Friday, July 24, 2009

My interview on KPFK

Public station KPFK radio's show "Beneath the Surface with Hamid Khan" did a radio interview of me today morning. This was the first time I did a live interview ever and I am sure the nervousness shows. Please have a listen here: .. Hamid's conversation with me begins at the 20th minute nearabouts.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Trouble in Xinjiang

Pent up frustrations result in violent riots in Uyghur capital in China

Incidents of ethnic violence involving deaths of more than 190 people, rocked Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China on the 5th of July, when rioters belonging to the predominantly Sunni Islamic Uyghur ethnic denomination attacked members of the Han Chinese community in the city. The immediate trigger for the incidents in Urumqi was the violent targetting of Uyghur migrants by Han workers in a toy factory in the southern China province of Guangdong on June 26th. Miffed by what some Uyghurs felt as Chinese government inaction in bringing the guilty Han workers to justice, protests were staged in Urumqi, which further transformed into a bloody ethnic riot with Uyghurs attacking the migrant Han Chinese population. While Xinjiang has been rocked by sporadic incidents of violence for quite some time, including terrorist bombing and other riots, the incidents of July 5th were of such an alarming order that the Chinese President Hu Jintao had to shorten his visit to the G8 summit in Rome to return back to his country.

The official reaction of the Chinese government was to blame external forces for these incidents, pointing fingers at an Uyghur separatist leader (of the World Uyghur Congress) based in the United States. But just as in the Tibetan set of events last year, the riots in Urumqi must be attributed to resentment among the minority ethnic groups of China's population and umbrage against some of its government's policies. One such policy is the "Western development" initiative launched in the later half of the 1990s which involved the large scale capital investment in utilisation and extraction of natural resources in an endeavour to economically develop the western regions of China. Simultaneously there was also an influx of ethnic Han Chinese to partake in the economic benefits of the growth process in these regions, including Xinjiang. What has been resulted is the garnering of a large share of the employment opportunities by the Han migrants. This combined with measures such as teaching of Mandarin in schools in Xinjiang has not gone down well with the local Uyghur speaking people. While the Chinese government insists that these policies are meant to give better opportunities to the Uyghurs, that perception is not shared by the local indigenous population in Xinjiang. Thus despite certain concessions to minorities such as the relaxation of the One-Child policy or other social measures, resentment against Han in-migration, corruption among the ruling elite, lopsided development and employment opportunities plus perceptions of cultural suppression has seen Uyghurs increasingly getting antipathetic to the Chinese government. This resentment also resonates with the perceptions of rising inequality and government corruption elsewhere in China.

China's Constitution and its instituted 1984 Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law provides for ethnic minorities the right to protect, preserve and promote their cultures. Apparently the intent to respect and provide for diversity in the Constitution and in the autonomy law has not translated fully in its implementation in Xinjiang (as in Tibet), giving rise to grievances. In the medium and long term, the Chinese government has to bring make a paradigm shift from its current policy of conflating all forms of Uyghur dissent and grievances within "separatism, extremism and terrorism" to adopt a far more accommodative approach basing itself on the stated aims of the Constitution. The relative restraint with which the Chinese government handled the aftermath of the July 5th incidents could be a starting point. Merely blaming the separatist elements in the Uyghur diaspora for "fomenting" the riots is not going to help resolve the situation that resulted in the incidents in the first place.

The danger of a Han chauvinist and nationalist reprisal and consequent repression of Xinjiang remains, but thus far the Chinese government both at the national and at the local levels have tried to restore normalcy by appealing for calm while engaging in bringing those engaged in murder and violence to justice. The relative freedom and access given to the press (both local and foreign) in covering the events after the July 5th incidents suggests a marked change from the Chinese government response to the Tibetan incidents last year.

Beyond the political measures, the Chinese have to revisit the capital intensive growth paradigm as well, not just in the western regions but elsewhere in the mainland as well. Due to objective conditions - the global financial crisis and the structural problems in the Chinese economy, the Hu Jintao regime has instituted a more populist set of policies than its predecessor, but that is still not enough to mitigate the socio-economic troubles faced by the nation.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Lalgarh - Questions to the left

Lalgarh poses questions that the two main streams of the Left in India have to answer.

The Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) suffered its worst defeat in parliamentary elections since independence. The reasons for its defeat, particularly in West Bengal have got much to do with the failings in the CPI(M), reflected in its organisational problems over the years, and in the way it went about implementing policies that alienated sections of its own core support base - the rural poor in particular of late. The incidents in Lalgarh in West Midnapore district in a sense confirm both the alienation and the anger against the ruling party as well as the degradation of the left front in certain pockets of the state. On the other hand, the wanton killings of ruling party representatives by activists of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in the region which eventually invited reprisals from the centre and state government, point to the inefficacy and immaturity of the Maoist praxis.

The incidents in Lalgarh were triggered after the attempts at the life of West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in November 2008 near close-by Salboni by the Maoists, who have been active in the west Midnapore region for more than a decade. The subsequent reprisals engaged in by the state police, indiscriminately targetting villagers in Lalgarh for allegedly harbouring Maoist activists, was so brutal that a spontaneous movement was launched by the tribals in and around the villages of Lalgarh. Later a committee - Police Santrash Birodhi Janasadharaner Committee (PSBJC) was formed to protest police atrocities and which demanded apologies from the police besides an halt to frequent police raids in the area.

After initial suggestions of acquiescence to these demands, the state government did nothing much beyond withdrawing certain police camps from the area. The much traumatised tribals protested and resolved to keep the state administration and the police out of their lives, erecting barricades and blockades around the area. The tribals then went on to transform their movement from merely being grievance-driven to trying to implement means for livelihood on their own - by setting up primary health centres, irrigation facilities within their area - signalling their disconnect with the state administration. This further created an impasse which pitted the tribals against ruling party supporters and officials who were keen on regaining control over the blockaded Lalgarh. Eventually the gradual isolation of the tribal movement from mainstream politics - no political party took up the interests of the tribals beyond the PSBJC - resulted in Maoists taking up the demands of the PSBJC and also in controlling administrative activities within Lalgarh. This pitted the Maoists against ruling party sympathisers, fitting the pattern of late in parts of west Midnapore district. Increasing Maoist control over the tribals part of the committee resulted in the targetting and killing of CPI(M) sympathisers, office bearers and destruction of their homes and offices, in full public glare.

The following state action - mobilisation of central paramilitary forces, removal of blockades, banning of the CPI(Maoist), arrest of its spokespersons and the general environment of reprisals has killed a movement leaving in its wake the grievances and the aspirations of the tribals intact. The actions by the CPI(M) led left front administration to clear Lalgarh of "Maoist influence" have worsened the climate so badly that the alienation is complete. The hapless tribals and the PSBJC have demanded talks with the state government and so have the Maoists, but the banning of the CPI(Maoist) and resolve shown by the state government in persisting with paramilitary action has meant that a more full fledged military affair is on.

Questions have to be raised to the Maoists as to why they insist on tactics such as assassination and what political motive does this achieve. For all the political dividends that the Maoists claim to achieve, it is the opportunist sections of the West Bengal polity that has really benefited from these strategies. Besides by inviting state repression through the means of engaging in such tactics, the Maoists have betrayed the tribals' cause putting them in harm's way in a manner that is legitimated as legal military action against "Maoist mayhem".

Compared to other regions in West Bengal, land reforms have not necessarily affected the socio-economic specificities of the West Midnapore region. For one, the region suffers from lack of irrigation resources and despite the left front getting strong mandates in the district -though Lalgarh falling under Binpur assembly segment has preferred the Jharkhand Party (Naren) more often since 1991 - there has been very little dents made in the health and education fronts. Added to this is the gradual conversion of left front hegemony into a patronage system in the local level, favouring the left front cadre, that has seen sharp antagonisms resulting in violence. This has been one of the failings of the left front in West Bengal, where despite gains from welfare measures such as land reforms and deepening of local democracy, the "party-society" institutionalisation remains a major drawback. The organisational deficiencies of the left front - local corruption, organised patronage and entrenchment of violence are all consequences of the failures of the left front to transform the rural countryside in West Bengal beyond the aforementioned welfare and democratic measures. The anger of the tribals in Lalgarh against malfeasance by the CPI(M) cadre and sympathisers in the region is symptomatic of this

All in all, the tragic sandwiching of tribals in Lalgarh between a blundering Left Front administration and the brutally violent Maoists, raises questions at both these political entities in the state.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly