A Generalised State of Exception and the Maoists in India

Pothik Ghosh
A shorter version of the article appeared in The Hindustan Times (April 8 2010)

Appearances, as the cliché goes, are often deceptive. The annihilation of 73 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, by combatants of the Maoist People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army has, however, given a new twist to that cliché. The incident, thanks to the phenomenology constructed for it by an ever-increasing number of breathlessly sensationalist television news channels, has become as overwhelming as its visual effect. But before ‘liberal’ middle India allows itself to be overwhelmed by the appearance of the incident and gives in to a sense of outrage served to it by its bad conscience – the tragedy-hungry, bloodthirsty and shrill mass media – it would do well to take a step back from the popular representations of the “massacre” and ponder hard on what lies beyond the vanishing point of those ‘galling images’.

Before the more vocal, patriotic and humane sections of this liberal citizenry begin shouting at the top of their voices that the law of the land, the sovereignty of its state and, therefore, the very idea of democratic India is facing its gravest adversary ever, they would do well to remember how the rule of the law (nomos) is envisaged in modern jurisprudence. Constitutive of a modern and democratic legal regime is its undemocratic exception, something that it bares when the socio-political order it is meant to maintain and enable runs into an existential crisis. This appearance of the undemocratic exception, from the depths of the democratic law where it lies carefully concealed, onto the surface of legal legitimacy entails the suspension of the democratic aspects of the ‘normal’ law. That the Indian Constitution has provisions for the declaration of internal emergency – something the nation actually experienced once as a matter of political and legal fact in the ’70s – under certain conditions shows how the democratic law of a democratic state can suspend itself to legitimately institute its undemocratic exception.

The first and most important thing we must, therefore, grasp is the conditions that lead to the institution of the exception as the norm imply a situation in which usual (‘normal’) forms of mass democratic politics, including electoral politics, cannot be allowed to have an unbridled run without imperiling the system of representative democracy that purportedly make such forms of politics possible and necessary in the first place. The emergence of the exception as the law ensures precisely that by either entirely precluding or significantly eliding rights that allow and/or enable such forms of democratic politics. In such circumstances, electoral politics ceases to be an effective vehicle in carrying forth the voice of the toiling masses and the underclass that are embodied in various identities of either religious/ linguistic/ regional/ gender minorities or socio-occupational marginals.

That, needless to say, compels such social groups, which encounter the law of the Indian state not as an embodiment of democracy but in the form of its undemocratic exception, to look to other not-so legitimate means of politics to express their disaffection and disenfranchisement. That has precisely been the case in large swathes of eastern and central India leading to the emergence of the Maoist path of armed struggle as the only possible form of politics for the agrarian-tribal working masses to articulate their utter lack of agency and their progressive immiseration. It would not, as a matter of fact, be an exaggeration to say the state has enforced an undeclared internal emergency in those areas. It is this that the liberal India must bear in mind before spewing, as is its wont, venom on the Maoists and their social base for not adopting the constitutionally-ordained way of elections and non-violent mass politics to articulate their discontent and having unleashed, instead, an armed campaign that seeks to jeopardise the sovereignty of the democratic Indian state. Our legalist democrats must understand that the state the Maoists challenge is not the state of democratic law but, to borrow Italian legal theorist Giorgio Agamben’s concept, the “generalised state of exception”.

Clearly, the Maoist-dominated areas of eastern and central India, of which Dantewada is a key nerve centre, are in a state of war that, in both the apparent military sense and the structural political-economic one, has been thrust upon the underclass and working strata of the local tribal population on behalf of global capital – of which Indian capital is a significant and powerful part – by the Indian state. This modern capitalist state consists not merely of multiple levels of governmental agency but devolves into the local elite, many of whom belong to the same tribal population from which the Maoists also derive their social base. That, one believes, should take care of the claim that the Maoists comprise an external force that has sowed the seeds of fratricidal conflicts within idyllic tribal communities. The capitalist Indian state, as the example above shows, is as much internal to such stratified tribal communities as the Maoists.

In that context, it might be useful to wonder how such conditions, which necessitate the suspension of democratic law and the institution of its undemocratic exception as an ethico-legal norm, get created in the life of a democratic state. For, only by seeking to answer that question would we arrive at a better understanding of how the political economy of capital, especially in areas under Maoist control, determines the military aspect of the conflict.

