Legitimising violence: India's red scare

India's exaltation of progress has led it to disregard violence perpetrated against its own people, argues Gautam Das
Gautam Das
17 June 2010

A few weeks back, the home ministry of the government of India issued a press release that threatened individuals and groups who were found to “provide support” to the Maoist ideology with imprisonment of up to ten years. Tehelka carried a report about an Intelligence Bureau communiqué which listed organisations, several of them human and civil rights-groups, as being under watch. There have been protests from many quarters that this impinges on the fundamental right to expression. While this is undoubtedly true, a look at some justifications of the home ministry’s statement reveals that it is not a threat just to the freedom of expression. The state’s attempt at intimidation is in keeping with how its narrative on the Naxalite ‘menace’ is developing.

Since the recent spate of Maoist (the terms 'Maoist' and 'Naxalite' are used interchangeably here) killings, there has been a public baying for blood. Why can’t we deal with them the way Sri Lanka dealt with the LTTE? Why can’t we use air support? These ‘terrorists’ have massacred our brave officers and our dear countrymen! Who should we listen to, these intellectuals and rights-activists who cite the enormous violence that the state has unleashed in these regions, or the cries of grief of the kin of soldiers who lost their lives?

And this is where the tragedy lies. ‘We’ really will have no qualms about a Rajapakse-style offence, or about Operation Green Hunt, so long as it can be legitimised. One only need look at the large-scale dispossession and the extinction of ways of life in the name of development; measures that are legitimised as unfortunate, but necessary for the ‘progress of nation’.

The violence of development

In fact, the story of development in India is the story of dispossession. The idea of development has maintained a strong grip on the Indian national consciousness since independence. Development envisions the achievement of the material productivity of the West, and is positioned as external to politics. So, the country’s forestlands and rivers are all natural, and national, resources that are to be exploited for the cause of development. The human beings living in these martyr-regions shall also remove themselves for the nation’s sake. Never mind that these people are not just dependent on these lands for livelihood, but that these are also their cultural ecosystems (and this the middle-class finds most difficult to comprehend).

The “no pain, no gain” apology often proffered by evangelists of development to meet this charge overlooks the truth that the ‘gain’ part falls to one small section of the population, leaving the ‘pain’ to millions more. Enthralled by the latest successfully-tested missile and the number of Indian billionaires on some list, we have not paused to think about how our quality of life is sustained; on the contrary, we have legitimised the systemic violence that enables the comforts we enjoy.

In raising some broader questions, there is no intention to imply that the Maoist situation does not have its specifics. Nor are these stated to justify Maoist actions. One should reject the convergence of identity between the Maoists and tribespeople. There are a large number of people who are caught in the cross-fire whose voices are not sufficiently represented in the public sphere. It is true that some writers have merely reversed the plotline of the state’s story, making it seem as if the Maoists are a perfect and righteous representative of a diversity of people. It is true that the Maoists have murdered not only soldiers and other agents of the state, but, on many occasions, innocent civilians. And this is another point at which they achieve symmetry with the state.

'Necessary' violence

However, the atrocities committed by the state in the so-called ‘red corridor’ have received limited print space and airtime. The ambush that killed 76 Central Reserve Police Force men occupied the headlines and provoked debate (rightly), but why does Gompad (where nine villagers were killed and many houses burned down) or Singaram (where nineteen people were killed on the pretext that they were naxalites), to mention only two, not cause as much coverage or outrage? Why is it that all of us know of the Maoists, but only some about the Salwa Judum (tribespeople armed by the Chhatisgarh government to combat the Maoists, but whose uncontrolled brutality only resulted in both increased retaliation by and support for the Maoists)? Even when these doings of the state are criticised, they are mostly thought of as being the result of excess or perversion - a corrupt politician, a cruel police officer, or irresponsible army men receive the blame. For the modern state, there is a ‘necessary’ violence, sanctioned by progress; only the ‘excessive’ violence is open to criticism.

The rhetoric of war (‘national security’, ‘brave soldiers’, red ‘terrorism’), the cultivated paranoia of seeing Maoist sympathisers everywhere, the regular updates on the Maoists-Indian soldiers fatality ratio, all of this feeds into the creation of an "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" moral economy. In this black-and-white vision, legitimate activities can be made anti-national or criminal, and acts of violence expedient or necessary. Once this vision acquires legitimacy, Gompad and Singaram will no longer happen behind our backs, but will be classed under the readily available category of ‘unfortunate-but-necessary’.

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