By Swapan Dasgupta
Earlier this year, a fashionably 'progressive' essayist lauded India's Maoist terror squads as "Gandhians with a gun", a description that is about as persuasive as 'celibate rapist'. Not that either mockery or public anger plays any role in tempering the perversity of those who flaunt democracy only to subvert it. In the wake of the second massacre in Dantewada in two months, the experts of terror have raised their sophistry to bizarre heights.
Take the justification of the May 17 blast that killed 44 bus passengers – all local inhabitants and all poor. Since the earlier claim of paramilitary forces being a legitimate target is clearly untenable, it has been suggested that the presence of a few off-duty special police officers in the bus was a direct provocation. "If there were indeed civilians in the bus," writer Arundhati Roy told The Times of India, "it is irresponsible of the government to expose them to harm in a war zone by allowing police and SPOs to use public transport."
The logic is revealing: anyone remotely connected with the state, even a SPO drawing a pathetic Rs 3,000 allowance each month, is an enemy and must face the bloody consequences. It is further implied that by using public transport, these functionaries are inviting collateral damage on fellow passengers. The real Mao once wrote that "revolution is not a dinner party"; his disciples have reminded us that there is no place for squeamishness and table manners.
How the conduct of these armed 'Gandhians' squares with the Mahatma who called off the Non-Cooperation movement in 1922 after an angry mob killed 23 policemen in Chauri Chaura, is best brushed aside. For the moment, it would be unwise to disregard the menacing overground message from the underground.
Those who can conduct military operations with such ruthless efficiency have long lost the right to be called "misguided ideologues" and treated with benevolent indulgence. What is the difference between Kasab and the Maoists who ambushed the CRPF jawans on April 6 and detonated a deadly explosive under a bus last week? Kasab believed that he was part of God's army and that every Mumbai resident was a legitimate target for murder. The Maoists too believe they are a People's Liberation Army waging war on the state and its flunkeys.
The only obvious difference is that while Kasab came from Pakistan, the foot soldiers of the Red army are Indian by birth. In every other respect, the Islamists and the Maoists are the same: both have transformed grievance and utopia into inhumanity. They may well have had a place in the statecraft of preceding centuries; judged by contemporary norms, they have forfeited all claims to human rights.
It is important to stress the mismatch between Maoist insurgency and Indian democracy, if only to drive home the necessity of a unified response from both the state and civil society. The argument that equitable economic development will blunt the anger of those who resent their marginal status is true only up to a point. However, if the benefits of state welfare and the market economy are to reach every corner of India, it is necessary for the state to be in physical control of territory. The Maoist approach is not to present the wretched of the earth with a revolutionary alternative that can compete with bourgeois politics on equal terms. It aims to exercise a military stranglehold over a region and either intimidate or eliminate dissent. Maoists don't believe in choice; they are committed to total control.
It's literally a chicken and egg situation. Sonia Gandhi may feel that NREGA and a Food Security Act will deliver the deviants to the Indian Constitution and isolate the doctrinaire Maoists. However, the district administration and the panchayats need to be physically present to undertake good works. To undertake Bharat Nirman in a large chunk of forested, central India, the state must uproot an illegal military presence first. The development route to counterinsurgency is, ironically, prefaced on a military victory. Reduced to essentials, the difference between the hardliners and the appeasers is one of articulation.
It may be tactically prudent to keep the language of retaliation less robust and peppered with piousness but there is no escaping the fact that the Maoist leadership will not be moved by either persuasion or bribery. To make Maoism unattractive to frightened villagers, force will have to be met with force. Siddharth Ray showed the way in West Bengal in the 1970s.
Unlike separatist movements that can be coerced into compromise, there is no halfway house in confronting Communist insurgencies. In the war for state power, it's either us or them. One side has to yield. The choice is stark: it's either Maoism or the democratic way of life.