Monday, November 16, 2009

Politics of the Belly

Shamita Basu
Tribal communities in India have historically existed as parceled out sovereignties. This has strengthened ethnicity and made the tribals more self-conscious and politically competitive. State boundaries have had to be redrawn, leading to the creation of Meghalaya, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh.  
However, what makes Lalgarh exceptional is that the local tribals have not demanded the right to self-determination. Nor for that matter have they sought a redrawn map of Bengal, like the Gorkhas in the Hills. The movement in Lalgarh began as a discourse on moral ethnicity when the tribals were attacked by the police last November. The movement has now been linked to that of the Maoists. The line that differentiates the tribal from the Maoist is getting increasingly blurred.
The present scenario in the tribal belt is somewhat reminiscent of British India. The colonial ruler in league with the upper caste landlords and zamindars would forcefully usurp the tribal land and resources and evacuate them from their hearth and home ~ the Rajmahal hills. The process, criminalised by the money-lenders and the sexual exploitation of women, eventually culminated in the Santhal rebellion.
India of the 21st century has not substantially altered the colonial policy. Indeed, the lack of development reflects the colonial mindset. Besides, tribal land and resources have been plundered. The Special Economic Zones have been planned on inalienable tribal land without the distribution of economic benefits.
Economic plight
CIVIL society has been largely indifferent to the economic plight of the tribals. It has even been argued that the governmental model of development might simply misfire, even threaten the subaltern perception of “development”. This view has provided a comfortable escape route for the government.
The question of tribal welfare now occupies the centrestage in Bengal. The gradual loosening of state power has opened up the space for democratisation in the form of discord, protest and rebellion. What used to be a shadow line of the Maoist movement has become more prominent. It is becoming progressively difficult to separate the militia from the tribal population. No wonder the state treads nervously.
The political class generally has tried to link tribal disaffection with that of the Maoist militia. The idea is to run down both in the public perception. The other method, resorted to by the administration, is to invoke such stringent legislation as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to curb what it calls the state of internal terrorism. This is a puerile perception
Maoism historically has its roots in the agrarian and tribal societies in India. Its revival need not be sought in its ideology ~ of the reluctance of the Left radical to join the political mainstream. A close look is necessary to determine what exactly sustains these movements at the popular and grassroot level and why it is able to extract support from the human rights activists and the radical section of civil society.
The obsessive concern with investments in industry is dangerous. Even the West has begun to question what the German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, has called “The Risk Society” ~ a product of the industrial society. “Just as modernisation dissolved the structure of feudal society in the 19th century, modernisation today is dissolving industrial society and a new modernity is coming into being.” By linking up the critique of industrialisation with the cause of the poor and the marginalised, the ideology of the Maoists has been significantly recast.
The contradiction of Indian politics lies in its espousal of a development model that is anachronistic in nature. The paradox of a developing society is that it borrows from a model that has outgrown itself in the West, but is parceled out to the East. Just as under-development in the Third World was once perceived to have been created. The emergence of what can be called the civil society movement in India is largely linked to this new brand of modernity that is beyond the pale of its classical industrial design.
Complex process
THE paradox of this model of development makes both the economic and political solution an extremely complex and elusive process. There may be hope yet if the State jettisons its absolutist stance. It must realise that thoughtless industrialisation can be hazardous for the climate. It can even destroy the natural habitat that had traditionally sheltered man, both physically and psychologically. In this quest for a safe society based on distributive justice and the protection of man’s basic needs, the government must function as a partner of the people. Instead of focusing on markets and breeding consumerism, the government must interact with its impoverished citizens and meet their fundamental needs ~ food, water, medicine and sanitation. Development doesn’t mean only the construction of sprawling industrial townships, multistoried apartments and luxury resorts.
Thus far, the government has not been able to delink development from industrialisation, urbanisation and market-driven resource generation, one that is based on outdated Western models. And if the question of welfare is swept under the carpet by according increased priority to security and terror, the appropriate development model will be relegated. The State can do so at its own peril.
The Maoist ideology is of lesser moment than the material structure that sustains such ideology. What Jean Francois Bayart famously described as “the politics of the belly” sustains Maoism. This happens when the state is impervious to the needs of the subaltern, most importantly his subsistence level. The government has attempted an economic overdrive long after the 19th century industrial development model outlived its utility.
Instead of silencing a people’s movement, the Government of India must be sensitive to the development paradigm. The establishment must reflect on its policies if it wants to silence the subaltern gun.

Source: The Statesman, 16 November 2009

No comments: