at this stage the crimes are just shrugged off or overlooked in haste, in future they might become magnified to an extent that would put a question mark against the project itself, as happened in Russia and China.

Let me quote certain observations containing surprises like those mentioned above:

The second thing to catch your attention is the number of women in the Janatam Sarkar (People’s Government) as well as in every platoon or company of the PLGA or people’s militia. Many a platoon had women commanders. The platoon that came to escort us was led by a woman. They are not only in command but carry out the riskiest tasks, just as men share equally all the responsibilities with the women: collecting wood, water, lighting fires, cooking (p 62).

But in my presence, when leaders or senior cadres were around, ordinary members were not obsequious or diffident. Cadres were smiling, sometimes cracking jokes or asking questions. They sat close to the seniors or stood close chatting (p 67).

Perhaps this could not be said about Stalin or Mao when they were in power! Or will the seniors change the rules once they came to power?

However, without knowing Gondi the squad members sent here could not have managed to survive for long….Therefore learning the language spoken by the people and living like them became a part of the struggle every activist knew he had to go through. But learning a language such as Gondi must have been a difficult proposition. I put this question to Murali…Yes, he said, it was tough, “it took some doing to learn the language but if you are fired by a desire to live and work among people you do pick up languages rather easily.” ...yes, in hindsight what must have taken several months for some and a year or two for others to learn looks easy, but to do it when you do not know a language, in unfamiliar surroundings does require a lot of self motivation and self-discipline (p 102).

By linking the learning of language with the composition of songs, which speak about tribal people’s exploitation (sic!) and struggles, the process of learning, getting to know people and gaining their trust became possible. ...songs and plays were the forms through which they explained their politics, the exploitation of the adivasis, and exhortation to organise themselves to throw out their oppressors (p 104).

Parliamentary Institutions

The report card is impressive but working with and on the tribals was relatively simple in another sense, since their minds were not encrusted with thousands of years of mystification laboriously laid on by generations of priests and ideologues in league with feudal and other reactionary powers. Navlakha observes that “entering an area overlooked by the Indian state for decades, where political parties were marked by their absence, provided them with a tremendous advantage” (p 180). But by the same logic their task would be incomparably more difficult in areas where parties representing various interests and patronised by various factions of the ruling classes have struck roots. Further, the future may well bring about challenging situations in the national and the international scene which the party might have to confront without notice requiring immediate major changes in tactics.

Two questions arise at this juncture: (1) How does the party propose to cobble together a broad alliance of social forces representing the great majority of the people, without which success is inconceivable? (2) What is going to be its attitude to and handling of the established parliamentary institutions? Granted that those institutions are corrupt and of little use to the people at large, it is significant that on many occasions the party’s appeal to boycott the polls had sometimes been ignored even in areas where it had strong roots and a solid base. Would it not serve its purpose better to use election times to explain to the people the futility and disservice of formal bourgeois democracy? Perhaps even a limited use of such institutions like the use of courts under strict control of the party ought not to be dismissed off hand. As for alliances it has followed disastrous principles that prescribe that the enemy’s enemy must without exception be cultivated as a friend regardless of class and ideology. It has paid the price by forming an opportunist alliance with the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal against the Left Front government and losing an important senior leader in a police ambush in consequence. In the north-east, it is cultivating militant secessionist groups that repeatedly massacre Bihari workers as an act of revenge against “Indian colonialism”.

On the whole it is difficult to persuade oneself that the political understanding of the national scene in the party has become more mature and sound. One’s concern is aggravated by the leaders’ admission in Bastar that they have no authoritative knowledge of the party’s decisions and acts in other regions like West Bengal’s Junglemahal and Odisha’s tribal enclaves. There is the further chilling prospect of the state’s success in infiltrating their ranks through unavoidable contacts with the world outside the base area.

