Open Letter to Noam Chomsky: Nirmalangshu Mukherjee
[We publish below an open letter to Noam Chomsky, written in the wake of his endorsement of a statement against ‘Operation Green Hunt’, issued recently by a large number of intellectuals in India and in the US. Nirmalangshu’s letter is important because it raises some very serious questions that are being brushed under the carpet by sections of the radical intelligentsia. Unlike Nirmalangshu, I would not put ‘radical’ within scare quotes, since it is precisely this that highlights the immense tragedy of our times. Radical intellectuals – truly radical intellectuals – once again find themselves caught in this situation where in order to oppose state violence, they will wilfully turn a blind eye to the violence of armed nihilist gangs, simply because these claim to speak on behalf of the oppressed – a claim that Nirmalangshu’s letter exposes in all its falsity. He lays bare how the politics that goes by the name of ‘Maoism’ (i.e. CPI-Maoist) believes in violently erasing all other voices of opposition to and criticism of the state, but that of itself. This brand of politics in fact lives in symbiosis with the state – delegitimizing all forms of mass democratic politics. At this moment one deeply misses the courageous voice of the late Balagopal – recently slightingly dubbed a ‘liberal humanist’ by a spokesperson of the Maoists, at a meeting meant to salute his memory. I cannot help recalling here the feeling of immense sadness many of us were overcome by, watching and hearing speakers at this meeting (in Delhi) for Balagopal – speakers who were ungenerous, if not carping and outright dismissive of the courage of conviction that was Balagopal. AN]
Dear Prof. Chomsky,
I saw your support to the statement issued by Sanhati in the form of a letter to the prime minister— endorsed by some intellectuals from India and abroad. Three points are transparent: (a) the Indian government is planning a massive armed operation in the tribal-hilly areas in the eastern part of the country, (b) the poorest of the poor and the historically marginalised will suffer the most in terms of loss of lives, livelihood and habitat, and (c) for whatever it’s worth, an all-out campaign by democratic forces is needed to resist the armed invasion of people’s habitat by any party. To that extent, the statement does bring out the urgency of the matter.
What is not so transparent from the statement is the condition that has brought about this state of affairs. It is said that large-scale neo-liberal policies—including formation of SEZs and encroachment of tribal habitats for mining and other forms of exploitation—has led to mass impoverishment. So, in desperation, the poor have allegedly taken up arms to defend themselves.
This picture is wrong in (i) ascribing the so-called armed struggle to the people, and (ii) being silent about the ‘specific’ source of the current aggression by the state, namely, the armed operations of CPI (Maoist). The statement is otherwise right about the ‘general’ situation: sinister neo-liberal policies, growing impoverishment and marginalisation of the poor, and the resulting anger thereof.
Hundreds of organisations working at the grass roots level across the country are engaged in a variety of struggles against state repression and the insidious economic policies of the government. This includes many Gandhian, liberal and leftist organisations and individuals. Importantly, some of these—such as the organisations led by veteran activists Kanu Sanyal and Asim Chatterjee, among many others in Bengal, Andhra, Bihar, Orissa and elsewhere—also subscribe to maoism and are known initiators of the original naxalbari movement. Thus, the labels ‘maoist’ and ‘naxalite’ apply to a much wider category of organisations and individuals than the CPI (Maoist). Needless to say, even the wider category of maoists, not to mention just the CPI (Maoist), forms a tiny fraction of the broad democratic resistance to the policies of the state. The current armed operations of the state are directed ostensibly against the CPI (Maoist) in the areas under its control.
The state of course makes no such distinction in public; by identifying the wider category with the narrower one, it is constructing the opportunity to target the entire left-democratic fraternity in due course. To put the point differently, although the undeclared target of the state covers the entirety of left-democratic forces—as evidenced, for example, in the growing attacks on industrial workers especially in the private sector—the declared target currently consists of CPI (Maoist) and its area of control. The significance of this specificity is wholly missing from the statement you endorsed.
The identification of CPI (Maoist) with the entire resistance movement suits CPI (Maoist) as well. Its Supreme Commander recently declared from his hideout from a guerrilla-controlled area: ‘People, who are the makers of history, will rise up like a tornado under “our party’s leadership” to wipe out the reactionary blood-sucking vampires ruling our country … our party’s influence has grown stronger and “it” has now come to be recognised as the only genuine alternative before the people.’ (Open magazine). We will evaluate the factual content of this declaration below.
For now, it is interesting to note the character of the propaganda: somehow the propagandist interests of CPI (Maoist), the state, and the corporate media suitably converge. The Supreme Commander’s claim is grimly endorsed by the prime and the home ministers of India; according to them, the ‘naxalite menace’ is the greatest threat to internal security. It is also endorsed by the corporate media: the ‘menace’ is said to have spread in 15 of about 25 states, and in 180 of about 500 districts of the country—the numbers accelerating each month to encourage the prospect of a ‘civil war’ soon across the country. The Central government frequently convenes high-profile meetings of chief ministers, secretaries, and police chiefs of the country to meet the challenges posed by the menace. Cutting-edge special forces, carved out of the paramilitary forces, are being constructed and deployed in ‘naxal-infested’ areas. In recent months, even the army and the air force are beginning to enter into the picture. Naxalite actions—widespread arson, mass killings, and the ability to take on the security forces—are prominently reported in the corporate media with ill-concealed awe. This strand of the naxalite movement never had it so big in its close to 40 years of existence in hideouts in remote jungles.
As for the factual content of this dramatic story, I will briefly record some facts that do not find a place in the three-pronged propaganda.
- CPI (Maoist) is a comparatively new organisation formed in 2004 when two naxalite factions Maoist Coordination Committee (MCC) and People’s War Group (PWG)—located primarily in some tribal-inhabited jungle areas in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh respectively—decided to join hands after fighting a bloody war for area-control among themselves for close to two decades. By 2006, CPI (Maoist) was almost completely wiped out from Andhra after their presence there for close to forty years. They also lost major areas in Bihar. The organisation has basically shifted to two of the most backward, tiny, and newly-formed states of Jharkhand and Chatthisgarh. As noted, even there, their presence is basically centered in the areas of dense forest and adjacent tribal-dominated villages, especially in the Bastar district. Ostensibly, as the jungles extend from their headquarters, they have also developed some hideouts and some armed squads to create enough violence to mark their ‘presence’ in West Bengal, Orissa, and elsewhere. To sum, they have essentially failed to emerge out of portions of jungles of eastern India after over four decades of campaign for this particular strand of ‘Marxism-Leninism-Maoism’.
- The organisation has no presence whatsoever in the vast agrarian and industrial terrains of the rest of the country. It has no trade union, no peasant organisation worth its name, no penetration in the dalit, youth, and women’s movements. But it seems to have captured the imagination of sections of elite, urban, and ‘radical’ intelligentsia in Calcutta and Delhi who have impressive connections with some Indian intellectuals settled in universities abroad, as the statement you endorsed highlights (earlier, this intellectual support used to come from Bombay and Hyderabad). The phenomenon is historically familiar.
- ‘The only genuine alternative before the people’ is viewed as a terrorist organisation by none other than Kanu Sanyal and many other active maoists, not to speak of broad spectrums of left parties and organisations most of whom do not find a representation in the statement. The basic reason why Sanyal calls CPI (Maoist) ‘terrorists’ is as follows.
Ever since its inception in 1969, this brand of maoism rejected all classical forms of mass struggle and adopted the sinister doctrine of individual annihilation of ‘class enemies’. ‘Class enemies’ typically consisted of hapless, poorly armed police constables, petty landlords and traders, and an assorted category of ‘informers and traitors’. Most notably, the category of ‘class enemies’ also included grass-root cadres—not their leaders—of the parliamentary left. In the states of West Bengal and Andhra, where this campaign originated, the parliamentary left was typically the only organisation present at the grass root. The annihilation of these ‘class enemies’—typically, middle peasants, school teachers, party wholetimers, etc—effectively meant capturing of areas, by means of guns and knives, already under the left. To that end, the squads first targetted their own maoist fraternity who refused to subscribe to their murderous politics. After the ‘renegades’ were silenced, the next target was cadres of CPI(M), CPI, etc.
This ‘red terror’ basically led to the dismantling of democratic movements in the erstwhile red bastions. In West Bengal, a neo-fascist regime of the Congress Party won the elections handsomely and watched the mutual killings of the left with glee. Once the task was accomplished, the government turned on the maoists and the remaining left and white terror ruled West Bengal for five years. During the nightmare, all forms of democratic movements virtually disappeared from the state as lumpen youth accompanied by paramilitary forces roamed the streets.
In time, almost all of the initiators of this campaign realised their grave mistakes and those who survived encounters, long imprisonment, and psychological collapse, returned to classical mass lines in a variety of forms, including participation in the elections. However, a fragment continued the murderous politics in the jungles of Andhra and Bihar in the form of two organisations MCC and PWG, later unifying into CPI (Maoist), as noted.
Two recent—and contrasting—events in the neighbourhood throw significant light on the consequences of this brand of politics. In Sri Lanka, a vast freedom movement of Tamil nationalism arose about three decades ago. As the movement became progressively militant, it gave rise to a formidable militarist organisation: Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). LTTE declared armed struggle, systematically eliminated all other groups advocating Tamil liberation, took to the jungles, and launched a civil war.
