Lucas Tete, Maoist violence and K Balagopal: Biswajit Roy
Guest post by BISWAJIT ROY
It’s a welcome development that Arundhati Roy, G N Saibaba, Mahasweta Devi, Sujato Bhadra and others have condemned the killing of Maoists’ POW and Bihar policeman Lucas Tete as reported by Bengal Post. The civil society personalities sympathetic to the Maoist cause and human rights groups in general are sometimes criticized correctly for being silent on brutalities by Maoists and other insurgents while opposing the atrocities by the security forces and private armed squads, in case of West Bengal, CPM’s armed cadres. The Maoist leadership’s response to the intellectuals’ criticism is still not known. But the condemnations seemed to have played a role in their decision to free the rest three policemen. In an earlier occasion in Bengal, senior Maoist leader Kisenji had succeeded in extracting a huge media mileage by using the captive officer-in-charge of Sankrail police station as a pawn to bargain with the state government.
It is another matter that the Maoists could not extract much from the government except bail for some tribal and non-tribal women undertrials who had been languishing in jails as Maoist sympathizers. But the high-profile drama over Kisenji’s on-camera vitriol against the Centre and state in full camera glare and the eventual release of the ‘POW’ police officer through the good office of media persons had definitely made Kisenji a household name in Bengal and allowed him to occupy the political center-stage.
In the larger context of the country, I recall one incident in Guwahati in early nineties in which few unarmed para-military personnel on their transit route were gunned down by suspected ULFA cadres after the victims had offered pujas at the Kamakhaya temple, one of the country’s holiest Hindu shrines and a religio-cultural hallmark of Assam. After I reported on the incident questioning the killings in my newspaper, an offended ULFA leader reminded me of earlier incidents of army’s fake encounter killings of four fugitive ULFA cadres when they had gone to visit their families. “If the army can kill our unarmed comrades, what’s wrong in our retaliation? After all, it’s a war,” he said.
We have heard the resonance of the same reasoning from other insurgent and revolutionary groups umpteen times.
I remember my counter-arguments, which, I believe, still hold relevance. I reminded the ULFA leader of Lakhsman’s killing of unarmed Indrajit, Ravana’s great warrior son when he was offering puja and its modernist interpretation by Bengal’s 19th century poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta who reprimanded the brother of Rama for his cowardly act and hailed Indrajit or Meghnad as an unjustly fallen hero of Ramayana. Referring to the Indian martial tradition that opposes fatal attacks on unarmed or sleeping enemies (despite many violations of it in the epic Mahabharata and in the annals of history) and honors the fallen or captive adversaries in a war, I also questioned ULFA act on the ground of modern international conventions and treaties that deal with security and safety of POWs, unarmed off-duty combatants etc. But it didn’t cut much ice with the ULFA leader since he blamed the government for violating such international norms in the first instance and for carrying out the worst kind of extra-judicial executions. “The government and army have unleashed a jungle raj. We are only paying them back in their own coin,” the rebel leader said rubbishing the popular expectations of superior moral-ethical practices from those are fighting for justice, freedom and democracy.
It is not clear whether we would hear the same arguments from the Maoists too after the latest Bihar episode. The occasion, however, invites us to revisit the larger debate on the morality of revolutionary violence vis-à-vis the captives in particular and the suspected civilian police moles, deserters and unarmed or non-combatant members of the security forces.
There is no dearth of radical intellectuals and human rights activists who support or at least condone the killings of unarmed, off-duty captive policemen or army personnel since the latter are engaged in ‘war against people’ on behalf of the autocratic and oppressive State. Their argument virtually follows the old axiom–there is nothing wrong in war (and love). For some, counter-killings are necessary evils in a war. For the Left radicals, it is more justifiable in a class war in which individuals’ class background and their family’s sufferings hardly matter but only their actual roles in the battlefield. The extremists in this camp actually are the worshippers of the cult of violence, which believes in Robespierrean notion of revolutionary terror as the mother of a just and egalitarian society. They consider humanistic concerns as red herrings and ridicule the doubters as impractical, dyed-in-wool liberals who fail to stomach the hard fact that revolution is no banquet. Their support to the Maoist attack on the EFR camp in West Midnapore’s Shilda and killing of jawans, many of whom died while sleeping or resting, followed the same logic.
