In May 1967, an abortive peasant uprising in an obscure place called Naxalbari, on the northern tip of West Bengal, gave rise to the present Naxalite movement, now also referred to as the India’s Maoist movement. The term ‘present’ is used in this context because there had also been an earlier phase, during which the Maoist model of agrarian revolution was for the first time adopted as a concept by Indian communist revolutionaries. From 1946 till 1951 in Telengana, in what is today part of Andhra Pradesh, communists led an armed agrarian uprising that freed peasants from feudal landlord rule, ultimately leading to the formation of ‘liberated zones’ governed by a gram raj system of village soviets in large tracts of the area.
At a time when news of the growing success of the Mao Zedong-led Chinese revolution was filtering into India, a document prepared in May 1948 by the communist leaders of the uprising stated in unequivocal terms: “Our revolution in many respects differs from the classical Russian revolution, but to a great extent is similar to that of the Chinese revolution. The perspective likely is … that of … dogged resistance and prolonged civil war in the form of agrarian revolution, culminating in the capture of political power by the Democratic Front.” This first Maoist experiment in Telengana came to an end in 1951 with the withdrawal of the armed struggle by the Communist Party of India, which decided to join mainstream parliamentary politics. This decision was taken partially due to a promise made by the then-ruling Congress party to implement land reforms and put an end to the feudalism still rampant in the countryside.
But while the Indian communists kept their part of the bargain by refraining from armed actions, the Indian state proceeded to turn its back on these promises, eventually allowing the continuation and even consolidation of the rule of feudal landlords in rural India. After twenty years of this, in 1967 radical sections among the communists decided to resume the armed struggle and renew their Maoist foundations. Although the uprising at Naxalbari that they led that year was crushed within just a few months, it inspired a new generation of communist revolutionaries to launch an armed movement in different parts of India – which, despite frequent reversals, continues unabated to this day.
According to official figures, the Maoists today are in effective control of a long ‘corridor’ of forests and plains, stretching from the Nepali border in Bihar through Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in the west, Orissa in the east, and Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in the south. This area is twice the size of India’s other two insurgency-affected areas, the five states of the Northeast and Jammu & Kashmir. More importantly, the population inhabiting this stretch is five times greater than the other two regions. Little wonder, then, that Manmohan Singh, at a conference in New Delhi in July 2006, described the Maoist ‘threat’ as India’s “single biggest internal security challenge.”
Three phases of evolution
The present Maoist movement in India can be divided into three phases. The first went from 1967 until 1975; the second, from 1980 to 1990; and the current phase began during the late 1990s. During the course of these three periods, Indian Maoists have been able to mobilise large sections of impoverished masses in certain parts of the country, and to empower them (both morally and militarily) to recover their lands, assert their rights and reinvent themselves as dignified human beings.
At the same time, the exigencies of armed struggle against the ruthless suppression launched by the security forces of the Indian state have often made the Maoists themselves brutal. This has led them to violate human rights in the communities under their control, including through extortion, destruction of public infrastructure, and killing innocent villagers suspected as spies. Their experience harks back to the old tussle between the moral basis of revolutionary ideology and the practical compulsions of revolutionary action that has in the past dogged – and distorted – the communist movement in other parts of the world. How will the Indian Maoists reconcile these two elements in their on-going struggle? This is perhaps the paramount challenge facing those revolutionaries who seek to radically push India’s present socio-economic order in an egalitarian direction, with an eye to providing the country’s masses with the basic facilities for individual and collective development.
The Maoist movement in India is essentially a political manifestation of resentment, retribution and resistance of the most oppressed sections of Indian society against an inequitable socio-economic order, presenting their search for an alternative model of economic development and day-to-day governance. The long, narrow stretch of territory that is considered India’s Maoist ‘corridor’ constitutes one of the most underdeveloped areas in the country. It is inhabited primarily by extremely poor peasants and agricultural labourers coming from socially ostracised castes, as well as Adivasi forest-dwellers who are daily victims of exploitation and oppression by feudal landlords, usurious money-lenders, unscrupulous government officials and a rapacious police force.
It was against exactly these conditions that the first spark of rebellion was kindled in Naxalbari in 1967. Within a few years, that flame had spread to parts of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, where Maoist guerrillas created bases among the peasantry and inspired popular actions in other parts of rural India. They formed the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) in 1969, and through both propaganda and action spread their influence among poor peasants as well as middle-class youth. From the end of the 1960s till the mid-l970s, the Indian state resorted to a policy of savage suppression of the Naxalite movement (as it came to be known), by deploying the police to encircle and destroy their rural bases and systematically eliminate their leaders and cadres. The imposition of Emergency by the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government in June 1975, which snuffed out all opposition activities, also smothered the last embers of the Naxalite movement, bringing to an end the first phase.
