There is a popular saying in Southasia: ‘Your closest kin is your worst enemy.’ The fratricidal war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas in the Mahabharata bears testimony to this. Yet in the modern era the tradition continues, the best example of which is the unelevating fight – both political and physical – between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Both were born of the same parent, the Indian communist movement. While the CPI (M) was delivered in 1964, CPI (Maoist) followed soon after, baptised first as the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) in 1969, and adopting its present name in 2004.
This new book, a polemical assault by the CPI (M) on the CPI (Maoist), is an outcome of the raging battle between the two distanced siblings. The subtitle gives the impression that it represents various views from a wide spectrum of the Indian left movement and ideological positions; but in fact, it simply offers four essays reflecting the official views of the CPI (M). There are other components of the Indian left, of course – the Communist Party of India, the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party of India, to name a few – which hold completely different, and sometimes far more sympathetic, views about the Maoists. There have been no attempts to accommodate such views in this collection, with Prasenjit Bose, who describes himself as the convenor of the Research Unit of the CPI (M), making it clear that the ‘rights to this work rest with’ his party alone. Under the circumstances, it would have been more honest to subtitle the book, ‘A critique from the CPI (M)’.
In his introduction, Bose describes the current Indian variant of Maoism as a manifestation of the old dangerous and deviationist tendency of ‘left sectarianism’. This had always plagued the international communist movement, and was something against which Vladimir Lenin sounded a specific warning. When he comes to the present period, Bose describes the modus operandi of the CPI (Maoist) cadres. Their special targets, he writes, are the activists and supporters of the CPI (M), ‘mostly belonging to the toiling classes and socially deprived sections … especially in the CPI (M) stronghold of West Bengal.’ Bose’s criticism of the Maoist propensity towards senseless destruction of ‘railway tracks, roads, power stations, telecom facilities, and even schools and health centres’ is certainly valid. This reviewer also sympathises with his bitter complaint, ‘No political party anywhere in India has lost as many activists and supporters to Maoist terror as has the CPI (M) in West Bengal since 2008.’
What is missing in this account, however, is the other side of the picture. Attempting to trace the tradition of present-day Maoist violence to the legacy of anarchist acts of the past, Bose approvingly quotes Lenin, who described such acts as a manifestation of ‘petty bourgeois [tendency] driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism’. He also quotes Lenin’s warning, ‘Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working class movement. The two monstrosities complemented each other.’ It is this other monstrosity – the ‘opportunist sins’ – that Bose ignores, to his argument’s detriment. He never questions the role of his party’s armed cadres in Singur, Nandigram and other parts of West Bengal in 2008-09, where they went on a rampage, killing members of the same ‘toiling classes and socially deprived sections’ who opposed the acquisition of their land by the CPI (M)-led Left Front government for the setting up of industrial projects by corporate interests. These incidents, which were well-documented by the media, expose the character of the ruling CPI (M) in West Bengal, which is no less intolerant and extremist than the CPI (Maoist).
The subsequent contributors stick closely to the script. P M S Grewal, the secretary of the CPI (M)’s Delhi committee, examines what he calls the CPI (Maoist)’s ‘Flawed Strategy and Perverted Praxis’. The next author, Nilotpal Basu, a member of the CPI (M)’s Central Secretariat, while lauding Mao Tse-tung’s strategy of revolution, warns that the Maoists, by trying to replicate these in India today, betray their ‘inability to come to grips with the changing situation and grasping the concrete realities in the society where they are working’. This is a valid argument, as is Basu’s contention that the condemnable atrocities of the state-backed counterinsurgency brigade Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh do not absolve ‘the Maoists of their human rights violations’ in their acts of retaliation. At the same time, it is very difficult to go along with the writer when he rushes to the rash conclusion that ‘The Maoists are seldom held accountable by the civil liberties’ groups for their heinous actions.’ A veteran parliamentarian such as Nilotpal Basu should clearly be aware, at the very least, of the numerous press statements issued by civil-liberties organisations condemning Maoist actions against innocent citizens.
The last essay is by Vijay Prashad, a professor of international studies in the US and Himal contributing editor. Prashad examines the failure of the various armed guerrilla struggles in Latin America, and discusses his encounters with left activists in Venezuela on the eve of Hugo Chavez’s electoral victory in 1998. Prashad’s conclusion is that ‘the time of armed struggle is, as Chavez puts it, “out of place” when mass confidence has to be built, and it is “out of place”, as well where a Leftist breakthrough has occurred. The gun retreats to the closet.’
Each of these authors, including Prashad in what he says above, is indeed correct to a certain extent in his criticism of the Maoist party for remaining stuck in a ‘time warp’. Dreaming of replicating the Chinese model of revolution of the 1940s in 21st-century India, the CPI (Maoist) does indeed fail to comprehend the unevenness and complexities of today’s socio-economic situation in India. The authors are also correct to assert that the CPI (Maoist) has failed to recognise that the new correlation of global forces took place following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the capitulation of the Chinese Communist Party to the market economy. Starved of moral solidarity (and occasional military aid) from socialist states that once invigorated their indigenous base, these communist revolutionaries are now coming to terms with new realities, and using parliamentary electoral tactics to come to power in countries such as Brazil, Venezuela and Nepal.
As correctly pointed out by the contributors to Maoism, for India’s Maoists, this has yet to happen. Given the heterogeneous socio-economic agrarian relations and uneven political consciousness in today’s India, coupled with an unfavourable international environment, the CPI (Maoist)’s hope of a widespread positive response to its call for poll boycott, and its strategy of capturing state power in India through the antiquated Chinese model of agrarian revolution, are both proving to be wildly unachievable fantasies. On the one hand, the party’s positive achievements (eg, socio-economic reforms for the Adivasi poor in Chhattisgarh and other areas under its control) are now being threatened by the Indian state’s military offensive, Operation Green Hunt, which is closing in on the narrow corridor that the Maoists occupy. On the other hand, the original Maoist dream of an agrarian revolution is fast degenerating into a nightmare, what with the increasing acts of extremist violence by its cadres in West Bengal, Jharkhand and other parts of the country.
