Ever since law enforcement agencies in India raided a clutch of human rights activists and arrested five of them on June 6 and another five on August 28, the State has held up Maoists and so-called “Urban Naxals” as signifiers of the grave threats that India’s democracy and society face. They are now touted as India’s internal enemy number one. On October 18, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Chief Mohan Bhagwat stressed that the government needed to keep a constant vigil on the so-called “Urban Naxals”. For the Indian state, the Maoists have overshadowed Islamist terrorists, secessionists, those who kill in the name of the cow, those who target Dalits who assert their rights, or brazenly foment communal tension and violence.
Whether Hindutva or Maoist violence, there is little doubt that India’s democracy has increasingly turned violent. This trend has been further reinforced by the role of the Indian state. Note, for instance, how the Uttar Pradesh police have become trigger happy. Given the many forms of political violence existing in India, why is it that the Maoists and their politics are seen as a threat to the nation and democracy? What explains the persistence of Maoist politics? What purpose have the Maoists served?
To answer these questions and analyse the culture of political violence in India, Scroll.in spoke to Ajay Gudavarthy, associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has written extensively on Maoists and their politics. The title of his most recent book, Revolutionary Violence Versus Democracy, succinctly captures the essence of the current discourse on Maoist politics. The book has essays by Varavara Rao, who was one of the activists arrested in August, and Anand Teltumbde, whose house was one of those that were raided. Gudavarthy’s forthcoming book is titled, India After Modi: Populism and the Right. Excerpts:
The most recent book you edited, Revolutionary Violence Versus Democracy, has proved prescient with the arrest of human rights activists in August and the BJP linking them to Maoists. What would constitute a revolution in 21st century India?
Revolution in India has to be cultural, a point [Dr BR] Ambedkar makes in his writings. It means transforming our social structures and social prejudices of caste, religion, gender, regional, urban-rural, etc. In our society, cultural idioms have a vice-like grip over the political. In India, a cultural revolution should inform what political and economic revolutions should look like.
Maoists ignore the cultural part. Their problem is the primacy they give to the capture of state power. That is certainly not working. This is because the legitimacy for state violence, or authoritarianism, or fascism in India comes from cultural idioms. Ideas of hierarchy, social distancing, exclusion, and even justification for violence have deep cultural roots. It only follows that the legitimacy of the state as it exists today can be undermined only by working through the cultural idiom.
The very title of the book suggests that revolution is not possible in a democracy such as India’s without a measure of violence.
The book’s title encapsulates how Maoists perceive the political situation. In one of their documents, Maoists identify electoral politics and caste as the big challenges that [a quest for] revolution in India faces. What I am saying through the title is that the democratic ethos and revolutionary ethos are going in different directions and are becoming irreconcilable.
Why are the democratic ethos and revolutionary ethos going in different directions?
Though democracy is shallow and not delivering, yet it has spread the idea of equality and dignity across India. Even the last man, the last untouchable, has an aspirational imagination, which has him strive for equality and dignity. By contrast, neo-liberal policies have created massive inequalities, hierarchies, and stigmas in the material world.
One way of looking at the spread of democratic ethos is to dismiss it in the typical Marxist way and say it represents false consciousness, and that it is an outcome of the ideological hegemony [of the ruling elite.] The other way of perceiving it is that the formation of these aspirations creates their own socio-psychological dimensions. Revolutionary idealism is partly on the wane because democracy keeps the hope of people [for a better and equitable future] alive.
It is on the wane because a large segment of Indians are stranded, to use a phrase from your book, “in the waiting lounge of hope”.
Yes, the interesting thing that Indian democracy has done is to create a middle class in every social group, whether it is Muslims, Dalits, or Adivasis, through reservation or development. Take the Dalit middle class, which is urbane, English-speaking, has access to resources and is part of institutional life. They have nothing in common with the rest of the Dalits. The writer Anand Teltumbde keeps repeating that reservation has benefitted only 6% of Dalits. But the Dalit elite also give confidence and hope to the 94% of Dalits.
The elite become a role model.
Yes, but it is not just symbolical. They provide the rest of Dalits with a sense of security. For instance, if there are attacks on common Dalits, the elite among them would speak out. Take liberal Muslims, whose lifestyle is very different from the majority of their community. When the 2002 Gujarat riots happened, the elite Muslims did speak out.
Or take [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s portrayal of himself as chaiwalla. His popularity is perhaps the highest among the aspirational lower classes. They think they can become him.
Isn’t that hope illusory?
Some years ago, I was involved with a survey in Okhla and a pharmaceutical hub near Hyderabad, where girls and Dalits worked for 16 to 18 hours [a day]. They were paid poorly. The typical Left trade union view would have been that working hours and wages were exploitative.
Yet when we interviewed the girls, they said it was liberating for them. They said that back home in villages they did not have a life of their own and were economically and sexually vulnerable. Despite the exploitative conditions, they said the Rs 50,000-Rs 60,000 they would save after seven years would provide them with a modicum of security.
It was the same with the Dalit workers, who agreed they were exploited. But they said the urban life gave them anonymity, did not expose them to severe discrimination, and that they could least get their children educated in English-medium schools.
