Warangal is at the heart of Telangana in Andhra Pradesh. On the sprawling campus of Kakatiya University, the hub of Naxalite student activity during the 1970s and 1980s, there is today a sense of calm. A few students are crowded around the National Service Scheme office, to plan their next volunteer activities. There is a handwritten notice in front of the administrative office, announcing the onset of placement interviews: “Golden job opportunities in Infosys”, promises one. A group of students in the canteen chat loudly about Telegu star Chiranjeevi’s daughter, who had recently eloped in order to pre-empt her father’s opposition to her relationship.
At the School of Social Sciences, a few professors are having a cup of tea while pondering over the changing aspirations of their students. “The upper- and intermediate-caste students join science, and want to be a part of the IT boom,” explains S Rao, a political scientist. “Those in humanities are usually first-generation students from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe backgrounds, who are here only because of reservations and minimal scholarships. They are financially insecure and look around for employment, even if it is as a coolie or an auto driver.”
Students here have little time or incentive to join the Maoist movement, in the face of competition and pressure from peers and parents to ‘settle down’. Those at the Indian School of Business, a management school on the outskirts of Hyderabad that has international tie-ups, can barely locate Telangana District on the map. Instead, they have their sights set on Silicon Valley. A little farther down, in Nizam College of Osmania University, the aspirations are likewise to get to Hi-Tech City, an enclave of software companies and malls nestled within the state capital. Students at the Regional Engineering College in Warangal are aiming for green cards, but say they would also be satisfied with a well-paid local job. The ‘arts’ students, scorned for not making it into the science stream, desperately want jobs for security, and to be able to send money home.
Simplistic as it may sound – after all, there were career-oriented people during the 1970s as well – this type of gentrification has become a potent factor in weaning the youth away from the armed movement. The middle- and lower-middle-class youth, who could have potentially become the Maoist intelligentsia, are seeing opportunities elsewhere. The intermediate and backward castes now have greater power in rural areas, besides having more access to government jobs. While there continues to be some Maoist recruitment among the most deprived youth, these are people who have lived in Maoist strongholds, and thus have seen the movement closely. They know the few immediate dividends one receives from being a Maoist activist, and more importantly, the pain and suffering that comes along as well. There is little surprise, then, that many among the would-be second generation here have decided to make the best of whatever they can get, rather than to fight for a red India.
Setback to the people’s war
Yet the current disinterest in revolutionary politics notwithstanding, Andhra Pradesh will forever remain etched into any account of the Maoist movement in India. From the first ultra-left rebellion against the Indian state, in Telangana six decades back, to being the centre of Naxalite activity from 1967 to the present, AP has long been the ideological fount of the Maoist movement. Even as the movement suffered a setback in the rest of the country during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Maoists continued to expand their sphere of influence here, with a focus on mass mobilisation. Several front organisations – Virasam, the Revolutionary Writers Association, and the Jana Natya Mandali, a people’s theatre group led by iconic balladeer Gadar – have been active here for decades, and have created a constituency of Maoist sympathisers in a section of Hyderabad civil society. Their presence has also been made visible by the escalation of violence, the most dramatic incident being an assassination attempt on then-Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, in 2003.
With the formation of a new government headed by the Congress party in 2004, a ceasefire was agreed upon between the state and the banned People’s War Group. Talks were initiated at the behest of a citizens’ group, and helped along by a behind-the-scenes understanding in which the Maoists reportedly helped the Congress to win in several constituencies. In return, the Congress promised to be lenient on the Maoists following their victory, a reflection of the blurred lines and swinging allegiances between the mainstream and rebel parties. Party politicians need the support of Maoists to win polls in areas where the rebels have a strong influence; in return, the Maoists are happy to get money and protection from local politicians and parts of the establishment.
A section of Maoist activists emerged aboveground, organising mass rallies and participating in a fresh round of negotiations. But it took little time for this process to collapse. Mutual distrust had not dissipated, and both sides exploited the interlude as little more than a tactical manoeuvre to re-organise. The government subsequently accused the Maoists of continuing to carry arms and consolidating strength by uniting with Bihar’s Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in September 2004. The Maoists, in turn, alleged that the government had not stopped the state police from continuing with offensive operations.
The Maoists had a point. The government had shifted the goalposts by suddenly insisting on disarmament prior to arriving at even a basic agreement – it was unreasonable to expect that the rebels would simply hand over their arms and give up the ‘revolution’. The state appears to have acted in bad faith, using the break to track Maoist operations, weaken the dalams, or armed squads, and sow a strong network of informers. The ceasefire ended in early 2005, and armed clashes resumed between the two sides.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, the Maoists have suffered a major setback in Andhra, particularly in the Telangana region, a fact reflected in the reduced frequency and scale of armed actions, recruitment and activities of the mass organisations. This reversal stems from multiple factors, and deserves careful scrutiny as a marker of challenges that the rebels might face in other parts of the country in the future. One important factor, much to the discomfort of those who insist that a law-and-order approach is futile, has been strong police action. The Andhra Pradesh police raised a specialised fighting force called the Greyhounds, mobile squads who, like the dalams, know how to live in forests and have the ability to conduct surgical strikes based on intelligence. While the Greyhounds have been operational for several years, they appear to have become more efficient and changed their modus operandi in recent times.
