|This blog post had featured on BlogAdda’s Spicy Saturday Picks – Jan. 22, ‘11 (click) on self-nomination. Thanks, BlogAdda!|
I am among the great majority of Indians, who have never been directly affected by Maoism and its brand of violence, nor have witnessed its effects unfolding before themselves, nor have heard of some kin, neighbor or even a distant acquaintance get directly affected by it. However, those who take even minor interest in Indian state of affairs must have heard about this phenomenon called ‘Maoism’ and must largely relate it with violence, because that is the only connection in which we get to hear about the Maoists. I will not launch here into how the Indian media is unreliable, but yet again point out that to base our impressions solely on what at best a third-hand information source like the media portrays might be erroneous as is the case with so many other issues. So, what Maoists truly stand for and what their mission is, remain largely indeterminate for me.
Going by the versions of people who express themselves on platforms provided by the Indian national media, e.g., Arundhati Roy and P. Govindan Kutty (on one side) v/s officers from the military and paramilitary forces (on the other), I realized that it was only possible to form two contrasting impressions of Maoists with no middle ground so to speak of – first, that they are speaking for the downtrodden and the exploited (by the government and industrialists) common people of the Maoism-affected regions, or second, that they are a violent group of people whose only aim is to stall development and disrupt peace in India (possibly, with foreign aid) because they hate India and envy the relative prosperity of other regions. It is tempting to believe that the truth might be somewhere between the two. Or perhaps, the truth is unrelated to both the apparently contrasting popular discourses on Maoism?
I am posting here three instances that I thought helped me understand much better what Maoism stands for, as against reams of impassioned rhetoric that just add to the confusion. However, in all the three instances, the information that had come to me was second-hand (but I believe for various reasons, more reliable than what comes through the media), and as it is being passed along to the readers through me, it becomes third-hand. It is entirely possible that either my sources of information were being less than honest, or of course, that so could I be in the information I pass on to the readers. Hence, I advise readers to maintain a high degree of skepticism.
The following account was given by a train co-passenger in November, 2010. Everything I write were his claims, and I had no other way to verify them. And as he was a total stranger, I had no way to tell how truthful he otherwise was.
He had worked in the Indian coast guard (I am presuming, as an officer, going by many cues) that he had left, and following that had been working in the security section of a public sector company.
We had discussed many issues for over an hour. Then, the conversation had turned to the rural-urban divide, and going by his background of working in a paramilitary force, I had asked him if he had any idea of the Maoist problem. He proceeded by telling me that Dantewada district was his naunihaal (place where his mother had been brought up as a child) and that many of his relatives still lived there.
He said that the problem in the district had begun long before even the Naxalbari rebellion had occurred. There was rampant lawlessness, and for some reasons, people had started taking to arms (not firearms) very easily. There were many instances when even minor conflicts would culminate in murder. This violence was not organized, just that somehow, it came to be seen as more and more acceptable. Gradually, minor factions started emerging – if one’s family would enter a conflict, as a matter of precaution they would seek ‘protection’ from a gang leader. He made a special reference to the movie Sarkaar to make his point. At this point I had asked him if there was any pattern to the use of violence, in particular, if it was the exploited/deceived people who were more likely to use violence against the more affluent persons like landlords? He categorically denied. He emphasized that these conflicts were as normal as they would occur anywhere else, e.g., arguments between cousins, or even neighbors, but the only difference was that they were culminating more and more in gruesome violence like beheading.
Then, I proceeded to ask him as to how did this violence take the form of Maoism. He expressed ignorance, but made a guess that ‘Maoism’ was just a convenient banner to carry out the same violence that had anyway been going on. He also added that with this violence (and along with it, the various factions) merging with Maoism, it became better organized and also conflicts between common people reduced.
On being asked as to what kind of people joined the movement he said that there was no particular pattern. But that usually, it was people in the late teens who would. I asked him if attraction to the movement was ideology-driven, he again denied and said that joining Maoists brought with it its own set of perks. First, most villagers would be awed by a Maoist, thus their family would be safe; second, that the Maoists tend to be relatively better off compared to other villagers as they would have a supplementary source of income. I asked him an almost leading question, something on the lines of: “so is it that just like how some people in cities like Mumbai join underworld gangs for similar perks, and not always would the parents and neighbors oppose them for some associated perks, teens in Maoism-afflicted regions join Maoism? And just like how in cities, those joining underworld gangs would be aware of the risks like imprisonment and death in ‘encounters’/’gang wars’, those joining Maoists would also be aware of the same risks but willing to take them owing to a sort of anti-social personality and a favorable assessment ‘risk-benefit’?”. He agreed quite wholly, but modified my understanding a bit by pointing out that in large portions of Maoism-affected areas, state jurisdiction is lacking to such a degree that being apprehended by any of the forces is not seen as a realistic risk.
