The lure of Naxalism

Thinking Aloud

Far from being unique, Kobad Ghandy, the Maoist who was arrested recently, is well entrenched in the old tradition (especially strong in India) of upper class individuals turning their back on their own kind to lead the people. The obsession with austerity is rooted in that phenomenon.

Much is being made of reports that Ghandy’s Parsee family lived amidst antique furniture in Worli Sea Face and owned an ice cream factory and a resort in Mahabaleshwar. His wife Anuradha, a teacher who died earlier this year, is said to have belonged to a Konkani coffee plantation family.

Ghandy himself is an old boy of the elite Doon School and Mumbai’s Elphinstone College. All of this replicates the established political pattern. Rarely in history does a successful peasant leader emerge from the ranks of the peasantry. Svetlana Alliluyeva’s Communist husband, Brajesh Singh, was Raja of Kalakankar. By birth Brinda Karat cannot be farther removed from the proletariat.

This also applies to the Mahatma. Readers might think it sacrilegious to mention the two Gandhis (despite the Anglicised spelling that the late Feroze Gandhi also used until he married Indira Nehru, it’s the same name) in the same breath.

But Gandhji’s scanty attire and simple lifestyle would have passed unnoticed if he had been born to them and never known anything else. They were acclaimed only because he adopted them after abandoning the turban and smart three-piece suits of his earlier days. Our hoi-polloi loved it when the son of the dewan of a princely state and a British-trained barrister-at-law, member of the Inner Temple in London, described himself in court as “a farmer and weaver.”

None of this is to suggest that Ghandy espoused a just cause. The latest massacre in Bihar’s Khagaria district is a reminder that Maoist bloodshed has turned India’s Red Corridor, stretching from the Nepal border to Kerala, truly red. As one of the 13 members of the CPI (Maoist) Politbureau, Ghandy must be held at least partly responsible for this violence. If he also heads the party’s publication division and sub-committee on mass organisations, as the police claim, he is in charge of that most dangerous of revolutionary tools — propaganda.

The law must, therefore, take its course, despite pleas by well-meaning organisations like the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and the Committee For The Release of Political Prisoners. The tragedy is that in India, the law itself is so often illegally enforced. The PUDR is not alone in being sceptical about the number of political activists said to be killed either in custody or when trying to escape.

There are already accusations that Ghandy was arrested three days before the date the authorities give, tortured during that period of illegal custody and denied the life-saving medicines he needs. The police allegedly passing itself off as the media is a relatively minor transgression and may even indicate commendable ingenuity.

But Ghandy is by no means an isolated case. Sri Aurobindo and Subhas Chandra Bose spurned the ICS. Indrajit Gupta preferred trade unions to encashing his Cambridge Tripos. Dr Jack Preger, the British doctor who has devoted a lifetime to caring for the poor in India and Bangladesh, repeatedly defied Indian visa regulations because no one, he claimed, citing Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, had achieved anything in the subcontinent without going to jail. It was axiomatic that anyone who wanted to serve the country had to give up comforts, live rough and court danger.

Many starry-eyed upper middle class youths from Calcutta’s Presidency College and St Stephens in Delhi did just that and became Naxalites. Many later turned their coat to rise to the top of the corporate, administrative or academic worlds. Abroad, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, notorious as Danny the Red, hero of the Paris barricades, is now a respected Green politician.

Ghandy is not one of them. He cannot be compared to the ageing hippie who dared not emerge from his room because the world of ‘Flower Power’ had changed beyond recognition. Nor is he like the six European writers who famously wore the sackcloth and ashes of ideological repentance in ‘The God that Failed’. The god he worshiped may have turned out to be a false god, cruel and barbarous, but Ghandy’s faith seems undiminished.

Personal integrity does not make the cause more valid. The Naxalite-Maoist dream of igniting prairie fires and mobilising the countryside to encircle the cities was never realisable. But it did expose social and economic abuses, first in Naxalbari in West Bengal and then in Bihar, that should have received far more serious attention.

There are reports of the Centre planning a major operation against Maoists in November after the elections in Maharashtra and Haryana when 200 companies of paramilitary forces will be released from poll duty. Several senior Maoist politbureau members are the targets. The effort deserves to succeed but it will not unless it is carried out within the law and is accompanied by a serious attempt to rectify the rural abuses that gave rise to the insurgency in the first place.

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