Compared to past police operations, the Greyhounds are seen to be more careful not to violate human rights. There have been recent allegations of rape against Greyhound members in Vakapalli, in Vizag. But even human-rights activists who criticise the state and its manner of dealing with Maoism admit that such incidents are rare, and that the Greyhounds are a disciplined force that does not harass the people on a significant scale. Instead, they purchase information about location, use modern technology to track movement, surround the area and shoot. A top police official in Hyderabad, wanting to remain anonymous, says that there has been a deliberate change in strategy. “Earlier, we used to go to a village, round up all the able-bodied men, and beat them up to scare them,” he explains. “But that only pushes people away. Now, there is strict control over these activities.” He adds, for good measure, and with a nod to another supposedly rising menace, “In fact, I tell my counterparts in the Islamic fundamentalist department to do the same.” For their part, the Naxalites have not been able to conduct any major attack against the Greyhounds over the period of the corps’ existence.
If the liberal telecom regime and spread of the mobile-phone network has helped the Maoists communicate more effectively, it has also assisted Andhra’s counter-insurgency effort. “The identity of informers today can be more easily concealed. All that they require is a mobile phone and a set of SIM cards to alert the police, instead of travelling a distance to pass on information,” says N Venugopal, a pro-Maoist journalist. He notes, “What added to the Maoist woes is the fact that they overestimated their strength, and went on a mass recruitment drive during the ceasefire. The police used the moment to infiltrate within.”
The swinging masses
None of these successes should make the Andhra police smug, however. For one, the setback is not irreversible. Indeed, there have been several ups and downs in the Maoist movement in the state since the 1970s, with the rebels having consistently bounced back.
The Maoists also retain the ability to conduct major strikes, as was witnessed in an attack on the convoy of former Chief Minister Janardhan Reddy in September 2007, which killed three people. Indeed, the current reversal inflicted by the police is coupled with the deliberate decision by the Maoists to retreat, temporarily, from the forests of Telangana, and to concentrate forces instead across the border in Chhattisgarh, where an active war is raging with the government.
The Maoists are understood to have drawn two lessons from the recent Andhra experience. “We have decided to strengthen the military wing, and adopt more aggressive strategies in the future,” says a CPI (Maoist) member who did not want to be named. “The party also feels that the answer lies in becoming more secretive, to prevent the possibility of information leaking. In fact, to maintain their cover, the district units do not even come out with statements now.” But the rebels may have gotten their analysis wrong here. For the current setback is not only due to police action, but is also a result of systemic factors that require the Maoists to engage more widely in mass politics, rather than shy away from it. The challenge they face nationally, and particularly in Andhra, is attracting young people in urban areas and small towns.
As much as the Maoists may disagree, another reason for their decline is the fact that politics – mainstream and democratic politics – has percolated down to the people over the decades since the Naxalite objectives were drafted. In Andhra, there are now alternative political channels with multiple political parties through which to express aspirations, and many would like to join one of these streams rather than fight outside the system and face repression. Unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, the panchayats, the local government bodies, are today stronger, with constitutional powers, and are playing a decisive role in the local economy and state-level politics. Meanwhile, mainstream politicians do not hesitate to make promises that far surpass the incentives provided by the Maoists.
Poet and writer Varavara Rao, the public face of the Maoists in Andhra Pradesh and one of the emissaries in the aborted talks, does not seem to realise the irony when he beams with pride, saying, “The Maoists have forced all other parties to become more progressive, and take up their agenda.” Whether the Maoists can be credited with deepening democracy can be questioned, but the expansion of local government, and the fact that several issues they claim to have raised are being brought on the agenda by mainstream actors, reveals the limits of their expansion. It also shows the space within the existing political system to raise issues.
Yet it is also undeniable that the PWG, and now the CPI (Maoist), have succeeded in creating space for dissent. Alongside, they have also influenced the way that large sections of Telugu society, across the political spectrum, see their world. Across Andhra Pradesh, even at a time when the Maoists are facing a fairly severe setback, they command a great degree of support. A restaurant manager in the Secunderabad station area, a member of the ruling Congress party, when asked if he knew the way to Maoist balladeer Gadar’s house, jumped up excitedly. “Of course, it is near the Lotakunta bridge!” he yelled. “Who doesn’t know Gadar? He sings for the poor and stands up against wrong.”
Indeed, a large section of society appears to be sympathetic to the Maoists. From a Sikh auto-driver in Hyderabad to a Muslim cook, from pro-establishment journalists to a government official in Bhadrachalam, in Telangana – across Andhra there is a consensus that the rebels have served as a force for good in the past. They don’t harass common people, and attack only the corrupt. They beat up the landlord in my village. They will stand by the poor. They are the only ones who give justice in the forests. Give them a chance to rule – we have watched this current political system, and it doesn’t work.
Throughout the country, however, the picture of Maoist positioning is layered. If there is a setback in Andhra, there has been a massive escalation of violence and conflict in Chhattisgarh, largely due to a flawed government strategy. In Jharkhand, a powerful but degenerated Maoist movement, coupled with a corrupt and inert state, has made life miserable, if not downright dangerous for its citizens. The most powerful critique of Maoists comes from Bihar, from within the broad ultra-left political spectrum. Indeed, across all states the local politician-police-business-media lobby is exploitative. But there are also more intriguing linkages, particularly between the Maoists and mainstream politicians, and between the Maoists and big business.
What is certain is that the activities and strength of the CPI (Maoist) have increased over the past few years. The merger between the PWG, which was active in Andhra, and the MCC, whose strength was largely concentrated in Bihar and Jharkhand, came as a shot in the arm for the movement. There were some contradictions and local tussles at the grassroots levels in areas where both groups were present. But the unification led to more recruitment, and saved precious resources on both sides that were earlier spent in fighting each other.
The increase in Maoist activities is particularly true for the resource-rich, poverty laden states of central and eastern India – Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Inequitable government policies, absence of justice, land issues, a weak and corrupt administration, dearth of political actors to channelise people’s on-the-ground concerns, forced displacement and ineffectiveness of non-violent movements – all of these have contributed to creating space for an armed outfit that poses a challenge to the political system. And there is little doubt that the Maoists, particularly in these two states, have gained popularity by raising the concerns of the poorest and most exploited. But it has also taken them little time to evolve into a dictatorial power structure with entrenched vested interests, as well as develop a culture of corruption and brutality.
The Indian state, meanwhile, is a divided house, and there is no unified perception of the Maoist ‘threat’. For Manmohan Singh, leftwing extremism is the “gravest internal security challenge”. Several senior Home Ministry officials and security analysts in Delhi believe the Maoist problem could be easily tackled if states where the Maoist movement is active were to get their acts together. A Raipur bureaucrat is convinced that if the central government decides to use force, the Naxalites, can be crushed “like ants” in a minute. The local administration, according to a Jharkhand district police official, is only a temporary barrier for the Maoists, who will continue to grow if politicians do not adequately stand up to the threat. In the calculations of a Hyderabad police officer, nothing more than a specialised force and good intelligence is required to crush the rebels, which he likens to a ‘disease’. Maoists are working according to a plan, warns a Delhi strategic analyst, and there will be an explosion of violence in a few years across India. For a Dantewada politician, Naxalites pose a direct threat to his life – but they also provide an opportunity to emerge into the public limelight as a defender of the Indian state.
Amidst this flurry of voices, from the districts to the state capitals to New Delhi, the government – both at the Centre and the states – does not have a coherent outlook. Sometimes, it suits politicians and officials to exaggerate the Maoist ‘menace’, as it becomes a pretext to ask for more funds and justify repression. At other times, it is more convenient to downplay the issue, in order to convey a sense of success in dealing with it. On paper, the state vacillates between treating Naxalism as a socio-economic issue and as a law-and-order problem. But in practice, the state relies almost exclusively on a police solution, and even that is poorly planned and badly executed. Strikingly, there is little focus in the government approach, or even in the current left-liberal discourse, of a critical element that is necessary to deal with Maoism: local-level political activity. Meanwhile, the government continues to provide opportunities for Maoists to exploit a discriminated pocket through an unjust set of policies. Nowhere is this starker than in Chhattisgarh, currently the most intense Maoist battleground.
A war zone
Take a bus from Warangal and cross Bhadrachalam in Khammam District. Travel through dense forests on both sides, and eventually reach Chintoor. Sit in a shared auto rickshaw to take you through the last mile of Andhra territory. Ask around about Maoist influence in the area, and people clam up and look away. Suddenly six hefty, gun-wielding men appear in plainclothes and stop the auto. They go through every item in your baggage, and only later care to identify themselves as members of the Andhra police. One constable wants an identification card, and lights up at the mention of press: “See, we are efficient and do our job well. Not like the ones across the border.”
Across the border is literally the centre of India. Across the border also lies the heart of the civil war that rages between a ruthless state and a militant force, between Adivasis loyal to the Maoists and Adivasis who are not. On one side are the paramilitary forces, Central Reserve Police Force and state police; and on the other side are the Maoists. On one side are 59,000 local Adivasis locked in government camps on the main road; on the other, deep inside the forests, are thousands of villagers who have been branded as terrorists – both of these groups caught in politics not of their own making.
Walk across the border to enter Dantewada, also called South Bastar, in Chhattisgarh. But before that, face six more people, again with rifles slung across their shoulders – only this time, they are wearing khaki uniforms. They are short and skinny, and their average age is 14. They are the ‘Special Police Officers’ recruited by the Chhattisgarh state from among the Adivasis in the refugee camps. After inspecting the luggage again, and fiddling with a mobile phone, one child soldier commands, “Das rupaiya, ten rupees.” Why? “To let you enter our land.” Just then, a slightly older soldier winks and says, “Let him go, we will take it from someone else.”