Then, I asked him about the industrialists/state v/s tribes angle to the entire Maoist phenomenon. In particular, I asked him if big industries were showing interest in those regions for mining and/or establishing factories. He first clarified a misunderstanding that those that were referred to as “tribal” were not all that backward in development, but that they had sought that status because that gave them certain benefits like greater control over their produce, and some other benefits in education/jobs. So, they were more like villagers, largely into agriculture, though with their farming activities being less organized. He replied in affirmative to my query on industrialists’ interest in the region as most of the areas had rich mineral reserves and also because land would be relatively cheaper. So, I asked him if the residents were being forcefully evicted and if that were the reason for residents’ frustration with the government. His response startled me. He pointed out that quite to the contrary, the government and the industrialists were providing very good compensation and that most residents were happy with such deals. He further added that agriculture is not the best way to sustain ones household given the vagaries of climate. In fact, he cited the example of his own cousin/brother who was employed by the CRPF, that he had received a good amount (I vaguely remember it to be Rs. 14 lakhs) as compensation for the part of the plot he had sold. But he pointed out a problem. He said that the compensatory amounts were not directly disbursed to the individuals, but to a village representative. He said the recipient would be in possession of an equivalent of ‘power of attorney’ who would be then expected to give away the amount to the individual households. Now, the problem was that the Maoists were either controlling such village representatives or were attempting to, and that this was the strongest incentive for Maoists to exercise control over these territories. Thus, the Maoists would take a share out of the amount given to the entire village. And eventually when despite selling their land, the ordinary people did not get expected compensation amounts, few people got frustrated by the entire provision. I had forgotten to ask as to why this arrangement of an equivalent of ‘power of attorney’ existed, rather than simple disbursement to the individual households. My guess is, because these ares were officially recognized as ‘tribal’ lands, so no documented individual property rights existed, and whatever belonged to the village would be a ‘collective property’, but the villagers amongst themselves did respect each others’ property rights, so maybe vast stretch of lands had to be sold as part of a collective decision rather than making individual transactions.
I asked him if Maoists did not extort or loot common villagers, what is it that made joining them lucrative for the youngsters. He said that Maoists control large tracts of land, over which they grow profitable crops. I do not remember properly the examples he had given, but perhaps, they were tobacco and opium/cannabis. And one of the reasons they are fighting the State forces is to not relinquish control over these tracts. On being asked if the income from these tracts was shared with the villagers, he replied in negative. Needless to say, the produce from these plantations has to be sold off through illegal means. Then I further queried if the those lower down in the ‘power hierarchy’ of Maoists would be happy with their share of profit, or it would largely those who would be higher up that would keep most of the profit for themselves. He said latter was closer to the truth. Thus, I said that many of the young recruits must be getting disenchanted with the system – what do they do, do they leave the movement? He said, practically on once joining the movement, leaving it was not possible, because that would be seen as unfaithfulness and such recruits would be killed. So, I asked, that is it like once a Maoist, always a Maoist? He said “yes”. [To digress a bit, I felt a bit sorry for the young recruits, and told him that how then the Maoist tangle seems nearly impossible to undo. He agreed with me, and said the only hope was that large number of these people would grow old, and the frustration amongst groundsmen would increase, and then just perhaps, factions amongst the movement would emerge and the movement might weaken with time. But this portion of my emotional response and his speculation are largely irrelevant to the current blog post.]
Though, I had not been privy to the above kind of details, my suspicion had always been that the Maoists were not true representatives of the ordinary people and nor were they working for the interests of the larger good of the tribes/villagers, so I was not greatly surprised by most of these revelations, and in fact, they did quite conform to my worldview. However, I had also been suspecting that Maoists must be forcibly abducting young kids or teens against their parents’ wishes and then brainwashing and training them in use of weaponry. So when I asked if my speculation was right, he again denied. He said that Maoists ordinarily do not trouble the villagers and reiterated that the teens join Maoists by themselves on their own volition, and usually they are the ones who are attracted by weapons and would have a bullying nature.
