Opinion and Editorial

Storm signals

M.j. Akbar
Filed on March 19, 2007

THE standard rate is one word per dead policeman, so Dr Manmohan Singh did his duty when he called the Maoist insurgency across half of India the gravest threat to the nation’s internal security since independence. Fifty-five policemen were surrounded and killed in their forest camp at Chhattisgarh by Naxalites, and agency reports that I read quoted the Prime Minister’s statement at around 55 words, give or take a few for poor mathematics (mine).

We can now expect the powerful Indian state to do one, or more, of three things: hold a conference of chief ministers on the “Naxalite menace” at which there is a lot of back-slapping when old friends meet across party lines; pull out a number of police battalions from a fire and send it to a cemetery, on the valid assumption that Naxalites will not hit the same place twice; agree upon a debate in Parliament during which backbenchers are given a chance to speak by party whips. This is how Delhi dresses up its windows when it wants to protect itself from reality.

But why blame Dr Manmohan Singh? He is an honest man. By his own admission, explained during innumerable speeches at favourite forums like the Confederation of Indian Industry, he has said, in so many words, that he became prime minister in order to make the rich richer so that a portion of their wealth could eventually trickle down to the poor. Unfortunately, after three years of speeches, nothing has yet trickled down to the forests of Chhattisgarh, or even to the slums of its capital, Raipur. The proper thing for the poor to do, of course, is to wait for the momentum of Manmohanomics to reach their hovels. But our Indian poor are a spoilt lot. They have become addicts of democracy, and expect a gush instead of a trickle. Moreover, they want it within the lifetime of a government they have elected.

For the decision-makers within the Indian elite, and its prime minister, Dr Singh, Chhattisgarh is another country, as near or as remote as Vietnam was in their youth, and as Iraq is today. The dead are an accidental number, not real flesh and blood. Even those who protect the elite, the policemen in Chhattisgarh, are not real, since constables are the few lucky ones among the poor to be given a uniform and a salary. Casualty rates in a battle between constables and Naxalites are an exchange of statistics among the have-nots. How does that affect the quality or abundance of a meal in Delhi?

The prime minister described this as the gravest internal security threat since 1947. Those words were, or should have been, chosen with care. So who has raised the obvious question: what has he been doing about this gravest crisis during the last three years he has been prime minister? The crisis did not erupt between 13 and 15 March. Dr Singh will soon be completing (I hope no one uses the ambitious term, ‘celebrating’) a thousand days in office. A fortnight ago his government presented the annual budget. I cannot recall hearing anything about the gravest internal security threat in sixty years, or a remedy to suggest how it could be met through economic policy. And if Maoism is not an economic problem, then it is nothing.

Did it need 55 police corpses to wake up the prime minister of India?

Nor is it very certain what he does achieve when he wakes up. The last time he was woken up was a few months ago when the Sachar report on the plight of Indian Muslims was presented to him. In the first flush of dawn-energy he suggested that a portion of government expenditure should be set aside for projects to help lift Indian Muslims. His finance minister chose that moment to go deaf, and when the budget was presented, treated the suggestion with contempt. Dr Singh responded with silence. Someone must have informed him that Indian Muslims are familiar with betrayal, and in any case they have nowhere else to go apart from the Congress in national elections. Maybe I could tell the prime minister tomorrow’s news today. The minorities of Chhattisgarh are drifting towards the Naxalites.

The biggest disappointment of the last three years has not been Dr Singh, but the Left. The Maoists are today occupying political space either vacated by the Marxists, or which should have been occupied by them. The spread of the Naxalite movement is evidence of how large a national party, and force, the CPI(M) could have become if it had not been trapped by power, first in Bengal, and then, in the last three years, fooled by the honeytraps of Delhi. Three years ago, for the first time, barring the odd exception of unstable experiments, the CPI(M) became the occupant of two significant bastions, one regional and the other national. Power in Bengal is at least real. Their power in Delhi is an illusion. Whenever the Congress does them a favour and tells them that their influence is an illusion, they retreat behind another explanation. Indian Marxists have become ensnared by the oldest Indian metaphor, the mayajaal. They should now take a few courses in Indian philosophy. Enough of Lenin already, as the theorists of globalisation might put it.

The poor are illiterate because the Indian state has not found the resources for their education. This does not mean that they are stupid. The illiterate may not be able to read the alphabet but they are brilliant at reading a signal.

In the last three years, if the signals from Delhi have been inadequate, then the ones from Kolkata have been appalling, if only because the poor have had higher expectations from Kolkata.

It is hardly a coincidence that the Naxalite attack in Chhattisgarh should occur in the same week that the Marxist government in Kolkata ordered the death of villagers protecting their land in the now well-known village of Nandigram (literally, Village of Nandi ) in Bengal. The land is required by the Marxist government in order to sell it to an Indonesian multinational which will use it to create a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), the new mantra of progressive enlightenment. All the classic elements of “bourgeoisie oppression” were at play: instead of negotiation with the people, force was ordered. An instrument of state that went on a rampage received the official protection of the state government in the Assembly, and the judiciary had to step in to force a CBI enquiry into the incident. The chief minister, who justified the police action, added that if the people did not want the SEZ he would not insist on it. How many more corpses does he need to complete his education?

The party line is known: three decades ago, the CPI(M) consolidated its vote through radical reforms that gave agricultural land to the sharecropper. The children of that sharecropper now need jobs, and industrialisation must be pushed through at any cost. The current cost is not only splashed with blood, but mocks ideologues with its ironies. Land that was given to the sharecroppers by the Marxists is being retaken to take jobs whose profits will go to multinationals. The party that sold us decades of rhetoric against Indian capitalism (the running dogs of imperialism) is not the flag bearer of international capitalism, willing to kill the poor to enforce the power of this flag. There are other routes to salvation for the poor, apart from killing them.

The bitter story of Nandigram is complicated by the fact that many of the affected are Muslims who trusted the Marxists for thirty years, and now feel abandoned by every political party in the democratic space. Where is their anger heading?

On March 15, a rally of Muslims marched to Parliament in Delhi to demand that the Sachar report needed to be translated into economic policies. Among the banners were those of the Students Islamic Organisation of India. They carried a message: ‘Special Exploitation Zone’.

The poor are very good at reading signals from government. Is there anyone in government who knows how to read signals from the poor?

Eminent journalist and intellectual M J Akbar is editor-in-chief of the Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle newspapers. He can be reached at mjakbar@asianage.com

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