There were several rounds of ‘negotiations’ between the government and the LTTE, often with international effort. LTTE refused to give up arms and join the democratic process; thus, it used each pause in the hostilities to consolidate its forces. After over twenty years of bloody war with Sri Lankan security forces, resulting in incalculable suffering of Tamil people, the LTTE was recently wiped out from Sri Lanka. The calamity facilitated the emergence of a neo-fascist regime in Colombo; it also left behind nearly a million hapless Tamil refugees at the mercy of this government. With all moderate forces from both the sides eliminated from the scene, the Tamil freedom movement is now faced with a historical setback after over hundred thousand deaths.
The Supreme Commander (cited above), whose organisation was trained in guerrilla warfare by former commandos of LTTE, agrees with the consequences: ‘There is no doubt that the movement for a separate sovereign Tamil Eelam has suffered a severe setback with the defeat and considerable decimation of the LTTE. The Tamil people and the national liberation forces are now leaderless.’ But he puts the blame elsewhere: ‘The jingoistic rallies and celebrations organised by the government and Sinhala chauvinist parties all over Sri Lanka in the wake of Prabhakaran’s death and the defeat of the LTTE show the national hatred for Tamils nurtured by Sinhala organisations and the extent to which the minds of ordinary Sinhalese are poisoned with such chauvinist frenzy.’ Nonetheless, he hopes that ‘the ground remains fertile for the resurgence of the Tamil liberation struggle. Even if it takes time, the war for a separate Tamil Eelam is certain to revive, taking lessons from the defeat of the LTTE.’ Although he is prepared to learn—perhaps, tactical—‘lessons’, he does not seem to have any problems with the militarist, sectarian, and exclusivist politics of the LTTE.
In sharp contrast, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN(M)) also launched a civil war against a ruthless feudal monarchy protected by the Royal Nepalese Army after all democratic methods failed. The war lasted nearly a decade with the CPN(M)-directed People’s Liberation Army dominating vast terrains of the country with massive popular support. The basic point to note is that what CPN(M) strove for during the armed struggle—republic, constituent assembly, supremacy of the parliament created by universal franchise, etc.—India already has. Once that was achieved in Nepal, a genuine armed struggle—far far superior than anything Indian ‘maoists’ have ever envisaged—was immediately brought to a halt. CPN (M) proved its point by winning over 40% of the seats in the interim parliament after the republic was established. With this mandate in hand, innovative, peaceful but militant processes were then adopted to broaden the democratic base even in a context in which the possibility of a counter-revolution orchestrated by the ousted monarch, the army and the ruling elites of India loomed large.
The current impasse in Nepal is about the supremacy of the parliament over the army. As the leader of CPN(M) Prachanda points out, the democratic movement is at a crossroads due to this seminal conflict. Indian republicanism addressed and solved that problem 60 years ago.
During the war, PWG—followed by CPI (Maoist)—maintained close contact with CPN(M). But after the CPN(M) joined—in fact, established—the democratic process in Nepal, the CPI (Maoist) does not find any lessons to be learned. This time the blame is on CPN(M). As the Supreme Commander puts it: ‘It is indeed a great tragedy that the CPN(M) has chosen to abandon the path of protracted people’s war and pursue a parliamentary path in spite of having de facto power in most of the countryside.’ In a letter to CPN(M), CPI (Maoist) ‘advised’ the former not to give up armed struggle until the ‘old order’ is smashed and the CPN (M) is able to seize power all by itself to usher in ‘new democratic revolution’. However, the Supreme Commander remains optimistic since ‘given the great revolutionary traditions of the CPN(M), we hope that the inner-party struggle will repudiate the right opportunist line pursued by its leadership, give up revisionist stands and practices, and apply minds creatively to the concrete conditions of Nepal.’ So, the statesman-like leadership of Prachanda is ‘revisionist’.
Beyond the bluster, it is not difficult to discern that, no matter what, the CPI (Maoist) is not prepared to give up its fatal policies. They are not open to any debates, no one can enter their ‘liberated zones’ without unconditional support to their line. Like Prabhakaran and his LTTE, having meticulously secured hideouts for themselves in ‘impregnable’ dense forests protected by squads armed with sophisticated weapons, they are prepared to carry on ‘protracted war’ for many years before their inevitable decimation. In the process, not only will the tribals under their control suffer immensely, it will give the growingly authoritarian state a golden opportunity to smash whatever avenues of hard-won democratic resistance still remain in place.
As noted, the CPI (Maoist) has exactly two channels of ‘popular’ support: the tribals they control and a section of ‘radical’, urban intelligentsia. It is the support of the latter that gives the CPI (Maoist) significant propaganda mileage and a false impression of invincibility and popular support. By posing the current military preparations of the state only as a state vs. people conflict, the statement you endorsed effectively exonerates the CPI (Maoist) and plays into their hands.
Department of Philosopy
University of Delhi