Here is the full-text of what I said — as also, what I wanted to say but restrained myself because of the time constraint or because of my diffidence — at the book release of Gautam Navlakha’s Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion (Penguin Books, 2012), organised by Sanhati at the Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, on 27 November 2012.
There’s this aphorism from Clausewitz about “war as a continuation of politics by other means”. The question however is: What politics is this People’s War in India a continuation of? In other words, what are the Maoists and their People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) fighting for? My friend Gautam’s Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion answers this question in the true spirit of the public intellectual, with unusual clarity and honesty, free of jargon, dogma and pedantry, and importantly, free of the political line of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). In his view, the People’s War has to be subordinated to the politics.
In the Maoist Heartland
The book is based on a two-weeklong visit Gautam made to a guerrilla zone, and within it, a guerrilla base of the Maoists in southern Chhattisgarh. The Maoists have been offering the most formidable resistance, in parts of eastern and central India, to the implementation of the various Memoranda of Understanding that the central and state governments have put their signatures to with Indian big business houses and transnational corporations on the latter’s plans to profit from industrial, including mining, projects and various infrastructural installations. The two, capital and the Indian state, care a damn about the Gonds (indigenous people) who have been and are being deprived of the land under their feet, their ancestral land. The minerals in the ground below are being and are in the process of being taken away. The forests with which these indigenous people enjoy a symbiotic relation are being and will be cut down. In such circumstances, “to rebel is justified”, and the Maoists, many of them Gondi, are here the leading force, with the Gonds, the main force of the resistance. The state forces, together with a state-backed private vigilante force, has been trying to cut off the Maoists (the leading force) from the Gondi people (the main force), even launching Operation Green Hunt to hasten the process.
Simultaneously, a psychological war against the Maoists is on, unleashed by the commercial media. Righteous indignation against “left-wing extremism”, with images and profiles meant to depict the Maoists as “cold-blooded criminals”, is all that the public gets to read, hear and see. In sharp contrast, besides answering questions about their politics, their justification of violence, their treatment of the “enemies of the people”, their perceptions of their People’s War, what they are fighting for, how they managed to win over the Gondi and other indigenous peoples in Dandakaranya (the forest area situated in the border and adjoining tribal districts of the states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Orissa), Gautam also tells us how they live in their “guerrilla base” and how their “Jantanam Sarkar” (People’s Government) functions there. There is an interesting section on the reforms forced by the Maoists, for instance, the Forests Rights Act, 2006 that aims to provide secure land tenure to “Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers”, which is even officially conceded as coming about due to the state’s dire need to undercut the support that the Maoists enjoy among the Adivasis. And, towards the end of the book, Gautam also singles out “two major failings” of the Maoists, which he insists, must be seen against the backdrop of what the Maoists have achieved.
This is a book that I would have no hesitation in recommending to all those who would like to see workers, poor peasants and landless labourers, dalits and “Other Backward Classes”, and Adivasis stand up, have a genuine voice of their own, with the courage to speak out, speak out against their oppression and exploitation, fight against their domination. It will also be of interest for those of us who are interested in the Adivasi Question conceptualized in relation to winning land to the tiller and full forest rights, realizing that the mere passing of laws and decrees is wholly inadequate, and rejecting the one-dimensional identity politics of ‘indigenism’.
On the Radical Side
With this, let me now go over to the topic of today’s panel discussion, “Beyond the Accounts of Repression and Armed Struggle: The Question of Revolutionary Generalisation”. I am going to speak about revolution and the power of the public memory and the dreams it unleashes. Lest I be misunderstood by liberal-reformist intellectuals and even by those who call themselves Marxists, let me state my position. The present is the outcome of more than four centuries of the history of capitalism, right since its beginnings in the process of primitive accumulation. Capitalism, based as it is on the exploitation of the labour of human beings, and of nature, generates inequality, and when it works with “the gloves off”, as it does today, this is greatly exacerbated, so much so that the system is now heading towards catastrophe as a result of the cumulative ecological degradation it has caused. War, including People’s Wars, and revolutions, are not a matter of choice or preference; they spring from the very internal contradictions of the capitalist-imperialist system. Tragically, so far, they have not succeeded in doing away with the very system (capitalism-imperialism) that breeds them. The classes that hold wealth, privilege and power have managed, by doing all they could (including armed counter-revolution), to preserve their monopoly over them. That, in a nutshell, is how we radicals view history and the present. In sharp contrast, liberal-reformist intellectuals hold that nothing had to happen the way it did, and what will likely happen depends on the choices “we” ultimately make from among those in “our” liberal “cookbook”. People’s War and revolution are very costly in terms of human lives and suffering, and so “we” are shocked that the Maoists even consider them as options, and have to express “our” rejection and condemnation. It’s best to reform the system, the liberal-reformists say, to rid it of its imperfections, this by choosing ways that interfere the least with the market mechanism.
