Sympathies in extremis

Gilbert Sebastian

Whenever the dreams of human liberation
Take on a stable form,
Like Jesus Christ
Finds the ultimate place on the cross
This regularity, most familiar down the centuries
Continues unmitigated
Why doesn’t a rupture come about,
That some new form could be nurtured?
Even to this day, dreams remain yet unrealised
Successes – all futile somewhat, somewhere.

– Ramana/Ramanand (translated by the author)

Buddha had spoken of the middle path. But in an age of extremes, how can one follow the middle path? Those who follow the middle path may, often be colour blind, not seeing the black or the white but seeing and swearing only by the grey. The middle-roaders are bound to be mowed down from both the left and the right. How can a well-meaning person be a moderate when the majority of the people live under extreme conditions and face forms of extreme oppression? Wikipedia says, “The terms extremism or extremist are almost always exonymic — i.e. applied by others to a group rather than by a group labeling itself.” In other words, ‘extremism’ or ‘extremist’ are not self-referential terms. The ‘extremists’ who fight some or the other form of extreme oppression may invariably think that what they are doing is the right thing to do or even the most human thing to do under the existing conditions. They hold political views and biases that radically and essentially diverge from the views and biases that are most commonplace and conventional. This is no indication of the rectitude or objectivity of the most commonplace and conventional modes of thinking.

India today is home to a wide variety of ‘extremists’ from the Maoists and the nationality movements to the Islamic militants and Islamist terrorists. The Indian State today seems to make no distinction between terrorists who indulge in the indiscriminate act of killing of innocent civilians and other kinds of militants involved in genuine political assertions of rights because it has got a vested interest in de-legitimising all of them alike. Each of these ‘extremists’ are fighting a specific form of extreme oppression be it the militant in the nationality movement in Manipur fighting under the extreme conditions of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA, 1958) and the divisive tactics of the Indian State or the Maoist fighting against conditions of extreme class oppression such as an impending situation of genocide of the Adivasis in the name of ‘development’ through mining or the Islamic militant fighting against extreme forms of violence and discrimination against the Muslim minority.

To speak of the anti-Maoist drive of the Indian State, by all indications, the Operation Green Hunt in urban India has already begun. This is what the BJP and other hardliners among the ruling class parties have been insisting on: ‘Crackdown on the sympathisers of the Maoists.’ The Union Home Ministry communiqué reads, “It is brought to the notice of the public that under Section 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, any person who commits the offence of supporting such a terrorist organisation with inter alia intention to further the activities of such terrorist organizations would be liable to be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or with fine or with both”. The CPI(Maoist) and all its formations and front organisations have been designated as terrorist organisations. These could be pointers towards a new wave of witch-hunt awaiting us. So the recent arrest of Sunil Mandiwal, an Assistant Professor at Dyal Singh College and the arrest and detention of trade union leader, Gopal Mishra, an activist among working class in Delhi and Anu, his partner who is an activist among women workers can be considered as very much a part of the ‘Operation Green Hunt’.

Does being sympathisers of the Maoists constitute a crime in itself that you deserve to be arrested? Does the possession of some Maoist literature in your residence make you guilty enough to be arrested and detained under the UAPA, 2008? Does the Indian political system allow you to ‘profess, practise and propagate only your religion’ as under Article 25(1) – a dwindling right though – and not allow you even to profess your political beliefs?

The urban activists/Maoist sympathisers who have been arrested in Delhi were clearly non-combatants in the ongoing war between the State and the Maoists in the far-flung rural areas of our country. The urban agenda of the Maoists is quite remote, something deferred to the final stage. Whenever draconian legislations become operational, the open, overground, legal activists in the civil society who are the political face of the militant movement and could have been potential links in the negotiation between the State and the insurgent group become the easy targets and victims. Laws such as the UAPA, 1967/2008 have the potential to make what Fareed Zakaria (1997) for one called, ‘illiberal democracies’ wherein despite the formation of governments through regular elections, the State is ‘not restrained from infringing upon the liberty of individuals, or minorities’.

Are we, in the days to come, going to witness something akin to McCarthyism that was practised in the US during the Cold War whereby anyone with Communist leanings were put under the scanner of suspicion and arrested?