The second phase of India’s Maoist evolution followed the lifting of the Emergency in 1977, as well as the election of a non-Congress coalition government at the Centre. This initiated a process of re-thinking among the survivors of the previous movement, who spread out in two directions. One group favoured participation in parliamentary elections and trade-union activities; the other rejected these institutions, resorting instead to the old path of armed struggle. By the end of the 1990s, several Naxalite groups following this latter course succeeded in building up a militant peasant movement, eventually extending their influence over some 160 districts in at least ten states – spanning some 400,000 square kilometres, or roughly one-eighth of the total Indian landmass.
The spread of the movement opened up the third phase of the Maoist evolution. On 21 September 2004, the leaders and cadres of the scattered Naxalite groups, who had been leading the movement for the past two decades, met in one of their base areas in Andhra Pradesh, and decided to form a single revolutionary party, to be called the Communist Party of India (Maoist). In its programme, the new party reaffirmed its main political agenda: agrarian revolution through protracted ‘people’s war’ in order to capture state power and set up a ‘people’s democratic state’; develop their guerrilla squads into a ‘people’s liberation army’; wage struggles against the Indian government’s recent plans to set up special economic zones; and resist the displacement of Adivasis and forest-dwellers due to mining projects. Significantly, it is again in these ‘backward’ and Adivasi-dominated areas, where these development projects are arising, that the Maoists are planning their future offensive. Committed to the goal of a self-reliant economy, the Maoists oppose the appropriation of rich mineral resources by foreign companies – for instance, the iron ore currently being carted away by Japanese companies from the Bailadilla mines in the Dandakaranya region of Chhattisgarh.
This third phase of the Maoist movement, however, is fraught with two dangers – one external and the other internal. Squeezed into a narrow stretch of territory running across the heartland, the Maoist ‘liberated zones’ are vulnerable to attacks by the state from both sides. In Andhra Pradesh, important leaders and cadres of the movement have already been either killed or forced to surrender. Isolated from urban and industrial agitations, and holed up in their forest hideouts, the Maoists may become far too self-centred to care for more flexible political tactics or humanitarian concern for the common people. This constitutes the internal danger – signs of which are already evident in their indiscriminate attacks on soft targets such as railway stations or school buildings, and killing of innocent Adivasis.
Three stages of revolution
Maoism in India can be viewed as a catalyst for a broad set of latent forces within the Indian rural structure. Three general stages, often overlapping, can be discerned in each of the previously mentioned three phases of the Indian Maoist movement. Initially, Maoism helped the peasantry to rediscover their inherent strength, and to reassert their dignity and rights. This led to the second step, one of revenge and resistance against their traditional enemies – namely, the feudal landlords and police. Then, the Maoist cadres graduated to the movement’s third stage, of setting up alternative and parallel centres of power (see Himal Sept-Oct 2005, “The course of Naxalism” and “Whither the Naxal comrades?”).
During the first phase, in Naxalbari itself, the peasant uprising lasted for only a few months. But during that brief period it created a model of sorts for future actions, with peasants driving away landlords, occupying their lands, harvesting crops and distributing them amongst themselves. They also fought against the police on issues of aid to the landlords, and attempted to set up alternative centres of rural governance. This did not have to do merely with economic demands of right to land and increase in wages, but also with social issues of justice and equal treatment in everyday life, which formed the leitmotif of Maoist propaganda and actions. Such propaganda offered particular assistance to the society’s downtrodden sections – the depressed castes, Dalits and Adivasis who had been subjected to centuries of systemic social discrimination and exploitation.
The third stage in this process, the creation of ‘alternative’ centres of rural governance, is a bit more problematic. Reports about the Maoist-influenced changes in the living and working conditions of those in areas under their control – as culled from the mainstream media and CPI (Maoist) pamphlets – indicate a mixed record. In some of the guerrilla zones, the occupation of land appears to have brought poor peasants and agricultural labourers better wages; recognition of social rights; protection from landlords, corrupt forest officials and predatory policemen; and provision for education and medical facilities. At the same time, while assuming the role of protectors, the Maoists have often appeared as bullies – extorting money from contractors engaged in development projects in their areas, brutally killing minor offenders or innocent people on suspicion of being police informers, destroying government-run public services (railway stations, for instance), and assaulting state employees as symbols of the Indian government. Such violations of civil and democratic rights are causing concern not only among liberal sections of civil society, but also among those sympathetic to the Maoist cause.
Such acts perhaps can be explained – though not excused – by the existential conditions faced by the Maoists in the beleaguered zones within which they are confined. Had they been left to themselves to run their parallel administrations and test out their model of economic development and social reform in the narrow stretch of their zone of influence, over time they could have proven themselves as either failed adventurers or providers of viable alternatives. But instead of democratic tolerance of such experiments, the Indian state has resorted to militarist methods to suppress these experiments. In Chhattisgarh, for instance, the state has created armed vigilante groups by recruiting mercenaries from among the Adivasi population to counter the Maoists, most prominently the Salwa Judum. This has led to further dehumanisation of everyday life in the area, with one group of Adivasis (owing allegiance to the Maoists) fighting another (armed by the state). Constantly facing raids by the police and security forces, the Maoists have grown up with a persecution complex, which today leads them to suspect everyone who may differ from them. As a result, they often resort to indiscriminate force, giving up any patience for democratic methods to spread their movement.
What the state fails to understand is that, in the long run, this approach will inevitably alienate them from the people for whom the Maoists claim to fight. To quote from a 2002 report prepared by a committee of human-rights activists (otherwise sympathetic towards the Maoist cause) who visited Maoist-controlled areas in Andhra Pradesh: “These arbitrary and violent actions of Naxalite parties are at some level a reproduction of the repressive culture of the State and … will further brutalise the society and lead to the shrinkage of democratic space for mobilisation and direct participation of the people, impairing the very process of transformation that the movement claims to stand for.”
Time for introspection
The battle between the Indian state and the Maoists is being fought over two basic demands, both of which should have been solved years ago: land reform and social justice for the rural poor. Instead of coming to equitable solutions on these issues, however, by following the neo-liberal model of growth the Indian state is continuously creating new, explosive points of dispute, most critically between an expansive corporate sector and a shrinking habitat from which vast masses of the poor are being displaced.
Establishment of special economic zones on agricultural land, introduction of commercial crops (with fluctuating market value) by multinational corporations, increasing exploitation of forest reserves for industrial expansion – each of these are claimed by the state as signs of economic growth in statistical terms. But for those at the receiving end, in bread-and-butter terms, these mean little more than growing impoverishment. Peasants ousted from their lands and farmers victimised by the inequitable terms of a free-market economy have, in recent times, come out in public confrontations with the state authorities (see accompanying story, “A tragic lapse of cognition”). To cite just a few examples, these include agitations against nuclear reactors in Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu, a proposed steel project in Kalinganagar in Orissa, industrial projects in Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal, as well as peasant demonstrations demanding land redistribution in Khammam in Andhra Pradesh.
In such a situation, it behoves both the Indian state and its Maoist opponents to rethink their respective strategies and plans of action. With regard to the former, the state still refuses to recognise Maoism as an ideological force based on genuine popular grievances regarding economic inequity and social injustice. Instead, the government equates Maoism with various fanatical belief systems, whether secular or religious, and their ‘terrorist’ manifestations – the xenophobic ethnic agitations in the Northeast, for instance, or the Hindu-dominated ULFA in Assam, or the Islamist militant groups in Kashmir and elsewhere. Yet, both the social sources and the ideological motivations of the Maoist movement are completely different from those of these other armed insurrectionary activities. In fact, the Maoist objective of setting up a secular and socialist society in India (as outlined in a party programme issued in September 2004) is far more consistent with the spirit of the Indian Constitution’s commitment to that same goal than are the programmes of the various militant outfits that try to divide the Indian people along religious, regional and linguistic lines.
A dialogue between representatives of the Indian state and the Maoists therefore seems to be by far the best course of action. But a dialogue can succeed only when both sides are willing to give up their maximalist positions. As for the Indian state, in order to begin a dialogue with the Maoists the government must stop using the police to restore the feudal rule of landlords in villages where the Maoists have already established a parallel socio-economic order. Instead, the state needs to begin offering these areas education and public health infrastructure. As for the Maoists, they will have to establish norms that conform to international codes of human rights and values as part of their political perception and practice. A ceasefire is also necessary, not only in the Maoists’ self-interest of preserving their cadres from attacks by the state, but more particularly in the humanitarian interest of the thousands of poor and innocent families who have long been caught in the crossfire between the police and Maoists.
Ultimately, it is the Indian state that needs to reverse the policy it has resolutely continued to follow. There is a need for new political leadership in New Delhi, one that is courageous enough to break out from the militarist paradigm and recognise the ideological justification of the Maoist movement, even when disagreeing with its violent tactics. This leadership will need to be brave enough to destroy the feudal hegemony in India’s rural areas. This leadership will also need to be forward-thinking enough to chart out an alternative model of development, one that prioritises equitable distribution of income and resources, and social justice and welfare for the vast masses of impoverished and alienated Indian people.
This article is a revised version of a paper presented at a September 2007 workshop in the UK titled Everyday Life with Maoism in India and Nepal: Anthropological Comparisons.
~ Sumanta Banerjee is a journalist and author specialising in the politics of the Indian left, as well as the social history of Bengali popular culture. He is based in Dehradun.