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Radical Resistance and Political Violence Today

This article critiques the Maoist strategy of systematic armed struggle against the state with the aim of replacing it with a socialist state. The Maoists do not expand the democratic space available for mass movements but rather mirror the repressive structures of the very state they are fighting. Genuine resistance to exploitation and oppression has come from radical mass movements which have built diverse coalitions on the ground and which have experimented with alternatives to the state. Anarchist is not an abuse which can be hurled at the Maoists, rather it is a resource for people fighting power structures.


Radical Resistance and Political Violence Today

Nivedita Menon

limiting the right to freedom of expression. In this debate over the first amendment to the Constitution, Ambedkar argued that calls for social boycott of scheduled castes by caste Hindus, or campaigns to prevent them from using wells, constituted “incitement to violence”, and should

This article critiques the Maoist strategy of systematic armed struggle against the state with the aim of replacing it with a socialist state. The Maoists do not expand the democratic space available for mass movements but rather mirror the repressive structures of the very state they are fighting. Genuine resistance to exploitation and oppression has come from radical mass movements which have built diverse coalitions on the ground and which have experimented with alternatives to the state. Anarchist is not an abuse which can be hurled at the Maoists, rather it is a resource for people fighting power structures.

This is the revised version of a presentation at a panel discussion organised by the Department of Political Science, Delhi University, in November 2009. I thank Saroj Giri for inviting me to speak at it, and for the title he gave to the event, which I have appropriated!

Nivedita Menon (niveditamenon2001@yahoo. teaches in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

here is over a century of discussion on political violence within the Marxist tradition and outside, but that is not my focus here. I also set aside arguments that condemn all violence as morally unacceptable, except to note that these do not always address the fact that the modern state has monopoly over legitimate means of coercion, thus establishing a visible horizon of violence within which we live.

In this article, I will quickly outline my own views on violence in order to reflect on the possibilities for democratic politics today.

At the most obvious level, violence is associated with physical coercion and injury. Even here I distinguish between violence to person and to property, and within this, between violence to private property and to state-owned property, placing on a descending scale of magnitude, physical violence against the person, to private property and to state property. Structures of capitalist property, patriarchy or caste ensure that physical violence is not required to maintain inequality and injustice on a daily basis, because they successfully hegemonise public notions of morality. Thus, the violence carried out on the sense of self and on the bodies of the powerless in these structures and through these discourses, is invisible, while acts of resistance or counter-formations appear to be violent because they threaten the stability of the social order. Foucault might say that the very production of subjectivity through various discourses and practices of governmentality renders actual violence unnecessary unless faced with counterformations of self – the feminist within patriarchy, the non-heterosexual within heteronormativity, the indisciplined body within capitalist work practices and the militant dalit within caste practices.

Such an understanding of structural v iolence underlies Ambedkar’s support in 1951, to the amendment to Article 19

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not be p rotected under freedom of speech and expression.

An understanding of structural arrangements that leave some sections permanently empowered, and others permanently weak, would recognise that violent acts by the latter are unavoidable, and therefore tries to outline the kinds of v iolence that are morally justified, “selfdefence” being the simplest of these. It is within this framework that the term “political violence” arises, as distinguished from criminal acts of violence. However, this distinction is impossible to sustain, beyond a point, for example theft by a person employed as a domestic servant, who may injure someone in the process. It cannot be understood simply as “criminal” if you place it within the violence involved in the very institution of “domestic servants”, rooted in feudal relations of power and patriarchal sexual division of labour. Nevertheless, “political violence” continues to be a useful conceptual device to d ifferentiate an act of violence arising from a structure of violence that pre-exists and frames the act. A parallel distinction is often made that accepts the greater m orality of violence of the weak against the strong.

Structural Violence of Property Relations

The anarchist thinker Proudhon referred to the structural violence underlying property ownership in his claim “Property is theft”. He argued that originally all things were common and undivided, property ownership came about with war and conquest, followed by unequal distribution of property. Possession of property breeds more property, and so “we live in a permanent condition of iniquity and fraud”. To Proudhon, all property is illegitimate, all acts of violence against property are acts of political violence, and therefore property must be abolished altogether.

