Byline by M J Akbar: An Indira Gandhi Moment
If so many male members of the Delhi establishment were not irredeemably bald, the loudest sound in the capital would be that of hair being torn in frustration. Those who have rescued their pates with American wigs [probably made with recycled hair from Tirupati] or artificial implants are not going to risk their camouflage by an injudicious display of temperament. So the prevailing noise in Delhi is the sound of gnashing teeth. The despair is over the upsurge of Naxalite violence.
While it is understandable that successful India should get antsy over subaltern anger, perhaps we should pause to consider what the Naxalites have not done; this would shade the focus, which is at the moment concentrated on what they have done. They did not kill the police officer they picked up in Bengal. They released him in exchange for tribal women in Government custody. They did not bargain for the release of their leaders, sending a message to a vast constituency that tribal women were equal, on their scale of values, to the top brass. You can appreciate the electrifying impact on their support base. And while relief will be the overwhelming sentiment among the passengers of Rajdhani, who were unharmed after five hours as captives, they will, on reaching home, search in the debris of memory for some answers. The Governments of Bengal and India were helpless when the train was brought to a halt, and impotent during the hours in captivity. The authorities did not rescue the passengers. The abductors freed them. These Naxalites have decided that their war is against authority and its structures and symbols, and not against the people of India.
This is a significant shift from Naxalite thinking in its first phase, the decade between 1965 and 1975, when the leadership was with Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal [a tribal leader] and their intelligent, if apoplectic, student comrades like Ashim Chatterjee, hero and scourge of Kolkata’s Presidency College campus. Then they targeted civilians, whether clerks or kulaks, and semi-civilians like constables. For the first time, traffic policemen in Bengal were forced to wear firearms, and all traffic points had to have at two least two men on duty — one to direct the city’s horrendous traffic and the other to guard his partner. This should have led, at least in my view, to learned internal dialectic debate on “Is the constable a class enemy?” I do not know if it did. What I do know is that when dread of Naxalites seeped down from those at the top of the power-pyramid to those in the middle and the base, it fomented a government-people-political parties partnership that destroyed the Naxalites. The state provided ruthless determination; the people gave information; the Congress and the CPI[M] used their cadres in the counter-offensive.
The Naxalites made a second serious ideological mistake, which they have consciously avoided this time around. The walls of Bengal were daubed with the slogan “Chairman Mao is our Chairman”. The Chairman of Beijing may not have been consulted on this honour, but he was not one to kick away a garland strewn in his path. Those were turbulent times in China as well; the Mao-inspired Cultural Revolution was an exercise in havoc, and mesmerised young Chinese waved Mao’s “Little Red Book” as the magical panacea for their myriad problems. No one wanted any little red book in India.
Mrs Indira Gandhi, who was martyred a quarter century ago, was Prime Minister for most of that long decade of insurrection. She did not waste any sentiment while dealing with the Naxalite threat. She gave carte blanche to Bengal’s political leadership [first, the United Front and then Congress Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray], police chiefs like Ranjit Gupta and finally the armed forces who, under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Jacob, played a decisive role in the state response to urban insurgency.
But Mrs Indira Gandhi addressed the fundamental cause of the revolt through a brilliant, almost instinctive manoeuvre. She realised that you could kill Naxalites, but you could not meet the challenge of Naxalism, unless the government brought the corroding problem of poverty to the top of its concerns. The theme of her re-election and government became “Garibi hatao [Remove poverty]”. She held out the hope that poverty could be eliminated through the democratic process, and was thereby able to convince the base that violence was not an answer.
In the event, Mrs Gandhi was unable to do very much to eliminate poverty — she was partly misled by the “Congress Left”, which was neither Congress nor the Left. But the special place she still retains in the hearts of India’s poor is evidence of her powerful political achievement. The state would not have succeeded as effectively without the parallel political mobilisation by Indira Gandhi.
In 2009, we are not short of Hurray-Henrys who would be happy to mow down Naxalites with blazing submachine guns in order to make India safe for themselves and their self-serving economic policies. They do not realise it yet, but they are going to miss Indira Gandhi.