Violence and freedom: Responding to the Maoist challenge

June 3, 2010

The debate about the Maoist insurgent groups is also a debate about freedom, equity and violence—do the ends justify the means on either side? And when the price is inequity at one end and loss of freedom at the other, how are state and society to arrive at an acceptable middle-point? This blogpost provides a snapshot of the debate as it is. 


As I write this long-planned post, Arundhati Roy is making headlines for stating that she backs the Maoists and dares the government to arrest her.

Earlier in March 2010, she had published an essay that brought to a head the simmering controversy about civil society support to the Maoist rebels that the Indian government has identified as its most critical security problem. In her lyrical style, Roy portrayed Maoists as rebels who will fight for the alternative vision they advocate:

“I think of what Comrade Venu said to me: they want to crush us, not only because of the minerals, but because we are offering the world an alternative model.
It’s not an Alternative yet, this idea of Gram Swaraj with a Gun. There’s too much hunger, too much sickness here. But it has certainly created the possibilities for an alternative. Not for the whole world, not for Alaska, or New Delhi, nor even perhaps for the whole of Chhattisgarh, but for itself. For Dandakaranya. It’s the world’s best-kept secret. It has laid the foundations for an alternative to its own annihilation. It has defied history. Against the greatest odds it has forged a blueprint for its own survival. It needs help and imagination, it needs doctors, teachers, farmers.
It does not need war.
But if war is all it gets, it will fight back.”

In 2009, Roy had published an article arguing that the state was picking on the Maoists as a cover for its backing of mining interests. Roy’s recent article was published originally with the title, “Walking with the Comrades,” but was circulated also as, “Gandhi, but with guns.”  (She has pointed out in a recent letter that this was a sub-editor’s choice of words, not hers.)

It has evoked a wide range of responses, most notable for revealing the new ambivalence in the Indian intelligentsia about the Maoists, a shift from a few months ago when Kobad Gandhy was arrested. A few weeks before its publication, the Maoists were reported to have wanted Ms. Roy to play mediator between them and the Indian state. (See also Faisal Devji, Why the Maoists want Arundhati Roy, Guardian, March 9, 2010.)

Roy’s writing always evokes strong reactions. This time was no exception, the only surprise was that scepticism and critique came from all quarters.

Anirban Gupta Nigam, Moonwalking with the Comrades, March 23, 2010.
Soumitra Ghosh, A Believer’s Obeisance,, March 23, 2010.
Nandini Bedi, Walk the Talk, Comrade, Outlook, March 29, 2010.
Salil Tripathi, Maostan of Arundhati Roy,, March 31, 2010.
Sudhanva Deshpande, She was here, Outlook, April 12, 2010.
B.G. Verghese, Daylight at the Thousand Star Hotel, Outlook, May 3, 2010.

The Indian middle class is as apathetic as any other, but its preoccupation with everyday matters has been frequently disturbed by dramatically violent incidents in those parts of India where the Maoists are challenging the Indian state. (See, for instance, SATP’s timeline on Chhatisgarh) Arundhati Roy’s piece faced criticism even from those most likely to agree with her, but when the Dantewada massacre took place just days after its publication, criticism yielded to outrage. In the two months since the article and the Dantewada massacre, there have been other incidents, some definitively associated with the Maoists and others alleged to be Maoist attacks.

India’s Minister for Home Affairs, who is responsible for internal security, has said repeatedly that the intelligentsia’s moral support for the Maoists and their ambivalence on the issue of Maoist violence, was detrimental to the government’s efforts.

But for the many “argumentative Indians” who make up India’s intelligentsia, the question remains: Are there now taboo topics in Indian political discourse? Are we looking forward to something like the McCarthy era in the US? Even for those who are not left-leaning, limitations on free speech are unacceptable.

Anuradha Raman, State, Your Cause, Outlook, May 31, 2010.
Avijit Chatterjee, You’re with us or against us, The Telegraph, June 2, 2010.

But as the death-toll mounts, it will lower public resistance to curbs on political freedom, especially freedom of expression. It always does.

Madhavi Tata, Enter the Red Dragon, Outlook, May 31, 2010.

One of India’s oldest and best-regarded journals, the left-leaning Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), has recently carried several relevant articles including an interview with Gopalji, spokesperson of the Special Area Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). (Alpa Shah, “Annihilation is the last choice,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 45 No 19, May 8, 2010, pages 24-29.)

Smita Gupta, “Searching for a third way in Dantewada,” EPW, Vol 45 No. 16 April 17 – April 23, 2010, pages 12-15.
Gautam Navlakha, “Days and nights in the Maoist heartland,” EPW, Vol 45 No. 16 April 17 – April 23, 2010, pages 38-47.

An Economic and Political Weekly editorial, “Can There Be Any Hope?” (April 24, 2010) seems to sum up the challenge:

“Beyond the immediate and the medium term, we need a different kind of Indian state and a different kind of CPI (Maoist). Can we imagine both the State and the CPI (Maoist) respecting and af¬firming the basic rights of citizens? Can we imagine institutions of the State responding to the needs of all groups of citizens and ful¬filling the lofty promises of the Constitution? Can we imagine a CPI (Maoist) that also effects a fundamental transformation and sheds its militarised identity?
On such hopes must rest our imagination.”

This debate about the Maoist insurgent groups is also a debate about freedom, equity and violence—do the ends justify the means on either side? And when the price is inequity at one end and loss of freedom at the other, how are state and society to arrive at an acceptable middle-point? The purpose of this blog-post is to provide a snapshot of the state of this debate in India today.

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