Jangalmahal debate

It’s not a Strategic Problem
Probal Dasgupta

Why does it not surprise any of the political observers that the major political parties have made no durable contribution at any stage of the protracted conflict in Jangalmahal? Well, obviously the paradigms that propel both the parliamentary parties and the extra-parliamentary armed movements do not enable their jet planes, however diverse, to land in Jangalmahal, which provides no tarmac. Given this, why is meaningful to ask how peace can be attained there, how the insoluble problem can be solved? Surely asking that question expresses the hope that one can visualize its troubled state in terms of alternatives to classical ‘strategic’ solutions to ‘problems’. Are such alternatives available in real life, however?

It is true that the classical strategic paradigm itself has few explicit takers left. That mind-set took the military form of worshipping heavy artillery and its supplements, and the industrial form of ownership-driven practices, which have now been giving way to innovative practices of management. The agility of today’s versatile young minds, is replacing all this even in the mainstream liberal world, and obviously the left too is taking part in this general updating of means and ends.

Unfortunately that approach hardly gets people anywhere in the case at hand, for all trouble shooters, however innovative, agree that ‘the Jangalmahal problem’ is intractable. It would be inappropriate to attribute this consensus to abysmal underdevelopment alone. Under other circumstances it has proved possible, after decades of despair, to address poverty and marginalization. But the intractability of the ‘Jangalmahal problem’ reflects a convergence of the following factors :

(a)  Long neglected tribals whose absolute numbers are small relative to the state population cannot function as an enfranchisable category in the democratic process;

(b)  Neither profit-focused corporations nor vote-focused political parties can mesh their own goals with the interests of such tribals;

(c)  Public green goods whose cultivation theoretically serves the interests of the planet are still remote from the moves currently admissible in parliamentary democratic games.

Those who are trying to find a solution to what look like the problems in this grossly limited context are affected by fatigue, boredom, a sense of déjà vu. Any approach to conflict resolution that equates peace with absence of physical violence/ coercion and treats dialogue as a means to that end remains stuck in certain versions of the old mind-set. Those versions may incorporate an innovation or two. However, they still accept a Maoist armed struggle (whose logic leads to the establishment of statelike institutions) and the government’s military response to that struggle as valid moves in a meaningful enterprise. The strategic mind-set that formulates ‘problems’ to ‘solve’ is complicit with the shared militarism driving both the Maoists and the government. That mentality is experiencing fatigue; the government and the Maoists both see that this war is tiring them out, but cannot get off the tiger’s back. Those who try to ‘solve the problem’ become part of that shared fatigue.

Doris Lessing in her 1987 book, ‘‘Prisons we choose to live inside’’ (New York: Harper and Row), wrote of successive “mass movements” and their “mass opinions”. She wrote that “each breeds a certain frame of mind: violent, emotional, partisan, always suppressing facts that don’t suit it, lying, and making it impossible to talk in the cool, quiet, sensible low-keyed tone of voice which, it seems to me, is the only one that can produce truth.” Why is that low-keyed tone of voice of any political importance?

Because the major political thinker Hannah Arendt has proposed that only the exchange of careful reasoning by adherents of contrary positions can lead to a convergence whose forceless power over the community outweighs anything obtained by weapons or bribes. Extending her line of thinking, Juergen Habermas argues that, when classical armed conflict between nation-states–and non-military replays of war in sub- national contexts–stop yielding viable outcomes in contemporary political processes, people all get trapped in a new type of impasse. Habermas tends to favour styles of adjudication that inherit notions of right and ownership from the classical mind-set. However, if one agrees to combine the Arendt-Habermas approach to negotiation with an acceptance of the reality that it should be actual users and managers (rather than titular owners) who call the shots, then the lowering of temperature that Lessing identifies as a precondition for joint reasoning should prove feasible.

Some readers will rightly object that these voices were articulating different problems, in contexts whose connection with Jangalmahal is at best far-fetched. True, so it is better to turn to a figure who was very much part of the concrete transactional context from which Jangalmahal derives socio-political meaning. Consider what K Balagopal had to say on issues of violent and non-violent struggle in 2009. He wrote: “But looking back on nearly forty years of the Naxalite movement, one is surprised how few are the important policy decisions of the State or tendencies inherent in the logic of unequal development that the Naxalites have been able to stall. In fact, one cannot off-hand think of even one. They themselves may answer that it is because they have not tried. It is true that their strategic thinking does not turn around defeating the State politically but mobilizing against it militarily. Hence, inflicting major political defeats or reversing trends of unequal or destructive development is not on their agenda. Yet it is also true that even if they tried they would not know how to go about stalling such decisions or forces. To put it simply, you can hold a gun to a landlord’s head but Special Economic Zones or the Indo-US Nuclear Deal have no head to put a gun to” (‘Reflections on violence and non-violence in political movements in India’, 26.1.2009, http://www.sacw.net/article1169.html).

If the conceptual points made earlier converge with this strategically argued conclusion that classical strategic thinking is no longer appropriate as a framework within which negotiation over Jangalmahal becomes feasible, then it becomes an urgent task for civil society to reconfigure its own practices and conversations. The victims as well as the real or potential agents caught in politico-military traffic jams–both in the Jangalmahal crisis and in other comparably hopeless predicaments–will remain trapped unless forces in civil society, and especially thinkers whose work activists are willing to take seriously, start reconfiguring the way they conceptualize these issues. As long as one views them as ‘problems’ and ask how to ‘solve’ them, it is in effect a variant of the logic of militarism. Are civic society activists capable of moving into a saner logic? Will they do so on time? Or are they going to keep letting the people of Jangalmahal down?

Vol. 45, No. 8, Sep 2-8, 2012