[Reader-list] Problems in left-progressive line on operation green hunt

SUNDARA BABU babuubab at gmail.com
Fri Jun 4 16:34:27 IST 2010

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Shankar Gopalakrishnan <shankargopal at myfastmail.com>

Dear all,

Please find below a note critiquing some common tendencies in current
left understandings of Operation Green Hunt.  In particular, the note
focuses on the tendency to either be overly reductionist (it is a war
between corporate resource grabbing and people's 'self-defence') or to be
overly generalist (this is the "leading edge" of the revolution).
The note argues that these positions are not only politically and factually
incorrect, but also lead us into stands that may
actually strengthen the government's narrative.

The note can also be found at:

Responses and comments would be very welcome.


*Forest Areas, Political Economy and the "Left-Progressive Line" on
Operation Green Hunt *

* Shankar Gopalakrishnan *

As central India's forest belts are swept into an ever-intensifying state
offensive and resulting civil war, there has been a strong convergence of
left, liberal and progressive arguments on Operation Green Hunt. This note
argues that this 'basic line' is problematic. The line can be summarised as:

   - The conflict is rooted in resource grabbing by corporate capital, in
   the form of large projects, SEZs, mining, etc.
   - Such resource grabbing leads people to take up arms to defend
   themselves, resulting in the ongoing conflict.
   - The conflict thus consists of a state drive to grab people's homes and
   resources, with people resisting by taking to arms as self-defence.

Supporters of the Maoists' positions now often conflate these points with
the more orthodox positions on the necessity for "protracted people's war"
in a 'semi-feudal semi-colonial' state. Liberals in turn tend to deny these
orthodox positions and instead advocate the resource grab - displacement -
corporate attack issue as the "real" explanation. Both, however, accept this
as the predominant dynamic at the heart of the current conflict.

But at the heart of this line lies an unstated question: why are forest
areas the main battleground in this war? While the conflict is not
coterminous with the forests - most of India's forest areas are not part of
this war, and the conflict extends outside the forest areas in some regions
- forests are both politically and geographically at its heart.

Most answers to this question are either over-specific - "the minerals are
found there" - or over-general - "these areas are backward / remote /
marginalised, a creation of uneven development, and the state is weak
there."  The latter are all correct generalisations, but in themselves they
beg the question: why are these areas backward, marginalised and
under-developed? This note argues that we need to engage with the political
economy of forests and the nature of accumulation in these belts before we
can accurately answer this question. Such an engagement, in turn, reveals
political risks in the standard narrative.

The Forest Areas*

Some basic features of the political economy of forest areas are outlined in
a sketch here. The key defining feature of these areas is one
legal-political-institutional complex: India's system of forest management.
The British initiated the current system of resource control in forest areas
in the mid nineteenth century, and it reached its present form around the
turn of the 20th century. The system has since then maintained a remarkable
continuity for more than a century, an indicator of its importance to
India's ruling classes.

This system has its roots in the requirements of British industrial
capitalism in the nineteenth century, for which timber was a key raw
material, both within India (for the railway networks that strengthened
imperial control and allowed extraction of resources) and in the UK itself
(particularly ship building). The systems of forest control that existed in
India at the time, where village communities, religious institutions, local
rulers and tribal societies operated multiple and complex systems of
management, did not permit such easy extraction. They also did not serve
British interests, since timber trees were naturally not given high priority
in such management systems. As a result, the British instituted the Forest
Department and passed a series of three Forest Acts - in 1865, 1878 and 1927
- to essentially bring India's timber resources under their control and
provide a legal-institutional form for their management. The 1927 Act
remains India's main forest law.

The British Forest Acts were based on the principle of expropriation: any
area could be declared to be a government forest, whereupon rights in this
area would have to be respected / settled (the process varied over the
course of the three acts). The form of such rights was whittled down to
essentially individual land rights by the time of the 1927 law, and even
these were subject to the decision of a forest settlement officer. The
resulting failure to record even the individual rights of adivasis, Dalits
and most other forest dwelling communities is well documented. This process
continued and was consolidated after independence, excepting in the

But this was not merely a question of administrative failure. The forest
laws had *three key consequences for production relations*. The first was
that, as with enclosures anywhere, they sought to *reduce what were
essentially territories and landscapes to commodities*, in this case
exemplified by timber. The variations in pre-colonial management systems
notwithstanding, none of them was based on principles of commodity
management; though often far from democratic or egalitarian, they were
concerned with regulation of use and (at most) extraction of revenue. Their
purpose did not revolve around the extraction of a single commodity; this
was an innovation of the British. The result of this process was to bring
Indian forests into a specific position within the global capitalist
commodity circuit, servicing the industrial needs of transport sectors
within the imperialist bourgeosie.

