Tuesday, May 5, 2015

National Geographic fails on Naxalite coverage

I recently wrote a post on a weak article in National Geographic that didn't seem to meet their normal journalistic standards of informing and enlightening the public on complex topics.  In fact, of late I've been dismayed quite a few times at the quality of National Geographic stories.  There have been a few that really seemed like fluff, or worse still, like biased agenda pieces.  A recent example is their coverage of the Naxalite insurgency in India

I don't know a whole lot about the Naxalite insurgency, and after reading this article, I still don't know much.  The author, Anthony Loyd, tells us that the indigenous and peasant villages where the Naxalites operate are destitute, and that there is pervasive fear and death hanging about.  He interviews low-level field commanders of the Naxalites and shows us how murderous, unintelligent, and incoherent they are.  He interviews high-level representatives of the Indian government who articulate an erudite, coherent vision of what is happening.  He shows us photos of sad children and villagers whose family members have been killed in the conflict (implicitly by the Naxalites), and noble photos of military and police forces doing their exercises to get ready for battle.  In short, he tells us nothing of the why and wherefore of the conflict, and what reasoning he does convey is either his own as an uninformed outsider, or that of the government party line exactly as he receives it, with no critical analysis.

I've already hinted at the problems of his reporting, but let me get more specific, point by point.  First off, the author discusses the destitution of the area where the insurgency operates.  He mentions the Naxalite argument that this poverty is a result of underdevelopment, of exclusionary political economic and political processes, of conscious neglect by the larger Indian society.  But then he basically discounts this argument, claiming that the Naxalites are only taking advantage of local people's poverty so as to fool them into tolerating the insurgency.  We get an idea of how the author could be so dismissive of the words of his own subjects because Loyd tells us that the Naxalites "should have been relics of history".  This is at once biased, since Loyd is simply discounting a seemingly valid argument because it comes from a group he doesn't like, and patronizing of the local population that, for better or for worse, must be offering tacit or even active support that has allowed the insurgency to continue for so long.  Indeed, the author assumes of the villagers that "few of them wanted their traditional hunter-gatherer life, an existence without an alphabet, schools, electricity, roads, in which many babies and mothers died in childbirth and the village shaman treated every affliction, from cerebral malaria to cholera," but offers us no evidence (and certainly no direct quotes) of the real aspirations and priorities of these villagers.  He certainly does not explain why, if they are so eager to change their way of life, the indigenous villagers have not simply moved en masse to Calcutta or Chennai.  This despite a direct quote from a villager, "Our land is everything to us".  Of course, exploring their ties to their land and lifestyle might have shed some light on the drivers of the Naxalite conflict, and I guess this was the last thing the author wanted to do.

Indeed, Loyd seems to be one more person who regards the villagers as simple voiceless pawns as opposed to an important, perhaps the most important, actor in the conflict.  Instead of entertaining the possibility that the insurgency and the support it enjoys are due to ongoing, contemporary dynamics of power and exclusion in the modern world, he acts as if the "middle-class communist radical" Naxalites showed up one day with a pre-set (and obsolete) ideology, and simply lucked out that they "had been thrown a lifeline by the demands of development and the globalized economy, as mineral exploitation and land rights became catalysts of a revitalized struggle".  So let's get this straight--in the present day economy of unprecedented energy exploitation that inherently advantages comparatively wealthy global consumers at the expense of (in this case) indigenous villagers who have seen their land seized and their air and water polluted, an ideology that discusses the dynamic of exploitation and exclusion is an obsolete relic?  I guess so, if that ideology is articulated by "angry killers", their "eyes glowing with the luminosity of radicals".

Now let's talk about violence.  In any armed conflict, there is violence.  That's what makes it an armed conflict.  We all know violence is bad, but by definition both sides in an armed conflict use violence.  There are some clear-cut cases in which the approach of the two sides differs greatly in use of violence, but often these apparent differences dissolve away once you look deeper.  The Nazi machine for enslavement and/or extermination of civilians was indeed unprecedented in the US or Britain (though our Stalinist allies were no strangers to such practices).  The Japanese in the second World War used some tactics like abuse or execution of prisoners, or kamikaze attacks, that were not considered acceptable behavior, but the Allies firebombed German and Japanese cities with reckless abandon, just as the Axis did in London and China.  The US today has similar difficulties making an objective, coherent case that its tactics in the War on Terror (torture, consistently high levels of civilian collateral damage, support to fanatical militias) differ greatly in spirit from the beheadings and massacres of its insurgent rivals.  In most cases of internal insurgencies (El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Argentina, and I believe Nigeria), the objective numbers show equal or higher (sometimes much higher, as in Colombia) civilian deaths caused by government and affiliated paramilitary forces than by left-wing insurgencies.  This makes sense, since insurgencies don't have as much firepower and do need to maintain the support and legitimacy of the local population.  I don't know how the numbers stack up in the Naxalite case, whether government or the insurgency have claimed more civilian lives.  From reading Loyd's article, you'd think that the Naxalites go around massacring people and the government has never killed anyone but confirmed insurgents. 