Marx develops another kind of argument about property that is more useful to

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understand what is happening in India today. In Capital he demonstrates how in England, over the 16th to 18th centuries, common property was privatised by a section of the nobility/landlords, dispossessing peasants and artisans and transforming them into impoverished wage labour who were then made available to future capitalist employers. Thus, by the 18th century “the law itself became the instrument of the theft of people’s land”. In other words, it is possible to read in Marx a distinction between non-capitalist forms of ownership, and property in its capitalist form. While Marx sees the transformation of the first to the second as historically progressive ultimately, no 21st century Marxist can afford not to be critical of this progressivist account, especially in view of ecological critiques of capitalist development. The blind acceptance of this progressivism is largely responsible for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) CPI(M)’s role in advancing corporate interests in West Bengal.

In India, from the late 20th century onwards, this theft of the people’s land is b eing carried out by corporate capitalist interests aided by the state, whatever the party in power.

Thus – spontaneous violence against the structural violence of the state and of capitalist property, violence in selfdefence, and even pre-planned violence as an act of desperation – these possibilities always seem just below the skin of normal society, and must be understood within the context of unrelenting, never- addressed injustice. Such acts are justifiable political violence – from the long history of adivasi uprisings against state power, to violence on property during strikes, to the battered wife with an endlessly abusive husband, waiting for him to fall into a drunken sleep before stabbing him to death.

Political assassinations and executions would not be part of this range – the crucial distinction I make here is between v iolence arising in the course of a political movement or in the course of everyday life, and violence as integral to the revolutionary consciousness (a la Fanon) and as strategy (a la revolutionary vanguards). The latter, with its integration of violence into the heart of an institution or movement, mimics the modern state with its

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monopoly over legitimate violence. The challenge to the state offered by this position is limited to challenging this monopoly, offering in turn a counter-violence that becomes equally institutionalised.

Towards Becoming the State

Parties like the CPI(Maoist) are based on

armed revolution as a strategy to overthrow state power, which involves (a) working towards becoming the state, (b) intense, paranoid secrecy, and (c) the normalisation of a wartime mentality in which loss of non-combatant lives is taken to be unavoidable collateral damage.

All three tendencies are inherently antidemocratic.

The CPI(Maoist) document, Urban Perspective, available freely on the web, outlines its strategy of using “broad mass organisations” in order to “work under cover for a long time and accumulate strength”. This work “of course” has to be conducted under “the strictest methods of secrecy”. Such organisations “can and must be utilised” in the periods of legal opportunities. The party must also engage in “fractional work” – here it “works through the numerous mass organisations that operate in the urban areas...penetrates such organisations without exposing any links with the party.” It then “strives to achieve a leading position in it…The important point in fractional work is the skilful exposure of the reactionaries and reformists leading or participating within these organisations. This exposure is essential to draw the masses away from their influence.” Within existing legal democratic organisations, such as the coalitions and alliances formed against repression, globalisation, Hindutva, anti-capitalism or people’s struggles, the aim is to work with them while “we concentrate simultaneously on developing the secret Party core within it”.

In short, take over existing mass organisations when you cannot set them up, work towards subverting their existing processes by producing propaganda about those who are influential in it, always utilise movements towards a secret end, which, if revealed, very few will be with you.

