Whither the Naxal comrades?

The Naxalites of India are engaged in an expansion spree but the party is hardly audible beyond its core areas. It is not to be found in the rural plains and cities.

On 21 September 2004, addressing the chief ministers of extremism-affected states in Hyderabad, India's Home Minister Shivraj Patil conceded that Left extremism led by Naxalites was expanding rapidly in the country. 125 districts in 12 of India's 28 states were affected, he said, though in varying degrees, and another 24 districts were being 'targeted'. An Intelligence Bureau report placed at that same meeting warned that a merger was in the offing between the two largest Maoist groups, People's War Group (CPI-ML) active in Andhra Pradesh, and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) energetic in the Bihar-Jharkhand region. The union, said the Bureau, would give a fillip to Naxalism which had already shown signs of revival in recent years.

As became clear later, the People's War group and the MCC had merged on the very same day that the chief ministers were gathered in Hyderabad to consider the collective threat of left extremism to the Indian state and establishment. A press statement signed jointly by the erstwhile general secretaries of the two outfits read, "On September 21, 2004, amidst the thick forests in some part of India, the formation of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) was declared at a public meeting before an assembly of people's guerrilla fighters, party activists and activists of mass organisation." The Indian revolution to overthrow the Indian state would be carried out through protracted people's war, said the statement, with "the armed struggle for seizure of power remaining as its central and principal task". The countryside would remain the centre of gravity of the party's work, "while urban work will be complementary to it."

The urgent task before the CPI-Maoist, said the statement, was to develop the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) under its command to a full-fledged Peoples Liberation Army and to develop the existing 'guerrilla zones' into base areas. The party pledged to build movements related to various issues confronting different sections of the Indian people and to mobilise the masses against the growing imperialist onslaught in India. The new party extended its support to the "struggle of the nationalities for self-determination including their right of secession" as well as to the Maoist struggle in Nepal. It promised to isolate the more dangerous Hindu fascist forces, while exposing all other fundamentalist forces.

Whether by coincidence or design, the union which led to the formation of the CPI-Maoist came at a time when the Naxalites of India have been on an expansion spree. According to one researcher, their spread is at the rate of two districts every week. While this may be an exaggeration, there is no denying that the Maoist influence and striking power have increased manifold in India over the last few years. Both the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government as well as the main opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party consider Naxalism as a major internal security threat. While Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee rates left extremism as the greatest menace, the leader of the opposition in Parliament and BJP President Lal Krishna Advani lists illegal immigration, terrorism and Naxalism as the three biggest dangers.

It is noteworthy, however, that while the United States government includes the CPI-Maoist on its "terror list", the major political parties of India distinguish Maoism and terrorism. The Naxalites are treated as a separate category because they do enjoy popular backing in their core areas, they use violence mostly against selected state targets, and have a definite programme of political and socio-economic transformation. Most importantly, they are not seen as indiscriminately targeting innocent civilians in armed attacks and explosions.

Naxalbari to Dandakaranya

Any discerning observer of the Indian communist movement will note that the CPI-M strategic model for revolution not only borrows heavily from the Chinese revolutionary model but also basically upholds and preserves the path advocated by the old Naxalites of the Communist Party of India – Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML), headed by late Charu Majumdar. The labels 'Naxalite' and 'Maoist' are interchangeable in the Indian context. The former owes its origin to the fact that the first armed peasant upsurge led by the Maoist faction of the Communist party of India-Marxist began in the Naxalbari region of West Bengal bordering the eastern Nepal terai. The year was 1967, and it was subsequently, in 1969, that the majority of the Maoist rebels formed the CPI-ML.

The first attempt of that Maoist party to usher in an armed revolution in India, however, was defeated by the time the top CPI-ML ideologue and founder general secretary Majumdar died while in custody in July 1972. The defeat led to splits in the party and many factions of various sizes bearing the same name CPI-ML continue to survive to this day. There have also been other groups, such as the MCC, which had always remained distinct from CPI-ML. The 1970s and 80s were witness to bitter polemics which divided these groups, but at the same time there were efforts to rebuild the Maoist movement as a whole. Out of this churning, the Liberation group in Bihar and the PWG in Andhra Pradesh emerged as the two most important tendencies in the Naxalite movement. The Liberation group, headed by Vinod Mishra, eventually discarded the old CPI-ML model of armed revolution and instead focused on building democratic movements and fighting elections. However, the PWG continued to march along the Naxalbari path, which involved building liberated areas and intensifying the armed struggle through people's army organised in the countryside.

