May Issue 2012
Letter from India: Of Battles and Bollywood
The War Within
As I was counting my recent despatches from India for the paper in Washington I work for, I found myself filing more stories on Maoist violence in Indiathan on any other news event. I remember explaining the Maoist problem to my editor in Washington two years ago and telling him why it is as important for the international media to understand and report on as terrorist attacks in Kashmir, the economy, India’s blow hot, blow cold vibes with Pakistan, or concerns over China’s ever-growing shadow.
By the sheer scale of the violent attacks and the landmines that explode randomly, which continue to take a heavy toll on Indian policemen and civilians, the Maoist uprising is the biggest threat to Indians within India at the moment. In fact, back in 2005, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had called the then still modest insurgency the biggest internal threat to India. That notwithstanding, the PM has done precious little in the past seven years to defuse that menace, except for a charade of lip service. Now it has grown to be the biggest of all threats to India — internal and external.
April 2012 was the month of Maoists in India and at the rate the insurgency is continuing, it could well become the year of the Maoists, whose avowed goal is to “overthrow Indian democracy through armed struggle and control the government by 2050.” In April, the rebels kidnapped two Italian tourists in the eastern state of Odisha, held them in captivity for days and released them only after securing the release of their cadres lodged in various jails. The freeing of the rebels, whom the forces had captured after great effort, triggered a near revolt in the police force. To add insult to injury, at the same time and in the same state another faction of Maoist rebels took a lawmaker into captivity, and released him again in lieu of the release of several other comrades from jail.
In the central state of Chhattisgarh, the rebels abducted a young district collector who was trying to set in motion a programme for the region’s development. The abduction itself was not without a bloodbath. Two of the collector’s bodyguards were gunned down before he was whisked away to the jungle by the rebels. The two month-pregnant wife of the collector meanwhile, expressed her deep concern about her husband’s health. A chronic asthma sufferer, the collector desperately required his regimen of medicines. The administration of these to her husband was her appeal to the rebels, while asking for his well-being and release. The wives and relatives of abducted officials pleading for their freedom is now a staple of the news on TV in India. Meanwhile, the rebels struck in Maharashtra too. Abduction to secure the release of their cadres from jails is now a key strategy of the Maoists who according to official estimates kidnapped 1,554 people and killed 328 of them for various reasons between 2008 and 2011. And as the Maoists targeted states across India, the government could do little but give in to their demands to free their abducted comrades. Clearly, nuclear-armed India is helpless when it comes to coping with this huge internal challenge from these forest brigands with their ideological patrons in the country’s big cities.
The Maoist movement in India began in the late 1960s in the northern town in West Bengal state called Naxalbari, from which the term ‘Naxalites’ or ‘Naxals,’ as the rebels are known, is derived.
The uprising subsided in the early 1970s, only to resurface some years later as a more violent force that now operates under the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
The Maoists now periodically launch attacks on policemen and mainstream political party supporters across India’s central and eastern regions, with the strikes often claiming innocent lives. The debilitating war between the authorities and the rebels is believed to have claimed around 22,000 lives so far.
While Chhattisgarh state in central India is worst hit by the violence, where the Maoists kill scores of policemen in periodic ambushes, the menace has also spread across the eastern states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal.
Needless to say, the non-inclusive growth in India, as manifested in the soul-crushing poverty and hunger deaths in rural regions, has nourished the radical ideology espoused by the Maoists, although the poor and the tribal people have hardly benefited from the movement, often ending up, in fact, being victimised by both the police personnel and the rebels.
My own visits to the Maoist-affected zones have been an eye-opener regarding the problems plaguing India today. For example, on a visit to West Bengal’s Lalgarh, a rural region barely 150 km away from the bustling metropolis of Kolkata, which shot into the limelight in December 2008 after the Maoists captured the area as their ‘liberated zone,’ I could not help but be appalled by the grinding poverty I witnessed.
Just why the Maoists gain ground in India can be gauged from the emaciated form of villagers and their wretched, hopeless lives. Ruled by the mainstream communists for over three decades, the villagers said they had never heard of BPL cards (Below Poverty Line schemes for the poor). In some villages, not even one tubewell was sunk, even though the local people face drought-like conditions in summer every year.
According to rights activists, the Maoist problem originates from the non-inclusive model of development which has left tribal and other marginalised people out in the cold.
“Owing to corporate greed, indigenous people are being displaced across India. These people are dependent on common property resources (CPR) and now, when their survival is challenged, they are putting up resistance,” says human rights activist and eminent physician Binayak Sen, who was put behind bars for years by the Chhattisgarh government, which claimed he was a courier for the rebels.
According to Sen, large parts of India are in a state of famine round the year. “The World Health Organisation says any person with body mass index (BMI) below 18.5 is suffering from chronic under-nourishment. That way, there is a stable famine existing in large parts of India permanently,” Sen tells me during a recent interview.
For India, addressing the Maoist problem is perhaps more pressing than any other issue. But Manmohan Singh’s government seems to have turned a blind eye to the problem, perhaps because it has been unable to devise a clear strategy to combat the menace. Meanwhile, India bleeds internally, with the rebels championing their cause at the point of the gun.
While the radical left abduct and kill wantonly in India, the mainstream communists introspect. This is perhaps due to their decline in electoral politics. In April, India’s largest left outfit, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) dissected the causes of its waning support and electoral losses at a party congress in the southern state of Kerala, where it lost power last year, as well as in the eastern state of West Bengal which they served for 34 years uninterruptedly. Unpopular land acquisition decisions are the apparent primary cause of that loss in Bengal, though the communist rulers’ arrogance and somewhat evil domination of every institution of importance in the state — from education to law and order enforcement — added to their downfall.
So when the CPI-M leaders met in Kerala’s Kozhikode from April 4 to 9, for its 20th Party Congress, it was expected that the party would come out with a new roadmap to regain lost ground and earmark new areas it could work in. The buzz was that the party would be reinventing itself.
However, according to analysts, despite several candid admissions and discussions, the CPI-M congress failed to come up with a concrete plan of action to achieve its ends.
CPI-M’s top decision making Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury contended that his party “toes Leninist theory line, but in an Indian context shunning any foreign model.” He added, “It is not a copy of the Chinese or Russian path. We have analysed the trends in socialist countries like China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and South Africa. We are learning from their experiences so that we can implement the good aspects of those systems in accordance with the situation here.’’ Experts however said that nothing new emerged after the party meeting. Monobina Gupta, a senior journalist and author of Left Politics in Bengal: Time Travels Among Bhadralok Marxists, also rued that the congress had achieved nothing. “There was only talk about giving the party a new direction but it was couched in the same old language and was superficial,” she said.
According to Kolkata-based political scientist Sabyasachi Basu Roychowdhury, the only positive outcome from the congress was a sign of maturing among the participants, and talk of an independent line. What he found lacking however, was the communists’ failure to look beyond its old pockets of influence — the three states of West Bengal and Tripura in the east and Kerala in the south. Roychowdhury says if the communists are to have a pan-India presence, they will have to address the caste politics of India particularly prevalent in the northern states.
Clearly, armchair theoreticians still decide the policies of the Left in India.
However, while the communists were routed in West Bengal, support for the Left has not completely waned there, and their importance in Indian politics is far from over, especially after a series of gaffes and authoritarian moves by the new government installed there, led by the Trinamool Congress.
Additionally, among all the political forces that rule, shape and “de-shape” India, the communist leaders still come across as those with a semblance of sincerity, civility and with some sort of ideological moorings. However, if they do not come up with any roadmap that offers a new direction, the communists might yet again miss the bus.
Khan of Hearts
Ask socialite Shobhaa De who is the most over-rated actor in India. Some time ago I heard her say it was Aamir Khan. She may not be wrong. Aamir Khan has been over-rated for the simple reason that he chose to walk an uncharted path within the framework of the heavily commercialised set-up which is India’s mainstream entertainment industry. However, an avid Aamir watcher myself, I think what endears Aamir to me and many other Indians not too smitten by the star aura of other actors, is his conscious decision to eke out something good from an industry where the stardom others have attained often owes to something too crass for any thinking cinegoer.
Of all the three Khans, I have always felt Salman Khan is the one who lives most by his heart, despite his bad boy image. But India’s cinegoers should be grateful to Aamir Khan for his several principled stands and trail-blazing actions that include his bold decision to boycott the award functions with all their pomp and little credibility. And when I caught glimpses of of Aamir Khan attending an auto rickshaw driver’s son’s wedding in Varanasi on a news broadcast on TV, I was pleasantly amused. During the promotion of Three Idiots three years ago, Aamir, who was going incognito then as part of the marketing strategy for the film, had befriended an auto rickhshaw driver in the chaotic Hindu pilgrim city of Varanasi. The friendship continued and when Ram Lakhan, the auto driver, took a train from Varanasi to visit Aamir Khan’s house in Mumbai this year to invite him to his son’s wedding ceremony in April, Aamir Khan was touched. So the cerebral Khan took a flight from Mumbai to Patna and then travelled by road to Varanasi to attend the wedding. The pandemonium and media madness that broke out in Ram Lakhan’s humble neighbourhood can just be imagined. But unfazed and oozing his usual charm, the Bollywood actor showed up in blue denim and a white kurta at the wedding venue. The emotional reunion of the two friends — a Bollywood superstar and an auto rickshaw driver from Varanasi — are the stuff Bollywood scripts are made of.
Meanwhile, Aamir Khan is making his TV debut with a programme on Star Plus from May 6. Titled Satyamev Jayate, the programme will showcase the actor connecting with the masses, no doubt, in the process touching an emotional chord with the people.
This article was originally published in the May issue under the headline “Of Battles and Bollywood.”