There were two tragedies this week: an Islamist bombing of a German Bakery in Pune that killed 11, and a Naxalite Maoist manned attack on a police post in West Bengal that killed 25. It is telling, I think, that the media instantly obsessed over the Islamists and the bomb victims, but took more than a day to begin covering the Maoist attack with any seriousness. A few days later there was another Maoist attack in Bihar that killed 10 civilians in retaliation for help they allegedly gave police.
By this time the media had cottoned on, and news shows were thick with talk about whether the Maoists should be taken more seriously, what the government should do about them, and how the conflict will be mentioned in the President’s upcoming speech. Some suggest talking to the Maoists, which, though supremely distasteful, isn’t the worst idea, as bringing terrorists and insurgents into the polity has historically been a reasonably effective way to make them stop hijacking trains and beheading police inspectors. Suddenly, reluctantly, Maoists are a topic of the moment.
But what gives? Why did it take so long, and why have so many been so reluctant to take the Naxalites seriously up to this point, especially compared to Islamists? In part this is the bias of the media class, who are entirely urban. To them a gunfight in some far away forest must seem rather boring compared with the titillating possibility that some religious fanatic might blow up your favourite coffee bar one morning. It was their sort of people, urban people, killed in the Pune attack, and this made the horror real. When they finally covered the Bengal attack, the angle was not the tragedy of young lives lost, but who to blame for this apparent lapse in security. All of this is understandable, if distasteful, but I suspect more at work here, for the tenor of reactions to the Maoist attacks suggest a historical blind spot of sympathy that is only now beginning to crumble.
The roots of this blind spot are not hard to recognise. They are ideological. Maoists claim to seek to help and raise up the poor and the downtrodden, to liberate the rural masses oppressed by cruel landlords and the like. Urban liberals wish for exactly that same thing, as they should, for it is a perfectly noble goal. Is it any wonder that we would want to think the best of those who want the same things as we do, whose thinking is apparently so similar? Is it so unreasonable that we would be a little sceptical of negative reports about the Maoists, for are there not cruel landlords, corrupt government officials and right-wing oppressors out there who would love to undermine the whole progressive program, and isn’t slandering groups like the Maoists exactly their MO? And if we do believe these reports of the Maoists’ violent tactics, and on the surface disagree with them, is it so unreasonable to think that perhaps, with their covert operations out there in the jungle and their life amidst the downtrodden villagers, the Maoists might know something that we don’t, and that the violence might be justified after all? And even if we think the violence isn’t justified, is it so unreasonable to think that the elite forces arrayed against the liberation of the rural masses would have used their powers to quash news of all the progress the Maoists, with their noble intentions, are achieving, and that perhaps on the whole the Maoists might be doing more good than harm?
We have little trouble fearing and hating the Islamists with their mad dreams of a revived seventh century Caliphate, of a purely Muslim planet, of no democracy, no feminism, no choice. That is a utopia that is easy to reject, for it is based on the dominance of a cultural and religious identity that many of us do not share. The Maoist utopia, on the other hand, with its egalitarian and culturally neutral aesthetic, that one we kind of like. And the thing about utopia is that once achieved it is blind to its history, and therefore any distasteful acts done on the road to that perfect society become forgiven and forgotten and even good.
It is a seductive line of thinking, for it allows us to leave the world in black and white and leave evil an uncomplicated, cackling movie villain sort of evil. We want an evil that knows it is evil, that is wicked for wickedness’ sake — or at least an evil with such selfish ideas as to desire a kind of world that is clearly repugnant to right thinking people. We don’t want evil to be ambiguous; we don’t want evil to look like us or think like us. It it did, how could we be sure that our own thinking wasn’t equally twisted and perverse?
But ideology is not morality, and goals are not actions. If you want to judge the value of a group or a movement, look at what they do, not what they say or want. Under this light the nature of the Maoist movement in central and eastern India becomes distressingly clear, for in practice the Maoists are not in the business of uplifting the poor and downtrodden. They are in the business of conducting massacres.
In 2005 the Maoist conflict killed over 700. In 2006, 750. In 2007, another 650. In 2008, almost 800. And in 2009 the number was over 1100. 2010 seems to be off to a good start. These are shocking numbers, and beyond the deaths tens of thousands more villagers are displaced by the violence each year. Many more are forced to live in Naxalite controlled areas, deprived of development subsidies and public services by the Maoists’ ideological program.
Were those killed all corrupt elites? No. Most were police and civilians accused by the Naxalites of being police informants, or of not properly supporting the ‘people’s war.’ This is not surprising, for it is the pattern of all totalitarian and terrorist movements that have made the 20th and 21st centuries such a bloody time to live. Nor is the liberal sympathy for the Maoists particularly surprising either, for throughout history intellectuals and journalists on the left have often blandly supported the efforts of Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong, even as these leaders went about the systematic slaughter or starvation of tens of millions.
We should recognise the Naxalite movement for what it is: not a plucky rebellion against cruel oppressors, but an attack on liberal society and democracy. Yes democracy is messy and often ineffectual, and prosperity comes to the rural poor too slow for anyone’s taste. But democracy doesn’t kill innocents, or behead police, or hijack trains. Democracy may never be good enough, but the alternatives always turn out to not be good at all.