Like all states, it cannot permit competitive centres of power. The case of Lalgarh is illustrative. Santosh Rana, a legendary leader of the Naxalite revolt in the 1960s,

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and leader of one CPI(ML) group active in Jharkhand today, says this about the CPI(Maoist) role in the context of the mass uprising:

After the withdrawal of police camps…the movement was spreading to new areas. An opportunity was found where the awakened masses could be mobilised to establish organs of self-rule on the basis of a democratic principle... But the Maoists operating in the area…wanted to utilise the uprising to create an area where the[ir] rule…would be established, an area where there would be no opposition, not even any differing voices. So they attempted to abolish all other party and social organisations… The differences with the Majhi Marwa was objectively not such as could not be resolved within a democratic framework. This is an association of “Majhis” (traditional village headmen among the Santhals). There are no landlords or even rich peasants among them. When the CPI(M) had tried to impose its oneparty rule in nearby Jamboni few years back, the Majhis played an important role in mobilising the masses in their fight for democracy. But the Maoists wanted to abolish all social and political organisations who would not abide by their diktat. The PCPA (Peoples’ Committee against Police Atrocities) led by the Maoists issued a leaflet announcing the trial of Nityananda Hembrom, the head of Majhi Marwa in “people’s courts”…They issued orders that everybody living in their area of influence would have to join processions called by them. Some people under the influence of Majhi Marwas defied this order. Many of them were beaten and some were killed. The murder of Sudhir Mandi in the last week of November by the Maoists created a major split among the masses. He belonged to the Jharkhand Party. He was a poor peasant having one acre of Dahi (highly infertile land)… Even after remaining chairman of panchayat samiti for five years, he lived in his traditional mud-house with thatched roof…But to the Maoists…[a] poor tribal is a class-enemy simply because he refused to carry out their order… ( The experience of Himanshu Kumar, a

Gandhian who had worked for years in

Chhattisgarh running a non-governmental

organisation (NGO) called Vanvasi Chetna

Ashram (VCA), is equally revealing. His

yatra, in September 2008, to enable

a divasis caught between the CPI(Maoist)

and the Salwa Judum to return to their

villages was cut short at the diktat of the

Maoists. In an open letter to the CPI(Maoist)

in the EPW (4 October 2008) he said: [On the fourth day of the yatra] we were surrounded by a group of Maoists...they


retorted that they could not allow us to continue as they had orders from their “seniors” to prevent us from completing the yatra. Then they took our mobiles, clothes, bags, food and medicines and the bicycle carrying these provisions...[T]he woman commander of the Maoist group told us that now they would see to it that the VCA was not allowed into Nendra... If we had been stopped by the police or Salwa Judum we would have been angry, but having been stopped by the Maoists we feel hurt and insulted...

In May 2009, the VCA was demolished by the local authorities and Himanshu made peace with the CPI(Maoist). The “other” politics he was trying to build, between the Indian state and the CPI(Maoist), was thus wiped out by the parallel violence of both.

Parties like CPI(Maoist) require secrecy not just from the state, but also to penetrate democratic mass movements. A secret core has to commit the movement to courses of action dictated by the party from afar, not those emerging from the ground. Secrecy is thus directed at the mass movement and to its subversion, as much as it is to the state, with the u ltimate aim to become the state itself. It is this vanguardism which is opposed by many.

Similarly, its violence too is directed against the people, whether through bomb blasts, enforcement of poll boycott or through killing of “police informers”. This last is routine and well publicised, as a deterrent, by the party itself and the victims are usually poor people caught helplessly in the pincer-grip of police brutality and the CPI(Maoist) proto-state.

Death, Displacement and Deprivation: The War In Dantewara – A Report (2006) by the Human Rights Forum (HRF, with K Balagopal as secretary), while being scathing about the violence of the state and supportive of the party, said this about the village administration set up by the party:

While the Sangham’s internal functioning may well be democratic, in the sense that airing of different views is permitted before any decision is taken, there is no freedom to set up a rival organisation or to practise one’s dissent after a decision has been t aken. Any one practising alternative politics of any kind runs the risk of being dubbed an agent of the state, and dealt with accordingly (p 13).

This report records widespread resentment among the forest-dwellers about the party’s destruction of existing roads to prevent troop movement and destruction of school buildings:

the [Party’s] rationale is that there should be no pucca buildings in villages that the paramilitary could use as shelter or for setting up camps. This is symptomatic of how the working out of the Maoist strategy of guerrilla struggle against the state creates needs for the organisation that are not congruent with the needs of the people, and could in fact be against the interests of the people. It is for this reason that democratic activists should be cautious in identifying all the needs of the guerrilla struggle as the “interests of the people” (p 17).