Konta is a small border outpost. On the advice of local journalists, I report to the police thana to let them know that I plan to visit the ‘base camps’, located on the way to Dantewada, five hours away. The thana is a small concrete structure, hidden behind barbed wire. It is just before noon, and the place is littered with empty bottles of Bagpiper whiskey. A plump man, not in uniform, is rocking his chair, and demands my identification, wallet and mobile phone. The press card is not enough to impress him. “Kathmandu haan? I am Manisha Koirala’s boyfriend,” he laughs, with a hint of intoxication. “Give me your address details, name of your sarpanch, name of the area MLA. Has the government sent you?” He suddenly glares, “Your Nepali Maoists are here also. We can fuck all of you!” For the next 50 minutes I tell him that there is neither a sarpanch nor an MLA in Kathmandu, but it is not sufficient. Finally, it is a fake address, fake names of a Kathmandu sarpanch and politician, and lunchtime that makes the man relent.
This is the land of the bizarre. You can feel the omnipresent fear, and no one wants to talk. We do not know. Let it be sir, we will get into trouble. Businessmen are reluctant to rent out cars. Locals warn visitors not to provoke anyone, not to question and give only straight answers.
The Salwa Judum, which has been interpreted variously as meaning ‘Peace March’ or ‘Purification Hunt’ in the local dialect, is the term given to a state-sponsored anti-Maoist campaign. It involves concentrating a large section of the state’s Adivasi population into government-controlled camps, while launching offensive operations against those who remain inside the forests – all of whom, according to the government, are Maoists.
South Bastar is part of the thickly forested Dandakaranya area of central India, which spills into Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The Naxalites became active in the area during the late 1970s, and gained popularity for standing up against the exploitation of local Adivasis by forest contractors – providing instant justice, organising people into local-level political units called sanghams and the armed dalams, engaging in cultural activities, campaigning against corruption, and living with the people. But local resentment against the Naxalites developed gradually. The Maoists had begun intervening in local customs, and were dictatorial and coercive in their operations. This brewing resentment was eventually exploited by local politicians, particularly Mahendra Karma of the Congress party, as well as the BJP administration, to launch the Salwa Judum in 2005. Adivasis were mobilised against Maoists, and as the rebels began retaliatory attacks the state herded the villagers into camps.
Sitting in a Dantewada rest house, Karma claims the Salwa Judum to be a “Gandhian movement against political terrorism”, and that the camps are necessary to protect those who have stood up against the Maoists. Others suspect that Karma is keen on the Salwa Judum because it has given him prominence, allowed him to concentrate more than 50,000 people in specific areas, maintain a vigil on them, and keep them away from Maoist influence.
The dissatisfaction against the Maoists was genuine, but a concerted movement to actively go after them was clearly state-sponsored. The government went in with forces to evacuate villages under Maoist influence, and allegedly plundered houses, raped women and killed with impunity, all in order to send a message to the Adivasis to come to the seven camps that have been set up near the main road. Those at the camps were seen as state supporters by the Maoists; those who stayed behind were immediately branded as terrorists by the administration. Many youth in the camps were appointed as Special Police Officers.
Far off in the state capital Raipur, journalist Praful Jha explains the logic behind setting up the Salwa Judum, “Fish will survive where there is water. Dry out the river and the fish will die. The Salwa Judum is based on the calculation that keeping people away from the interiors will finish off the support base of the Maoists.” Bureaucrats see the Salwa Judum as helpful, for it allows them to make neat plans to ‘push the Maoists’ and ‘clean the forests’, based on the assumption that all those inside are militants. Drawing up a rough sketch, a top police official says, “See, we can now move into the forests with heavy deployment of forces, defeat the Maoists in one area, and push them backwards. That area can thus be cleared and development can begin. Then we go further in and push the Maoists even farther backwards.” And push them where? “How does that matter?” says a close aid of Chief Minister Raman Singh. “Our job is to make life difficult for them here. How do we care if they go to Andhra forests?”
Adivasi v Adivasi
Activists see a more sinister plan behind the Salwa Judum, which has entailed the displacement of Adivasis from resource-rich areas that are being eyed by extractive industries. According to this view, the camps are mere slums meant to enable the entry of industry. “Bastar has diamonds, iron ore, steel and uranium,” remarks Ilina Sen, an academic and activist in Raipur. “Industries want to begin operations there on a war footing. The Salwa Judum has already cleared the way for them by displacing people and locking them in camps.” This may be possible in the long term. But in the current situation, these are areas where the state is not even present, which makes the likelihood of industries being set up immediately unlikely.
