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Two Parallel Narratives

The case of the Sri Ram Sene leader Pramod Muthalik, who is facing some 40 criminal cases in Karnataka, epitomises the Indian state's pussyfooting in dealing with Hindu religious extremists, while that of the Maoist leader Kobad Ghandy typifies the same state's trampling down on dissenters upholding the cause of the poorer classes. In parallel, the confrontation between the morality of those who govern the Indian state and that of their Maoist opponents can best be encapsulated in a recapitulation of the careers of Union Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram and the Maoist ideologue Kobad Ghandy.

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Two Parallel Narratives Cama Place, and was then kept under
illegal detention for four days, during
which time he was subjected to grilling
and torture for hours. A cardiac patient,
Sumanta Banerjee and also suffering from prostate cancer,

The case of the Sri Ram Sene leader Pramod Muthalik, who is facing some 40 criminal cases in Karnataka, epitomises the Indian state’s pussyfooting in dealing with Hindu religious extremists, while that of the Maoist leader Kobad Ghandy typifies the same state’s trampling down on dissenters upholding the cause of the poorer classes. In parallel, the confrontation between the morality of those who govern the Indian state and that of their Maoist opponents can best be encapsulated in a recapitulation of the careers of Union Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram and the Maoist ideologue Kobad Ghandy.

Sumanta Banerjee (suman5ban@yahoo.com) is best known for his book In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (1980).

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
October 31, 2009

T
wo recent incidents in New Delhi suggest how the Indian state applies different yardsticks to treat its opponents. On 19 September, Pramod Muthalik, the Sri Ram Sene leader, who is facing some 40 criminal cases in Karnataka for attacking women in pubs, vandalising churches, and delivering inflammatory speeches directed against religious minorities, had free access to an ashram in Pahargunj in Delhi, where he addressed hundreds of delegates of some 18 militant Hindu organisations from 11 states. In his public speech, he exhorted them to follow his tactics to defend Hinduism, and announced the formation of a 15-member body to coordinate such activities all over India. The deputy commissioner of police, under whose jurisdiction Pahargunj falls, later told reporters that he had no information of the meeting. Muthalik is still at large, moving around and recruiting cadres.

Two days later – 21 September – the Delhi police announced the arrest of Kobad Ghandy, a member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) [CPI (Maoist)] politburo. The national press reported that the Andhra Pradesh police, the Delhi police and the Intelligence Bureau, had nabbed this top Maoist from a hideout in Delhi the previous day, in a joint operation. They accused him of “preaching Maoism” in Pune, Nagpur, Mumbai, Patna, Bhubaneshwar and other places. When on 24 September, a lawyer met him in jail, Kobad Ghandy gave out the real story. He was actually kidnapped by the police on 17 September at Bhikaji

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Ghandy had come to Delhi for treatment. He now remains incarcerated in Tihar Jail.

The two incidents epitomise the Indian state’s dual policy of pussyfooting in dealing with Hindu religious extremists on the one hand, and trampling down on dissenters upholding the cause of the poorer classes on the other. The Congress-led government in Maharashtra till today has refused to take action against the Sangh parivar goons who had been indicted by the Srikrishna Commission for killing Muslims in 1992-93. It allows the Shiv Sena and other Hindu armed outfits to go on the rampage against exhibitions and cultural functions by secular organisations in Mumbai. Conceding to their demand, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the centre continues to deny protection to India’s famous artist Maqbool Fida Husain, who because of the threat to his life by the Hindu extremist groups, is forced to live in exile. In sharp contrast to this appeasement of Hindu religious armed outfits, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has come out with an aggressive policy targeting the Maoists as the “gravest threat”. In other words, he is willing to ignore those (the Sangh parivar leaders) who are openly defying the basics of the Indian Constitution enshrined in its Preamble – belief in a “…Socialist, Secular Democratic Republic and to…promote... Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation…” Yet, he is keen on pouncing upon the Maoists, who, ironically enough, openly announce their commitment (in their

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party programme) to these very basics of the Preamble. In fact, in their areas of control (described as the “Red Corridor” by the media), they have been able to secure to the villagers at least two of the three conditions guaranteed by the Indian Constitution’s Preamble – “Justice, social, economic and political” and “Equality of status and opportunity…” This has been confirmed not only by non-partisan media reports, but also by the government’s own Planning Commission expert group. (As for the other condition – “Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship” – the Maoists, one has to admit, have shown a woeful disregard for such concerns, thereby besmirching their positive image.)