But there is a minority who are not comfortable with this kind of reasoning and understanding of history which smacks of reductionist and fatalistic interpretation of revolutionary ideologies including Marxism-Leninism and Mao thought. The human rights and civil right groups like APDR in west Bengal have witnessed some internal debates between these two sides since late seventies and now, in the context of resurgent Maoist movement in the state and beyond. But unfortunately, such close-door debates hardly have any reflection in the public utterances and activities of human right groups as well as activist forums like Lalgarh Sanhati Mancha. Even those who were privately critical of the Maoist killings of CPM cadres and suspected police moles and rebels’ coercive hegemonic practices against all political adversaries in Jungle Mahal chose to remain silent in public. Apparently, they feared that their criticism would harm the cause of Lalgarh movement and they would be labelled as the agents of the government or CPM.
At this juncture, the absence of towering ‘insider’ like K Balagopal is felt more. Known as the country’s one of most courageous protector of human rights and relentless fighter against state repression, the late Balagopal had also set an example of highest intellectual integrity and moral honesty by his quest for an ethico-moral consistency and transparency in the positions taken by human rights movement in India so that activists do not lose credibility by speaking with forked tongue on state terror and non-state terror of all hues.
His incisive examination of the fault-lines of Maoist or Naxalite praxis and its ideological-philosophical underpinnings, an unique blend of his first-hand experiences of ground-realities across the country and unorthodox but non-opportunist bend of mind, is almost unparalleled in the history of philosophical-ideological churning of contemporary human rights movement in India. Interestingly, though Balagopal is quite known in Human Rights circles in Bengal, the reason for him not being in much circulation among HR activists here may lie in his unconventional and critical take on the Maoist violence even as the Maoist leadership had paid rich tributes to him despite their mutual differences.
Let me refer to some of Balagopal’s observations in the context of debates on ethics and morality of Maoist violence.
Reflecting on the ‘real dilemmas’ faced by the human rights groups over ‘physical violence’ by the rebel movements, Balagopal maintained that condemnation of the structural violence, oppressors’ violence and intra-elite violence was unproblematic. For, the ‘two major concerns’ of Human rights movement —opposition to taking of life by acts of elite violence and the violence inherent in socio-political structure—are congruent particularly when they are aimed at reinforcing each other. But the ‘two concerns are at variance with each other’ when the rebel violence takes life, ostensibly to fight the before-mentioned forms of violence. (Balagopal, ‘Political violence and Human Rights: the case of the Naxalite movement in AP’).
Maintaining that ‘non-violence is certainly desirable but not always practical as a policy of struggle against injustice’, he, however, observed that the ‘violence of the rebel movements is rarely as well as balanced and exactly sufficient for its stated aim of establishment of justice as the movements claim it is’. Then he puts the most pertinent question. “How is the taking of life today justified by the justice that is to dawn tomorrow? Or how is the loss of one person’s life justified by the relief it gives to a dozen other people?” While advocating a ˜balance’ and ‘congruence between the need and response [to violence], in kind or in quantity’, Balagopal admitted that the ‘philosophical dilemmas… still remain”. As a right activist quite knowledgeable about the ground realities, he examined the legitimacy of the rebel violence. In response to the rebels’ argument that at the ‘primary level, an oppressor who lords over the poor must dealt with violently if the poor are to breathe freely’, his qualifier is that ‘it must be demonstrated that a given person is actually such a person and that there is no other way (that is not too costly) of handling his oppressive domination’. “The second level justification’, he assumed, that the ‘poor and oppressed must establish their authority over the society’ while the ‘third level is that the poor and the oppressed, though their party, must capture the state power and rebuild society by means of that power’.
Articulating his observation later, he said: “As a matter of fact, only a small fraction of the acts of violence indulged in by the Naxalites can be said to belong to the first level of violence, Most belong to the second or third. At these levels, it is quite difficult to assess the congruence of ends and means or the price paid and the results achieved” (ibid).