At the Errabore camp, the camp-in-charge advances another argument in favour of the Judum. Ram Lal Markan, a teacher, says, “See, these tribals are illiterate and unaware. The camp gives us an opportunity to lock them in, teach the new generation about nationalism, law, the Indian Constitution. This will ensure they do not fall for the Maoist propaganda, and the young will know that Mother India is great.” Strikingly, those who are the most vocal advocates of the Salwa Judum are non-Adivasi outsiders, who are sidekicks of Mahendra Karma and have been deputed by him to take charge of different camps.
The Salwa Judum has ended up pitting Adivasi against Adivasi, dividing families on both sides. It has also engineered a shift in the target of attack. If the rebels earlier used to attack the politicians and policemen, now they go after the Adivasis in the camps, who are perceived as enemies. The newly created Special Police Officers are subsequently used as shields in battles against the Naxalites. The result: the poorest segment of the Indian population, Adivasis, is being killed on both sides. The implications of the Salwa Judum have been devastating. Manish Kunjam, leader of the mainstream left party, Communist Party of India, claims that more than 700 people have been killed by the police and SPOs, and 5000 houses burnt. There has been little agriculture for the past few years. The SPOs are a law unto themselves, and have indulged in innumerable human rights violations.
Most importantly, the state-sponsored campaign has removed the Adivasis from their natural habitat. Kura Erra, a 21-year-old at the Dornapal camp, looks longingly towards his village, Gorkunda, seven kilometres away, while sipping tea at a crowded shop. “I can only go to my village with heavy police force, and that too only rarely,” he says. “Otherwise the Naxals will kill me.” The full might of the Indian state cannot protect Erra’s right to life, liberty and free movement, even just a few miles down the main road. Ask if the strength of the Naxalites has increased in the past few years, and all heads here nod in agreement. The teashop owner remarks, “Who knows who is a Naxalite? He might be sitting right here.”
While there are nearly 60,000 people in the camps, many others are reported to have fled across the border to Andhra. It is difficult to put a figure to the number of refugees. Many belong to the Koya tribe, and have kinship links on the other side of the border. But it is said that the Andhra forests surrounding Chintoor are home to almost 35 groups of refugees, with the number of displaced undoubtedly running into the thousands.
There is no easy exit route from the situation surrounding the Salwa Judum. Indeed, there has never been easy escape when the state decides to outsource its responsibilities of dealing with insurgency. Too many people are happy with the Salwa Judum. Mahendra Karma is pleased to be a symbol of the fight against Maoism. He and his cronies, along with local bureaucrats, are able to siphon off enormous funds from the government. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has also found an opportunity to begin a process of Hinduisation among the Adivasis in the camps. The BJP is establishing a political presence in an area where they have been traditionally weak – ironically, with the help of the opposition leader. Even the Naxalites are happy, for the resentment against the Salwa Judum among the locals is turning into political capital for them – a situation with which beleaguered Maoists in other parts of India could do well.
The reign of terror
Jharkhand is the untold, and potentially most dangerous, Maoist story in India. A corrupt government that has given free reign to a Maoist group that has lost its ideological moorings gives the place an air of anarchy. And there is potential for the rebellion to spread because the only sphere in which the government is active – signing mining contracts – will soon lead to significant displacement. They will be the losers in this process of sustaining a shining India – losers who will be ready to pick up the gun. Talk to a Ranchi editor, a corporate sales manager, a political-party activist, a rickshaw puller, or even a district newspaper correspondent – the refrain is common: Yahan to sarkar hi nahin hai, there is no government here.
Madhu Koda, an independent MLA, is the head of a coalition government. He has just recently completed one year in office, a somewhat miraculous feat at a time when instability is a hallmark of the polity and legislators are available for sale. There is little wonder that Koda, his ministers, top bureaucrats and local officers all want to make a quick buck during their current moment in the sun. That official corruption is complemented by corruption among Maoists.
As such, for them the presence of the naxaliye, as the rebels are popularly known in Jharkhand, is not a threat but an opportunity. Play the victim card and ask the central government for more funds, which can then be siphoned off; exchange money with the insurgents and promise them protection in return for political support; give the Maoists information about construction contractors and share the loot. A young, exasperated district administrator remarks, “The police force is not too competent, and in several places is a part of such a set-up. But even when it comes close to nabbing a Naxalite or attacking them, there is a call from the local politicians or seniors who ask them to back off.”
The nexus between mainstream politicians and the rebels receives a temporary jolt when there is a dramatic attack by Naxalites, such as the one that took place in Giridih at the end of October. The rebels had planned to target the brother of former chief minister and an anti-Maoist crusader Babulal Marandi. Instead, Marandi’s young son and 17 other Adivasis, who were enjoying a cultural programme after a football match, were killed. At times of such an attack, the rhetoric escalates, all sides become careful, and media attention increases dramatically. The government promises to take on the Maoists, and the rebels justify the killings in the name of the revolution. But even as the public rhetoric remains high-pitched, things start going back to normalcy. And normalcy is synonymous with fear on the ground, and the nexus between the politicians and Maoists at the top.