So the issue before the Maoists is how they deal with this kind of self-perception and the idea of relative mobility that people have.
Are Maoists opposed to democracy because it kindles hopes and, therefore, becomes an impediment to ushering in a revolution?
Yes, in the sense that wherever complete hopelessness, exclusion and desperation do not mark people, revolutionary means do not work. It does in tribal areas, where, as for instance in the case of Operation Green Hunt [an all-out paramilitary offensive launched by the Union government in 2009] there was a clear programme of annihilation [of the local population]. What can revolution mean to a group that has not lost hope, which enjoys a certain degree of relative mobility?
For them the cost of participating in revolutionary violence becomes very high.
It is very high because they think they have a lot to lose. People come together to create revolution in a situation of utter hopelessness. Yes, you see inequality growing. But people do not see inequality in absolute terms. They do not compare themselves with the Ambanis. They compare themselves with the previous generation.
Neo-liberal capitalism and democracy create among people a sense of mobility, which may seem grossly exploitative to us. But that is not their subjective experience. Obviously, democracy holds out hope to them. What else can explain the high voting percentage of 74% in the last election in Chhattisgarh, which is a Maoist stronghold?
Isn’t the BJP’s focus on the Maoist threat ironical in the sense that Maoists do not pose a challenge to the Indian state and democracy as they did, say, even a decade ago?
The Maoists were not a challenge to the Indian state even in their heydays of the 1970s. They were not a threat even when [former Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh identified them as India’s biggest internal threat. Their armed cadre is perhaps around 4,000-5,000; they cannot match the state in arms. Their strength is the deep social base they have. For instance, in Telangana in the eighties, their support cut across all classes, from the middle class to social elites, to lawyers, youth, tribals and peasants.
Is the talk of Maoist threat a strategy to create anxieties that can be used for electoral purposes or is there a far sinister game afoot?
The BJP’s strategy is to create the new other for fighting the 2019 elections. The other is no longer the Muslim. The BJP sought to create the perception that India faces the threat of global jihad. But people are no longer buying into that perception. The Muslim as the other has exhausted its electoral possibilities, not least because there has been no Muslim retaliation against the unprecedented and repeated violence against the community.
The BJP cannot also fight the 2019 elections solely on development. Its failure to win the 2004 elections on the Shining India plank haunts them. It is for this reason they have evolved the new strategy of urban Naxal. They have given up on Dalit votes. So the Muslim, the Dalit and the Left together constitute the new, combined other, which is depicted as a threat to the Hindu majority.
Who does it leave out? It leaves out the upper castes and the Other Backward Classes. These are the two groups with whose support the BJP plans to fight the 2019 elections. In fact, the human rights activists they picked up or raided were very carefully thought out.
Are you saying that each of the activists who were arrested or raided served the purpose of facilitating the BJP’s messaging?
Take Varavara Rao, who is a well-known Maoist sympathiser. People can believe that Rao might have been involved in the nonsensical allegation of buying rocket launchers from Nepal. Then you have Anand Teltumbde, who is a Dalit and whose brother is a Maoist area commander in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra. The idea here is to show a link between Dalits and Maoists. K Satyanarayana is an independent Dalit thinker, but he is also the son-in-law of Varavara Rao. Once again, you have the Dalit-Maoist linkage.
What about Gautam Navlakha, who was arrested?
He is a human rights activist with the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and is broadly sympathetic with the Maoists. But, more significantly, he has done a lot of work on Kashmir. Herein is the Kashmiri Muslim angle, which they have been trying to highlight from the time Rohith Vemula [the Dalit student of Hyderabad Central University] committed suicide, and the controversy surrounding the shouting of anti-India slogans in Jawaharlal Nehru University was triggered [in 2016]. The Indian Muslim is ineffective as a tool [for polarisation]. He has been replaced by the Kashmiri Muslim. After all, there is a secessionist movement in Kashmir, the violence there is visible. Navlakha serves the purpose of linking Islamic jihad to the Maoist-Dalit conspiracy.
What about Sudha Bharadwaj?
She has been working in tribal areas. She symbolises the urban part of the urban Naxal. The BJP is apprehensive that the Hindu middle class professionals are not consolidating behind it as its leaders had hoped. These lynchings and hate rhetoric do not appeal to the urban middle class professionals, who want stability, who want to enjoy their glass of wine after they return from office. But what they see on TV is that someone has been lynched here, someone has been bumped off there.
For this class, you need a Sudha Bharadwaj to create a threat perception. Daughter of a JNU professor, Krishna Bharadwaj, Sudha voluntarily returned from abroad to work in India, looks like you and I, speaks English, is a professional, and yet she turns out to be a Maoist [in terms of the state’s portrayal of her].
She symbolises the Maoist threat reaching the urban landscape?
Exactly. She could very well be your neighbour, and yet she is a Maoist. Such a threat can be felt acutely.
My sense is that people, by and large, just did not believe the narrative that was sought to be created by raiding activists and arresting some of them.