Navlakha makes a spirited defence of the party’s unreserved commitment to violence, which one must point out is an instrumental necessity rather than an integral part of socialist doctrine. The one-sided stress on violence had actually distorted and besmirched the heritage of the socialist camp that finally withered away in the early 1990s. It has also prevented the party from studying seriously and exploring extra-parliamentary mass movements for widening its social base and influence. He discusses with responsible senior members the reports in the media about people’s courts handing out sentences of summary executions to suspected police informers and “enemies of the people” and comes to the conclusion that the reports are highly biased and exaggerated. Such death sentences are carried out only on rare occasions, provided several warnings are ignored by the alleged culprits who do not mend their ways (pp 70; 134-35). But one might still wonder if real justice is delivered in courts where the accused is not given freedom and scope to defend himself. An element of exaggeration indeed occurs in media reports about the Maoists’ alleged addiction to burning down schools, which are actually already taken over by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) who turn them into military camps. Further, a teacher in a Ramakrishna Mission school that was allowed by the party to stay on and continue teaching in a Maoist base area smiled when asked about the government’s propaganda that in Bastar 385 residential schools had been burnt down by Maoist wreckers and quipped, “I did not know there were that many schools in Bastar” (p 157).

Navlakha contests the notion that the immersion of the great majority of the Indian masses in the doctrine of ahimsa in view of the atrocities regularly practised by the state, and by landlords against low caste tenants and raiyats (p 223) was an ideological cement in an extremely exploitative class and caste-divided society, but the feudal lords themselves most of whom have been shaktas practising animal sacrifice in their religious rites seldom cared for it. But if the humble tenant or landless peasant resorted to violence it was usually spontaneous outbursts of agitated crowds driven to desperation by oppression. While there may have been such exceptional events, those took place in circumstances of extraordinary ferment and unrest. The Maoist advocacy of a protracted war is unlikely to find favour in settled times in our countryside, whatever the provocation. It may sometimes be argued, rather implausibly, that the apparent peace and serenity of rural India is actually a heap of dynamite waiting for the detonator, and the party could be the detonator. I am afraid such is not the case. There is ruthless class exploitation going on, no doubt. And that the Indian state is in no hurry to alleviate the exploitation is also beyond question. The “poverty eradication” campaign is an internationally accepted strategy to contain social unrest – the source of all revolutionary energy – adopted by international capital, and it has already exposed itself as an ever-receding delusive goal. Yet it still has an appeal for the exploited poor and working people, with its selectively targeted sections of society.

To sum it up, the hegemony of the ruling classes has not yet been shattered. As Lenin foresaw, it is not enough for a ruling class/es to lose its legitimacy in society for conditions for a revolution to mature, it must also come to pass that the ruling class/es are no longer able to govern in the old accustomed manner. Such a generalisation can hardly be made for India as a whole. Hence the idea of carving the country up into parts of which some can be turned into a cockpit for armed struggle at once also appears to be far-fetched. The alternative cannot of course be a surrender to parliamentary (bourgeois) democracy, and this is the greatest challenge to all revolutionary groups: finding a creative solution to the problem of waging war by other means to consolidate the social base and the political power for the ultimate confrontation. Till then the party could entrench itself in base areas where armed struggle is the norm, without ceasing to carry on propaganda and organisation in other regions with tactics devised to meet the requirements there.

Not for the Entire Country

It is therefore my contention that the example of Dandakaranya which Navlakha has so faithfully and meticulously presented cannot set the pattern for the country as a whole. But the sacrifice, dedication and untiring work of the Maoists there certainly inspires hope for people all over the country, and the introduction of a certain degree of flexibility in the programme of the party for a country that has such a bewildering variety of social forms as well as forms of production under the general rubric of “semi-feudal and semi-colonial” appears to be the need of the hour. The pages on “Janatam Sarkar” composed of the revolutionary people’s committees (RPCs) of the directly elected village governing council, who in turn select higher levels of the people ’s government (and not panels dictated by the party and without direct links with the people) should also interest readers (pp 121-35). Since the people’s militia are the armed forces of the people’s government, more light was needed on the exact nature of the relationship between the party’s politburo/central committee and the people’s government.

Navlakha concludes his fascinating observations with this timely and judicious comment: “they (Maoists) will have to respect the fact that they may become a leading force but not the only force spearheading change” (p 223). The reviewer would like to qualify it with the insistence that there must be a patient struggle to make themselves the leading force ideologically and politically, but not with the drastically simple method of assassination. That may require a searching critique of the received wisdom, including the teachings of Mao Tse-Tung, and a distancing from certain rigid Naxalite tenets. Meanwhile, all praise to Navlakha for lifting the pall of darkness cast by magicians of the state and letting in a flood of clear and radiant light full of promise and hope.