Violence in West Bengal’s western districts has reached crisis proportions. Each day, one or more cadre member or sympathizer of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPM] is killed either by Maoists or the Trinamul Congress (TMC). The Maoists have found common cause with the TMC, a breakaway from the Congress Party in Bengal. Mamata Banerjee, whose authoritarian populism draws from both Juan and Evita Peron, leads the TMC. Backed by the dominant class, Banerjee nonetheless drapes herself in mystical radicalism (didi, or sister, as she is known, becomes durga, the embodiment of shakti, female power). In October 2009, the Maoists declared that they would rather have Banerjee’s right-wing TMC rule Bengal than the Left Front.
The Maoists-TMC has now killed over two hundred people since late 2007 (most are members and supporters of the CPM, with just a few being members of other political parties that are either in the Left Front or else affiliated with it). Ordinary political workers are beheaded and burnt, shot in the head and raped. In early January, Maoists entered the village of Joynagar and killed four CPM supporters; they beheaded two of them, Anath Singh and Hiteshwar Singh, sons of Gopal Singh who the Maoists killed in 2007. Ten days later, TMC members attacked a group of CPM supporters who had just filed their nomination papers for a local election. Dinesh Haldar, Khairul Jamadar, Biswanath Gayen and Salim Jamadar were killed, two of them with revolvers fired into their mouths. These monstrous acts are ongoing, and systematic.
Defenders of the Maoists suggest that the guerrillas only channel the anger of the poor, that this is the politics of rage against a system that has not delivered any goods. In the midst of this bloodbath, the writer Arundhati Roy told IBN-CNN’s Karan Thapar that the Maoists are justified in their armed path. “You have an army of very poor people being faced down by an army of rich that are corporate-backed,” she said. The suggestion is that the Maoists are the army of and for the poor, whose actions are motivated by the failure of the Indian State to deliver on its Constitutional promises. But this is not only simplistic; it is also disingenuous.
About half of India’s population falls into the World Bank’s category of poverty; that’s about 500 million people. Most of them have grievances and aspirations, but these do not lead them to the gun. The poor can be found in one of the many political organizations that seek to widen and deepen the current legal dispensation in India, fighting for the rights of the people through the courts and in the streets. Or else, the poor can be found in and around the NGOs and social service agencies that serve their needs; as well, the poor can be found in one of the many Rural Employment Guarantee schemes set up by the government. The Indian government’s obsession with growth rates for the wealthy diverts the nation’s wealth away from the workers who produce it. Anger and frustration at the system does not necessarily turn to anomic violence of the kind practiced by the Maoists and the TMC in western Bengal.
Poverty does not lead to Maoism. It certainly contributes to it, but it does not produce it. What produces Maoism is the act of making political violence legitimate (even glorifying it). Rather than make the case that there is space within the (however limited) democratic institutions, people like Arundhati Roy trumpet the armed road. Patient work through the democratic institutions produced the important developments for the Dalit [oppressed caste] movement and the working-class movement. For example, Reservations for underprivileged castes did not come from the armed struggle. It was a direct beneficiary of the use of the democratic institutions. The gun is an anthem for the deracinated middle class romantic, but not the glory song for the dispossessed, for whom only suffering comes at the gun’s mouth. It is the dispossessed who die in these armed struggles, both from the guns of the revolutionaries and those of the State.
In South Asia, the recent examples of organizations that thrive on the cult of violence include the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). The Maoists glorify both of these groups – they have recently procured the arms that ULFA was to send to LTTE. When the Sri Lankan army killed LTTE’s leader Prabhakaran, the Maoist leadership conducted a strike on his behalf (when the LTTE was decimated in Sri Lanka, the Indian Maoists claimed that this would have “a negative effect on the revolutionary movement in India as well as South Asia and the world at large”). To glorify violence, as the Maoists do, does not open the kind of political space necessary for the end to the poverty-making machine that has afflicted many parts of rural India. Their slogan is borrowed from the Italian ultra-left, ni mai piú sin fucile, Never Again Without a Rifle.
The Maoists have taken advantage of poverty, but they have nothing to offer by way of a salve. In the largely tribal areas of interior India, the various extractive mafias are at work drawing out the wealth of the region and providing little for the residents. Raw materials of all kinds, from timber to dolomite, routinely leave the tribal zone with little recompense for the people themselves. The Maoists have entered this highly exploitative and oppressive situation with no plans to immediately assist the grievances of the various tribal communities. Indian Maoist leader Koteshwar Rao (Kishenji) told the press, “We collect taxes from the corporates and big bourgeoisie, but it’s not any different from the corporate sector funding the political parties.” The mafias continue to operate; indeed the extortion payments to the Maoists give them permission to work with license. One estimate suggests that the Maoists make off with Rs. 20,000 million per year, money used, among other things, for the purchase of arms.
If the government attempts to provide any sops toward development (such as schools and medical centers), the Maoists simply blow them up (this is clearly documented by Human Rights Watch in Sabotaged Schooling. Naxalite Attacks and Police Occupation of Schools in India’s Bihar and Jharkhand States, December 2009). It is to their interest to allow matters to remain in stasis within the “liberated zones.” It is specious to talk of the Maoists as liberators: they are infected with the virus of extortion and power.
This brings us back to a central unasked question: why are the CPM members and supporters the target of the Maoist-TMC violence in Bengal? The Maoists and their TMC allies do not kill the mafia, for that is their cash cow. Nor do they turn their guns on local landowners or dominant classes. In Bengal, they reserve their ammunition for schoolteachers and agricultural workers, workers in the mines and workers in the panchayats [institutions of local self-government]; all of whom have one thing in common, an affiliation of some kind in the Communist Party of India (Marxist). This assault on the CPM is not new. In 1983, journalist Praful Bidwai wrote, “Often the affirmation of the revolutionary identity of naxalism [Indian Maoism] means singling out the CPM and the CPI for an onslaught because, according to their theory, those parties can be nothing but obstacles to the popular movement,” viz. the growth of the Maoist parties, which stand in for a genuine mass movement. “The anti-CPM and CPI aspect of naxalism is not new. The point is that it has become increasingly more important over the recent past as the naxalite survival has been threatened.” The Maoists do not fear for their survival any longer; rather, they want to use the weapon of violence in Bengal to enter into a state where they have had limited traction.
The Maoist-TMC conduct most of their assassination and political terror in the region of the Jhargram parliamentary constituency. This is a constituency reserved for tribal candidates. In 2009, the CPM and its Left Front allies suffered a setback across West Bengal during the parliamentary elections. Jhargram was another story. Here, the CPM’s Pulin Behari Baske won the election by almost 60 per cent of the vote. One reason Baske won is that the region’s tribals have been a beneficiary of the long struggle for land reforms spearheaded by the CPM and its Left Front allies. This is not a prosperous region, but it is nothing like the devastated areas in Central India where the Maoists have established themselves. Unable to secure a political victory, the Maoists-TMC has turned to the gun. They assassinate the CPM workers and supporters to terrorize the population against the Left Front.
VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College. His most recent book, The Darker Nations, won the Muzaffar Ahmed Book Prize in 2009, and is now available in French as Les Nations Obscures(Les Editions Écosociété). He is an editor of Naked Punch. He can be reached at email@example.com.