Archive for September, 2009

Who is Kobad Ghandy?

28 September 2009

I didn’t know the name leave alone the person Kobad Ghandy until yesterday. Indian express carried an item that a very high ranking Maoist, a catch prized by the police, has been arrested in Delhi. I guess that his Doon school back ground -he was classmate of Sanjay Gandhi -, his British education and the fact that he belongs to a wealthy family from Mumbai made it newsworthy. The man who would have been a flourishing chartered accountant or a corporate honcho was instead found to be concerned for poor people & even devoting his entire life time to them. A sense of disbelief pervaded at how one of us made the poor choice of joining the utterly forgotten tribals & others from the ultra under developed areas. It wasn’t without precedent. T Nagi Reddy, an elected legislator at state & national levels, first with CPI and later after the split with CPI(M), finally chose to forge militant mass movement to assert & claim the rights of poor people although he himself came from a rich & landed family. Incidentally, he was brother in law of Dr. Nilam Sanjiva Reddy, the first chief minister of Andhra & President of India in 1977. Some 24×7 news channels had reportedly likened Ghandy to Al Qaeda terrorists. Not surprising when our news anchors suffer from HAS (hyper newsy syndrome), while the spectators are displaying ADD (attention deficit disorder), may be due to sensory overload. So much so only few noticed the irony. Bibek Debroy chose to name it “The Insurgent‘s mind” in his article. It was mentioned Ghandy was in his early sixties. That made him less than a decade older than me. Since I was a keen student of politics in college days – remember asphyxiation, mercifully short, of democracy in 1975-77 – and I got interested. This is what I found his late wife’s brother, Sunil Shanbag, has to say as told by Sheela Bhatt. Some others say this about him in India’s unlikely Maoist revolutionary. Ghandy’s story as it unfolds hereafter may become interesting, but I will return to it shortly after a detour – albeit a very instructive one.

There is another telling story in IE titled “Write/wrong, Orissa’s thin red line.” Laxman Choudhary is arrested by Mohana Police of Gajapati District of Orissa. What catches the attention is the charges that are slapped against him – waging war against the government of India (section 121) & concealing information about committing such illegal acts (section 120) of Indian penal code. These are very serious charges & the police must have had some very compelling reasons to invoke these sections. Here comes a curious turn. A bus conductor Pradip Patra was allegedly found to carry a packet containing eight Maoists leaflets. So police should investigate how Mr. Patra came to possess them, but what has that got to do with Choudhary? Here comes the rub! The packet was addressed to Laxman Choudhary, a stringer with the largest selling Oriya daily – Sambad. Now that is a highly tenuous evidence indeed to slap such a serious charge & arrest the journalist. If police in Delhi too share same thinking, then all that Maoists have to do is to address a packet containing their leaflets to Dr. Manmohan Singh, send it through some one, tip Delhi police and have PM of India arrested. A highly unlikely event considering the powerful position he occupies & constitutional provisions that safeguard him; but Indians at large could have their constitutional guarantees abridged at the whim of any police official bent on silencing them on the flimsiest of grounds. That is what happened to Choudhary who was in fact exposing the nefarious activities of the Police force. When delegation of fellow journalists went in protest to chief minister Patnaik, he too was compelled to call the whole affair ‘ludicrous’. Was this an isolated incidence? Recall that Dr. Binayak Sen languished in jail for two years as an under trial for alleged complicity with Maoists and bail was repeatedly denied even though he suffered from medical complications requiring urgent attention. He is a product of one of the foremost medical colleges in the country – CMC, Vellore. A well educated, mild mannered gentleman, who worked as health care giver for poor tribals & was may be a bit naïve about real politics according to a friend who knew him, suffered this fate at the hands of Chhattisgarh police until set free by the Supreme Court. That too after prolonged protests by civil rights activists that were later picked up by main stream media for reporting. Right there in Orissa there are other cases of Kirti Sahoo, Leninkumar, Debendra Das, all journalists, and a high court lawyer Pratima Das arrested under similar serious charges of sedition. Whenever inconvenient truths start tumbling out of the state’s cupboard into public domain, the easiest course is to silence the source, plug the leak, rather than investigate the wrongs and bring the real perpetrators who subvert our democracy to book.