My sense is that had they not arrested Sudha Bharadwaj, the scenario would have been different. She never had anything to do with Maoist politics. People who petitioned the court, for instance [historian] Romila Thapar, [economist] Prabhat Patnaik, were colleagues of Krishna Bharadwaj. They know Sudha very well. People like Varavara Rao or Anand Teltumbde come from another background – they do not have Bharadwaj’s proximity to the class of intellectuals.
They wanted to scare the professional middle class through the arrest of five activists [in August]. But the same class was alarmed by the arbitrariness of it. The middle class person felt that tomorrow it could be him or her or his or her children. The whole idea was so fraudulent that it gave people the courage to speak.
In your earlier book, Maoism, Democracy and Globalisation: Cross-currents in Indian Politics, you describe Indian democracy as a violent democracy. On the face of it, violent democracy would seem an oxymoron. Is violence in a democracy such as India’s an outcome of democracy gone pathological?
I think so. Not all violence is centralised or emanates from the State. There are different forms of violence in India. There is, obviously, state violence, repression, extra-judicial killings.
You also talk of invisibilised violence in your book.
It is the violence that emanates from the social structure. No one does physical harm, but it involves exclusion on the basis of caste, gender, religious, etc. It would include routinised exploitation of labour.
It is so routinised that we do not even recognise it as brutal and unconscionable.
Exactly, we think it is normal. Then you have lynching, caste massacres, engineering of riots, gender and domestic violence, honour killings, bride burning…There is a wide range of violence in India.
But not all these forms of violence can be classified as political.
No, but the political violence in India has a social-cultural base. There is consequently a justification for it. When Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched in 2015 [in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh], I told my Dalit students that they too should speak out as it was not just a Muslim issue. These students were first-generation learners from villages and belonged to a Dalit organisation. They said that I was getting agitated because of what I had seen on TV. But they said that lynching was a common experience for them, that they had seen Dalits being lynched on minor issues such as an argument over the balance of money the shopkeeper had returned after a purchase had been made.
In other words, the political violence that we get agitated over is an everyday experience for a lot of people.
The everydayness of many forms of violence existing in India creates a complex narrative. When we speak out against the lynching of Akhlaq or the killing of [journalist] Gauri Lankesh, the Right creates the narrative that we are being selective. Why is it that we did not speak on other occasions? For those who are witness to such everyday violence, even if they do not support the lynchings, they might feel our outrage is selective. This creates a plausible narrative for the rightwing mobilisation.
Why is it that only the violence of Maoists is critiqued, challenged and suppressed? Is it because Maoist violence, unlike other forms of violence, seeks to reform or alter the structure of the Indian state?
Absolutely, there is simply no doubt about it. The combined death toll of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat would be far higher than the number of people killed by Maoists in, say, 30 years. Maoists have not indulged in genocidal killings or triggered big blasts. Their strategy has been of targeted violence – for instance, individuals whom they identify as their enemy or contractors. Yet Maoists violence is focused upon disproportionately because of the political vision behind it.
And that political vision is about their violence being class oriented?
Yes, that is why Maoist violence scares the ruling elite. It is not the firepower of Maoists or their cadre strength that scares them. What scares the ruling elite is the deep support base of Maoists. It is deep because the Maoists provide physical protection to Dalits, tribals and peasants [in a socio-cultural scape of extreme coercion], particularly the women. It is the Maoists who stood by them against their oppressors. The Maoist movement could not have survived the onslaught of the state, with its modern weaponry and technology of surveillance, without having a strong local base.
So you do not think that time is up for revolutionary violence?
In areas where they have a deep support base, revolutionary violence will continue. Obviously, there is also the alternative of development discourse, which is reaching these areas. People say they need the Maoists for protection, dignity and protection of their women. They also say they go out to vote because they need schools, hospitals and such things. As of now, it does not seem that development will trump Maoists.
Why do you say in your book that “the relationship between violence and democracy is enabling rather than inherently oppositional”?
Revolutionary violence has strengthened democracy because the ruling elite is being constantly told who are the neglected. The [Operation] Green Hunt was a primitive model of accumulation similar to what indigenous Indians in the United States were subjected to. The strategy behind Green Hunt was to carry out a massive displacement of tribals and appropriate their land for mining and big businesses. Credit the Maoists for protecting the tribals from extermination that would have been carried out at the behest of corporate interests.
It is the same logic that had Gabriel Garcia Marquez hail the Cuban leader Fidel Castro for being the bulwark against the complete Americanisation of Latin America.
Absolutely, my point is that Maoists have kept alive the debate on the invisibilised violence of the state. Ironical though it may sound, it has strengthened democracy. Maoist politics is a constant reminder to the state that India’s development model is excluding, consciously or by default, a segment of Indians. Maoists have the symbolic significance of legitimising protests, of creating spaces for it.
While revolutionary violence is a reminder to us of the failings of democracy, Maoists cannot treat democracy as an impediment to revolution. They have to seriously take into account the self-perception of people. In fact, the Right takes the business of self-perception seriously. They, unlike the Left, are able to see the narrative through the lens that people see. So when people think they are relatively mobile and you go tell them that they are being exploited, the message is not in consonance with their lived experience. Revolutionary politics will have to tune in to the lived experience of people.