Saturday, March 08, 2008

Beyond the Red Corridor


Sudeep Chakravarti began his career in journalism with The Asian Wall Street Journal. He subsequently worked at Sunday, India Today, and Hindustan Times and is presently Editor-at-large with Rolling Stone.
Following his debut novel Tin Fish (2005), Mr Chakravarti has recently published Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, an itinerant description of Maoist realities in India that exposes individual apathy, bureaucratic farce, endemic corruption, armed rebellion, and state sponsored atrocities. Mr Chakravarti spoke to SHIV KARAN SINGH.


What made you decide to write Red Sun?

Three key reasons. The first is that, Red Sun was a story waiting to be told. There is a fairly large and excellent body of writing on the Naxalite movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, and various subsequent extreme-Left incarnations through the 1980s. But besides the occasional writing and display in media around the time of major skirmishing between rebels and security forces, there isn’t a book on the movements of today as driven by CPI (Maoist) that attempts to demystify it. The second reason: there is a great lack of telling the human story about the present play of Left-wing rebellion. Typically, one comes by statistics and glib sound bites. The dispossessed and the dead are not numbers; they were ~ and are ~ people. With Red Sun I have attempted to humanise a very tragic conflict, one of a country at war with itself. There is no “foreign hand”, no xenophobia to feed on, no fingers to point anywhere but at ourselves, at the abysmal failure of governance, stunning apathy and callousness of our rulers and administrators, and the indelibility of how badly we treat our own people. A third reason is that learned writing about Maoism in India (it continues to be interchangeably referred to as Naxalism) is generally restricted to academic journals and analysis by think tanks. There is a crying need to mainstream the discussion, tell the lay reader, as it were, about what is going on, shake Middle India out of its mall-stupor, and diminish the delusions of grandeur of India’s lawmakers.

To certain disaffected, Maoism provides a structured process for armed rebellion, not a strategy of rule. What could be the ramifications of this if Maoists were to increase areas under their control?

History shows us that it’s usually easier to rebel than to rule. It has happened in every ancient civilisation and nearly every modern one-barring, possibly and notably, the United States. Mao is as good an example as any. He brought off a stunning rebellion, ruthlessly united a country, and then ruled it at whim. Nepal is today dealing not merely with the absence of war, but the chaos of peace, reconciliation and a scheming monarchy. But history moves on, as it has in Russia, China, and it will in Nepal. In India, Maoist rebellion ~ indeed, any rebellion, conceivably even a Dalit one ~ is and will surely continue to provide impetus to change. The wise ought to see the writing on the wall and ensure socio-economic, administrative and judicial delivery so that Mao and his principles needn’t have to show the way in India. Until this happens, rebellion in India is a no-brainer. We have asked for it.

With the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2006, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2004, the arms of the state have put a gag on human rights voices and media. Dr Binayak Sen still languishes in jail. Why is the state government eliminating the middle ground, i.e. people actually providing essential services to the local population?
To my mind, Dr Sen’s imprisonment is nothing but a paranoid reaction of the state. It’s a classic tactic of retaliation to focus on “soft” targets in order to divert attention from real failures ~ of governance, administration, policing, and socio-economic development. In addition, there is the grinding exploitation of tribals and the poor that no amount of finessing or propaganda can hide. The government of Chhattisgarh is now engaged in denying legitimate NGOs space to function in rural areas. It’s a stupid, knee-jerk strategy that will bring immense harm. Besides further fracturing society, it will only serve to escalate the conflict. The Chhattisgarh government is quite obtuse; even looking at things from their point of view, they do not appear to realise that the longer they incarcerate Dr Sen, the more people who normally would not be empathetic to the cause of left-wing revolution would be drawn to it.

If Salwa Judum is not a spontaneous uprising, what is it? Why is it only restricted to Chhattisgarh?