Referring to the competitive and ‘systematic violence’ of the State and the Naxalite/Maoist movement, he made a candid observation by saying that ‘the two copy a lot from each other because they set each other’s terms’. “One end product is that on both sides it is the weak and the vulnerable that get injured”.
More forthright, he observed: “systematic and calculated violence begins with the enemy, but soon turns to the agents of the enemy within among one’s friends. That’s why all strategies of systematic violence consume more of their own social base than the enemy. The Naxalites social base consists of the landless poor, the peasants, the miners and factory labor, with the middle class as the potential as a potential ally. Yet the majority, overwhelmingly, of the victims of Naxalite violence belong precisely to these classes/groups” (ibid). Highlighting the other disturbing aspects of the systematic violence, Balagopal focussed on ‘the gap between the leaders and the led’ that in turn questioned the ‘congruence of between ends and means’. He ridiculed the glorification of ‘popular militancy’ since he felt that militancy could never be popular in terms of majority participation in actual violence.
“But in such situations there is no natural mechanism to ensure that the aims of the militants remain close to the needs and aspiration of their supporters.” he observed while questioning the moral justification of leaving people to bear the brunt State’s counter-attack and the correspondence between the benefits that people obtained from militant action and their sufferings because of it. Reminding that the communists in general and Naxalites in particular consider political violence as a vehicle for alternative state formation or new power structure, Balagopal said, in contrast, the human rights movement aims to ‘reduce the quantum of authority and power to strictly necessary level’ and works to ‘eliminate all arbitrariness of authority’. ” Such a concern cannot be indifferent to the consequences that spring from a political strategy of “liberation’ through establishment of authority and power of the ‘right’ agents, whether the rightness is defined in moral terms of ‘scientific’ terms, he argued.
Clearly, Balagopal posited himself as the ‘third voice’ between the repressive state apparatus and the non-state militant/rebel groups in dealing with the human rights abuses and other violence by the both sides, a role which the mainstream in Indian human rights movement still refuse to take up.
Apart from the usual fear of being branded as government agent or apologists, many well-meaning Left-wing human rights activists may also suffer from what Balagopal dubbed as the ‘deep self-doubts that Marxism infects intellectuals with’ which he considered one ‘among the more debilitating of the negative features of that highly intellectual world view.’(People’s war and the Government, Did the Police Have the Last Laugh?, EPW, Feb. 8, 2003)
His analysis of the social-political base of Salwa Judum in Chattisgarh and private Senas in Bihar stands pertinent to understand the growing alienation of Maoists from their support base in Bengal’s Jungle Mahal where the Centre-state joint forces and CPM’s armed cadres’ combine is fast reclaiming their lost ground from rebels and People’s committee against Police Atrocities, controlled by them.
Balagogal attributed success of the strategies of government, landlords and ruling parties in recruiting a section of the Adivasis and caste-brethren of landed gentry in the ranks of the counter-revolutionary vigilante armies in Chattisgarh and Bihar to the failures of Naxalites or Maoists themselves.
“A point that the Naxalites may (or may not) like to note that each such strategy succeeds only because of some fault or faults of theirs. If they had taken conscious steps to break the caste mould of politics in Bihar, mobilisation of opposition to them in the forms of caste senas would have certainly been less easy. If they had learnt to distinguish mere rowdism from radical militancy in their recruitment of cadre, and been more open, transparent and merciful in imposing punishment upon ‘ informers’ and ‘renegades’, the vengeful gangs that are targeting their friends in Andhra Pradesh would have been less populous. As for Salwa Judum, it is arguable that the Maoists’ nonchalant exercise of power in their ‘liberated areas’, unmindful of whose interests and whose rights they are trampling and how unthinkingly, has opened a chink in their otherwise unbreachable armour that their enemies are using with callous want of hesitation.” (Physiognomy of Violence, EPW, June 3, 2006).
Before Maoist leaders like Kisenji justified the killings of CPM cadres and other villagers in Bengal’s jungle Mahal, mostly poor tribal and non-tribal, as suspected police moles,Balagopal had pointed out the pathetic pattern of self-devouring revolutionary violence that turned the most cherished utopia into a dreaded dystopia in the context of Chattisgarh, Bihar and Andhra.
