Caught in a crossfire of ideas

Caught in a crossfire of ideas
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First Published: Thu, Nov 05 2009. 08 52 PM IST

Photo: Mustafa Quraishi / AP
Photo: Mustafa Quraishi / AP
Updated: Thu, Nov 05 2009. 08 52 PM IST
A recent meeting organized by the Citizens Initiative for Peace at Constitution Club in New Delhi was widely reported as a gathering of human rights activists, former judges, senior academics and at least one former member of the Rajya Sabha. But a few businesspeople also attended. They came to learn about different aspects of the Naxal-Maoist insurgency and the government’s counter-insurgency operations.
They heard retired Supreme Court judge P.B. Sawant appealing to the Union and state governments to honour the most basic constitutional mandate—to guarantee the right to life. Hundreds of thousands of people are being denied this fundamental right, justice Sawant said, by both the insurgents and the government’s paramilitary forces.
Photo: Mustafa Quraishi / AP
The most moving narrative was that of Himanshu Kumar, founder of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram in Chhattisgarh, which was demolished by the police in May.
Why are the police acting against a group working in the Gandhian tradition of constructive work? This question bothers a wide range of people at the top of India’s social and economic totem pole. Businesspeople have their own sad experiences with arbitrary government behaviour. But on this issue, they are caught in a bind.
Many of their friends and colleagues say, “Maoists are terrorists, they must be defeated regardless of collateral damage.” Gurcharan Das, a former corporate chief, recently wrote a column saying “enough is enough”, and lamenting that the government is slowed by the endless debate on “whether helicopters should fire on rebels and risk civilian casualties”.
If enough businesspeople actively support this view, or even remain silent, then they will help make true Arundhati Roy’s accusation that Indian democracy is a sham, a pretence to impress the outside world.
But what about those of us who want to make democracy work, and passionately disagree with both Das’ prescription and Roy’s sweeping dismissal of Indian democracy?
We know that Indian democracy is woefully inadequate and regularly fails the poor and the deprived. But we also acknowledge what gains it has made and nourish it as a work in progress.
So it is vital to unravel just what is at stake here and to consider why reluctance to take a public stand could be fatal for all of us.
One, we must acknowledge that there are bitter class conflicts in our society. Accepting this will not willy-nilly force us into the company of those who believe that class war is both inevitable and desirable. There are other ways to ensure equity, greater fairness and justice.
What caught one businessman’s ear, in the meeting at Constitution Club, were the narratives of people who have been serially brutalized by feudal landlords, operations of private companies and governments. These victims have not joined the Maoists and instead have fought to enforce constitutional rights. But now these people, struggling to make democracy work, are being put in the same dock as Maoists or Maoist sympathizers.
Two, we need to stand up against opposite forms of debilitating political correctness. In the boardrooms and dinner parties of the business community, blanket condemnation of the insurgency and everyone in its vicinity has become a must.
On the other side, many human rights groups may condemn Naxal-Maoist violence, but are unable to categorically oppose their politics. They treat the Maoist insurgency as an inevitable, even necessary, response to centuries of oppression. In doing so, they ignore the successes of other kinds of mass movements that have overcome exploitation in different parts of the world, including India.
This approach suits those in government and the private sector, who want to paint all resistance on the ground with the same brush. But there is a crucial difference between the Maoist and the tribal, who has no interest in class war but is simply refusing to be displaced by a company that wants the minerals beneath her hut or under the sacred groves of her ancestors.
It is that tribal who is physically caught in the crossfire. But all those committed to deepening Indian democracy are morally much more on the line. Without sufficient energy behind our conviction, we will, by default, empower the purveyors of “class war”. And they could be Maoists or elected representatives or private players—anyone who extracts their own benefit at the cost of equity and democratic rights.
So what can we do? We could start by being seen and heard together in public. Joint fact-finding and action involving leaders of the private sector, social activists, academics and bureaucrats could play a historic role.
We could seek answers to some basic questions:
• What is the extent of displacement where people are being evicted without adequate compensation and rehabilitation?
• What new business models would create win-win situations for people, the environment and business?
Some companies have gained, financially and socially, by respecting local people’s right to say “no”. Why are such examples not being highlighted and replicated in India?
This proposal may seem naïve at a time when veritable war clouds are hovering overhead. But a deeper examination will show that these are all achievable goals. Certainly, silent withdrawal is not a solution. And the trigger-happy “enough is enough” approach, with its unconditional support of the government, is lethal for both democracy and shared prosperity.
Rajni Bakshi is the author of Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For a Market Culture Beyond Greed and Fear. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Nov 05 2009. 08 52 PM IST