One of the last questions I asked him about Dantewada was as to what did the common people in the district want? Were they on the side of the Maoists or on the side of the State forces? He said that the majority of villagers did not take sides. All they would want is to be left alone. However, different villages have differing degrees of influence of Maoists v/s the State forces. Where the Maoists were dominant, no activity supporting the police would be tolerated, and on the slightest suspicion of sympathy towards the State forces, the Maoists would kill the suspected ‘informer’ (and sometimes even the family members). I had interrupted and asked yet again, if these killings were random (so as to inspire terror in the common villagers) or truly based on suspicion. He said, they would be truly based on suspicion. He pointed out that ideally the Maoists would not want to collectively aggravate the villagers, because if all of them would turn against them, then Maoists’ survival would be difficult. He also added that however, there were other regions were the State forces (CRPF, police, etc.) would be stronger. In these areas, villagers would tend to actively support the State forces, and many in fact would want to join the forces because of assured income and other perks of a government job. It was this way in which the Salwa Judum had succeeded. I asked if the State forces would extort the villagers or steal their farm produce/animals, etc (this was keeping in mind what I had read in newspapers/magazines/web sites and come across on television news/programs). He chuckled at the question and said that usually these forces had very good supply of food so they would not need to do such things, and also that where their presence was stronger than that of Maoists, they were in fact welcomed. That very few personnel in CRPF would be locals would make looting anything further less attractive (as it is people of the region are poor), because they would have to carry the loot back to a faraway place. At this point he made one important point that it was easier for Maoists to use civilians as ‘shields’, meaning, if State forces would know that there were Maoists among common people, they would not be able to kill people indiscriminately, but whereas the State forces would not usually use civilians as shields, because Maoists would not desist from killing even civilians rampantly even on slightest suspicion of their shielding the State forces. And that this arrangement would put the State forces at a great disadvantage in getting an upper hand over Maoists.
Then, I pointed out that the Maoist movement had spread far and wide, so were the circumstances that led to their spread similar in all regions or if they were different. He replied that he did not have much idea about other regions, but believed that every district had its own typical problems and there was not a single, common factor that led to the growth of Maoism movement. But he said he had some idea of the situation in the very close by Orissa (Dantewada region is on the border of Chhattisgarh and Orissa). He pointed out that one of the biggest businesses of Orissa close to the border is of tendu leaves, and that few of the plantations were owned by Marwaris (something that had quite surprised me). Some local people had this grievance that the Marwaris were making all the money and they were being exploited. I asked if this perception was because Marwaris were ‘outsiders’ or because they were truly exploiting the poor people. He expressed his ignorance. But he hinted that if these plantations were to go, then the owners would be at loss, and not so much the daily wage laborers. So, I asked him if it was possible that the owners of these plantations were also sponsoring the Maoists. He said it was a possibility.
Then, he had made some references to how sophisticated arms would be smuggled across the porous Indo-China border (if I remember correctly, through Arunachal Pradesh) dipped in oil tankers, but I do not remember now if he had made the point in connection of Maoists or smuggling activity in general, but we were at that point discussing the Purulia arms drop case (click).
My impression: The Maoists and the villagers/tribes of the Maoism-afflicted regions were not one and the same. And secondly, that both among the Maoists as well as the common people, some sort of social and economic stratification indeed existed. So, it would be erroneous to look at both of them as a monolithic entity (which is quite the opposite of the picture painted by Arundhati Roy, who tends to portray Maoists and the tribals as one and the same, and also as if they are unified by some grand egalitarianism). Depending upon the social/economic stratum and also the region in which one lives, the individual interests would differ. Some people would thus be more apt to support the Maoists, others, the State forces, but vast majority had no such personal interest.
The second instance that had major impact on my perception of Maoist problem was watching a documentary by NewsX. I had started watching it midway, so I do not even remember what the theme was. But it was focusing on some agitation against a steel plant to be built in Orissa (perhaps, in collaboration with some Thai company).
My memory of the entire program is quite vague. Some commentator had made a point that forceful eviction by the government in collusion with the corporates was giving rise to violent means of protests, which was in turn being supported by Maoists. Then there was an interview featuring an elderly owner of tendu leaves plantation. He was saying that if the steel plant would come in that place, then he would suffer a heavy loss. I do not remember the amount he had quoted, but perhaps, it was Rs. 30,00,000 per year. The figure was mind-boggling. He had not made any point about how a steel plant would entail loss of jobs for the poor people. There is a slight possibility that the old man was bragging, but well there is no way to determine that. Also shown working in the background were (I presume, daily-wage) workers, whose living condition seemed pretty dismal.
