Sunday, October 25, 2009

No ifs or buts, defeat Maoist violence

Arundhati Roy writes seductively. Recently I picked up her new book, Listening to Grasshoppers, and I was mesmerized by her luminous prose but I disagreed profoundly with her conclusions. I was revolted, in particular, by her support for violence. She regards Naxalism as armed resistance against a sham democracy. I call it terrorism.

Roy thinks that India pretends to be a democracy in order to impress the world. I think our democracy is as real as my grandson’s thumb. Yes, it has many flaws but it is legitimate. We need to reform the police; speed up justice; make babus accountable; stop criminals from entering politics; etc.. Yet, this democracy has done a colossal amount of good. It has raised the prospects and self esteem of the lowest in our society and protected us from the great genocides of the 20th century. Gujarat, to its disgrace, may have killed 2000 people but Mao’s China killed more than 50 million, according to the Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm. One may be justified in taking up arms against a loathsome African or Latin American dictator but not against the Indian state.

Like many in the 1960s I was a Leftist and admired Charu Mazumdar who had founded the Naxalbari movement. Although I belonged to that idealistic middle class generation, I was not tempted to abandon all and join the Maoists. Perhaps, it was because I lived in sensible Bombay rather than Calcutta. The Naxalite movement died in the 1970s but it revived subsequently and today it operates in 200 districts across ten states and controls huge Indian territory. The Prime Minister thinks it is the greatest security threat to India, and I agree.

Soon after the Maoist leader, Kobad Ghandy, the police in Hazaribagh got another prize catch. On October 10th, they captured Ravi Sharma and his wife, B. Anuradha. Top level Naxalites, they hailed from Andhra but were running the Maoist movement in Bihar and Jharkhand for the past ten years. On their laptop the police found their strategy and their plans. Ravi Sharma is an agricultural scientist and a member of the Maoist Central Committee. As he was being led by the police to the court in Hazaribagh, Sharma told reporters that he did not regret killing thousands of people. “During a revolution,” he spoke honestly, “one does not care how many are killed; only the goal should be achieved.”

Ravi Sharma thus raised the old dilemma of means and ends. Vidura posed the same question in the Mahabharata when he justified sacrificing an individual for the sake of a village and a village for the sake of a nation. Vidura, like Sharma, judges an act to be dharmic if it produces good consequences for the greatest number of people. Yudhishthira, however, is concerned with means rather than ends. Having given his word to Dhritarashtra, he refuses to give in to Draupadi’s insistent demand that Pandavas raise an army and win back their kingdom which was stolen in a rigged game of dice. No matter how great the goal, Yudhishthira would not condone the Maoists’ use of violence.

I usually agree with Vidura but on this one I am with Yudhishthira. Marxists have never valued human life and have always found it easy to take the gun. Mao and Stalin easily justified killing millions for the sake of the revolution. They never understood that violence in the end brutalises both the oppressor and the victim. Neither should we let the Indian state get away by using wrong means for the sake of good ends. I agree with Arundhati Roy that the state should not get away with unlawful detention or killing people in custody. I applaud her and human rights activists for raising these issues.

The Naxalite movement has always found sympathy in our influential, leftish upper middle class. Like most people I was aghast at the beheading of police officer Francis Induwar on September 30 by the Maoists, and I expressed my horror to an elegantly dressed friend who was visiting me. She is with an NGO and has sentimental feelings for Maoists. She said, “Yes, it is wrong, but we need development as well as force to defeat Maoists.” I could not disagree with her, but I was appalled at the ease with which she dismissed the beheading. Mamata Banerji, the leader of Trinamool Congress, had the same response.

For once we have a home minister who understands the Maoist threat to our nation and is determined to act with courage. It is pathetic that he should be slowed by endless debate on development versus police action; or whether helicopters should fire on rebels and risk civilian casualties. We have talked for two decades. Enough is enough. No ifs or buts, you cannot negotiate with someone with a gun. Now is the time for action.
Gurcharan Das is the author of The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mukesh’s Sacrifice

Corporate Affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, created quite a stir recently when he warned companies to refrain from paying “vulgar salaries” or face the music. Mukesh Ambani took his advice and cut his salary by 65%. Flaunting wealth is distasteful; it is also imprudent when market capitalism is still trying to find a comfortable home in India. However, the minister was profoundly wrong. The trouble with judging other people’s lifestyle is that soon you are tempted to control other things, and this is a short step to the command economy. Not to live ostentatiously is a call of dharma, not a legal duty.

The distinguished minister, who is a sensible lawyer, quickly realized his error and pulled back the next day. “Only the company’s shareholders can decide salaries…It cannot be mandated, but should be self-exercised,” he said. Yes, this is the right position—only shareholders have the right to fix salaries in a democracy, not the government. The significance of the minister’s two positions, however, goes beyond vulgar salaries and reflects an old conflict between our ideals of liberty and equality.
There is a voice in each of us which values liberty. It was alarmed at the spectre of the dreaded days prior to 1991 when our government did believe that the way to make a poor person rich is by making the rich poor. There is another voice, however, which values equality. This egalitarian voice was sympathetic to Khurshid’s advice to CEOs. Millions are hurting from the global economic recession and something is wrong when some earn Rs 40 crores while 250 million Indians survive on less than Rs 50 a day.

These two voices constitute the modern idea of a fair society. In democracies, liberty precedes equality. Socialist societies value equality more and will sacrifice freedom for more state control. The contest between these two ideals has been going on for 200 years but it ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. Liberty won, and it will win in China too one day. Absolute equality is unrealistic because the human ego will not shrink that far. So we have learned to live with the lesser goal of an “equality of opportunity”. In our desire for a just society, the political Left continues to champion equality while the Right gives precedence to liberty.

I have always believed that it is none of my business how much Mukesh Ambani earns. He creates lots of jobs, pays his taxes, produces wealth for society--and that is good enough for me. Moreover, we ought to be more concerned with reducing poverty in a poor country rather worry about inequality. Controlling CEO salaries will not lift the poor. But economic reforms will. A minister of corporate affairs can make a huge difference by making it easier for a person to start and run a business. The vast majority of Indians are self-employed entrepreneurs in the informal economy. They cannot enter the formal economy because of formidable barriers of red tape and bribery. Hence, India has the shameful distinction of being 134 in a list of 180 countries in the ease of doing business. Cut the tape, Mr Minister, and you will spawn enterprise and prosperity.

A well-ordered society, however, ought to design institutions that help to diminish inequality while preserving liberty. If the advantages of the affluent are perceived as a reward for improving the situation of the worst off, then the inequality will be perceived as more just. If the lowest worker in a company believes that his prospects will improve if his company performs well, then he will not resent an outstanding CEO earning 50 times more. This was elaborated elegantly by the American thinker, John Rawls, in his famous book, The Theory of Justice.

If you want to take the sting out inequality, Mr Minister, cut red tape but also give the poor titles to their small property so that they can get a loan against it and start a business. And persuade your UPA colleagues to implement labour reforms so that 90% of Indians in the informal economy can hope for some sort of safety net. This is the way to genuine, inclusive growth. And let’s not worry too much about vulgar salaries.