The Maoists are active in more then 18 out of Jharkhand’s 24 districts, and with a steady increase in their recruitment. This expansion has not only to do with a weak and corrupt state, but a host of systemic factors. For one, the absence of justice plays a far greater role in helping the Maoists win cadre than is acknowledged. This is not only at the level of the lakhs of cases currently stuck in the state judicial system, but also at that of the local thana. “People go with complaints to file a report at the police station,” explains a local crime reporter in Hazaribagh. “If it is a poor person, or someone of a lower caste, the police will not listen to him in the first place. And even if they do, and the case happens to be against a richer person with connections, the local sub-inspector will take the side of the latter.” The aggrieved are left with only one choice: the Maoists who provide instant justice – often correctly – against the oppressor.
Land issues remain a significant factor in alienating people from the mainstream. Feudalism may not be as powerful as it once was, but the land-reform programme has other components, particularly the need to update land records. A sizeable chunk of the criminal cases in Jharkhand and Bihar are related to land disputes, wherein either there was never any proper documentation drawn up, or documents have simply rotted away or been otherwise destroyed. “Do a survey and prepare a fresh record of land ownership,” argues an SP in a district where Maoists are active. “Computerise the findings, and 25 percent of the Naxalite problem will be resolved.”
An additional factor that helps the Maoists win recruits is that it is the most attractive employment option for the youth in many of these areas. After a short training course, the recruit gets a gun and monthly expenses. Petty criminals who want to protect themselves from police harassment also find Maoism a convenient refuge. One way or another, new recruits instantly gain power locally. In parts of several districts of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, the state is often not present at all. And even when it is, the sheer presence and power of Maoists gives them de facto legitimacy. This political vacuum is most intense in Jharkhand, and has contributed directly to the spread of Maoism. “Panchayat elections have not taken place, and local-level leaders who could address grievances and channelise aspirations are absent,” points out Harivansh, the editor of Prabhat Khabar, the reputed Hindi newspaper that comes out of Ranchi. In instances where local parties are present, leaders prefer to keep silent rather than risk Maoist wrath.
Dispute and degradation
A notable absence among Maoists throughout India is that of the ideologically trained activist. This has created a vacuum of the politically committed at the middle level, of leaders who could keep a check on the ‘mistakes’ of the cadre. A CPI (Maoist) member admits, “The politicisation of the cadre is weak. The top leadership has a set of principles, and we have no desire to kill innocents. But the command structure is not in place, which gives the local units a lot of autonomy. And in the absence of politicisation, corruption seeps in.”
The descent into corruption, criminalisation and internal caste feuds is most pronounced among the Jharkhand Naxalites. Prior to its 2004 merger with the PWG to form the CPI (Maoist), the MCC was the most active outfit in Jharkhand and Bihar. The abbreviation is now recalled to refer to the Maoists as the Money Collection Centre. Levies are imposed on local contractors and small-scale shopkeepers. A big corporation that wants to start up a project needs to remember to set aside a share for the Maoists, a common occurrence in parts of Chhattisgarh as well. Even the government, when it decides to initiate a development project, must pay the Naxalites a levy. This poses difficult questions for those who believe ‘development’ to be the panacea to resolve the Maoist issue. In cases like this, development money only strengthens the rebels.
The Maoists have also not been immune to that fundamental, all-pervasive characteristic of Indian society – caste. In Jharkhand, tussles over sharing money, as well as inter-caste clashes between Yadavs and Ganjus, a Dalit community, have led to the formation of splinter groups such as the Tritiya Sammelan Prastuti Committee (TPC) and the Jharkhand Prastuti Committee (JPC). This has come as delightful news to the local administration, which has taken to supporting one group against another. But the proliferation of actors has made life even more difficult for common citizens. Rakesh Jha, the owner of a watch-repair centre in Chatra, a hotbed of Maoist and TPC activity at the Bihar-Jharkhand border, says, “Earlier we had to pay one group. Now it is four. But look at their standards: they begin asking for 50,000 rupees, and finally relent if we agree to pay for a 500-rupee mobile-recharge card.”
As for the immediate future, Jharkhand looks set for an escalation in violence. The government has signed MOUs worth billions with many industrial groups, including Mittal, Tata, the RPG Group and Jindal for extractive projects, and the process of land acquisition that this entails will lead to displacement of a large number of people. Only a few agreements have actually been implemented as yet, but the government and big industries seem to have prepared a multi-pronged strategy for the process: offer attractive rehabilitation packages in principle; co-opt some locally influential people and encourage them to persuade the community; rig gram sabha hearings in tribal areas; use hired goons to create pressure; and use state forces both overtly and covertly. Adivasi activists, meanwhile, are furious, and have warned that there is no way they will give up land. In such a context, where anger is rife among Adivasis and the government appears insensitive to non-violent movements, it is likely that people will be attracted to Maoist violence.
