Barefoot: Violence and the State

Armed struggle is not the only way to respond to State violence. There are other ways of democratic dissent…

Updated - November 17, 2021 12:31 am IST

Published - August 27, 2011 06:30 pm IST

Expendable lives? Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Expendable lives? Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Those who defend violent resistance believe that it is justified because of the unremitting scale and hopelessness of the oppression to which impoverished masses are subject. They argue that opponents of Maoist violence ignore the ‘structural violence' of the State and, by implication, equate it with the emancipatory violence of the oppressed. The CPI (ML) People's War wrote to the Sankaran Committee, which attempted to mediate and end Maoist violence and State repression in Andhra Pradesh, that ‘extremism (democratic struggle of the people) is inevitable in a situation of inadequately addressed social and economic problems', and felt that the Committee made ‘wrong assessments' only by ‘isolating the cruelty and violence from people's struggle, and wrongly equating police violence with Naxalite violence'.

But, in fact, on the contrary, in their reports and communications, the Committee headed by the humanist S.R. Sankaran did repeatedly acknowledge the structural violence built into the societal system, such as inequality, exploitation and lack of freedom or democratic space. Like the Naxalites, it also identified the root causes to include land, human dignity, wages, and employment, and repression of dissent. It called upon the government to distribute to poor dalit and tribal landless families thousands of acres of cultivable land lying fallow in the districts. However, while acknowledging the structural violence of the State, the Committee refused to accept that this justified politically or morally retributive or retaliatory violence by the people, or by radical organisations which fight in their name. It was convinced that these injustices can be overcome best through democratic, non-violent, mass action.

Transgressive State

I too have no doubt that ethically the most condemnable violence is by the State when it acts unjustly and lawlessly, because the modern democratic State assumes monopoly of the legitimate exercise of violence with the pledge that it will protect all citizens with fairness and justice. As the ‘licensed' dispenser of violence, its duty to be just — and indeed non-violent — is the highest. Especially when confronted with both violent and non-violent dissent, the State's practice is often abysmal. The Committee condemned the killing of alleged Naxalites by the police in encounters, which it described as ‘targeted extralegal executions'. It observed that these indiscriminate killings, termed as encounters, ‘introduce terror as a component of governance and erode its very democratic essence'. One impact of condoning and indeed fostering such unchecked state violence has been to brand all democratic protests as Naxalite activities, and to deploy repressive police action to thwart and crush legitimate democratic dissent.

CPI (Maoist) General Secretary Ganapathi claims that five times as many people have died of hunger and disease in the past decade as those who died in revolutionary wars worldwide in the last two centuries. Arundhati Roy often cites hunger and humiliation in her defence of the Maoists: ‘Right now in central India, the Maoists' guerrilla army is made up almost entirely of desperately poor tribal people living in conditions of such chronic hunger that it verges on famine of the kind we only associate with sub-Saharan Africa. They are people who, even after 60 years of India's so-called Independence, have not had access to education, healthcare or legal redress. They are people who have been mercilessly exploited for decades, consistently cheated by small businessmen and moneylenders, the women raped as matter of right by police and forest department personnel. Their journey back to a semblance of dignity is due in large part to the Maoist cadre who have lived and worked and fought by their side for decades. If the tribals have taken up arms, they have done so because a government which has given them nothing but violence and neglect now wants to snatch away the last thing they have: their land'.

There is no doubt that tribal people in India are among its most dispossessed and savagely oppressed. But I find erroneous and indeed perilous the claim that recourse to arms is the inevitable result of such exploitation, or even moral justification for violence. Less than 25 per cent of India's tribal regions are affected by Maoist violence even today, and even in these districts there is no evidence of mass support of all or most tribal people for the ‘dadas' and ‘didis' in military fatigues who fight in their name.

This also does not mean that those who are not fighting with weapons or conspiratorial guerrilla warfare are passively submitting to their subjugation. On the contrary, large tracts of these regions are rife with diverse and creative forms of democratic dissent. The binary opposition between violent resistance on the one hand, and surrender and complicity on the other, posited by Maoist ideologues like Ganapathi, is spurious and dangerous. ‘Either you were with the slaves,' he declares,' in which case Spartacus and the rebels represented a just cause and spoke the truth, or you were with the slave-owners'. Curiously, a Bushism.


We observed in my earlier column that violent killing of civilians by Maoists occasionally is followed by explanations that such deaths are inevitable as a kind of ‘collateral damage', and expressions of ‘regret'. But even such rare ‘regret' is missing when those killed by Maoists are men in uniform. Most commentators sympathetic to Maoist struggles regard these men to be agents of an oppressive state; therefore their deaths (even by mines or guerrilla attacks rather than conventional face to face battle) are deemed to be fully legitimate.

Those who justify killing of security personnel ignore the fact that most of these are just poor, working class men, often of peasant stock, who join the police or security forces as one of the few sources of livelihood available to them. The local police and special police officers are often young tribal men from the same communities as the Maoists. One brother could be a policeman, and his sister could have joined a war against the State. In a sensitive piece of reportage, Brijesh Pandey of Tehelka spent a week with CRPF soldiers in the epicentre of Maoist territory in Dantewada, and brought to us their (rarely heard) voices. Ramesh, a CRPF jawan says: ‘It's not death per se we are afraid of, but ignominy after death, which hurts us. A Naxal's death is covered properly and people want no Naxals to be killed. But what about us? We are the expendables, like 25 or 50 paise coins. We count for nothing...' Another describes themselves as the ‘unwanted children of India'. A third says, ‘I know that I earn my livelihood from the force and I should not talk like this, but tell me, what should I tell my wife who has become paranoid after the Dantewada massacre? Every time she knows I am going for a patrol or an area domination exercise, she goes hysterical'.

Legitimate target

After the killing of 76 personnel of the Central Reserve Security Police in one of the biggest Naxalite attacks in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh on April 5, 2010, a loose coalition called ‘Citizens' Initiative for Peace' tried to mobilise signatures from rights activists and writers who usually denounce State violence, to condemn this particular attack. One writer who refused to sign explained in an open email that, ‘Frankly speaking, I don't feel any anguish. Let's be honest. What happened at the CRPF camp on April 6 was a part of a civil war — a battle between two opposing forces. In such a battle, combatants get killed. While, as a human rights activist, I surely condemn the Maoists for killing non-combatants — ordinary villagers, panchayat heads, school teachers, or blowing up trains killing common people — I cannot condemn them for targeting the CRPF, which is their military combatant. The CRPF is the most notorious arm of the Indian state.'

I felt constrained to respond to him, ‘I do mourn the loss of the lives of the CRPF jawans . I mourn the loss of innocent unarmed citizen lives which have been killed in the conflict. I mourn the loss of life of those who have picked up guns. Human life is precious, and I cannot endorse a hierarchy of more or less legitimate killings'.

A correction: In my last column, I mistakenly described Azad as a spokesperson of the CPI (ML). In fact he represented the CPI (Maoist). The CPI (ML) Liberation has, in fact, come over-ground, fights elections and organises mass struggles. The mistake is regretted.

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