Still, the authors refuse to address the basic issues that the Maoist party raises with regard to the alternative proposed by the parliamentary left, and the CPI (M) as its leader in particular. These include, first, the possibility of capturing power through peaceful means, and establishing a People’s Democratic State – the common term used by both the CPI (M) and the CPI (Maoist) to describe their goal – under the prevailing administrative and judicial norms. And second, the writers fail to grapple with Maoist accusations of the failures of the Indian parliamentary left in its experimentation within that structure during the last four decades or so, in its dual role as opposition in the national sphere and as a ruling party in certain states.
As for the first issue, in its 1964 programme the CPI (M) pledged itself to ‘peaceful means’ to ‘achieve the establishment of people’s democracy and socialist transformation’. It added, however, that since the ruling classes ‘defy the will of the people and seek to reverse it by lawlessness and violence … it is therefore necessary for the revolutionary forces to … orientate their work [so] that they can face up to all contingencies, to any twist and turn in the political life of the country.’ Yet, the party’s leadership had never tried to concretise its ambivalent position on the nature of ‘facing up to all these contingencies’. It has never spelt out what tactics its cadres should adopt (whether peaceful satyagraha or violent resistance) when the ruling classes resort to ‘lawlessness and violence’.
The CPI (Maoist), on the other hand has been committed to armed struggle. Thus, it has had no hesitation in training its followers in guerrilla warfare to resist the lawlessness and violence perpetrated by the same feudal landlords, privileged bureaucrats and armed forces and police whom the CPI (M) also opposes. Over the last few years, by organising the rural poor (particularly the Adivasi population) under a programme of armed resistance, the CPI (Maoist) has succeeded in driving out these oppressive forces from certain pockets, and in establishing parallel centres of governance there. That the Maoists have been able to bring about socio-economic reforms in these areas is acknowledged even by the Planning Commission, which in a 2008 report said that the Maoist movement had succeeded in helping the landless to occupy a substantial extent of government land … determined fair wage rates in all labour processes … secured increases in the rate of payment for the picking of tendu leaf … and has given confidence to the oppressed to assert their equality and demand respect and dignity from the dominant castes and classes.In the face of such evidence, Bose writes, ‘The Maoists do not believe in organizing the tribals for exercising their rights over land and forest resources or for socio-economic development.’ Grewal likewise imprudently states, ‘the Maoists are practically irrelevant in contemporary peasant movements.’ Such observations betray the partisan bias of the CPI (M) evident in the book. Whatever objections that the party might have against Maoist tactics, the CPI (M) should have the sense of proletarian solidarity to welcome pro-poor reforms that are being pushed through, if forcibly.
Uniting behind protest
On the second issue, how far has the CPI (M)-led Indian left movement been able to carry out its own professed aims through the course of parliamentary politics? Maoism ends with an appendix that includes excerpts from the June 1968 statement of the CPI (M) politburo that reaffirmed its faith in participating in elections and forming governments in states – the two tactical steps among other ideological points of dispute that the Maoists objected to, leading them to break away in 1969. The CPI (M) experienced a jump in representation in Parliament from 19 in 1967 to 25 in 1971, followed by a slight decline with 21 in 1977; thereafter, it went on to score impressive victories throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, however, instead of expanding, the party’s national electoral base has shrunk considerably. From 33 seats in the Lok Sabha in 1999 and 2004, today that number stands at just 16. While in the past, the party’s MPs have come from throughout the country, today they are confined only to its traditional strongholds of West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala.
As for governance in those states, the CPI (M)’s past record of pro-poor reforms (including distribution of land and recording of sharecroppers, as described by Grewal) has been obliterated by its more recent performance. In Kerala, the party has earned notoriety for corruption and factional squabbling. In West Bengal, the leadership’s strategy of forcing industrialisation on villagers led to the party’s degeneration into a near-criminal outfit of realtors and politicians working hand in hand with local mafia. Since the recent crushing electoral defeats in the state, leaders are now admitting that their party had become isolated from the common people, due to its industrialisation push, corruption and high-handedness. In fact, it is precisely these dangerous trends against which the party was warned several years ago. At that time, however, the party’s self-righteous leaders dismissed such criticism in their usual bumptious manner – the same tone in which Grewal’s essay expresses intolerance of any criticism of the Left Front government’s policies. How long can the CPI (M) remain in such denial?
A simple request directed at both the CPI (M) and the CPI (Maoist) would be the best way to end this review. Since both are currently facing crises, would it not be better for the two parties to engage in honest self-introspection and reformulate their respective strategies? Instead of wasting time and energy on mutual accusations and killings, these two major leftist forces would do better to try and strengthen the various popular movements breaking out in India today – those against corporate industrial projects, violation of human rights by state security forces, social discrimination, as well as Adivasi self-assertion and campaigns by feminist organisations for women’s rights. Collectively, these streams of protest converge to resist the neo-liberal state’s exploitative model of development, a tradition-bound feudal society’s patriarchal caste-based laws, and a religious orthodoxy that divides communities. Is it not the obligation of Indian communists, whether they swear by Marx or Mao, to come together and put their shoulders to the wheel for such movements, to support the popular urge for basic socio-economic change?
~ Sumanta Banerjee is a writer based in Dehradun, specialising in Indian left politics and the social history of Bengali popular culture.