One does not have to wait for some future moment to see how the Party will

o perate if it comes to power. It is already behaving like a state – imposing taxes, claiming monopoly over means of coercion, and so on. In a recent interview with Mint, Kishenji (Koteshwar Rao, politburo member of CPI(Maoist)) says that they take “contributions” from everyone in the area, but not from those whose earnings come from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Consider the implications of this! The party keeps track of the source of every household’s earnings, decides whom to spare and whom not to. The HRF report says that the forcible recruitment of youth into the Maoist organisations was a complaint they heard from many. However, since the Maoists denied this, the report leaves this as an unverified fact (p 19). But this complaint is heard by many visitors to these areas, for example, students on NREGA survey teams. Are we to assume that the people are lying and the Party is telling the truth?

The Maoists are not asking for selfdetermination, nor are they demanding the rollback of a particular policy. Their objective is to overthrow the state and become the state. When they take up arms against the state, they are prepared that the state will reciprocate with force. The party and its committed members are ready for this. But not every adivasi, not even most adivasis, in the region are. Its decision to declare war on the state was not taken after conducting a referendum among the people who are affected by the ensuing violence. The Maoists started their operations and expect that return

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pressure from the state will drive more and more people into their fold, helplessly. There is no middle point.

On the question of the undifferentiated adivasi-Maoist, there is much dissembling among middle-class supporters of the p arty. They argue, simultaneously, that the state is using the “Maoist menace” as an “excuse” to attack resource-rich tribal areas (that is, the Maoist Party is small and no real threat to the state), but also that there is no difference between this party and the adivasis (that is, there are no “innocent” people, no civilians in this war).

And yet, despite all of this, my democratic instincts insist, even the CPI(Maoist) must be given its place within the spectrum of political dissent, as one element of the spectrum.

Confronting State-Corporate Nexus

There are other voices in India militating against corporate greed masquerading under cover of democracy. We must insist on the legitimacy of dissenting voices within the dissent to the state.

It is in the interest of both the Indian state and the Maoists to claim that all resistance to corporate marauders comes from this one single entity, thus delegitimising all other shades of opposition. The non-differentiation between tribals taking up arms, “Naxalites”, and the CPI(Maoist) appears a pernicious conflation carried out by the mass media and the government – and unknowingly by intellectuals of integrity – which suits the CPI(Maoist) very well. The same tactic is followed by local administrations of the state who brand all activists as “Maoists”. For example, the militant land struggle of dalits in Chengara (Kerala) and the organisation which provides leadership, the Dalit Human Rights Movement, is claimed to be linked to Maoists, which helps justify the administrations jailing of nearly 200 dalits.

This myth of the composite adivasi-Maoist obscures the fact that the really e ffective resistances to corporate and neoliberal designs have been militant mass movements – whether in Goa, where the government was forced to roll back its entire special economic zone (SEZ) policy, or Nandigram and Singur. In Jharkand, over 50 deals with corporates signed by

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the previous governments remained unimplemented till 2006 due to sustained resistance from local people. Recently, Arcelor-Mittal announced that it was on the verge of leaving Jharkand due to such resistance, although what the future holds, we cannot say. In Raigarh, farmers’ agitations forced the district administration to hold a referendum on a proposed Reliance venture, and in a massive turnout, 82% voted against it. On the contrary, where the Maoists are established as a proto-state or state-in-waiting, it is well known that they permit corporate interests and local state bureaucracies to operate peacefully on payment of extortion rates.

