Monday, December 14, 2009

Naxalites: It's us versus them again

Chitralekha Dhamija 12 December 2009,

So we've decided to smoke them out. Satellite imagery, global positioning systems, armed choppers are in place. By all indications our forces seem Chitralekha Dhamija
poised to lead the ultimate offensive to rid us of Naxalites. No one's complaining, less so after the grim television coverage of the late Francis Induwar and his grieving family suddenly brought the distant Maoists closer home. Induwar, a special branch inspector, was decapitated in October this year upon the government's refusal to release arrested Maoist leaders such as Kobad Ghandy, Chhatradhar Mahato, Chandrabhushan Yadav etc.

The military is good as gold for messy tasks like this. It was exactly this kind of intervention that doused the Left in Peru, forced the Zapatistas to seek out internet forums. Closer home we only have to look at what happened to the LTTE. So really it should work.

But let's be clear about whom exactly we expect to be eliminated. In a context somewhat changed from the socioeconomic setting that drove the agrarian unrest and peasant consciousness of yesteryears, who really are 'Naxalites' today? Are they mostly poor people fighting for a larger cause? Modern day mercenaries employed by an international nexus? Neither? Just who is the state going after?

I have not met Kobad Ghandy or Chatradhar Mahato but as part of my doctoral research I met with dozens of armed cadre of the MCCI and People's War, then in process of merger into CPI (Maoist), over months in 2003. Across districts in Jharkhand and parts of Bihar I located, lived and travelled with these men and women - zonal commanders, sub-zonals , area commanders, deputies, fresh recruits. They are not members of central committees but the kind of Naxalites who, if things go as planned by the government, will be directly in the line of fire.

A thin slice of the guerillas I met were deeply committed, men who had sacrificed ordinary life for a cause they believed in. A few more were opportunists who joined the movement with calculated personal agendas, and are unlikely to die on the job. The numbers however - and that is what matters - were made up of those I call Drifters. Not hard-nosed ideologues, not cold-blooded mercenaries, just ordinary young people making the best of 'occupational choices' available.

Perhaps it's also time to ask why so many children from erstwhile 'enemy' families are joining the Naxals. As opposed to the dominant conception of Naxalites as marginal peasants, most armed cadres in dastas I met had land enough for subsistence, often much more than that. Their stories warn against easy essentialisation of Naxalites and pitching them into carry-over categories from past discourses: richpoor , landed-landless , Dalit-upper castes and so on. Take for instance a sixteen-year-old MCCI area commander whose Rajput folks had 25 acres of land in Latehar but couldn't make ends meet. Or Oraon, a sub-zonal commander, who worked in Delhi's Wazirpur industrial area before he joined the Naxals. Agriculture was never on his wish list. A Dalit area commander, who had "enough to eat" but walked six kilometers to school each way in pursuit of "other dreams" joined Nari Mukti Sangh at the age of fourteen. A captured MCCI 'hardcore' from an impoverished Santhali family in Giridih had thought she would be a "leader" .

Land or no land, rich or poor, it was finally aspirations as ordinary and universal as recognition, achievement, status, clout and izzat (from peers and community, not class enemies) that shaped choices in locations that haven't provided ambitious young people with too many avenues of self-fulfillment and peer approval. It doesn't help that these political choices are being made at an average age of 12 to16, when young people find guns and power that issue from holding them uncomplicatedly attractive.

So let's go ahead with a military plan if we must but let's at least be honest about who it is that we are going after. As we gun them down, let's be completely conscious of the real identities of Naxalites today - they are not quite heroes dying for a larger cause or merely hard-boiled opportunists. Most of them are just young people whose aspirations were never on our radar, and who the state may now have no choice but to murder.

The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist and academic

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