That there is a deliberate design in this lopsided reversal of priorities of the Indian state (whether under the present UPA or the previous National Democratic Alliance government) is confirmed by the union home minister’s recent stress on apprehending the political ideologues of the Maoist movement. “Besides taking them (the Maoists) on in jungles, the union government has decided to pluck out the top leadership to render the Maoists rudderless…” (www.expressbuzz.com, 25 September 2009). The arrest of Kobad Ghandy – one such ideologue – is therefore being claimed as a “big catch” by the union home ministry. But if we look at the other end of the pole, it is surely not mere oversight that the political ideologues of the Sangh parivar – leaders like Pramod Muthalik, Bal Thackeray, Vinay Katiyar, Praveen Togadia, who openly preach violence against religious minorities and secular forces – are seldom touched by the police. The Indian state winks at them – since they pose a threat only to the minority section of the population, whose interests have been already sacrificed by the politicians at the altar of majoritarian nation alism. The concept of the Indian nation state is fashioned either by the ideal of “Hindu Rashtra” of the Sangh parivar, or the “soft Hindutva” of the Congress Party, which is generally shared by the various other political parties, whether regional or national, which may claim to be secular.

A Tale of Two Leaders

In the meantime, the confrontation between the morality of those who govern the Indian state and that of their Maoist opponents can be best encapsulated in a recapitulation of the careers of two participants in the contest. One of them is the Union Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram and the other is the Maoist ideologue whom the former’s police have captured as a prime catch – Ghandy. Both of them are contemporaries – Chidambaram born in 1945, and Ghandy a year later. Both shared a common background of upper class upbringing and education. Chidambaram hails from the aristocratic family of Chettiars of Tamil Nadu, did his Masters in Business Administration from Harvard, came back to India to practise law, and then joined politics to finally occupy the present position of the union home minister. Ghandy comes from a Mumbai-based upperclass Parsi family, his father being a prosperous businessman. He completed his schooling from the prestigious Doon School and joined Bombay’s St Xaviers’ College. He then went to London to pursue studies in chartered accountancy.

While in England, he became initiated into leftist politics. On returning to Mumbai, he became active in the anti-Emergency movement during 1975-77.

The careers of the two individuals are a study in contrast. Let us examine Chidambaram’s biodata. During his tenure as a minister of state in the union commerce ministry under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, he was found to have invested in Fairgrowth, a company allegedly involved in the securities scam – an exposure which compelled him to resign from the government on 10 July 1992. In 1997, during his next stint as a minister at the centre, he came up with the dubious proposal called “voluntary disclosure of income scheme” which granted income tax defaulters indefinite immunity from prosecution! The proposal invited condemnation from the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, who in his report that year described it as “abusive and fraud on the genuine taxpayers of the country”. There is no end to Chidambaram’s unsavoury associations. He represented the controversial British mining conglomerate Vedanta Resources (of whose board of directors he was a member) in the Mumbai High Court till 2003, when he became the union finance minister. After assuming the ministerial office, significantly enough, he is not known to have taken any measure to recover the massive tax dues that the Vedanta group company Sterlite Optical Technologists Ltd owed the govern ment.

While Chidambaram worked his way up in the political ladder through a combination of profitable legal practice on behalf of the corporate sector, and party-hopping (from Congress to Tamil Manila Congress and then again to the Congress when the UPA came to power in 2004), Ghandy chose a different path on his return to India from London. After having taken part in the anti-Emergency movement, he played a leading role in establishing the Committee for the Pro tection of Democratic Rights (CPDR) in Mumbai in the late 1970s. Under his able leadership, the organisation took up the issue of human rights of the oppressed poor, not only in Maharashtra, but other parts of India through coordination with similar

October 31, 2009 vol xliv no 44 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

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organisations like the People’s Union of Democratic Rights, the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee, and the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights.

It was in this capacity that he came to be known to us in the civil liberties movement. All through the 1980s, Ghandy campaigned for the persecuted poor on the human rights platform, through the available democratic means. But down the line, at one stage, may be from his frustrating experiences as a human rights activist, he could haverealised that neither the administration nor the judiciary was prepared to listen to the voices of the oppressed. He joined the Maoist movement, and went underground at the end of the 1990s. With his wife Anuradha Shanbag (an equally brave woman who left her comfortable upper middle class home to join the movement), Ghandy moved to Nagpur where he lived amongst the poor, and took up the responsibility of propagating and publicising the ideology and practice of his party. While underground, Anuradha was struck by cerebral malaria, and deprived of proper medical treatment in the conditions in which they lived, she passed away in April 2008. Kobad also developed cardiac problems and suffered from prostate cancer – ailments which led him to seek treatment in Delhi, where he was arrested.