The truth about Salwa Judum is that it is not spontaneous. It is a monster created cynically from a real grouse that some tribal people and farmers harboured against the heavy-handedness of Maoists in the area. The government tapped into this partial resentment and created Salwa Judum with state support ~ financial, logistical and moral. But by setting brother against brother, Chhattisgarh has created a situation of mutually assured destruction of tribals. Homes are razed, lands are lost, livelihoods are destroyed, and futures erased. The chaos that Salwa Judum has caused is perhaps the only reason that has kept other states from employing similar methods as strategy. Senior policemen, intelligence officials and security experts have told me Salwa Judum is a no-hoper. But Chhattisgarh can’t retract it; it has become a prestige issue, a noose.

Is government reaction in Chattisgarh a realisation of people’s deprivation or a desire to wrest back areas rich in resources? In other words, are we witnessing another instance of “disaster capitalism”, i.e. accelerating a crisis with violence, to weaken the control of local populations over resources, in order to ultimately privatise the same?
Absolutely. And I say this as a person, journalist and writer with no left-wing credentials whatsoever.

Are surrendered Maoists a reality?

Yes and no. In certain states ~ Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh ~ it is a partial reality, where Maoists come above ground for personal reasons, which could range from illness to intimidation to plain battle fatigue. It’s happening a bit in Orissa. The key really is to ensure effective rehabilitation in these cases, or there will inevitably be a backslide into cynicism, resumption of arms or even, sending out a signal to Maoist cadres that the state is not serious, and “surrender” is just an euphemism for “give up your arms and go back to being oppressed.”
In states such as Chhattisgarh, surrender is mostly a cynical farce, as is much the case with just about everything in that state related to Maoism. Even BJP legislators have trashed the claim of the state government on surrendered Maoists as being little more than hogwash. In one famous instance from a couple of years ago, a BJP MP claimed he personally knew some of the “surrendered” Maoists as they happened to be BJP cadres! Each state to one’s own, evidently.

The time of shokher Naxals has passed. What are the present realities of inequality, disaffection, and Maoism in Bengal?

The shokher Naxals, as well as the present-day Maoists, are driven by similar things: outrage against state apathy and grotesque inefficiencies in our society. Perhaps the government of West Bengal needs to consider that the districts most affected by Maoism in the state are also the ones fairly untouched by land reform measures ~ a key reason for the success of CPI (M)-led political domination of West Bengal. Having said that, and also accounting for the fact of the recent capture of Somen, the CPI (Maoist) leader in West Bengal, the state could, in the near to medium term future, see an upsurge in Maoist violence. This is expected in and around Kolkata, as well as the districts from north to south bordering Bangladesh. In the throes of new flyovers, condominiums and a handful of info-tech campuses, perhaps the masters of West Bengal need to consider a brutal truth: there is wretched rural and urban poverty and inequity in the state. And this time around, a far more deliberate group of rebels are preparing to leverage these infirmities. The intent isn’t shokh, but shock.

Your book on continuing subversion, and violence, against and by the state, is now available in elite bookstores. Would you not describe this as apt, considering the nature of the issue?

It is entirely apt, and entirely natural. Red Sun is available at large bookstores as well as small ones, places where the elite and the not purchase books. The story of Red Sun is for everyone to read, and should ideally be available everywhere. I sincerely hope it is translated soon into various Indian languages; that would be appropriate ~ perhaps even necessary. The story needs to go beyond English. The point to remember is that Red Sun is not “elite”. It’s the truth about today, a reality check, a story of the great shame that India carries today, a country of stupendous economic growth and verve, and equally, overwhelming poverty, oppression and corruption. A country where common people are driven to take to the gun for justice and redress that is their constitutional right but is denied to them by the state machinery. I would urge the “elite” to read Red Sun, if only to realise how much further India needs to travel for even a semblance of spreading equity in development. It’s what corporations practice as a matter of routine for its shareholders; why can’t a country, for its citizens?

(The interviewer is a Special Representative of The Statesman, Kolkata)

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