The undemocratic exception of the law is the established norm at the moment of the founding of the law of the liberal-democratic state and the capitalist socio-economic formation that such law is meant to facilitate, conserve and reinforce. It is this historical moment of founding of capitalism, when existing instruments of pre-capitalist feudal coercion were deployed to alienate a section of pre-capitalist producers such as peasants and artisans from their means of production, that Marx termed primitive accumulation of capital. This process was meant to be a double-whammy: resources in the form of capital were accumulated even as the dispossessed sections became the workforce that would labour in accordance with the demands, determinations and caprices of capital. The law of the liberal-democratic capitalist state, which allows competition and contention, could not have been the norm in the founding of capitalism and its state as such competition would have meant a direct challenge to the emergence and existence of capitalism as a system. That was precisely the reason why the undemocratic exception was the norm in the founding of capital. And it is this undemocratic exception that returns as the law, even as the ‘normal’ democratic law is suspended, to enable capital to indulge in primitive accumulation as and when that is required of it.

That has precisely been the case in those areas of Maoist influence. Primitive accumulation of capital, as Marx explicated it, is not a one-time historical affair. It recurs with cyclical constancy in and through various moments of stabilised and established capitalism, when those moments run into a crisis of overaccumulation, enabling capital to reconstitute and refound itself to tide over such crises. In such situations, primitive accumulation of capital kicks in, as does the undemocratic exception, to enable the crisis-ridden system to reconstitute itself. Overaccumulation is a moment in the development of capitalism when the value of accumulated capital falls. This spells a considerable weakening of the hegemony of the hierarchised configuration of capitalist class power.

The only way in which capitalism can beat this crisis is by investing in and expanding into relatively less capitalised zones. In a sense, this expansion is akin to the historical founding of capitalism. Thus primitive accumulation of capital must be seen not as the conception of a historical event but as a logico-historical conceptualisation, as indeed it is in Marx’s own theorisation That is precisely what has been happening in ‘Maoist country’ where the executive arms of capital have, through coercive means, been trying to enable capital to beat its current crisis of overaccumulation – of which the international financial crisis is the most visible symptom – by expanding into those areas and occupying them by dispossessing the populations of those less commodified areas of their community-held commons (such as mineral resources, forest produce and land), and even their autonomous means of expression and life, in order to be able to invest.

It is this attempt by capital to reconstitute itself into a stable system once again that has led to the suspension of the democratic laws and invocation of and amendments to constitutional-legal clauses that institute the coercive exception as the legal norm in those areas. The ongoing Maoist insurgency is no more than a response to this generalised state of exception and the political economy it is seeking to rescue and reconstitute.


  1. Shankar says:

    “emergence of the Maoist path of armed struggle as the only possible form of politics for the agrarian-tribal working masses to articulate their utter lack of agency and their progressive immiseration”

    I am not certain on what basis this claim can be made (the “only possible form of politics”) – can one ever reduce a political phenomenon to this kind of historical inevitability? One can point out, as the article does, that the political economy of these areas does constrain political forms to take shape outside of the “normal” electoral channels.

    I would also slightly differ with the argument’s implication that the accumulation by dispossession that is taking place in forest areas is a recent phenomenon and/or dictated by current crises of capital. This does not acknowledge the historically specific role that forests have played in Indian capitalism. Hope to write on this soon…

  2. In particular, in regard to the last point I made, one has to note that the current attack in forest areas represents a confluence of both the way in which those areas have been integrated into Indian capitalism and the current needs of Indian capital. This is also the reason that Maoist forms of politics have found much more space in forest-adivasi areas than in many other areas also subjected to superficially similar forms of accumulation by dispossession.

  3. for further discussion on this article and related issues, visit the facebook page

  4. tarun tripathi says:

    Couching an unethical state in llinguistic sophistry does not remove from one simple fact – armed revolution within a sovereign state must be met with equal force.

    No matter how disenfranchised i feel, nothing forgives murder. Either assume that the nation state, and its umbrella of laws and structures is defunct, or follow it.

    It is trite to mention gandhi and satyagraha perhaps, but i will anyway.

    This whole capital labour battle is SO 1900s. Capitalism can also be a positive change creator ref – project shakti and community friendly movements.

    but if you kill the way you did, the nation WILL react. The rest is intellectual masturbation which does not merit a blog post.

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