Indian State enumerates “Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas”

Ravi Kumar

[Government of India (2008, April) Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas, Report of an expert group to Planning commission, Planning Commission, Government of India, New Delhi]

It may seem surprising that the Indian state and its ruling political elite constituted a committee to study the radical left movement in the country. However, beyond this apparent incongruity, it is essentially a stocktaking exercise in order to design the initiatives for undermining class politics and mass upsurge against the free rule of capital unleashed under neoliberalism.

It is no longer a surprise that we have today a ‘powerful’ voice in the country, categorised as ‘democratic’, ‘pro-people’, ‘progressive’, and ‘secular’, but certainly not pro-working class, which has substituted the class based analysis. The report, which is being discussed here in brief, is also an addition to that burgeoning non-class, pro-people, humane capitalism framework of analysis. In this sense, one may read the report not only in terms of a response to radical left politics, but to any political movement which demands an alternative to capitalism.

The Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance, when it came to power in the year 2004 made an effort to portray itself as ‘sympathetic’ to the radical left movement when it expressed its concern for the “the growth of extremist violence and other forms of terrorist activity in different states” and stressed that it was “not merely a law-and-order problem, but a far deeper socio-economic issue” (see the Common Minimum Programme of the United progressive Alliance).

But in due course, as the government supported by the dominant Left steered itself through years, a marked change in the approach of the Indian state was seen. Different agents of capital, such as the Prime Minister of India, belonging to the Congress Party, as well as leader of the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), started rejecting radical left politics quite unequivocally as the most significant security problem. L.K. Advani of the BJP said in 2006 that the “communist extremism not only endangers India’s national security and our democratic system, but also our precious cultural and spiritual heritage. The rabidly anti-Hindu propaganda of naxalites must be noted in this context”. The Prime Minister, in 2007, was concerned with the threat to spiritual and cultural heritage from communists but categorised the “Left Wing Extremism” as “probably single biggest security challenge to the Indian state. It continues to be so and we cannot rest in peace until we have eliminated this virus”. He appealed for a well-concerted response to this ‘virus’. He asserted, “we need to cripple the hold of naxalite forces with all the means at our command. This requires improved intelligence gathering capabilities, improved policing capabilities, better coordination between the Centre and the States and better coordination between States and most important, better leadership and firmer resolve. Improving policing capabilities requires better police infrastructure, better training facilities, better equipment and resources and dedicated forces”.

In the background of such a vocal and militant stance of the ruling class against the issue of radical left politics the constitution of committee acquires more interest. In the month of April 2008 a group of “experts” comprising of retired bureaucrats, intellectuals, and “activists”, brought together by the Government of India as an “expert group”, submitted a report to the Planning Commission entitled “Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas”. Those who participated are recognised as belonging to the ‘progressive’ fraternity, which possesses a great deal of concern about the issues confronting the Indian masses. And the writers of the report have made at least one significant contribution by suggesting that “…the governments have in practice treated unrest merely as a law and order problem” (p.30) and that it should not be treated as such.

But the report has to deal with this dilemma of being an Expert Group constituted by an oppressive state (which remains silent on the issue of organisation and state patronage to private militias against the left) while ironically the members are also conscious of their ‘progressive tags’. It is from this dilemma the rejection of the political demand of the radical left emerges in the report. It says that “it has to be recognised, however, that no State could agree to a situation of seizure of power through violence when the Constitution provides for change of government through electoral process” (p. 59). Thus, without making an analysis of the politico-ideological basis of the support of such forces the report not only denies such ideologies a legitimate place but also assures the state that there is no alternative to it except that some improvements would make the world a better place. Due to such an orientation the report also fails to reflect on the character of the state as it has been in those areas where the movements are very strong. Its ‘coercive’ form (in Gramscian sense) or the extensive use of the Repressive State Apparatuses (in Althusserian sense) does not figure with prominence.

Rather the report proceeds further with its allegiance to capital, when it writes that “strengthening and reorientation of the law enforcement apparatus is a necessity to ensure justice and peace for the tribal…. The law enforcement machinery in the affected areas would need to be strengthened” and among the many measures they suggest setting up of “additional police stations / outposts in the affected areas; filling up the police vacancies and improving the police-people ratio”; and “sophisticated weapons for the police” (p. 59).

If one looks at the content of the report, it has nothing new to offer in terms of analysis or information. Its ‘sympathetic’ content has already been a part of the public discourse in the country. For instance, it tries to tell us with the help of government statistics and with the help of other works by intellectuals working on Dalits that the condition of Dalits (or Scheduled Castes) and the Scheduled Tribes has been quite dismal. They are poor, socially discriminated and politically powerless. It highlights the issue of displacement due to development projects as well. And the report attributes this to the poor governance among other things. But where is the newness in this, except that it is coming from a Planning Commission report? It is only in this context that the report deserves some amount of commendation.

Reiterating what has already been said by many social scientists the report recognises that “the inequalities between classes, between town and country, and between the upper castes and the underprivileged communities are increasing. That this has potential for tremendous unrest is recognized by all. But somehow policy prescriptions presume otherwise. As the responsibility of the State for providing equal social rights recedes in the sphere of policymaking, we have two worlds of education, two worlds of health, two worlds of transport and two worlds of housing, with a gaping divide in between” (p. 1).