The critique within
Ram Jatan Sharma is a Naxalite. He believes India is a semi-feudal, semi-colonial country, and that the only solution is a revolutionary overthrow of the state. But Sharma does not carry a weapon, nor is he a member of the CPI (Maoist). Instead, he belongs to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. Male, as the party is popularly called in Bihar, participates in electoral politics and has seven legislators in the Bihar assembly.
Although the term Naxalite and Maoist is used interchangeably in popular discourse in India, as in this article, the difference is particularly significant in Bihar’s context. Here, Naxalism has taken a different turn, besides the one espoused by the armed Maoist outfit. Those familiar with the evolution of India’s ultra-left movement are careful to point out that Naxalites encompass several outfits, of which the CPI (Maoist) is only one, albeit the most powerful. All Naxalite groups trace their roots to the Naxalbari movement of the late 1960s, but have evolved and split in numerous ways since then. Some groups, such as the PWG and MCC, continued with focus on armed action; others, such as Male, went through a period of gradual evolution to start participating in democratic electoral politics, while retaining the aim of a revolution.
An introspective Sharma looks back at the days when his outfit was underground and believed in the precedence of armed action. He says that the fundamental flaw of far-left groups has been their inability to judge the level of revolutionary fervour among the masses. “A revolutionary situation existed for only a brief period between 1968 and 1970,” he says. “We continued with the tactic of boycotting elections till 1978, but then realised that mass mobilisation comes first before you can call for ‘revolution’. The task of a true revolutionary is to utilise the institutions of the bourgeoisie system to break the illusions of the people, and reveal the true character of the ruling class.”
A day earlier, a ruling party MLA, Anant Singh, had beaten up a journalist when faced with tough questions about an murder he was alleged to have committed. Singh is a close aide of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has carefully sought to cultivate the image of a clean politician against criminalisation. “These moments within the system provide some space to intervene,” argues Sharma. “See, we can show the people how there is little difference between Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar as chief ministers, and both harbour criminals.” Leaders of Male say that using this space does not mean being co-opted into the system, and claim that the ruling parties have actually become more insecure in the face of direct competition than they were when the party was still underground. But Sharma says that the Maoists contribute little by engaging in anarcho-militarism and mindless violence, other than giving the state a pretext for repression.
At the national level, the critique of the Maoists from within the left stems from several other perspectives, as well. Many Marxists claim that the Maoists do not understand the true nature of the ruling class and the Indian state – that it is not the feudals but the capitalists who dictate policy. By going after the local-level feudals, they say, the Maoists are barking up the wrong tree. Others point out that categorising the Indian bourgeoisie as ‘comprador’ is a mistake, as the ruling class here has a dual character of collaborating with imperialists but also striving to protect the autonomy of its capital.
Even as the ideological challenge from within the ultra-left is most serious in Bihar, the Maoists have continued to focus on armed action in the state. In November 2005, the rebels conducted a major jailbreak operation in Jehanabad, when they killed members of Ranvir Sena, a rival group, and released their own cadres. Even while there has been a lull in actions over the past year, the Maoists are understood to be concentrating increased attention across the border, in Jharkhand. What has particularly changed, however, is the expansion of the rebels from south to north Bihar – Muzaffarpur, Sitamarhi, Madhubani and Champaran. Some observers link this to support and linkages from across the border in Nepal (see box).
| Naxalbaadi to Maobaadi: ‘Your revolution is over’
Everyone is looking at the ‘Nepal experience’. From government officials, security analysts and mainstream politicians to Maoist supporters, human-rights activists and journalists, the interest in the evolution of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) runs deep in the Indian states where the Maoists are active. During the course of reporting for this story, the fact that a Nepali journalist was covering Indian Maoists seemed perfectly normal to most. In fact, most conversations about Naxalites are laced with observations and interpretations of what the Maobaadi of Nepal are up to. There are several distinct views of the happenings in Nepal among political actors from Andhra Pradesh to Bihar. Most striking is the disappointment – and now disdain – that the Naxalites exhibit when talking about the Nepali comrades. While rebellion was still raging in Nepal, there was ideological and some logistical cooperation between the Nepali Maobaadi and the Indian Naxalbaadi. But when the Nepali Maoists realised the limits of their ‘revolution’, felt the pressure of the Indian state and decided to engage with the Nepali political parties, the Maoists in India were less than approving. Shashi Bhushan Pathak, a Ranchi-based Maoist supporter, says with a mix of anger and contempt, “We will never forget the betrayal by the Nepali Maoist. We had really thought that Nepal would be a success. And to top it off, they tell us to learn a lesson and give up arms!” Pathak is referring to interviews given to the Indian press by Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’) waxing eloquent about the unique evolution of the Maobaadi of Nepal as showing the way for India’s Naxalbaadi. Privately, the Nepali Maoists are reported to have told the Naxalites that they have not really given up on the agenda, and that the current situation should be seen as a tactical move. But few are buying that in India, and at best that is seen as