Even short of the heinous issue of war crimes, we can neither usually differentiate two parties to war by the personal qualities of their members.  There will likely be silly, immature boys and even bloodthirsty ones at the field level of either side, and as you go up the ladder each participant in the conflict will be motivated by a varying mix of conviction, convenience, opportunism, ego, compassion, humanity and a number of other factors.

So if war is violent and ugly, and often both sides use despicable methods that can be qualified as war crimes, both sides have essentially forfeited any claim to moral superiority in terms of their conduct.  And if those waging war are all a mix of coherent values and incoherent or selfish motives, we can't describe one side as totally valid and the other side as simply evil on those criteria either.  Loyd attempts to circumvent these truths by presenting only the vain, incoherent traits of one side, contrasted with the reasonable rhetoric and human concern of the other.  Loyd describes the first Naxalite he meets as "fresh from killing", just to make sure that we know what a bad guy he is, that his face and body are "burned out ... cadaverous" due to nothing other than the evil lurking in his own soul.  On the other hand, we hear from a decent, ethical former minister of rural affairs for India who authoritatively explains how opportunistic and cynical the Naxalites are, operating basically as a nihilistic protection racket in cahoots with big industry.  “Where there is mining, there is Maoism, because where there is mining, there is more revenue, and where there is more revenue, there is more extortion,” he added. “Some of the best-known names in Indian industry are running businesses in the Maoist areas by paying off the Maoists. I don’t want to name names, but these are the biggest names in Indian industry.”  I hope Loyd is not trying to subtly imply that all Naxalites are bloodthirsty soldiers, and all anti-Naxalite corruption-free, moral people, but I suspect that this is precisely what he's trying to do.

So is the argument that any movement that seeks to finance its own operations is invalid?  The Indian army presumably uses taxes to finance itself, and presumably the Indian state faces the same tricky queries that all states face.  By taxing cigarettes or alcohol or gasoline, are we somehow condoning vice or pollution?  By taxing food are we keeping people from eating?  What is the right proportion of revenue to destine for education and social services, versus military expenditure?  I have seen many articles that similarly dismiss the ideological cogency of the left-wing insurgency in Colombia, because it funds itself through taxes on or trafficking in narcotics, petroleum, minerals, or straight-up extortion.  I understand that it may seem incoherent that a Communist group finance itself through levying taxes on capitalist commerce, but given that all armed groups must finance themselves with the resources at hand, why would we somehow hold these insurgencies to a different, higher moral standard than we apply to our own legitimate governments? 

I know these are all difficult questions, but that's precisely why we need good journalists to get in there and offer us some elements to answer them, not simply to regurgitate the values and ideas that we had to begin with.  If we want to differentiate one side from another and perhaps decide which side's arguments or vision seem more valid to us as an observer (or even a participant), then we must have a clear, nuanced, relatively objective accounting of what exactly it is that each side wants or is arguing for.  This National Geographic article does not do that.

Violence in general is baffling to most of us.  I am not a Naxalite, and so it is difficult for me to understand why they fight and what they're fighting for, and especially how they justify their use of violence.  It is a journalist's job to answer precisely these questions, and the way they must do that is by stepping outside of their own frame of reference, their own middle-class Western values, and entering the minds and the logic of the target of their reporting, in this case the people involved in both sides of the Naxalite conflict.  If the writer of this article, Anthony Loyd, had done that, it would be a real service to the readership, because it would give us insights on this conflict that most of us know little about and understand even less about.  But he chose to use the article as an opinion piece, to convey values and ideas he probably had before even speaking to anyone involved in the conflict.  That being the case, he would have been better off staying home and writing an ill-informed blog about it that no one would read (something I am very familiar with!).  I personally know nothing about the tradecraft of journalism, but that notwithstanding, National Geographic would have spent their money better paying me or anyone else with a modicum of intellectual integrity to go to India and write up their story on the Naxalites.  To his credit, Loyd does try to show the connections of this "complex insurgency that links European economies with a roadside IED planted for a police vehicle approaching an Adivasi village in Chhattisgarh. They look like a phenomenon of the globalized present rather than the Maoist past."  But his prejudices, and perhaps his interest more in the global economy than the local reality, prevent him from doing the excellent job he could have.

For a much more nuanced, informed take on the Naxalite conflict, check out this short essay from Counterpunch.  The author recognizes both the valid arguments and the opportunistic actions on both sides, and closes with what I think to be a very accurate description of many insurgencies.   
The best work of revolutionaries is, of course, done by the establishment of the day.  It is they, more so than the Naxalites, who will change.  Till that happens, the Maoist group shall remain what China’s People’s Daily (Jul 5, 1967) once described as: “a peal of spring thunder”.
That is to say that, regardless of whether or not you agree with their methods, often insurgent and terrorist groups are pushing arguments that may have some validity.  In the case of the Naxalites, they are drawing attention to the unjust dynamics of opulence, exclusion, and environmental destruction caused by an extractive economy with little concern for human rights.  In this sense insurgencies play the role of pushing the State not to enact their entire program, but to at least make some often-welcome moves in a different political direction.

No comments:

Post a Comment