Written by Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha
The year 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the Naxalite movement, which began in the 1960s in a remote village in north Bengal. While revolutionary fervour hailed the uprising as “Spring Thunder” that dared to storm “the gates of heaven”, the movement declined into hyper-extremism and thoughtless killings and since then, much have been written on the strategic and ideological mistakes of the movement. The political establishment ruthlessly suppressed the initial euphoria of Naxalism and the entire movement has been so demonised that any discussion of Naxalism or its present-day avatar of Maoism is taboo. But, in spite of all attempts at political stigmatisation, because of the reality of poverty and underdevelopment, Maoism makes its presence felt and is considered to be the longest-serving insurgency in the world.
Political and scholarly debates continue to ascertain what went wrong with the Naxalbari uprising, and Ajay Gudavarthy’s new book is to be seen against this backdrop of academic and intellectual reappraisal. Like his previous works on this subject, Maoism, Democracy and Globalisation: Cross-currents in Indian Politics (2014) and Politics of Post-Civil Society: Contemporary History of Political Movements in India (2013), Gudavarthy’s new book analyses the function and impact of revolutionary violence within the democratic discourse of India. It engages with almost every aspect of the Maoist movement in India, its objectives, methodology, revolutionary genesis, changing patterns of political strategy, and various debates on the legitimisation of violence as a revolutionary tool. Most of the contributors are acclaimed scholars and activists known for their domain expertise.
Gudavarthy traces the genealogy of the Maoist movement, demonstrating how the “semi-feudal, semi-colonial social formation of India” fostered political discontent. The postcolonial Indian state retained feudal social hierarchies and consequently the mode of production in independent India was actualised through “adjustment and not through displacement” of existing social structures. So all postcolonial democratic practises reproduced the structural violence of caste and class hegemonies. Any discussion of revolutionary violence, Gudavarthy argues, must take on board this inherently violent nature of Indian social systems.
Even Gandhi, the book claims, continued this “politics of accommodation” by downplaying demands for complete social restructuring, and, therefore, the Indian nationalist movement did not take any “revolutionary form”. The Gandhian paradigm of “gradual revolution” became the norm and our postcolonial democratic doctrines subscribed to this theory through consensus and adjustment, not radical ruptures. As democracy and revolution became mutually exclusive, electoral democracy for the Maoists emerged as the biggest impediment to revolution. If routinised violence has been endemic in Indian democratic governance, then why do we exclusively foreground episodic revolutionary violence as the only form of violence to be curbed?
The book also questions the efficacy and legitimacy of Maoist violence as a political tool by arguing that “violence obstructs the basic participatory ethos, given the sensibilities that democracy creates”, and, therefore, Maoist violence can be seen sometimes as “obstructionist” rather than “empowering”. It offers alternative suggestions to traditional Maoist ways by inquiring if revolutionary violence can be combined with participatory approaches or popular modes of mobilisation, which could include even electoral participation, as in Nepal and some parts of India.
The first two essays engage with strategic innovations like struggles for Janatana Sarkar (people’s revolutionary democracy) and kidnap as a less violent strategy. Sumanta Banerjee argues for a “Post-Maoist political strategy of revolution” as class configurations have changed drastically. Neera Chandhoke’s chapter on ‘Ambiguities of Revolutionary Violence’ analyses the fallacy of sole reliance on revolutionary violence and calls for a people’s war beyond violence. Maoist experimentation with Adivasi villages as base zones is also critiqued as Adivasis are sometimes allegedly used by Maoists as “revolutionary guinea pigs”.
The last two chapters by Chitralekha and Chandra are brilliant ethnographic analyses of the raison de etre of violence as a Maoist strategy. In spite of growing social and economic inequalities, mainstream anti-poverty political mobilisations have remained sporadic and episodic. Militant Maoism and its radical optics must be metamorphosed into popular mobilisations within the democratic fold. As political agency operates today within neoliberal grids, the exclusive recourse to political violence can be seen not only as an outcome of structural violence, but also as a sign of “failed political imagination” among Maoists. The book ends with a renewed plea for “Left populism” that is premised on new political imagination and strategies, and provides a significant contribution in the interplay of left extremism and democracy in India.