The justification is readily forthcoming: ‘They are supporters of extremists.’ But is it not extreme conditions that give rise to the extremists? The cultural process of constructing ‘the Other’ of the extremists is a dangerous syndrome. The very recognition in the general public that ‘they’ are not ‘us’ can lend legitimacy to the idea that the ‘extremists’ can be exterminated by the State or other ‘interested’ forces like the Salwa Judum (meaning. ‘peace movement’) or the ‘people’s militia’ being set up by mainstream parties like the CPI-M. The terms such as, ‘peace’ and ‘people’ invoke the privilege to kill mercilessly.

One might pause to ask, ‘Why is not the UAPA, 2008 applicable to Bal Thackeray who has, for decades, led the movements against sections of innocent people like the lungiwallahs or the Musalmans or Raj Thackeray whose fulminations against the bhaiyyas do not stop. Narendra Modi in Gujarat still enjoys his position as the ‘CEO of Gujarat’ despite the fact that he was clearly indicted in the Gujarat carnage of early 2002 by none other than the National Human Rights Commission, the highest human rights body of the Government of India. Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler who are popularly perceived as the instigators of the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984 still enjoy the benefit of doubt by the judiciary. Obviously, the Indian State is selectively repressive towards those who violate its canons. After all, the Maoists do not communally or ethnically divide people even as they are waging a war to abolish class differences.

The Maoists seem closer to the ideals envisaged by the Preamble of the Indian Constitution than many of the luminaries heading the Government of India. Are not the Maoists striving “to secure to all its citizens”: “JUSTICE, social, economic and political”; “EQUALITY of status and of opportunity”, “FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual”? Should we not be fair towards the ultimate intention of the Maoists to constitute India into a “SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC” which is exactly what the Preamble visualises? It is true that the terms, ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ were incorporated through Constitutional amendment in 1976 during the hated emergency. But is it not also true that they have not yet been deleted or amended through subsequent amendments? Although the Directive Principles in Part IV of the Indian Constitution are not legally enforceable, they were meant by the architects of the Constitution to be injunctions upon the State, a political manifesto. Are not the Maoists striving towards the implementation of many of these Directive Principles?

As Prof. Manoranjan Mohanty says, ‘It is the ruling classes in India who violate the Constitution of India much more than the people’s democratic forces.’ Rather, ‘the Constitution itself has become a big threat to the ruling classes.’ In this context, it may be remembered that not all the people’s movements presently facing State repression have been militant movements. For instance, Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangha (CMAS – Farmer, wage labourer, tribal association) at Narayanpatna in Koraput district of Orissa now facing heavy-handed repression has been a peaceful movement within the bounds of law for restoration of illegally alienated tribal land. The President of CMAS, Wadeka Singana was shot dead by police in November 2009 and subsequently, its leaders, Gananath Patra and Tapan Mallick have been arrested and even Nachika Linga, the hero of the movement is being hunted out.

Now what were the activities of these ‘extremists’ who were arrested in Delhi? Gopal Mishra was alleged to be associated to Mehanatkash Mazdoor Morcha (MMM) which is working towards organising mainly the workers in the unorganised sector, although Anuj, the convenor of MMM says that Gopal Mishra was not a member of MMM and yet they can extend their support to him as a democratic activist. MMM has been waging its struggles well within the bounds of the law: It has been demanding minimum wages and other benefits that are due to the workers such as ESI, PF, etc. Most of its members have been working under contractors in unregistered, ‘underground’ factories that do not display a board nor maintain pay rolls. In other words, this is a trade union working towards organising and securing rights in the unorganised sector in the country which according to the Arjun Sengupta Committee report comprises of 77 per cent of the population of our country and subsist on less than 20 rupees a day. Anu was involved in bringing out a publication for women workers, Tootati Saankalein, meaning, breaking door chains. Gopal Mishra, et al have been preparing to launch an agitation against rising prices. Seditious activities, indeed!

Trade union bureaucracy has been the bane of the working class movement in our country. The established/mainstream left has already made over to the side of neo-liberal reforms. So it should not look surprising that Marxist-Leninists/Maoists are the only force among trade unions in our country opposing privatisation.