” Without exception, all militant movements have killed more people of their own social base than their purported enemy classes… the very fact that this is true of the Naxalites, the most politically sensitive of all insurgents, is proof enough. And this is true even without the impatience that comes with being armed, which results in more violence against dissenters among your own people.” (Maoist Movement in Andhra Pradesh, EPW, July 22, 2006).
Balagopal’s observations can explain, at least partially, the recent successes of the CPM- government forces in recapturing a major part of Lalgarh region’s strategic towns. One aspect is the growing local misgivings against the wanton killings of so-called police/CPM moles, irrespective of their class background and highhandedness of the PCPA/Maoists in imposing their writ on their supporters as well as friends-turned-critics among Jharkhandi and non-Maoist Naxalite groups. Another aspect is Maoists’ failure to reach out to the CPM and other party’s supporters who were either evicted from their homes or forced to fall in line at the point of gun or under brutal torture, arson and vandalism.
Some of the human rights activists or urban supporters of Lalgarh movement were uncomfortable with the Maoist/PCPA-led destruction of CPM offices as well as their refusal to allow last rites to the slain CPM cadre Salku Soren at Dharampur where his dead body was left to rot under the sun for days last year. But they failed to react in time fearing that their criticism would be handy for the government and the CPM. The incidents like the garlanding of the CPM supporters including with shoes and smearing of some of them with human excreta were also condoned within the HR circles as ‘over-enthusiastic actions by local leadership’. In the meantime, killings or eviction/coercion / marginalization” of non-CPM Jharkhandi leaders and activists as well as traditional social authorities among tribals like Majhi Marwahs (who had initially led the popular tribal protests against police atrocities) have further corroded the Maoists’ support base of yesteryears. But the murmurs of ˜friendly criticism’ failed to deter the Maoist leadership from continuing the same practices. However, as Balagopal had rightly pointed out in the context of Chhattisgarh, not ‘all the people who are opposing the Maoists’ can be depicted as ‘vested interests’.
His analysis of the dynamics of Maoist violence in Chhattisgarh is pertinent in today’s Bengal. He pointed out the ‘divergence between interests of the people and the Maoists’ political agendas from the day they declare an area a guerrilla zone, and more so, a liberated zone” (EPW,June 3,2006).Balagopal pointed out the ‘divergence between interests of the people and the Maoists’ political agendas from the day they declare an area a guerrilla zone, and more so,a liberated zone.” The Maoist blasting of school buildings and ban on construction of roads under NREGA or food-for-work projects in the liberated or guerrilla zones in Chhattisgarh or panchayats and other government agencies in Bengal’s Jungle Mahal are examples of such divergence. Also the security of Maoist armed squads becomes the rebels’ ‘pre-dominant concern’ making the ‘obedience of the people living in these areas’ an overriding necessity in building their nascent state power in their liberated areas or guerrilla zones.
Mentioning elected sarpanches and traditional tribal heads, he said that the imposition of rebels’ writ on population under their command may ‘alienate people who can’t all be characterized as exploiters’. Furthermore, many tribals may consider the rupturing or replacement of traditional community structure by Maoist decision-making institutions as ‘external incursion’. “And all these people who are unhappy with this cannot be condemned as traditional elders who have lost their authority, or their henchmen” (Physiognomy of violence, EPW, June 3, 2006). If the media reports are true, the recent fissures in Maoist rank among tribals in Jungle Mahal (that led to the expulsion of one senior cadre, Marshal) over the control of non-tribals in the movement and imposition of practices alien to tribal culture only underlined the import of Balagopal’s analysis.
Another aspect of his analysis also holds good in understanding present situation in Jungle Mahal. “If at that stage [when extreme deprivation and oppression and government's negligence have reduced due to Naxalite/Maoist intervention and moves are afoot by government agencies to bring tribals in the 'mainstream'], instead of toning down the armed component of the struggle, the radicals proceed to fight the state over the heads of the masses, the masses can withdraw further, and even become resentful… from the generation that came of age in the 1990s one often heard the honest query: Are advasis the guinea pigs of revolution?” (Maoist movement in Andhra Pradesh, EPW, July 22, 2006)