Is using violence, and the taking of innocent lives, justified in the fight against real or perceived State oppression?
While resistance to injustice is widely endorsed as the highest human duty in most cultures, one debate which has raged through the centuries — and has enormous resonance in contemporary times — is about the legitimacy of deploying violence in resisting and combating injustice. It is this timeless debate with which I will engage in this space over the coming weeks, in this and subsequent columns.
Is it right to use violent means, including taking life, to fight injustice by powerful agents, who are usually backed by the State, or are the State? In a stark sense, is murder licit when committed in the name of justice? This is a paramount ethical and political dilemma in the world as we find it today, because violence — including armed mass resistance, but much more, terrorist violence, guerrilla warfare and strategies of individual annihilation — is being used by organisations which style themselves as representatives of the oppressed, to achieve their political aspirations. A much greater number of men and women — thinkers, writers, poets, artists, students and working people — endorse the righteousness of such violence, even if they do not actively pick up arms themselves. People also search for vindication of violence in their interpretations of both religious texts, and political doctrines like Marxism and anarchism — although others use the same texts to arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions.
In India, this debate has acquired a special edge of immediacy and topicality because of the bloody escalation of Maoist insurgency and violent militaristic State suppression in large tracts of central India, populated by some of the most dispossessed Indian people. Other combatants, including those on the far right of the political spectrum — subscribing to Hindutva or Islamist religious extremist doctrines — have deployed strikingly similar rationalisations as left-wing militants to justify slaughter, plunder and rape of persons based on their identities, or random killing and maiming of civilian populations. Their stories of real or perceived intolerable injustice, and doctrines of fighting this oppression only through conspiratorial forms of extreme political violence are markedly similar. Analogous arguments run through other violent movements, such as through segments of those battling for azadi or independence in the Kashmir valley, or the Naga, Bodo, ULFA, Manipuri and other identity-based insurgents of India's deeply troubled and divided North-east.
Violence as political principle
This series of essays will be restricted only to the debates, mustered by left militants and their supporters, around claims of righteous violence to fight injustice against India's indigenous people in central India. Charu Mazumdar was a leading Maoist ideologue and a founder of the Marxist-Leninist party which launched this decades-old insurgency. Commentator Dilip Simeon regards his sole ideological contribution to be to elevate ‘homicidal mania to a political principle'; his doctrine of individual annihilation encourages ‘comrades' to kill those whom they judge to be ‘class enemies', including landlords, policemen, and those deemed to be police informers and renegades. No procedures are prescribed for conclusions that a person deserves to be killed. Mazumdar describes in chilling detail the recommended conspiratorial strategies of engaging preferably landless peasants in killing landlords with weapons such as ‘spears, javelins and sickles' to ‘ spring at the enemy and kill him'. He concludes with the words, ‘In fact, a time will come when the battle cry will be: “He who has not dipped his hand in the blood of class enemies can hardly be called a communist”.'
Many who justify violence for fighting injustice are embarrassed today by Charu Mazumdar's frank celebration of homicide. (They are incidentally still far less averse to celebrating Che Guevera's iconic revolutionary standing, although he also on occasion celebrated homicidal violence in not dissimilar idiom.) Many (ever-splintering) Maoist factions claim to have abandoned the ‘ line' of individual annihilation; yet, rather than democratic methods, they continue to resort to violence and terror. These include the physical liquidation of people, attacks on police stations and targeted killing of police personnel, summary executions of so-called informers and ‘ coverts', exploding of landmines, resulting in large scale deaths, destruction of public property, death threats, and ‘bans' on political parties.
In India, there has been only one major sustained civic effort to engage both the State and Maoists in a discussion around violence, by a group of concerned citizens in Andhra Pradesh led by the late reputed humanist S.R. Sankaran. The Sankaran Committee condemns Maoist violence for its focus on ‘military actions rather than on the mobilisation of people for social transformation'. The arbitrary and violent actions of Naxalite parties contribute to ‘further brutalis(ing) the society and lead(ing) to the shrinkage of democratic space for mobilisation and direct participation of the people, impairing the very process of transformation that the movements claim to stand for'.
Too many mistakes?
More than 40 years of Maoist insurgency in India has not altered its culture of casual acceptance of the inevitability of loss of life, even of civilians, in such battles. When challenged regarding the killings of civilians, these are typically later described as ‘mistakes' by Maoist spokespersons, but such ‘mistakes' are considered unavoidable in their righteous war, and continue to recur. A representative of the CPI (ML) People's War Group wrote to the Sankaran Committee when it engaged them in Andhra Pradesh, that it was wrong to judge the acts of the Naxalites to be cruel violence, in isolation from the people's struggles. ‘The revolutionary party is responsible to the oppressed people for all its political practice. It corrects all unintentional mistakes. It takes all steps to ensure that innocent people are not subject to any suffering due to its practice. It apologises to people if it makes any grievous mistakes'. It is as though such occasional apologies for ‘mistakes' are sufficient recompense for recurring murders, including of non-combatants.
In February 2006, 25 tribal persons were killed and 40 injured after a bomb was detonated in Errabore, Dantewada. Five months later, Maoists attacked a camp of tribal residents in the same location, and killed 30 persons, including children. CPI (ML) spokesperson Azad described the death of children as an ‘unnecessary loss'. But he rationalised these in terms similar to Bush's notions of ‘collateral damage': ‘No people's war can be so clinical as to have no civilian casualty... no class war can be conducted with clinical precision. It is very tortuous and painful, just as the daily life of our population is no less agonising'. (Incidentally, on July 1, 2010, Azad was killed by the police in a fake encounter, soon after he agreed to a peace dialogue with Swami Agnivesh; his elimination by the State rightly described by Justice Krishna Iyer as a ‘travesty' and an ‘egregious error').
An attack by Maoist combatants on a bus with a majority of civilians and some Special Police Officers in May 2010 in Dantewada, killing around 20 civilian passengers along with the policemen, was also later described by them as a ‘mistake', as was a bomb detonated on a train the same month which took more than a hundred lives.
I find it extraordinary that people who oppose the death penalty are also willing to support the execution of people by private armies and militant ‘people's courts'. In this ‘rude justice' of Maoist executions, men and women are eliminated for crimes such as informing the police, joining a rival faction, choosing to opt out of membership of a militant group, or belonging to an oppressing category of people. There is not even a pretence of access to any ‘due process', except sometimes a public hearing. Bela Bhatia describes how cadres are in these executions simultaneously petitioners, witnesses, jury and executioners. It is not dissimilar to fake police ‘encounters' or extra-judicial killings, in which the police is judge, prosecutor and executioner at the same time; and this confluence spawns horrendous injustice.
Neither the State nor Maoist militants accept that human beings are fallible and can make errors of judgement, that every human being is entitled to prove one's guilt, as well as to redeem oneself even after one errs; and that the ‘mistake' of taking a life can never be remedied.
Postscript: Incidentally, at the time of writing, various policemen and a Home Minister are in jail in Gujarat for fake extra-judicial killing. Such justice is admittedly very rare even in a democratic state, but at least it is possible.