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Democrats to the rescue

Times of India, 7 January 2011

by Dipankar Gupta

When Binayak Sen was arrested it gave a much-needed boost to the Maoists. As they advocate violence to achieve their ends, it is like oxygen for them every time the state commits a travesty of justice. It is worth remembering that armed movements, of whatever variety, have succeeded only in autocratic, dictatorial and monarchical states, but never in democratic ones.

If there is one major reason why communists have failed in contemporary times, it is because they do not know how to function in a democracy. Whether it is Russia, China or Cuba, communists struck successfully in places where democracy was missing. This generalisation holds true not just in the case of insurrectionary communists, but for all those who advocate violence as a political weapon.

As violence calls out to violence, it cannot be dealt with draconian provisions like MISA and POTA of the past, and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act of today. As these measures smack of anti-democratic urges of the lowest political type, they confirm the “animal theory of the state” that forms the bedrock of Maoist ideology. The more repressive the state, the better it is for insurrectionary ideologues: it provides them with their ultimate raison d’jtre.

Karl Marx, the original revolutionary, once subscribed to this view. He gave it up in his later years when faced by the reality of democracy and adult franchise. For example, in Class Struggles in France he wrote: “Rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades, which decided the issue everywhere up to 1848, was to a considerable extent obsolete.” With this he also made obsolete the Manifesto of the Communist Party, which he had written 40 years earlier, in fact, in 1848.

Clearly, as the mature Marx had observed, insurrectionary communism does well in repressive regimes but comes apart once the rule of law is in place. With democracy, the format of agitation must change. Binayak Sen, for his part, has never advocated violence, whether by the Maoists, or by the state. Yet, as the charges against him are so obviously trumped up, the Maoists are conveniently using him as their mascot. Sen may have inadvertently given them cause to multiply, but he does not belong to that pack.

Fortunately, Sen’s conviction has alerted democrats across different political persuasions, and this is a very hopeful sign. His cause is not a Maoist cause any longer, but a democratic one, as it should be. Like the 19th century Dreyfus Affair in France, the Binayak affair has every potentiality of flushing out the poison in our political system and forcing India to a more determined democratic path.

Again, like Dreyfus, Sen too has important supporters. If Dreyfus had Zola, Poincare, Clemenceau and Anatole France, weighing in for him, Sen has an impressive array on his side as well. From Nobel laureates to Digvijay Singh, from Amartya Sen to Ram Jethmalani, the sublime and the ridiculous of the democratic process have come out in his support.

Emile Zola’s open, and condemnatory, letter to the state, entitled J’accuse, that appeared in the front page of Clemenceau paper, L’Aurore, created a furore in France. The popularity this piece achieved frightened the French government to foolishly frame libel charges against him. It is possible some of Sen’s friends might be harassed just as much by Chhattisgarh officials. But like the supporters of Dreyfus, they too must hold course.

What Edouard Drumont’s rightwing anti-semitic paper La Libre Parole did to Dreyfus, BJP’s Hindutva-oriented rendition of democracy has done to Sen. For example, Sushma Swaraj, far from being embarrassed by the judgment, came out in its open support. She justified Sen’s life sentence on the grounds that violence begets violence, so what is the fuss all about? But Sen never advocated violence! Yet, by supporting the untenable charges made against him, Swaraj was providing justification to the Maoists who must be delighted with her statements. This is just the stuff of which Maoist dreams are made of, and the BJP is providing all the froth for such a cause.

There are other parallels between the Dreyfus Affair and that of Sen. If Dreyfus was a respected captain in the French cavalry, Sen was once member of the advisory committee of Chhattisgarh government’s health initiative, the Mitanin programme. Also, like the prosecution case against Dreyfus, the one against Sen too is full of holes.

In the Dreyfus affair again, the real criminal, Walsin Esterhazy, was exonerated after a perfunctory trial. As the prestige of the army was at stake, Dreyfus could be put away. Likewise, in Sen’s case, the Maoist influence in the tribal tracts is exaggerated so that state repression can gain legitimacy. This takes our eyes off the Esterhazys of Chhattisgarh – the buccaneer capitalists and sleazy commercial agents who work in tandem with government officials, elected and otherwise. In all these years of so-called Maoist violence, not a single big timber or mining lord has been hurt, or imprisoned. They go about their business scot-free.

If Sen’s case is overturned, as Dreyfus’s was, infantile Maoism will come to grief as much as the crass commercial interests that stalks Chhattisgarh’s forests. It is for this reason that democrats must keep up the pressure so that he gets a fair trial in accordance with the best in democratic tradition.

The writer is former professor, JNU.