Babes in the Wood, or Snakes in the Grass?

Meanwhile, while Ghandy languishes in jail, his contemporary in politics, Union Home Minister Chidambaram has come up, apparently with the blessings of his prime minister, with the ill-conceived militarist measure, pompously called Operation Green Hunt. It threatens to clear the Maoist-dominated “Red Corridor” through an all-out offensive (including possible air-attacks on their bases in densely populated tribal areas), after which “developmental activities” (the euphemistic term used to describe the state’s permission to the corporate sector’s unbridled exploitation of the natural resources) can be undertaken in those areas. At the same time, in the face of stiff resistance by the Maoists and widespread criticism of such an operation by human rights groups, Chidambaram is now announcing his

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
October 31, 2009

willingness to talk to the Maoists if they abjure violence. But the talks can take place only when the state also abjures violence. The Maoists (in Lalgarh in West Bengal – the present boiling point) demand the withdrawal of the security forces whose atrocities there on the tribal populace provoked the violent retaliation against the state. In Chhattisgarh again, the Maoists are demanding an end to the violence by the state-sponsored Salwa Judum and the security forces. These are legitimate demands which have attracted worldwide attention (through reports by human rights groups).

But instead of responding to these demands in a positive humanitarian way, the cabinet duo – the prime minister and the home minister – seems to be marching towards disaster, from either monstrous innocence, or bloated self-confidence. Their bungling is not confined to the Maoist problem. Whether it is the insurgencies in the north-east or Kashmir, or popular upsurges against special economic zones (SEZs) in other parts of the country – the two are responding with knee-jerk reactions to the “sea of troubles” that are overwhelming the Indian state. In the trouble-torn north-eastern state of Manipur, for instance, the UPA government digs its head in an ostrich-like position in retaining the infamous Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, against which the Manipuri people have been fighting for decades – their protest exploding into public outbursts following the exposure of the recent killing of innocent men and women in the name of an “encounter” with terrorists. Dema n ding the withdrawal of the Act, Irom Sharmila had been fasting for the last nine years – being forcibly fed in police custody. Although the case has drawn worldwide condemnation from human rights activists, neither the Indian prime minister nor the Congress president (both of whom enjoy reputation as humanitarian personalities among world politicians) has cared to show an iota of concern for the plight of Sharmila and her people.

In Kashmir, the centre continues to bungle over one incident after another – the latest being its confusion over the state government’s handling of the Shopian rape case, which provoked a resurgence of mass demonstrations in the streets of Srinagar, and which were met again with the usual response of shooting down of protestors.

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The UPA government’s worst militarist response however is reserved for those who are known as Maoists or Naxalites – who have been described by the prime minister as “the gravest threat”. Lauded by his admirers for his sober and discerning stance on controversial issues, he seems to lose his cool whenever it comes to the Maoists.

Strangely enough, neither he nor his home minister appears to be perturbed in the least by what should be considered as the “gravest threat” to Indian democracy. It is posed by the home-grown armed outfits (as distinct from the terrorist infiltrators from Pakistan) of the Sangh parivar – publicly operating in the names of the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It is they who by their violence have accounted for the largest number of killings of innocent members of the minority communities all over India – during Advani’s infamous Rathyatra, the demolition of Babri Masjid, the aftermath of the Godhra train fire in Gujarat, the massacre of Christians in Orissa, and the continuing onslaughts that are taking place in Karnataka and other places. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s recent defeat in the elections should not blind us to the still alive monster of terrorism represented by the Sangh parivar’s thugs and militia.

Yet, we find the prime minister and his home minister totally impervious to this threat, and are instead aiming their guns at outbursts of popular protests which stem from genuine grievances – whether the denial of political rights to the Kashmiris or the Manipuris, or the deprivation of economic and social rights of the adivasis in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal’s Jangalmahal. At times, I wonder whether these two eminent members of the union cabinet are babes in the wood being led up the garden path by their advisers in the bureaucracy and the intelligence services – who have acquired over the years the unsavoury reputation of always misreading the ground reality, misleading their ministers with wishful thinking, and misdirecting them into a suicidal path. Or, are these two gentlemen, hitherto known for their sagacity, deliberately treading into the grass of an unknown territory – obsessed with the delusion of a militarist solution to the explosion of popular grievances?

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