But, unlike the classical enclosures of England, in *the enclosure attempt
in India's forests failed* - bringing about the second consequence. The
attempt to seize most of central India's forests met with fierce resistance,
being one of the triggers for a series of adivasi uprisings across central
India (the tribals of the Northeast having largely fought off British
control from the beginning). The British lacked the force to clear these
areas of people and suppress their management systems, and the post colonial
Indian state - despite its ever increasing reserves of repressive power -
has also lacked the ability to do so. The result has been that one reality
exists in the world of law, where forests are uninhabited wilderness, and
another exists in reality, where millions use and depend on them for
survival. More important than the fact that these uses are illegal is that
they are not recorded, and as such outside the *knowledge* of the state

This produced the third and most important consequence: *a distorted system
of property relations*, from the point of view of classical 'capitalism'. In
short, security of private tenure does not exist in the forests. Enclosure,
rather than creating and defining the rule of private property, has produced
a chaotic situation of competing claims, *de* *facto* management systems
that clash with *de* *jure* ones and state policies that are based on a
combination of fantasy at the time of policymaking (Project Tiger, for
instance) and brutality in implementation. These apply to all resources in
the area, not only to land.

Integration into India's Political Economy*

A lack of defined property relations has, in turn, further shaped both the
integration of these areas into Indian capitalism (1) and the forms of
resistance adopted by people in these areas. First, *accumulation in these
areas is simultaneously constrained and driven by the direct exercise of
state force*. Close relations with the formal state machinery are a
precondition for acccumulation in forest areas, whether one is a tendu leaf
contractor, a landlord, a tea estate, a forest guard or Vedanta. This is
accumulation by dispossession as a continuous process.

Such a situation obviously poses risks both to legitimacy and to 'orderly'
accumulation. But it also proves to be a useful compromise in a context
where state force alone simply cannot exterminate or remove the entire
forest dwelling population. The current situation provides direct benefits
to large sectors of India's ruling classes. On the one hand, the continuous
subsidy to capital that is created by the provision of free or cheap
minerals, water, timber and land from forest areas has contributed an untold
and inestimable amount to India's capitalist 'development', both earlier and
in the recent neoliberal era. It is no accident that most large projects at
all stages since independence have involved forest land. On the other hand,
this situation has produced a partially proletarianised population of crores
of people - mostly, but not only, adivasis - whose traditional productive
resources (particularly forest produce) have been expropriated, and who are
now vulnerable to super-exploitation as migrant workers. Nor are the
consequences limited to present day forest dwellers; the resulting desperate
reserve army of workers has had a historical and geographical 'ripple
effect', diminishing the strength of the working class as a whole (most
visible in the heavy and increasing use of adivasi migrant labour across
India's "developed" capitalist belts).

Resistance in Forest Areas*

The consequence of this is that the link between capital, the state and the
use of force is thus blatantly obvious in forest areas in a manner that it
is not elsewhere. If hegemony consists of the combination of consent with
the armor of coercion, it is the armor that forest dwellers see. This,
together with the reality of ill-defined property relations, has had
consequences for the way people have fought back.

Indeed, I would argue that *the persistence and reproduction of collective
property relations among adivasi and tribal communities is not the result of
some kind of historical exceptionalism, or relics of a "past culture" or
"feudal mode of production."*  Rather they are a reflection of the concrete
combination of weak private property relations and state repression on the
other. In the forest and tribal areas, the *nature* of capitalist
exploitation makes collective production both concretely possible and a key
source of resistance (since it is the subject of direct repression), and as
a result these forms of production are being reproduced. Indeed, the
communities with the strongest systems of collective production in India
today are the tribal communities of the Northeast, such as the Nagas, the
Mizos, the Garos and others, who have literally been at war against
expropriation attempts continuously since the colonial period. In central
India, where such struggles have been less successful, the state suppression
of community management systems has progressed much further - but they
remain alive in such phenomena as community forest management (practiced by
thousands of villages in Orissa and Jharkhand), collective gathering and
management of minor forest produce, collective grazing systems, etc.

Where internal differentiation has occurred, as it has in all communities,
such differentiation has also been 'distorted'. It has produced small
elites, generally among those close to the state machinery (including
beneficiaries of reservations, panchayat leaders, JFM Committee members,
etc.), who are polarised against large masses of people on the brink of
destitution. This is also true among non-adivasi forest dwelling
communities, most of whom were already integrated into a greater degree of
private property relations prior to the declaration of state forests, but
among whom similar processes have operated in forest areas.
* *

*Forms of Resistance*

The net result of this has been to produce a situation where the state is
both strong and weak. The strength, of course, stems from the availability
of force and the lack of integration into the mainstream political system,
which ensures that any agitation is met with inhuman repression. But the
weakness stems from the lack of hegemony and the very clear boundary between
"rulers" and "ruled."  In the forest areas, the binary of "state vs people"
has a glaring reality that people experience in their daily lives. The state
both is and is seen to be the direct agent of exploitation.

The result is that struggles in these areas have often given space for more
radical formations, and for raising more fundamental political issues, than
in other parts of India. This is not just true of the CPI(Maoist), but of
the history of struggles in adivasi areas generally, both before and after
independence. Often phrased in millenarian and revivalist language, the
adivasi uprisings of the nineteenth century demanded not just the exit of
the British but the reconstruction of their entire society. Closer to the
present day, the undivided CPI found some of its strongest bases among
adivasis, as have both the CPI(Maoist) and the democratic mass
organisations. The longest running armed conflicts in India - the struggles
in the Northeast - are also marked by the same dynamics. Meanwhile, the
weakness of the state has also made it the target of other struggles in
forest areas. For instance, practically all streams of the Indian left -
from the parliamentary parties through the armed groups and the mass
organisations - have staged their most successful drives for land occupation
(i.e. land takeovers by the landless) on forest land.

Forests and the War*

It is incorrect, in this light, to see forests as either *separate* from
Indian capitalism or society or to see them as simply the more *remote or
backward* parts of that society. Rather, forests and forest areas function
within a specific politico-economic space *as a result* of the manner in
which they are integrated with the Indian economy. It is not that there are
no similarities between this space and that of other parts of the Indian
socioeconomic formation; there are parallels with the role of the state in
urban areas, for instance, or with the nature of oppression among the
landless peasantry. But the specificity of forest areas, produced by their
role within the current socioeconomic formation, is still valid. As said
earlier, most of the current discussion on Operation Green Hunt does not
recognise this fact, and instead seeks to both over-specify it and, more
importantly, over generalise it.

The tendency to over-specify is visible in a factual error made by nearly
all current cirtiques: the argument that the conflict is over corporate
projects. Displacement by corporations and projects covers a huge area in
absolute terms, but this is only a small part of India's forests and adivasi
areas. The vast majority of adivasis and forest dwellers, including in
Maoist areas, are not threatened with displacement, and will not be
threatened with it, however intense the corporate offensive may become.

To fail to see this is to open an obvious factual contradiction that is easy
for the state and its supporters to attack. If the armed struggle is a
question of self-defence against displacement, the Digvijay Singhs
immediately ask why the CPI(Maoist) did not so strongly oppose
displacement-inducing projects earlier. Others demand to know that if the
only issue is corporate projects, why are some of the most intense struggles
being fought where there is no project visible? Moreover, say the news
anchors, if the war is one of self-defence against corporate displacement
(which after all does not apply to most of India), is the CPI(Maoist) being
delusional when it talks of overthrowing the Indian state? Indeed, by
over-emphasising the displacement issue, many reduce the Maoist movement to
precisely the kind of formation that they are most critical of: an issue
based anti-displacement struggle, with all its ideological and political

The answer to all of these questions, of course, is that the struggles
(armed and unarmed) in forest areas are not a response to displacement
alone; they are a result of the continuum of state-driven repression and
expropriation that dominates in these areas, of which corporate projects are
but the most extreme example. Operation Green Hunt may have been initiated
due to corporate pressure, but the war as a whole is much older and much

But to accept this is to, in turn, open another flank for attack. If
displacement and "annihilation" are not the issue, can it be said that there
is "no choice" but to take up arms? If oppression in the forests is the
problem, many mass organisations have worked in these areas before the
Maoists, and many such struggles continue both there and elsewhere. True,
most of these organisations have resorted to physical self-protection when
attacked - the vast majority were and are not Gandhians. But there is a gulf
between such "violence" and the strategy of protracted people's war.

