Many readers of Truthout must have heard the story of Binayak Sen by now. The doctor, who has spent nearly three decades serving some of the most destitute of India’s poor, has figured in these columns before. After years of struggle against an oppressive system, he has hit the headlines again. On December 24, 2010, a lower-level court sentenced him to life imprisonment on a charge of “sedition” and “links with Maoists.”
Binayak’s crucifixion on Christmas Eve has caused a countrywide outrage, and he has now gone to a higher court with an appeal against the widely criticized verdict. Much has been said and written about the flaws and fallacies in the judgment. For outside observers less familiar with official discourse in India, however, the frequently mentioned “Maoist threat” and “Maoist links” may raise some questions.
Who are these Maoists? How serious is their threat? And, above all, is there a larger method and motive behind the establishment’s attempt to link Binayak’s message and mission with the Maoists?
Accepted political usage in India equates the Maoists with the extreme Left. More correctly, they represent the section of the Left that subscribes to the line of armed struggle. This is not a phenomenon of recent origin, despite the faith and philosophy of nonviolence preached by Mahatma Gandhi, still the main symbol of the country’s national liberation struggle. Instances of individual terrorism (long before the “t”-word acquired all its connotations of today) marked the only exceptions to the unarmed independence movement under Gandhi.
But 1947, the year of Indian independence, saw the eruption of an organized armed revolt of a noticeably large scale in a southern part of India. The Telengana rebellion, led by the then-Communist Party of India, lasted four years and awakened the country with an un-Mahatma-like rudeness to accumulated rural resentments. Before it could raise the specter of a peasant revolution, however, it was put down – and not only because of the superior armed power of the state.
Among the other reasons that must be counted, perhaps, is a new hope about what national independence could achieve and, even more, what democracy could deliver. The path India chose was legitimized further when the mainstream Left opted for parliamentary democracy. The next armed rebellion of a notable order, in fact, came as a challenge to the Left.
It occurred two decades later, in 1967, in the state of West Bengal, traditionally a Left stronghold. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the CPI (M), the largest of India’s Communist parties, became part of a coalition government in the state. In November of the same year, a section of the party, impatient with parliamentary “illusions,” as it viewed them, led an armed peasant uprising in Naxalbari in the north of the state. The authors of the revolt came to be known as Naxalites, and they inspired a “Naxalite movement” in other parts of the country, including Telengana, where remnants of the once-raging revolt have continued to linger.
The Naxalbari “spark” expected to “light the prairie fire” (in Mao Zedong’s words in relation to the Chinese revolution); however, it was extinguished with predictable ease. The armed struggle, waged mainly with bows and arrows, was no match against the combined might of the state and federal governments. The Maoist complexion of the movement only served to alienate the common Indian, and the urban Naxalites chanting “Chairman Mao is our chairman” did not win the nation’s heart.
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The CPI (M) went on to win power at the head of a Left Front in West Bengal and has succeeded in retaining power to date. The Naxalites, or Maoists, have continued to operate elsewhere, attracting notice (with a blast here, an ambush there) as a nuisance to the authorities rather than as a national force. A section of the original Naxalite spectrum – the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation (named after its English-language organ) – has abandoned the armed struggle line and opted unambiguously for parliamentary democracy.
They drew wider notice when several scattered Naxalite groups came together to form a united, extraparliamentary political party over six years ago. The CPI (M) was formed in September 2004, and is supposed to coordinate armed struggles over a significant swathe of territory running through nine states – from Uttar Pradesh in the north, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa in the east, and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in central India, to Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in the south.
This stretch is menacingly described in official and pro-official media as the “red corridor.” How terrible, really, is the military threat from the Maoists who have made their presence felt recently in parts of Chhattisgarh and West Bengal?
A couple of years ago, the Maoists’ strength was estimated at 10,000 armed fighters with access to about 6,500 firearms. The latest estimates by India’s intelligence officials revise the figure to 20,000 armed cadres, besides 50,000 active supporters, with a proportionately increased firepower. What are they up against?
The Maoist combatants confront a 1.34-million-strong police force and 1.3 million paramilitary forces, while the idea of enlisting the country’s 3.7-million-strong armed forces against the extremists has not been explicitly abandoned. The Maoists are not going to face the state’s full might, of course, but far less will do, especially considering the extreme mismatch in arms and personnel between the warring sides.
If the rebels command any strength, it is because the “red corridor” really describes the most impoverished regions of India. The hotbeds of “Maoism” are also habitats of the nation’s long-neglected aboriginal population, who are denied their rights and even natural resources in the name of “development.”
This is where Binayak comes in. The man set out some three decades ago to provide affordable medical treatment to Chhattisgarh’s tribal people. If he is fighting today to avert life imprisonment, it is because of the clinical observations he made about a cruel injustice – and because he sought to act against an unjust system.
In a television interview in February 2010, he portrayed the existential problem he encountered in the region as part of a larger phenomenon: “There is a chronic famine abroad in the land and this famine envelops, according to the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau, which is a government organization, 33 percent of the people in this country who have a clinically demonstrable chronic under-nutrition.” These numbers include, he noted, 50 percent of the tribal population and 60 percent of the caste-oppressed “untouchables” of India.
Speaking about Chhattisgarh, he added: “These communities … have thus far survived because of a fragile and tenuous equilibrium that they have established with their ecosystem and which they are able to maintain because of their access to common property resources like land, water and forests.” This is no longer common property because powers-that-be were keen to give it all away to multinationals and their minions with little returns and no rehabilitation hopes for the people of the land.
Binayak did describe the Maoist-led struggle as “a response to chronic poverty, of which malnutrition is only a part.” But, in the same interview, he emphasized: “I do not endorse violence by any party. Whether it is the violence of the state – I decry the violence of the state; I decry the violence of the people opposing the state.”
In an article he wrote from jail in 2009, he listed the “resources” on which an alternative medical care system could rely. “One of them is the collective experience of public litigation and legislation towards the achievement of certain human rights, principally the right to food….”
The second resource, according to him, was the UN covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The third consisted in the village-level elected bodies. The list could not have contained less violent or more constitutional measures.
Nor can it be clearer what India’s establishment is trying to do in the name of anti-Maoism in Binayak’s case. It is trying to lock him away for life because he speaks and acts for a path of development that does not disregard the tribal people and other people invisible to India’s economic planners.