Most liberal-reformists, like my friend Ramachandra (Ram) Guha of India after Gandhi fame, have a superficial understanding of Marxism, and so their critiques of Marxism and of our view of history and the present are largely irrelevant. In the first half of the 1980s, Ram and I were doctoral students at IIM Calcutta, when he flirted with Marxism and then rejected it. He has written about those times in “An Anthropologist Among the Marxists”, published first, if I remember correctly, in Civil Lines, Issue 1, sometime in the early 1990s. More recently, he penned “The Past and Future of the Indian Left”, which is now chapter 4 of his latest book, Patriots and Partisans (Allen Lane, Penguin Books India, 2012). Ram is singularly ill equipped to discussing Marxism, for he never had any empathy for it; he only trifled with it, at times, caricatured it and its practitioners, and, I’m afraid, I find him irrelevant on such subjects.
But there are those who call themselves Marxists, and even Marxist-Leninists, and now when hundreds of thousands of tribal peasants are being led by the Maoists in India in the revolutionary movement, such “Marxists” have stood in their way and opposed them (in Jangalmahal, the “Marxists” were even collaborators of the occupying forces, the Joint Forces of the central and the state government). The “Marxist-Leninists”, on their part, have trailed behind the Maoist movement, gesticulating and criticising, and now that the movement’s faced a severe setback in Jangalmahal, they are being wise after the event.
The Potency of Echoes
Mao famously said that a revolution “cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.” Like Mao, the CPI (Maoist) poses the revolutionary question in terms of “armed revolution against armed counter-revolution”. Presumably, certain internal contradictions of the system have developed to a stage where war is seen as the principal means of resolving them. The dominated classes are being organised to overthrow the oppressive Indian state and the unjust social order that it preserves. Such ideas about revolution — derived from Mao — in their more generalised form come from the collective memory of the French Revolution. Indeed, I think Mao was also drawing upon the collective memory of the French Revolution when he expressed himself in the words that we just quoted. And, if we know anything about revolutions, the French, the Russian and the Chinese, revolution is merely the beginning of a process. Mao, of course, spoke of uninterrupted revolution. The outburst unleashes dreams, and of course, radical social demands; the future is thus, as yet, unachieved.1
My thoughts about the revolution-in-process in India go back to the martyrs. Those of you from my generation and my elders will remember Krishna Singh. It was in Palamu in June 1984 that the CPI (ML) (Party Unity) lost one of its most able leaders. Krishna Singh came from a poor peasant family, made his livelihood as a transport worker. The Maoist movement was where his talents blossomed — he went on to become the General Secretary of the Mazdoor Kisan Sangram Samiti, the mass organisation of the CPI (ML) (Party Unity). But, tragically, he was killed by an armed gang that was organised by Rajput landlords, this when the movement was at its initial stage in Palamu.
The beginning of the recent repression and the consequent severe setback to the movement in Andhra Pradesh dates from 8 January 2005, when Lakshmi, an executive committee member of the Andhra Pradesh Chaitanya Mahila Samakhya, the women’s mass front, was picked up, brutally tortured and killed. In a couple of months, the police then let loose organised private gangs — called Narsa Cobras, Kakatiya Cobras, Nallamala Cobras, more venomous that the real reptile — to decimate the mass organisations in Andhra Pradesh and deprive the Party of its mass base over there.
Women have always been in the forefront of radical left movements, right from the time of Telengana in the 1940s. Gautam too, in his book, speaks of the role of women in the movement: “. . .it is remarkable that one sees young women as commanders of platoons and leading cadres of the JS [Jantanam Sarkar]”. But I would suggest that you read Gautam’s chapter on “Women: Against Superstition, Patriarchy and the State” alongside Arundhati Roy’s forging of a close bond with Narmada, Maase, Roopi and other comrades of the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sanghatan, expressed so movingly in her celebrated essay, “Walking with the Comrades”.
I can’t resist just one more recount of this fighting spirit that I am alluding to, here of a remarkable couple, Vadkapur Chandramouli (comrade BK), a Central Committee member of the CPI (Maoist) and a member of its Central Military Commission, and his comrade-in-arms and partner Karuna, a barefoot doctor and guerrilla fighter. Comrades BK and Karuna were on their way to the Party’s Unity Congress when they were arrested in the Eastern Ghats on the Andhra Pradesh (AP)-Orissa border, brutally tortured and assassinated on 29 December 2006. The Andhra Pradesh Special Intelligence Bureau which allegedly apprehended BK and Karuna was however not able to extract even a clue from them as to the venue of the Party Congress, information that would have caused grave harm to the Party and the revolutionary movement.