In order to respond to this, many abandon over-specific arguments, but
instead fall into over-generalisation - using simplified versions of
traditional Maoist positions. In this view, the war in the forests is the
"leading edge" of working class struggles in the country, a result of the
intensification of "neo robber baron capitalism" (2). This war is here
presented as the most radical response to a brutal state intent on
expropriating everything from its oppressed, and the rest of India's working
class should, in this view, look upon the war as both model and inspiration.
The CPI(Maoist) itself tends to adopt this position in its recent public
statements (being clear, after all, that it is not fighting an
anti-displacement struggle).

But it is not clear how a struggle that currently has its deepest roots in
forest areas - with their specific history - can be described as the
"leading edge" of a new democratic revolution. There is no linear manner in
which the forest areas can be placed on a continuum of backwardness from the
other areas of India; their configuration is specific to them, with some
similarities but many differences with formations in other parts of the
country. Sweeping claims of being a "leading edge" would only be true if the
war in the forests is obviously generalisable, in the sense of developing a
praxis that is extendable to other areas and configurations of exploitation
in the country. This is not clear in either Maoist statements or in the
external analyses that adopt this line.

Indeed, one might note, as a "stylised fact", that in some senses the Maoist
organisations have undergone the opposite journey - from having their core
base among sectors of the landless and the marginal peasantry, who are more
within 'normal' state functioning and property relations, their centre has
moved into the forest areas. Even within the forests, the majority of
communities and areas are not within the Maoist fold. The party has shown
less ability to expand in regions such as western Maharashtra, south
Gujarat, western Madhya Pradesh, etc., where - due to regional social
processes and struggles - the forest economy has shifted more towards a
"normal" peasant configuration. Thus, overall, the party appears to have
moved from areas of stronger hegemony to ones of weaker hegemony. This does
not strengthen belief in the ability of "people's war", as they frame it, to
be a strategy of struggle in areas where binary "state vs people" modes of
exploitation do not exist so concretely.

And it is here that the more fundamental danger arises. Posing the question
of people's war as an inevitability, a choice between a marauding state
intent on annihilating people and a revolutionary force whose promise lies
in making a "better state", does not correspond to the political reality of
most of the oppressed in India today. For all its venality, brutality and
inhumanity, the Indian state retains a weakened but still very real
hegemonic status in most of the country. For most working class Indians,
bourgeois democracy may have *failed* to deliver its claims, but it is not a
lie; and to merely declare that it is one is not going to make it so.

To ignore this, and focus only on the state's coercive operations in the
forests, makes the conflict appear either irrelevant or, worse, alien to the
majority of the population. It converts oppression rooted in Indian
capitalism into the problem of some remote far off area, a war between
"tribals" and "corporates" in what seems to be a foreign land. This,
ultimately, only serves the government's purposes; what better way to ensure
that opposition to Operation Green Hunt, outside the conflict zones, fails
to develop a mass character? Instead of weakening state hegemony, we thus
find ourselves reinforcing it.

Alternative Possibilities*

If we are to place Operation Green Hunt accurately within our own analyses,
it is important to stress the *connections* and *parallels* between the
forest conflict and oppression in other areas, without slipping into
over-generalisations. These parallels operate at different levels. One
instance is the increasing use of law as a direct tool of accumulation, such
as through Special Economic Zones, anti-encroachment drives in urban areas,
etc. There are strong similarities between these processes and the use of
forest law; exposing this function of law in turn exposes the class nature
of the state. Another similarity is the continuous process of enclosure and
extermination of systems of common production, often using the law, but also
through other methods.

Which parallels are relevant and how are, of course, matters of separate
debate. In this of course there will be sharp differences the various left
streams on our understanding of the present socioeconomic formation. In
general, however, such connections need to be exposed and analysed to build
both a broader praxis and an understanding of how, in each sphere of
struggle, hegemony can be weakened. But to simply overlook the political
positioning of forest areas and continue with over-specific or over-general
arguments is to risk strengthening the government's narrative - with
attendant dangerous consequences for us all.


1. In this note, I am not entering into the debate as to whether this is
genuine autonomous capitalist development or that of a compradore
bourgeoisie; for the limited purpose here, there is little difference.

2 An example of the former is Saroj Giri, "'The Dangers Are Great, the
Possibilities Immense': The Ongoing Political Struggle in
for the latter see Bernard D'Mello, "Spring Thunder


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