Even before its merger with MCC, both the Indian media and the government recognised the PWG as the Maoist group with the widest mass base and the strongest military. With the MCC's support base in Bihar and Jharkhand, the unified CPI-Maoist has naturally evolved as a force to be reckoned with. Compared to the Naxalite movement of yesteryears, the present Maoist-led armed struggle operates at a higher plane. Looking back, the struggle zones of the 1960s and early 1970s were somewhat modest. The armed actions were usually directed against local bullies by squads armed with traditional weapons. In most cases, the fighters were isolated from the local people, which made it relatively easy for the police to crush the activism.

In contrast, the present CPI-Maoist armed struggle is not only spread over much larger areas but has also managed to survive over two decades, braving sustained counter-insurgency operations. Despite some ups and downs, the insurgency has over the last few years expanded into new areas of Orissa, Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. The strongest guerrilla zone, however, remains the Dandakaranya forest region in central India that covers eleven districts spread across the four states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhatisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. The PWG claims its influence in the region extends to twelve million people, mostly of tribal origin. The second-most important guerrilla zone of the CPI-Maoist incorporates the hills and forests of Jharkhand, extending north into neighbouring Bihar. There are reasons to believe that the Maoists are planning to build a corridor to link their guerrilla zones with those of Nepal's Maobaadi.

To their credit, the constituents of the CPI (Maoist) have managed to avert major splits during the last two decades and in fact the majority of the Naxalite groups and individuals who believe in the path of armed struggle have now actually come under one banner. The personality cult prevalent in the old movement has been replaced by a low-key style of collective leadership. In terms of military might too, the old Naxalites were no match for the contemporary Maoists. The tiny irregular squads armed with primitive weapons have given way to much larger PLGA formations equipped with sophisticated firearms. The PWG or the MCC, even before their merger, had gradually stepped up their scale of guerrilla attacks to target well-fortified police stations and camps as well as sizeable armed police patrols. The PWG, for instance, in a daring guerrilla operation in February 2004 overran the Koraput district headquarters in Orissa and looted a huge quantity of weaponry from the district armoury, police stations and even the district jail. Experts consider the Koraput action as a watershed in the growth of the military capability of the Naxalites.

While the armed actions by the rebels make it easily into the news and newscasts, what is less visible is the economic and political work being carried out deep within the guerrilla zones. The CPI-Maoist claims that in large parts of Dandakaranya and Jharkhand guerrilla zones, village-level people's committees have sprung up as an embryonic form of alternative political structure. In Dandakaranya in particular, it is claimed that cooperatives, credit societies, paddy banks, medical clinics, schools, mutual aid teams and libraries are functioning under the party's guidance. Also, the property of landlords is being redistributed, usurious money-lending has been banned, and village development committees formed to undertake irrigation and local road-building projects. Efforts are also on to diversify and improve agricultural production, plant fruit trees, rear fish and improved varieties of cattle. The party also claims that it has mobilised lakhs of people in the guerrilla zones in various mass organisations and village defence groups, and that participation by tribal women in these activities is notable.

The supply line

The gains achieved by the erstwhile PWG and MCC and their successor organisation the CPI-Maoist is clear for all to see, as are their successes in comparison to the earlier Naxalite movement. Nevertheless, the prevailing impression of the people outside the guerrilla zones regarding the Maoists remains that of an armed band indulging in surprise attacks on the government forces rather than that of a political entity. At one time, the Maoist mass-based organisations used to hold huge rallies of the rural poor in the towns of Andhra, Dandakaranya, Jharkhand and Bihar. These public campaigns have almost disappeared, except briefly in Andhra last year, since the state governments began officially banning or unofficially disrupting such mobilisations. The party's efforts to gain a foothold in the trade union movement or to build anti-imperialist and anti-repression fronts on the national plane have also come a cropper. In Andhra, repression from the state authorities has set back the PWG's once vibrant agricultural labour struggle and powerful student and cultural movements. In Bihar and Jharkhand too, most of the Maoists' large rural poor associations are unable to function openly. If one were to look beyond the Maoist core areas to India at large, however, it is clear that the Indian working class and employees as well as the farmers in the plains of rural India have mostly failed to respond to the Maoist variety of politics.

It is indeed ironic that the Maoists have been unable to mobilise at a time when industrial workers, middle class employees and peasantry all over seek the path of resistance to the ill effects of globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation. Even though it seems more widespread than the earlier Naxalite movement, the Maoists of today seem to be in no position to launch a powerful country-wide political struggle on these issues. Neither have they been capable of waging an effective campaign against the rapid proliferation of Hindutva ideology in the country.

It is important to seek the causes of this failure of mobilisation and inability to keep alive the open mass organisations by defying the official ban. The failure seems all the more perplexing because the revival of the Naxalite movement came about when the new generation leadership rejected Majumdar's policy of doing away with mass organisations and did manage to set up massive agricultural poor peasant associations in Andhra, Jharkhand and Bihar. The student and youth associations formed by them also served as breeding ground for fresh cadres needed for renewing the revolutionary struggles. With these mass organizations run by the Maoists having now become inactive, the supply line of intellectually developed new cadres remains virtually sealed.

The overall picture that emerges of the CPI-Maoist is that of a comparatively strong military outfit enjoying considerable popular support in its strongholds in south, central and eastern India. However, the party's political message is hardly audible beyond these core areas, and the Indian state has been fairly successful in preventing its entry into the national political arena. The modern-day Naxalites have facilitated the implementation of the government's game plan by ignoring the need for the step-by-step building of nationwide political movements.

It is not that the Maoists are unaware of this challenge. Last year, the PWG eagerly accepted the offer for peace talks made by the Andhra Pradesh state government, if only to secure an opportunity to openly articulate its views and mobilise the people. For the purpose, it agreed to hold back weapons as long as the police did the same. The ceasefire continued for some time, but the talks eventually collapsed with the government insisting that the rebel cadres should not carry arms when they organise meetings in the villages. Looking back over last year's ceasefire, the People's War was indeed able to organise numerous village meetings and three large rallies at Warangal, Hyderabad and Guntur in July, September and October 2004. It was able to demonstrate its popular support in its areas of influence. It also held a number of press conferences and raised the issues of land redistribution, tribal rights on forest, equal property rights for women, the increasing debt burden on the farmers and retrenchment of workers. These constituted some of the specific demands the insurgents placed before the Andhra government.

But the honeymoon between the Maoists and the Andhra Pradesh authorities was shortlived and armed confrontation between the police and the CP1-Maoist has now resumed. On 16 August, the party and its affiliated mass organisations were once again banned by the Congress government in the state after one of the Congress legislators was assassinated a day earlier. The CPI-Maoist is now back in its jungle hideout and the chances of its resurfacing in the near future are slim. Simultaneously, the open activities of the Maoists have come almost to a close.

Looking ahead

Where will the CPI-Maoist go from here? From the party literature and published interviews of the erstwhile general secretaries of the CPI-ML, PWG and MCC, it is evident that the leadership is conscious "that the impact of revolutionary struggles against imperialist intervention in the country cannot much be seen". The party also admits that given the way the "RSS gang" is instigating communalism and provoking riots in India today, "our response in giving an effective answer to them has been far less than what the situation requires". It also acknowledges that revisionism (read parliamentary communist parties) "has a countrywide domination over the trade unions, a wide influence in the urban areas and even amongst the peasantry in some parts of the country". So, while there is at least an attempt to recognise the challenges as they exist before the CPI-Maoist, there seems to be a reluctance to seek the reasons behind these shortcomings and their link to the party's political-military line. Consequently, the Maoists, while identifying their deficiencies have not been able to make the required correction.

Looking deeper, it seems that the crucial Maoist decision to shift their key force to remote forest regions of central India in order to build their 'people's army' and establish red base areas have left them with sparse strength to enlist popular support in either the rural plains or the cities where the larger population lives. That aside, the Maoist's call for an armed revolution to gain land, democracy and independence apparently has scant appeal beyond the Maoist's core constituency of landless labourers and poorest sections of the peasants in most backward areas. But then these concepts remain sacrosanct for the Indian Maoists and any talk of revising them is regarded as blasphemous.

Against such a backdrop, while they may have responded to the call of the times by merging into the CPI-Maoist, it appears improbable that India's Naxalites will take a fresh look at their fundamental line. Nor is it likely that they will agree to scale down armed activity against the state in order to get a chance of mobilising people in the plains and towns. However, nothing short of this kind of popular mobilisation is needed if the CPI-Maoist wishes to emerge from its self-imposed exile as a national level force capable of influencing the country's politics and economics in a decisive manner.

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Himal Southasian