The vital spark of these revolutionaries whom we remember, Krishna Singh, Lakshmi, comrades BK and Karuna, and many others like them, is still glowing, and it seems to instil a self-confidence and determination to carry on to the very end. That’s the power of memory that state repression cannot erase, and so the movement goes on, recovering time and again from the many serious setbacks it has suffered.
Spring Thunder’s Yearnings
Let’s then come to the dreams that revolutionary upheavals unleash. Here, I will break with tradition and talk of my dreams. It was in the early 1980s that I came to the conclusion that the debility of Marxism in India really stemmed from the fact that since 1951 — more so since 1957 — the CPI toed the line of a peaceful transition to socialism by winning a majority in Parliament. A series of self-defeating compromises with capitalist institutions then became the order of the day in establishment left practice. The first split in 1964 and the formation of the CPI (Marxist) didn’t alter the situation, for the historic compromise that the Party made in 1951/57 was the result of weak and ineffective middle-class leadership that, to a lesser or a greater extent, was the victim of the cultural, moral, and political values of the dominant classes. Ultimately, this culminated in the marginalisation of the CPI and the public disgrace of the CPI (M) as a result of the repression the party and the Left Front government it headed in West Bengal let loose on the poor and landless peasantry in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh. From being hailed as the harbinger of the rights of the sharecropping bargadars, and of the redistribution of surplus land to those who tilled the soil, to the humiliating epithet of the forerunner of the dispossession of reluctant peasants of their land was, indeed, a public disgrace. The dreams of many a comrade of that party now lie shattered.
The Naxalbari armed struggle began in March 1967, but by mid-July of that year, it was crushed. Soon thereafter, in the autumn Charu Mazumdar, who subsequently became the new party the CPI (Marxist-Leninist)’s General Secretary, said: “. . .hundreds of Naxalbaris are smouldering in India. . . Naxalbari has not died and will never die.”2 But he was not daydreaming, for the power of memory and the dreams unleashed gave the movement a fresh dynamic.
Imagining Red Bases in Urban Areas
Gautam has given us an account of life in a guerrilla base in southern Chhattisgarh and the takeover of governance and some of the productive functions by the people, under Maoist guidance, over there. But can we imagine parallels of the Maoist guerrilla base in the urban areas, say right here in the National Capital Region? The Party’s urban structure is presently very weak. The mass organisations, even in the urban areas, merely seem to serve the People’s War and the agrarian revolution, and struggles led by them are shaped in accordance with the advance or retreat of that struggle. Frankly, if the Party continues to view the role of mass organisations and mass struggles within such circumscribed limits, it will continue to trail in its endeavour to gain the support of the 90% that Maoism claims as its constituency. To win over the 90%, the Maoists need to work within the intermediate sphere (between the economic base and the repressive apparatus of the state), namely, the educational system, cultural institutions, the media, trade unions, etc — the institutions of civil society (the complex of the ideological structure) in Antonio Gramsci’s sense.
It is these institutions that socialise youth, shape public opinion, indeed, structure the very thought processes of the exploited and oppressed to build consent for the authority of the prevailing social order. The ruling classes not only use the repressive apparatus of the Indian state to suppress dissent, but manage to do this, most of the time, by establishing their ideological hegemony (maintaining one’s authority not through coercive force alone) over the exploited, the oppressed and the dominated. The CPI (Maoist) needs to counter the political, cultural and moral leadership of the organic intellectuals of the ruling classes over the masses by the ascendency of radical working-class, peasant (rural school teachers, for instance), and middle-class (academics, doctors, lawyers, journalists, etc) intellectuals in all the institutions of the civil society. Otherwise, we see no hope of successful growth and spread of the United Front (UF) under the leadership of the Party.
Path of Creative ‘Illegality’
In Gramscian terms, the UF has to be seen as the new emerging ‘historic bloc’ that is to take the place of the present one led by the big bourgeoisie and the big landlords. This can only come about if and when the Maoists capture the hearts and minds of the people in a protracted ‘war of position’ — the long struggle for hegemony. How may one begin to do this in urban settings, where there are definite limits to the use of violence? How about turning workplaces into “Red Bases”? The path of what has been termed creative ‘illegality’ might show the way. Here, I think, we can learn something from French Maoist practice of the ’68 generation. French Maoists of that generation were inspired by Mao, and they applied his 1943 theory of the “mass line” and his ideas of radical democracy during the Cultural Revolution in the national context of France in the late 1960s and early 1970s.3 If they learned from Mao like we do, surely we and they can also learn from each other.
The path of creative ‘illegality’ clearly implies “not working by the bourgeois rules of the game” and “constantly transcending the limits of legality”. Here the Maoists will have to adopt a combination of “mass line” and radical-democratic principles of leadership to win cultural hegemony in workplaces, whether the university or the factory. But what do we mean by the “mass line” and by radical democracy? The mass line is a principle of leadership whereby the vanguard, the leading force of the revolution, democratically wins over the people, the main force of the revolution, to its side, and thereby gains legitimacy as the leading force. It does this by involving the people in the very formulation of its programme and remains flexible as far as the methods of fulfilment of concrete tasks are concerned, allowing the people to take the initiative and play a major role in implementation, and thereby even learns from them. Radical democratic functioning is predicated upon a realization that “rich individuality” and liberty for all requires a commitment to equality, and in turn, that the latter cannot be attained without a commitment to rich individuality and liberty for all.
Adopting the “mass line” with a commitment to radical democracy would call for the least hierarchical forms of organisation. The goal is to win cultural hegemony, wherein even non-Marxists have at least a grudging admiration for the revolutionary banner. The parallel of the guerrilla base in the urban areas, call it the Red Base, is set up upon gaining the upper hand in the ‘war of position’, and the revolutionary act that cements this entails the takeover of the governance and productive functions of colleges, universities, and factories — “occupying” them and instituting democracy there, popular student or worker power as the case may be, with students and young lecturers conducting free evening classes for the workers, either at the university or at the “occupied” factory. The workers, in turn, challenge the hierarchical division of labour, their division by management into “permanent”, casual and contract workers, and the corresponding pay differentials. This is done by each worker teaching every other worker how to perform his or her task.
Of course, sooner or later, the repressive apparatus of the state is bound to crack down on such a politics of liberation and repress its practitioners. But by this time a semblance of libertarian, democratic consciousness would have spread and the state would be condemned and indicted, for such repressive action would be seen as being totally undemocratic.
A Libertarian, Democratic Consciousness
What do we mean by a libertarian, democratic consciousness? Actually, a communist should, by definition, in Marx’s sense, be democratic and libertarian, but sadly, with the deep inroads that Stalinism made, these adjectives now have to be prefixed with the word communist. A libertarian, democratic consciousness requires a deep commitment to beauty, artistic freedom, and democratic rights, more generally speaking, and further, to craftsmanship, to un-alienated and creative work, to love, “to sexual fulfilment as a positive value”, to the unity of all working people, to their mutual and shared interests, all of this to be achieved by working people though their struggles.
Both work and sex need to be liberated from their capitalist, caste and patriarchal confines. We are here reminded of the character Velutha in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997). Velutha came from a dalit, attached-labour household. But despite his origins, he became an accomplished carpenter and mechanic, indispensible to semi-feudal capital’s profit register in the small town of Ayemenem. Rahel and Estha, Ammu’s children, established a close bond of friendship with him. Ammu was attracted to him, fell in love with him — he was a passionate lover, he loved her like no one else could ever have loved her. Velutha is my hero — he did what he did with devotion; he kept the creativity and imagination in him alive. But he was hunted down by the police and beaten so badly that he died of the injuries inflicted, all this, because he crossed the barriers of caste & class and violated the “Love Laws” that lay down “who should be loved, and how. And how much”.
Just like proletarians like Velutha make and remake themselves in the process of struggle as part of life’s experiences, Marxism and its Maoist version have to be made and remade in the light of experience, and one of those improvements now has to be “a vocabulary in which moral choice and agency can be adequately discussed”.4 It is high time Maoists come to terms with the Stalin phenomenon, the truth as corresponding to what is the case as regards Stalin and Stalinism. I am very hopeful in this regard. The CPI (Maoist) leader, Kobad Ghandy, from within the high-risk ward in Tihar jail, what he calls “a jail within jail”, seems to be overcoming the repression of moral discourse among Marxists.5 And, Edward Thompson, who completed his magnum opus The Making of the English Working Class when he was only 38 years of age, later on raised fundamental ethical questions from within the Marxist paradigm. But now, with the failure of the revolutions of the 20th century, isn’t Marxism in desperate need of a developed ethics as much as it is in need of an advanced ecological perspective and rejuvenated political economy?
1 Michael Lowy, “‘The Poetry of the Past’: Marx and the French Revolution”, New Left Review, I/177, September-October, 1989, at newleftreview.org/I/177/michael-lowy-the-poetry-of-the-past-marx-and-the-french-revolution.
2 Sumanta Banerjee, In the Wake of Naxalbari (Kolkata: Sahitya Samsad), 2008, chapter 4, p. 112. This remarkable book was first published by the Calcutta publisher Subarnarekha in 1980, and then by Zed Press, London in 1984 under the title India’s Simmering Revolution: The Naxalite Uprising. The present edition (2008) has an interesting “Post-script”.
Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, and a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.