The intertwined relationship between poverty and conflict can split into two distinct theoretical branches. The first comprises an individual-centric view that states that individuals are responsible for their deplorable conditions and that it is up them to better their economic situation. If poorer neighbourhoods in towns and cities are more susceptible to the most dreadful forms of violence, it is because of the residents’ inability to improve their lot, which then gives rise to anti-social behaviour. The second branch encompasses a state-centric view that suggests that the state, rather than just being an institution of power, must provide social mechanisms that are welfare oriented. Furthermore, this view argues that the absence of such social mechanisms might lead to an estranged relationship between the individual and the state and, in extreme cases, encourage subversion. Naxalism is an example of the relationship between the state and the individual going wrong.
To improve the conditions of the downtrodden, the Indian state at its inception (1947) wished to promote reservations in various public bodies for those social groups it identified as having been on the wrong side of history. Thus, the ‘untouchables’ and the adivasis (original inhabitants or tribals) found themselves on the receiving end of such state privileges. These two social groups were almost wholly concentrated in rural India. The founding fathers thought that this, along with much needed land reforms, would better the lot of the inhabitants of these villages.
This was pursued by the Indian state in the years following independence at least formally. Fast forward to 1991 when the Indian government secretly pledged 47 tons of gold to the Bank of England in return for much needed loans. The Indian state was entering a new and different stage of economic development. Liberalisation, privatisation and globalization became the new buzzwords.
The link between poverty and conflict as exemplified by Naxalism
Sixty five years after independence and twenty one years since India first opened its doors to foreign investment, is India as a nation better off? To answer this question, the resurgence of Naxalism is a good litmus test. Naxalism is a social movement that mobilises landless labourers and displaced tribals into cadres (and general supporters) with the aim of overthrowing the Indian state and supplanting it with a stateless and classless society through armed revolution. The roots of Naxalism lie in existing Indian inequalities and the proposed egalitarian land reforms that never took off. The historical antecedent of this armed struggle goes back to before Naxalbari, Kharibari and Phansidewa happened. The Tebhaga movement in undivided Bengal and the Telangana communist struggle of the late 1940s aimed at increasing the share in harvested crops for sharecroppers and doling out land to landless peasants. It was the writ of the communists that ran in the Telangana districts in the princely state of Hyderabad, today Andhra Pradesh.
In the late 1960s, Naxalism in the West Bengal state was wholeheartedly supported by a sizeable chunk of the intellectual elite as well as college students who found the concept of armed struggle stirring. They were also sympathetic to the cause of the landless and the tribals. The 1967 Naxalbari uprising was a watershed event in Indian history, coming just a few months before that glorious year of student-led protests in Paris, West Berlin, Madrid, Prague, Buenos Aires and many other capital cities of the world. The Indian Naxalite movement, however, was brutally suppressed by the West Bengal police and eliminated almost in its entirety from the state.
Recent years have witnessed a revival of Maoist/Naxalite support in India. The Naxals are also called Maoists for their adherence to the late Chinese Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s principles of perpetual revolution. Today, between nine and twelve states (figures, both official and unofficial, vary) in the Indian federation are under Naxal influence. Not surprisingly, the Naxals are most concentrated in an area dubbed the “Red Corridor” which is home to some of the poorest people in the country. The exploitation of particular demographic groups and the serial neglect of their grievances have forced many to seek redress not through constitutional means but by way of tacit support for these ‘liberators.’ The absence of the welfare state in these areas has resulted in the Naxals filling this vacuum wherein they play judge, jury and executioner, righting wrongs in accordance with their own sense of justice. They have given people hope by propounding the vision of a classless society which they promise to establish once they have assumed total power.
The Weberian state and the Naxal challenge
German Sociologist Max Weber, in his seminal essay Politik als Beruf (Politics as a Vocation) that was written just before his death in 1920, defined the state as that entity which “upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.” This oft-repeated definition finds praxis in the behaviour of most states even today. It is cited as an essential prerequisite to prevent conditions of anarchy from breaking out in a state. Given that the Naxals, too, wield physical power over large swathes of Indian territory, it would follow from Weber’s definition, that the Indian state has either no monopoly over the exercise of force or has lost the right to exercise legitimate authority over parts of its territory.
How can the Indian state reclaim the right to assert its power over its own territory? At the risk of over-simplification, it could be done in either of two ways: 1) the Indian government routs out the Naxals by engaging them in battle, forcing them to surrender with their arms, or 2) the government takes them into their confidence and enters into dialogue with the top leadership of the movement. Both the options suffer from their fair share of problems. With regard to the former, the risk is of causing massive collateral damage. Trying to take the Naxals out militarily would inevitably result in many civilian casualties. Such operations might also require specialized forces given the nature of the conflict, the Indian topography and other local particularities. Whether the state has such a sizeable number of troops ready for such an engagement is not clear. The latter ‘soft’ option risks undertaking a futile exercise trying to talk to a rebel force that ostensibly wishes to do away with the Indian state. However, numerous academics and journalists have in the past written about a desire on the part of certain elements within the Naxal leadership to engage in talks with representatives of the Indian state. We do not know how true this is.
The Naxal-infested areas are rich in minerals, especially bauxite and iron ore. Prior to the neo-liberal order, tapping mineral resources was entirely under the purview of the state, with the private sector disallowed in this sector. Today, multinational firms are making inroads into these otherwise restricted sectors to tap into these natural resources. There are laws in place, such as the Tribal Rights Act and various environmental laws, that deal with the rights of displaced villagers, but no clear answer as to whether they have been acted on and implemented.
A vigilante group called Salwa Judum (literally, Peace March), actively supported by the government of Chhattisgarh (one of the worst Naxal-affected states), has tried until recently to protect villagers from the Naxals. The highest court of the country, the Supreme Court of India, however, made clear its annoyance with this group, going so far as to call this state-sanctioned mission “unconstitutional.” Villagers are sadly often caught in the crossfire between these two crusading groups, in this case the Naxals and Salwa Judum. Ultimately, it is the common villagers who suffer the most.
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