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Anchoring a troubled nation

Published May 30, 2013 07:51am

INDIAN Maoists said they got a key tormentor in a well-planned ambush in Chhattisgarh on Saturday, or you could agree with the TV anchors that the rebels carried out the cowardly murder of 28 men from a convoy of 20 cars belonging to state-level leaders of the Congress party.

The attack is thought to have been carried out mainly by women guerrillas in revenge for what the Maoists and independent analysts say have been horrific incidents of rape and murder carried out periodically by Mahendra Karma, founder of the dreaded state-backed Salwa Judum militia. He was killed in the ambush.

To have an approximately cogent picture of the incident you have to understand the worldview of the TV anchors that break the news and interpret it on a daily basis in India.

To balance their narrative you could watch Sanjay Kak’s new documentary that gives a rare glimpse of life in the Chhattisgarh forests where a ragtag army of poorly armed but highly motivated tribespeople have dug in for a long-drawn battle for sovereignty and dignity.

Images of young men and women in military uniform, but also often wearing bathroom slippers and sarongs, with an archaic gun slung casually on their shoulders as they dance and sing to tribal rhythms offers an untapped visual of India’s “biggest internal security threat”.

I recommend the documentary, Red Ant Dream, to all TV anchors and their wider audiences for an informed assessment of the current state of Maoism in India.

But this is not how television channels and the deep state whose views they mostly echo would want you to understand or see India’s Maoists.

The demeanour of the anchors reminds me of a movie I watched in 1960. “Main Hindustan hoon [I am India]”, bellows the baritone voice as the map of India slowly rises from its horizontal stupor to light up the screen. That’s how the all-time classic Mughal-i-Azam began to tell its riveting story — a splendorous musical replete with close-to-authentic costumes, great acting and sustained myth-making.

Of late, the ‘I am India’ syndrome has afflicted successful and aspiring TV anchors but the one who takes the cake is he who daily barks out orders to the army chief and to the prime minister, or to a Shakespearean mob, to chop a few Pakistani heads in revenge for a badly reported border incident or who does a bit of sabre-rattling with Russian-built missiles that target China.

When the border saga tends to drag somewhat the anchor, as do his rival colleagues, quickly conjures up an Indian quarry. Hang the rapists in a public square, put suspected Muslim terrorists before a kangaroo court.

The other day the bespectacled anchor was livid, furious. When that happens, and it must happen frequently enough to sustain the TRP ratings that intertwine with TV-induced nationalist fervour, you can feel the Bengali-accented English giving way to heavier Bengali-accented English.

The expressive Kathakali demeanour of the anchor begins to resemble Emperor Akbar in rage. “I am India. And there will be bloodletting.” Trusted analysts then go into a chorus of yelling and screaming to justify the state’s arriving retribution

A less angry explanation for Saturday’s incident could be found in India’s recent history. There are Maoists and Maoists. After initially opposing them in Nepal, India is currently engaging with them there. In Iran, the powerful Maoists got the better of the mullahs for a long time, unlike their pro-Soviet Tudeh comrades who were quickly decimated after the Islamic Revolution.

The Iranian Maoist attacks on Khomeini’s Islamic state would make their Indian counterparts look like novices. In one instance, they blew up parliament with the prime minister and his cabinet buried in it. The West applauded and we can safely assume even helped them. They became the CIA’s eye in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Clearly, Maoism is not the solution to India’s myriad problems with rapidly depleting social justice. Nor does the official argument for “development” offer real hope to defeat them because colonialism also developed India’s infrastructure, laid railway lines, set up schools. The question is the same as then: what is the state’s motive?

The current war in Chhattisgarh is a two-way street of vendetta and brutality in which the state and the Maoists are complicit, with the state bearing the greater responsibility to end the cycle of violence peacefully. The Maoists deserve to be censured unequivocally for the death of too many innocent people on Saturday. But it is dishonest to characterise their war as a battle between democracy and bloody-minded rebels. Which democracy, the Maoists asked?

Remember that Mao Zedong died in September 1976 at about the time when Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule was in full cry over India. If we bear this seemingly unrelated fact in mind we can at least verify again, if any verification is needed after the traumatic events of 20th-century Europe, that authoritarianism afflicts socialist and capitalist societies alike.

When the emergency was lifted in India in 1977, it left behind the pulsating idea that dictatorship could be honed into statecraft more quietly and insidiously than Mrs Gandhi did.

India’s drift from its promise of liberal democracy towards a repressive police state is a work in progress in which regional authoritarian tendencies are competing with a federal penchant for militarist solutions.

The disillusionment of Faiz Ahmed Faiz with a situation in which it could be deemed criminal to walk with your head held high, applies just as nicely to many parts of India today.

Senior lawyer Shanti Bhushan recently described the current criminal justice system as a notch worse than the one run by colonialism. There was no TV channel to note his remarkable observation.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.