Do not the Maoists have much better democratic credentials than those who are setting up mining SEZs and carting away non-renewable natural/mineral resources? It is worth recalling that as reports have it, P. Chidambaram who is presently the Union home minister had formerly been an advocate for the now-extinct American corporate giant, Enron which has come to symbolise the rentier and decadent face of monopoly capitalism. He had also been on the board of Directors of Vedanta Resources, which is the name of the Sterlite farm in England which is now taking over ten thousand acres of prime land on the Puri-Konark sea coast in Orissa. He has also represented Vedanta in the Bombay High Court. Manmohan Singh, our Prime Minister, with his track-record in the World Bank also looks far removed from the aspirations of the hungry millions in our country.

Past the centenary of Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj and nearly 63 years past the transfer of power, down the blind alleys of the neo-liberal extremism, it would be illuminating to fall back on the theoretical resources generated by the freedom movement. Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech in the midnight on 14 August 1947 and its promise “to wipe every tear from every eye” today sounds a laughable platitude. But it seems worthwhile to harp back on the ideals of Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose, Rammanohar Lohiya, Jayaprakash Narayan, Sarojini Naidu, Durgabai Deshmukh, et al and not to forget, those of Bhagat Singh and B R Ambedkar, especially on the idea of Swaraj. For all our differences of opinion with Gandhiji, his question, ‘Will not the poor, the hungry and the naked have a share in Swaraj?’ should haunt us out of our complacencies.

A recent report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), published in August 2009 and titled, Progress for Children: A Report Card on Child Protection has come up with damning facts about, what we can say, the level of structural violence in our country. It says that 6000 children die in India every day, out of whom 3000 from malnutrition and bulk of the rest from preventable diseases or lack of proper healthcare. By contrast, in the violence in the eight states of Maoist militancy in the whole of the year 2009, a total of 998 persons have lost their lives. These included the deaths of 392 civilians, 312 security forces and 294 Maoists according to the data provided at

Both the State and the Maoists vouch for democracy although they hold differing conceptions of democracy itself i.e., liberal democracy and people’s democracy, respectively. As Prof. G. Haragopal used to insist, both the State and the Maoists seek people’s support. For the Maoists, it is their ideology that is their source of legitimacy and for the State, it is the Constitution. We should leave it to the people to decide whom they should support. What Haragopal was speaking of was a question of popular legitimacy. On the other hand, the question of legality or illegality (such as of the arrests made recently) ultimately depends on power relations, which in turn, is based on the class character and the broader social character of the State: Which coalition of class/social forces hold dominant influence upon State power? Neither the State nor the Maoists can ensure through brute force or coercion alone, what Gramsci calls, ‘hegemony’ i.e., the moral and intellectual leadership of class/social forces in society. Hegemony requires the generation of active consent/complicity of the governed. To quote from the American movie, Spider-Man, ‘The cunning warrior attacks neither the body, nor the mind but the heart.’ P. Chidambaram should take heed: The application of draconian legislations and brute force can subjugate the bodies and the minds but can be quite counterproductive in winning over the hearts. Is this not the warning we have received down the ages from Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus through Greek mythology, Socrates, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Gandhiji and the like who have been martyrs who, in the words of Prof. JPS Uberoi, ‘have borne witness to the truth irrespective of its consequences to themselves’?

Dr. Gilbert Sebastian is a researcher at Indian Social Institute, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.


  1. Kiran Raj P.V says:

    “The views expressed are personal”
    Are you afraid ?

  2. drumesh chandola says:

    sc has endorsed that freedom of expession may extend upto killing . bhagatsingh said violence nd non violence has no meaning in itself . nature has violence .gita has violence 4 justice .v kill millions microbes while cooking . constitutionally elected[?] govt did genocide in 84& 2002 [in gujrat] that too on relig lines thus violating fund rights of people . when r gandhi said-only 15 paise reach people[ i dont know whether it included non plan budget] v must have acknowledged collapse of system or when shanti bhusan said 8 out of 16 cji ere corrupt[he was ready to go jail 4 statemnt] why not v ack collapse of judiciary or at least a deep rooted invest on that? even justice mulla said that up police is a gang of criminal .govt accused &govt investigating imean cbi to be specific . so if i am accused i will invest . why not ? art 14-equal be4 law .if inves agencies collapsed this cancrr is bound 2 kill just deliv system . media collapsed . go 2 saints in haridar ashram & enjo wine & bf their .

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