Suvojit Bagchi of BBC-Bengali service met Kobad Ghandy last year for an interview. He responded to a query, ‘has educating the poor helped the Maoists consolidate?’, thus : “We are trying to give basic education through mobile schools. We are teaching children basic sciences, mathematics and indigenous languages. Teams involved in the process are specialising in designing courses for the people who are backward, so that they can learn faster. We are taking extra care to improve health facilities, as well. We have told the tribals to boil drinking water. It has reduced diseases and death by 50%. Even independent NGOs have said so. Child mortality decreased because we have managed to empower women to an extent. The level of under-development in these areas is worse than, as some indicators suggest, sub-Saharan Africa“. He cites that Prime Minister had described Maoists the deadliest virus & goes on to add when asked why, “We have a clear-cut definition of development. We think the society is in a semi-feudal, semi-colonial state and there is a need to democratise it. The first step is to distribute land to the tiller. So our fight is against land grab and exploitation of the poor, especially focusing on rural India. One important reason why we have managed to consolidate is because we talk about dignity of work. For example, villagers here collect tobacco leaves to make local cigarettes. This industry runs into billions of dollars. But the daily wage of these tribals was less than 10 rupees a day before we came to Chhattisgarh. That is far less than the daily wage defined by even the government of India. We have forced these contractors to increase this daily wage – we have managed to push it up by three to four times. That is one reason why people like us“. The issues raised by him sound like a development agenda of a legitimate people centric government : providing education & health care, enforcing land & forest rights of poor & tribal, implementing minimum wages in the ‘bidi’ industry & fetching just price for ‘tendu’ leaves.

Compare above with the following observations :

The development paradigm pursued since independence has aggravated the prevailing discontent among marginalized sections of society. This is because the development paradigm as conceived by the policy makers has always been imposed on these communities, and therefore it has remained insensitive to their needs and concerns, causing irreparable damage to these sections. The benefits of this paradigm of development have been disproportionately
cornered by the dominant sections at the expense of the poor, who have borne most of the costs. Development which is insensitive to the needs of these communities has invariably caused displacement and reduced them to a sub-human existence. In the case of tribes in particular it has ended up in destroying their social organisation, cultural identity, and resource base and generated multiple conflicts, undermining their communal solidarity, which cumulatively makes them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation

In the case of SCs and also tribes, protection against social discrimination is the essential condition for the enjoyment of any development benefits that remain unrealised. The pattern of development and its implementation has increased corrupt practices of a rent seeking bureaucracy and rapacious exploitation by the contractors, middlemen, traders and the greedy sections of the larger society intent on grabbing their resources and violating their dignity. It has invariably happened that in situations where the interests of the larger community have clashed with the interests of the tribal communities, the former have prevailed to the detriment of the latter. The participation of these communities in the articulation of this paradigm of development is at best symbolic and at worst non-existent“.

It should be recognized that there are different kinds of movements, and that calling and treating them generally as unrest, a disruption of law and order, is little more than a rationale for suppressing them by force. It is necessary to contextualize the tensions in terms of social, economic and political background and bring back on the agenda the issues of the people – the right to livelihood, the right to life and a dignified and honourable existence. The State itself should feel committed to the democratic and human rights and humane objectives that are inscribed in the Preamble, the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of the Constitution. The State has to adhere strictly to the Rule of Law. Indeed, the State has no other authority to rule

It is critical for the Government to recognize that dissent or expression of dissatisfaction is a positive feature of democracy, that unrest is often the only thing that actually puts pressure on the government to make things work and for the government to live up to its own promises. However the right to protest, even peacefully, is often not recognized by the authorities and even non-violent agitations are met with severe repression. Greater scope and space for democratic activity will bring down the scale of unrest, as it would create confidence in governance and open channels for expression of popular discontent. What is surprising is not the fact of unrest, but the failure of the State to draw right conclusions from it. While the official policy documents recognize that there is a direct correlation between what is termed as extremism and poverty, or take note of the fact that the implementation of all development schemes is ineffective, or point to the deep relationship between tribals and forests, or that the tribals suffer unduly from displacement, the governments have in practice treated unrest merely as a law and order problem. It is necessary to change this mindset and bring about congruence between policy and implementation. There will be peace, harmony and social progress only if there is equity, justice and dignity for everyone.“.

I have quoted here excerpts from the Maoists pamphlets to bring on record their concerns. Right? Wrong! I was kidding. These are observations made in the report of Planning Commission Task Force on Development challenges in extremist affected areas. The Planning commission not appointed by the Maoists, but by our own Government of India. It is a dire indictment of the failure of the government to ensure equity, justice & dignity for everyone. This is what Ghandy seems to be talking about. It is a wakeup call for everyone. It is important to recognize that Maoists are a symptom, not the disease. Media often describes areas where tribal movements & unrest are seething as Maoists infested. This is a straight giveaway of treating all articulation of legitimate discontent as pestilence, a dangerous nuisance. Even Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram, home minister have described Maoists movements as biggest scourge and efforts are afoot to raise a special armed force to tackle it on war footing. What is required actually of them is to declare a war on poverty, disease, malnourishment, hunger, lack of opportunities, dispossession, illiteracy, etc. that plague large swathes of our tribal lands. This is the war we actually need to fight & win.