My impression: The poorest of the poor were anyway being exploited by the affluent owners of tendu leaves plantations. It is unlikely that it is the laborers who would oppose new employment opportunities, especially when they were evidently being exploited. If a new steel plant were to come, obviously they would get employed in some other capacity, and even when the construction would be finished, many would be still employed for jobs requiring little/no educational qualification. Hence, it must be unlikely that such people would be the ones opposing the building of steel plant. So, the ones who stood to lose most if a steel plant were to come up were the very affluent (and exploitative) owners of tendu leave plantations, and perhaps, all the protests were encouraged/supported by such owners.
The last account was given by an acquaintance, whose family hails from the Bahrampur region of West Bengal. He had told me that the people in his district did not distinguish between the Maoists and the political party that had been ruling the state virtually since time immemorial. That most elections were won through coercion. Villagers would be told beforehand by (Maoist) goons as to which candidate to vote for, and if the said candidate would not win, then random villagers would be killed. However, influence of Maoists as one moved closer to Kolkata wanes.
My impression: What he had said made sense to me, because if people of a state like Bihar that had gained much notoriety for mis-governance and involvement of criminals with politics changed their ruling parties and leaders so many times, it is surprising that that from a state like West Bengal, which has also not been doing particularly well on most developmental indices, would not want to change the ruling party or the leaders. Also, it seems the Maoists are not seen as a great inconvenience by the current Union government. By design or by coincidence, the Maoists switched their loyalty from the old ruling party to *the new Bengali alternative* almost exactly at the same time when *the new Bengali alternative* started supporting the current ruling party at the center and when the old ruling party of West Bengal had withdrawn support from the current ruling alliance at the Center.
- Circumstances leading to the growth of Maoism in different regions were no identical, but were unique to each region.
- In Dantewada district, violence had gradually gained much greater social acceptance than in other regions of India. This was made particularly possible by the prevalent lawlessness.
- Above kind of violence was not ideological, but became more of a social phenomenon. Those who become Maoists are not driven by ideology, but see the arrangement as one of convenience as it brings them some perks, which in turn help them tide over acute poverty the entire district suffers from. Also, those otherwise more apt to take to arms join the Maoist movement.
- Maoists usually do not threaten common villagers nor coerce them into joining the movement, nor do they commit any crimes against them without any provocation.
- Maoists are brutal with those who they suspect of siding with the State forces.
- One of the sources of income for Maoists, which makes it lucrative for the youngsters to join them, is illegal trade of produce from plantations like that of tobacco, cannabis and/or opium. They want to closely guard monopoly over these tracts of land on which these plantations exist.
- Even on being disenchanted, it is not possible to practically leave the Maoist Organization once one joins it as they would be seen as traitors and would be killed.
- Villagers are largely neutral in the conflict between Maoists and the State forces. Their support is usually to whichever of the two forces would be stronger in a given region.
- While Maoists can use common villagers as a shield, State forces do not do that.
- State forces have little incentive to loot villagers.
- In regions of Orissa flanking Dantewada, it seems it is the relatively affluent owners of tendu leave plantations who are most interested in keeping industrialization away from the state, and hence could be supporting (Maoist) violence. The common poor people of Orissa who work in such plantations seem to have little to no incentive to try to maintain the status quo.
- In West Bengal, Maoists have enjoyed a sustained patronage from the ruling dispensation and in fact, been used towards electoral ends. Also, their loyalty seems to be to that Bengali political party that would support the current alliance at the Center.
I repeat, whatever I am publishing as part of this blog post is largely second-hand information, and as it reaches the readers, it already becomes third-hand. My first source of information was a relatively well-off person and had also been an employee of the Indian government, so it is possible that he might have had a soft corner for the ‘Indian State’ and antipathy towards the Maoists. That his brother was in CRPF furthers the possibility. But what all makes his account particularly reliable are: that he had not brought up the topic himself; whatever information he had provided was in response to specific queries by me; he had little/nothing to gain by trying to alter my views on the issue; and most important, what all he said seemed to be based on sound reasoning, without resorting to rhetoric. Also, the picture he painted matched my conviction that mass movements are most apt to arise not out of some ideology, but of convergence of mundane personal interests.
Yet, I urge the readers to not lower their guard of skepticism in assimilating what I have published here.