What we see in popular struggles is that spontaneous resistance coalesces into broad coalitions of local interests, held together by a collectively decided common minimum programme, even though significant differences on other issues may continue to exist among those who are part of this popular coalition. These coalitions include affected villagers and tribal people, religious groupings (the Catholic Church in Goa, Jamat Ulema-i-Hind in Nandigram), leftists of various hues including the CPI(Maoist), middle class intelligentsia, Gandhians – the range can be very wide. These movements are not necessarily non-violent at all times, and involve, as in Nandigram, serious challenges to the authority of the state. However, they are not (at least initially and for some time) led by or influenced by the ideology of the CPI(Maoist) or any other party, though local parties (including Trinamool and even the CPI(M) outside West Bengal and Kerala) are part of these coalitions. This has been the pattern of non-party non-funded citizens’ initiatives of the 1990s, whether on issues like secularism, workers’ rights and the anti-nuclear platform. These had periods of quite effective intervention for some years, fading out after that. However, from my own experience in such forums, I know that at least some of them broke up due to “fractional work” by front organisations of the CPI(Maoist).

A now familiar trajectory, then, is of state-corporate appropriation of local resources, popular resistance followed by state repression, and the branding of a mass movement as “Maoist”, thus increasing the

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possibility of its actually coming under the control of the party, as has happened with the PCPA in Lalgarh.

“Operation Green Hunt”, of course, needs to be denounced as yet another manifestation of the Indian state’s violence towards its citizens. But the CPI(Maoist) is as little concerned about the lives of noncombatants as is the state. What we see in “Operation Green Hunt” is the crushing of an unarmed non-combatant population between two armies – the mighty army of the Indian state and the less mighty, but equally deadly for civilians, army of the CPI(Maoist). The party has declared war on the state but now hear that the party is ready for talks. What possible dialogue can it have with the government, when the party’s official line in their document Urban Perspective says, “the line of protracted people’s war, the liberation of urban areas, will be possible only in the last stage of the revolution”. As the HRF report said,

The Maoist movement is not a movement for economic benefits to the poor that uses violent methods for better results… It is a political movement that hopes to smash the existing State structure and establish a new State to herald a new society (p 12).

Thus, the very idea of talks is actually ruled out, but the Maoists may periodically agree to talks in order to gain time and space to regroup and prepare for the “next stage”. On the other hand, what message does the Indian state send when it offers to talk to those brandishing guns, but not to those who do not?

Militancy, Violence, Democratic Dissent

Continued state repression of non-violent struggles – for instance Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) members were brutally attacked, yet again, by the police two months back for demanding the five acres of land promised by the government to each oustee – one might, in fact, reflect on the NBA’s experience that it reposed i nordinate faith in institutions of the state for far too long. If the NBA were to “take up arms” it should be supported, because it would have a specific, limited goal in mind and something done only after exhausting all other possibilities.

This is very different from the CPI(Maoist) war on the state, directed

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towards its capture. This paradigm of capture of state power that dominated revolutionary thought for more than a century has failed. The reform/revolution debate has proved to be limiting and misleading. As seen over the 20th century, this model has been nothing but a painful transition from “revolutionary socialism” to capitalism, with almost no exceptions.

John Holloway points out that Marxist revolutionary movements have persisted in seeing the state as an instrument that can be wielded in the interests of the p eople. But

such a view reproduces the autonomisation of the state from its social environment, the critique of which is the starting point of revolutionary politics…The mistake of Marxist revolutionary movements has been…to misunderstand the degree of integration of the state into the network of capitalist social relations (Holloway 2002: 13-14).

The only successful confrontation with contemporary forms of capital and state will be by genuine mass movements with alternative visions of power, a radically different conception of nature that rejects altogether its framing as a “resource” to be used, and of alternative democratic communities.

These will also be local and differentiated, not fitting into one model of revolutionary transformation.

If the Indian state ever retreats from its policy of facilitating corporate loot of tribal areas and ecologically unsustainable development, it will be due to the pressure of such mass movements. The CPI(Maoist), on the contrary, offers the state the best possible escape route from sustained and sharp criticism on democratic grounds, enabling war-like responses and offering it a justification unavailable in Kalinganagar and Nandigram.