When it comes to talking about the causes of discontent, the report fails to get into the actual reasons or analyses of those causes. By not getting into why inequities become part of a social and economic system, and hence, political as well as cultural systems, the report overall makes an extremely superficial analysis of the situation. Inequity or discrimination that emerges is innate to the order of things in capitalism or where the motivation of the system/capital is towards maximisation of surplus through whatever possible means. Such a system by its very nature would pave way for discontentment of this kind and mobilisation of people in different forms. And that’s why the politico-ideological aim of the movements cannot be rejected flimsily and need to be seen as an intrinsic and indispensable part of the movements. By denying the movements their agency, by stripping them of their political understanding and goals what the report does is that it works towards delegitimising the actual ideological and political aims of an anti-systemic movement.

Nobody disagrees with its arguments such as “the genesis of discontent among Dalits lies in the age-old caste-based social order, which condemns them to a life of deprivation, servility, and indignity” (p.7) or that issues of land and wage are significant determinants which generate frustration and hence motivate people to organise. But it fails to get beyond these obvious reasons and also tends to make generalised and quite isolated conclusions, such as in the context of tribes it says that “apart from poverty and deprivation in general, the causes of the tribal movements are many: the most important among them are absence of self governance, forest policy, excise policy, land related issues, multifaceted forms of exploitation, cultural humiliation and political marginalisation. Land alienation, forced evictions from land, and displacement also added to unrest. Failure to implement protective regulations in Scheduled Areas, absence of credit mechanism leading to dependence on money lenders and consequent loss of land and often even violence by the State functionaries added to the problem” (p. 9). Nobody disagrees with these reasons but there are larger questions which any dialectician would raise such as how far is it possible to remain isolated, insulated, or without any exploitation when the present avatar of capital (i.e., neoliberalism), which determines the development and the character of the system, remains in command of governance. It is not the tragedy of such discourses that they mistakenly do such an analysis forgetting the interrelatedness of things, but it is the ploy of the dominant discourse to further such arguments. And the report quite successfully does so.

At one level, no one doubts its statements that emergence of militant movements “is linked to lack of access to basic resources to sustain livelihood” (p.11). Neither does one discount its argument that “the politics has also been aligned with” the dominant social segment “which constitutes the power structure in rural and urban areas since colonial times. It is this coalition of interests and social background that deeply affect governance at all levels” (p.22). It also rightly argues that “the benefits of this paradigm of development have been disproportionately cornered by the dominant sections at the expense of the poor, who have borne most of the costs” (p.29). But the report pretends innocence when it talks about how the dominant sections of society, i.e., the ruling class, cornered the benefits of the development paradigm. I call it pretentious ‘innocence’ because an analysis of the origins and then the trajectory of development paradigms in India would reveal how, as in other capitalist nations, such paradigms are intrinsically suited to the interests of the ruling classes and capital. The very notion of development is never class neutral, hence the way the benefits of development are “cornered” by certain sections is built-in the very design of the paradigm of development. There is nothing to be shocked about how it operates and what consequences it produces. It is a natural outcome of the rule of capital. The only way out is to oppose it and lay threadbare its dynamics, which the welfarist pangs of the report fails to achieve.

At a more fundamental level, the report seems ill-equipped to even examine the land relations in rural India that have conditioned the nature of rural struggles (including the element of violence). Sitting in the high towers of the state sponsored machinery and seeing the issues and the politics of people through administrative eyes, the bureaucrats and state-aligned intellectuals cannot go beyond perceiving resistances as effects of some laxity in social engineering. They can only lament for the “excesses” and call for playing by the rules. In statements like the following they demonstrate their ignorance of the political economic dynamics of rural society and ensuing conflicts, which could never be bound within the legal administrative framework imposed by the Indian state –

“Equity and law require that all lands of the owners having less than ceiling should be handed back to the owners subject to prevailing laws. Excesses of the Naxalites in this regard are not only unjustified but deserve utmost censure” (p.46).

Let’s look at a scenario in the violence affected Central Bihar’s Arwal district, where the “marginal/small farmers” (characterised by the size of landholdings rather than by land relations) from the Bhumihar caste were among the most vocal members of the militia of the landed, i.e., Ranvir Sena. In such a situation, how does one address the issue of class-ification and hence, drawing of the battle lines. It is not a question of whether the report is right or wrong in making such appeals but it is about the caution that one needs to exercise when analysing movements, which base themselves on class terms and call for radical political transformation.

The report paints a different picture of movements which are overtly political and which demand a change of political power as the only way of weeding out poverty, discrimination and exploitation. It seeks to deny them their actual aims and deprive them of their political orientation. Not only this but what it does is to make suggestions which can minimise the political influence of the radical left in the country through cosmetic humanisation of capitalism. Hence, one need not be surprised when the writers of the report say that “it is evident from the report that, excluding ideological goal of capturing State power through violence, the basic programmes of the Extremists relate to elimination of poverty, deprivation and alienation of the poor and the landless (p. 70). The understanding of class and the role of state as the agent of capital, intrinsic to the left movement (with different shades of debate around the mode of production), has been ignored and hence, capitalism as the enemy escapes our attention as responsible for large scale displacement, deprivation, exploitation and deaths. Inbuilt in this whole exercise is an effort to delegitimise politics of the left as a whole. Like any other safety valve mechanism, it is ultimately an attempt of capitalism in moulding, manipulating and destroying praxis of resistance.

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