November 26, 2020
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On The Brink, At The Cusp

It's time for a creative and constructive re-imagining of the challenge facing India as right now there is unprecedented consensus, both on the Maoist threat and on the need for social justice.

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On The Brink, At The Cusp

India is confronting an abyss in the form of Operation Green Hunt, the upcoming campaign by the government to liberate the people and territories of India's forested heartland spread over several states from the de facto occupation and control of Maoists. The planned operation pits the might of a lawfully elected state against the determined warriors of an ideology that calls for the overthrow of India's democratic system, and its replacement by a totalitarian dictatorship.

The foot soldiers recruited by the Maoists are impoverished members of the forest dwelling communities who have been largely shut out of the Indian Dream, experiencing only dispossession and despoilation of their lands and forest resources, and loss of all too meagre livelihoods; they are facing the prospect of more of the same, as their interests are pitted in an unequal contest with powerful globalized developers.

The government's campaign is bound to be costly and carries great risks. Indeed, given the complexity and challenges of development, and the adoption by the Maoists of a military strategy that is designed to protect the totalitarian leadership while maximizing potential casualties among destitute residents of  the tribal heartland, the entire operation carries the fundamental risk of undermining the legitimacy of the constitutional authority as well as the Constitution itself, not to speak of the cultural degradation that will result from the authorities using brute force against citizens with impunity.

As to the costs, it may be expected that there will be intolerable levels of human suffering, environmental degradation, as well as the opportunity cost of lost development time and resources that get diverted from development to the operation. Balanced against these costs and risks is the necessity of establishing the supremacy of Constitutional authority, and the need to bring the land and people under the physical purview of lawful authority as a prerequisite for development, without which it is not possible to eliminate poverty.

The gravity of the challenge in these areas under Maoist control, and the immediacy of the government's impending campaign have given rise to intense debate in the public sphere. In academic and intellectual circles, a highly vocal discussion has focussed on the costs and risks of Green Hunt, and on the primacy of the need to eliminate poverty, and to bring about human dignity. A dominant theme of this segment of the discussion has been severe recrimination for independent and democratic India's failure, hitherto, to have already addressed these issues. The overwhelming concern represented in this segment of the public debate is that, inasmuch as there is little indication that the authorities and business leaders in India have re-examined the flawed attitudes, premises and methods of the past that have brought matters to this pass, the present campaign is more likely to realize its projected risks and costs, than its aims.

As may be expected, in political and official circles--all of whom derive their legitimacy from the Constitution, and are also responsible for executing any development plans for these areas under Maoist control and elsewhere in India--there is virtual unanimity across the spectrum on the unavoidability of undertaking this campaign. This is a rare and remarkable concord, spanning the range of traditional political and ideological enemies from the Sangh Parivar through the Congress, various Socialist and regional formations and the Communist Parties. Equally, all these players, as well as voices from the security establishment, have been unreserved in acknowledging the unacceptability of the human condition in the Maoist-controlled areas as well as past failures in addressing the needs of the people there. None of the voices in this segment has evinced any relish at the task that lies ahead; there is widespread recognition that a costly human tragedy is about to unfold. It must also be added, in view of the history of divisions and discrimination that has tended to cleave Indian society, that there is no constituency at all for discriminating against the people of these tribal areas based on their birth.

Taken together, we have a remarkably wide and solid consensus on the need for inclusive development, poverty elimination and change of social attitude, as well as on concerns about the costs and risks of the upcoming campaign for establishing Constitutional authority. The political class is unanimous across ideological divisions in its belief that, risks and costs notwithstanding, there is no alternative to evicting the Maoists. A segment of the intellectual class, on the other hand, insists that the costs are unacceptable, the risks too high, and therefore the operation must be abandoned.

If the question is framed as the decision to undertake Green Hunt or not, then it is readily answered in practice--given that virtually every administrative and political professional is agreed on the need for Green Hunt, it will go forward, and the opposing position will be jettisoned. That would mean no attention will be paid, again, to the crucial point raised by the critics of the operation regarding the unexamined persistence of flawed past habits of imagining, thinking and doing the tasks of governance, development and maintenance of state control. This will likely lead to an outcome of Green Hunt that lies somewhere between pyrrhic victory and outright disaster, leaving everyone worse off than now.