In conclusion, let me draw attention to the Chiapas region of Mexico, under the armed occupation of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, an organisation of the Mexican Indians, since 1994. A ccording to its representative, the masked Subcomandante Marcos, six individuals who came to the Chiapas to propagate Marxist-Leninist theory found that the “absurdities” they had come with – “imperialism, social crisis” – was a rhetoric that did not ring true for the Indians. So, abandoning the classic and familiar


project of “correctly explaining social reality to the masses”, they unlearnt their theory. Marcos calls the difficult process that began “a process of cultural contamination” – the non-Indian Zapatistas learnt to listen, and learnt from the Indians. The lasting transformation that happened was “socialism in broad brush-strokes, but enriched with ethics, morals, more than simply indigenous” (Higgins 2004: 159-67). Low-intensity warfare continues to this day, but their democratic, radically other transformative practices make the Z apatista revolution unique. Their battle is against capitalism and the Mexican state, and while they want to remake the world, to create a world of dignity and humanity, they are doing so without taking over the state.

Romanticism? Well, if one has to choose between the romanticism of martyrdom and the counter-romanticism of a whole community rising and posing radical alternatives to dominant commonsense(s) about work, nature, sexuality, social organisation, of defiantly operating outside the legibility zones of the state, refusing to set up a counter-state, evolving new ways of democratic self-governing, remaining permanently open to criticism and transformation – then surely one will choose the latter.1

Balagopal had, in “Beyond Violence and Non-violence”, pointed out that neither 40 years of the Naxalite movement nor the longer history of non-violent civil disobedience in India had been effective in terms of reversing structural trends, though each has had small successes. This is what “tempts honest activists”, he said, to “look for short cuts, ranging from armed action to PILs. But there are no short cuts”.

This is a remarkable insight, that both reform and revolution are “short cuts” caught within the ambit of the state; short cuts to mass democratic transformation.

After all, if both Naxalite struggles and democratic mass mobilisation have been limited in terms of “success”, at least mass mobilisation has the advantage of involving the larger number of people; allowing for the possibility of learning from mistakes and changing course, and most importantly, of learning to live and engage with differences within the spectrum of dissent to state and corporate power.


1 Since “anarchism” is a term of abuse from the organised left, posing as it does, a threat to legitimate centres of power, and since the CPI(Maoist) has therefore been castigated as “anarchist” by Prakash Karat, I want to reclaim here the meaning of anarchism as anti-statism, anti-power centres, and standing for recognition of power as productive and multi-focal. Anarchism thus is as far from the CPI(Maoist) as from the CPI(M).


Balagopal, K (2009): “Beyond Violence and Nonviolence”, beyondviolence-and-non-violence-k-balgopal/(accessed on 26 November).

CPI(Maoist) (2009): Urban Perspective (accessed on 26 November).

Higgins, Nicholas P (2004): Understanding the Chiapas Rebellion: Modernist Visions and the Invisible Indian (Austin: University of Texas Press).

Holloway, John (2002): Change the World without T aking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today (London: Pluto Press).

Western Regional Centre Indian Council of Social Science Research

J P Naik Bhavan * Vidyanagari * Mumbai 400098

The Indian Council of Social Science Research, Western Regional Centre in association with eSocialSciences announces the Academic Writing Workshop for MPhil and PhD scholars. The workshop will be held in Mumbai in March 2010. Preference will be given to participants from western India.

This is an intensive hands-on workshop intended to assist scholars on the verge of publishing their research output. Scholars will also have an opportunity of interacting with senior scholars who will mentor them. Scholars are expected to produce a draft paper by the end of the workshop. Participants will also be encouraged to explore new modes for research communication.

Applications must include a brief academic background & biodata and a draft outline/concept note of the research paper they intend to work on in the course of the workshop. Applications not accompanied by an outline will not be considered. The application & proposal (hard copy neatly typed in double space) should reach the Centre by 30th January, 2010. Future communication in this regard can be made on

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