Some things would not change: the media would continue to be flooded with sterile performance art that mingles futile rage and reproach with highflown rhetoric, this time with redoubled vigour on account of having been proved right. Others, enamoured of an inadequately articulated vision of India as a superpower, will chafe at the reproach and continue to wonder what it is going to take to realize their vision, even as its likelihood recedes.

This doleful outcome is not inevitable. By recognizing valid concerns on everyone's part, and making use of the remarkable degree of consensus that exists on this matter, it is possible to bring about a result that would have made significant, and sustainable progress towards an inclusive mode of development that eliminates poverty, strengthens the Constitution, deepens democratic values, and elevates the culture. The knowledge and experience gained in the process of achieving this would be an invaluable resource that could be a template to improve conditions all over India, and many similarly-situated regions of the world. In this sense, it could lead to India attaining a genuine, and respected, leadership role in the world.

Achieving this requires imagination, thinking and doing. The last is less widely accessible than the first two, being in large part the province of government and business; however, it is certainly more accessible than is commonly thought. The first two, imagination and thinking are surely open to everyone; some aspects of these, requiring access to government officials would belong to members of the media.

One of the failed mental habits of the past has been that imagination and thinking have been stunted when it comes to social and political matters--the tendency has been to race at top speed to the nearest available platitude or slogan and call it a day. The present challenge is to articulate ideas to the level of detail and concreteness that is called for, while making use of challenges to improve the soundness of these ideas.

For example, what do we mean when we say we are in favour of a development solution that respects people's dignity while increasing their wealth? What would such a system look like, what are its strengths and vulnerabilities, and how do we implement, sustain, validate and evolve such a system? Specifically, what sort of mechanisms--legal, social, technical and other--would be required?

A second example of failed mental habits is to expect the government, or bureaucracy, or business community to find and implement solutions, and duly excoriate them when they fail. Each of these actors, in their respective roles, is necessarily limited in their scope and ability to develop and implement well-rounded ideas that satisfy everyone, or even address the complex problem of inclusive development balanced with security and lawful public order. In the unlikely event of there being a handful of supremely gifted individuals in these spheres who have the capacity to conceive and execute needed solutions by themselves, we are still left with ways of finding solutions that are not scalable or sustainable; more importantly, the solutions are vulnerable to a single mistake by these superhuman, but still human, beings. So, it is necessary for a wide swathe of concerned citizens to take the lead in working out solutions.

A specific and important place to start is to require high government officials, as well as officials at the field level, to regularly explain their approach and tactics for ensuring that their actions in the Maoist-ruled areas are defensive in nature, meant to protect residents and constructive projects for delivering immediately needed services to the locals. Officials need to be held accountable for any lapses and unwarranted harm caused to citizens.

Two things need to be kept in mind in this context: first, there is every reason to pursue Opeation Green Hunt with the utmost patience, sensitivity, and it must be said, tolerance for absorbing damage inflicted by the Maoists. The Indian government already does this in case of nuclear-armed Pakistan, despite that country's goal of destroying India; it should not be hard to see that there is far more justification for proceeding with all deliberate care when dealing with the people of our tribal areas. Second, given the nearly-universal agreement that the welfare of the local residents is paramount, there is no reason for government to keep any of its measures secret, other than perhaps very specific operational details.

It is unlikely, due to institutional inertia among other reasons, that the government's actions will automatically reflect these insights, officially professed goodwill notwithstanding. It would be up to the media and the public at large, through continual and pointed questioning, to generate a sustained momentum to keep the government in line. Such efforts need not be hostile, being intended to help improve the chances of success of what is known beforehand to be a dicey and delicate endeavour, albeit a necessary one. This is one instance where it would be vital to second-guess the government's every move.

By a creative and constructive re-imagining of the challenge facing India, the brink of the abyss could be re-framed as the cusp of positive and sustained change. It is hard to imagine a greater degree of national consensus than the one obtaining on this matter, right now. This could be India's much-awaited superpower moment, if the Indian people would care to recognize and seize it.


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