unprincipled if true. The present plight of the Nepali Maoists, who refused to let elections to the Constituent Assembly go forward because they knew they would lose miserably, has drawn scorn among many in India. “We told them so,” says a CPI (Maoist) supporter in Hyderabad. “See, they don’t have arms now – they have locked them with the UN, which is a US stooge. Their mass support has gone. The revolution is over in Nepal.” Not everyone is quite as harsh. Asit Sen, a pro-Maoist intellectual in Raipur, believes that the Nepali Maoists are trying out an experiment. “If they succeed, it will teach us something, and their failure will add to our learning experience,” he says. “I will give them the benefit of doubt.” But Sen’s openness is rare among the Indian Maoists. There are those, however, who believe that the Nepali Maoists have become stronger in the last two years. This view, maintained by those in home affairs and intelligence, sees the current approach as indeed tactical, and the Nepali Maoists as a significant threat to India. A senior intelligence officer in Hyderabad, who at one time, years ago, even suggested that the Naxalites emulate the Nepali example, now remarks, “It was obviously all a game. They will attempt a power grab in Kathmandu.” Radha Mohan Singh, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bihar, says intensely but with little knowledge, “The Nepali Maoists have links with China and Pakistan. Since they became strong in Nepal, both Islamic fundamentalism and Naxalism has expanded in India. The Indian government must go after the Naxalites here, and Girija Prasad Koirala must do the same in Nepal.” And then there are the left-liberals – journalists, human-rights activists, politicians and academics affiliated with the mainstream communist parties – who harbour sympathies for the Maoist cause but cannot support outright violence. Many in this category are desperate to see the Nepali Maoists locked into mainstream politics. As Manish Kunjam, of the CPI in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada District, puts it, “The Maoists fought a just war, but have realised smartly that they must participate in the democratic process.” Even as the Maoists play the spoiler in Nepal’s democratic process, by scuttling the Constituent Assembly elections slated for 22 November, they should know that they are being watched – in Telangana in Andhra, Bastar in Chhattisgarh, Hazaribagh in Jharkhand and Gaya in Bihar. One way or another, their experience will play an integral part in future debates within India’s broad left politics, as well as within that country’s security establishment.
Maoism remains a force, and finds recruits only because the state has collapsed in a substantial part of the Hindi heartland,” says Saibal Gupta, a Patna academic. “Couple this with the fact that new economic policies have resulted in the withdrawal of the state from even the basic welfare services it was providing.” The political parties who are present on the ground inevitably take the side of the powerful, while the underclass remains potential fodder for the rebels. As elsewhere, the unemployed in Bihar are looking for opportunity, and see the Maoist movement as a quick tool for upward mobility.
Bihar’s polity appears to have attained a certain equilibrium, notwithstanding its identity-politics-related churning. Caste wars are not as violent as they were even till the late 1990s. The politician-Maoist nexus has meanwhile also formed a pattern, and reciprocal assistance has become part of the norm. Prakash Louis, the author of a book on Naxalites in Bihar, explains, “Lalu and Nitish are benevolent oppressors. The movement is at its zenith when the opposition is at its zenith. If the state has an appearance of giving concessions, it becomes difficult for the Maoists to mobilise as actively. For example, Lalu had directed that land grabs should not be resisted with police firing. The exploitation is present, of course, but it is not as palpable and brutal.”
Today in Bihar, the Maoists do have the ability to conduct a major strike. But it is unlikely that this will alter the balance of power, political equations or the state’s own presence. As Vinay Kanth, of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Bihar, puts it, “There is no reason to think Maoist strength will increase dramatically. Equally, there is no reason to believe that the government can contain it with the same set of policies.”
The thinking cap
A scan of the Maoist movement in some key states is enough to reveal that both sides in this conflict need to sit back, look at their calculations, and reassess strategies. India’s Maoists have undoubtedly pushed the envelope by putting several issues of the marginalised on the national agenda, and by forcing the government to pay heed, if out of mere self-protection. Their support among many of the country’s poorest people is testament to this fact.
But even as the government needs to address these aspirations, the Maoists must realise that they face clear limits to expansion. There is little doubt that the poorest and the most marginalised Indians are the most active voters in the democratic system that is so contemptuously dismissed by the Maoists. A section may be happy with the activities and agenda of the Maoists, but across the board, people still look up to the government to deliver. As an old man on a bus from Hazaribagh to Patna put it, “Sahib, naxalite to theek hain, par kaam to sarkar hi karega na?” Sir, the Naxalites are fine, but finally it is the government that will do the work, right?
The localised Maoist movements, in most parts, are increasingly becoming exclusively armed movements, with little focus on political mobilisation. The leadership has realised this and, at the CPI (Maoist) congress earlier this year, made a conscious decision to form a united front with other like-minded groups, and to pick up mass-based issues. However, this has yet to translate into any widespread practice. As such, the basic character of the organisation remains one that gives priority to violence.
This trend, of not engaging enough in mass politics, stems from both choice and compulsion. The fact is that the repressive state leaves the rebels with little space to organise themselves and have meetings, let alone hold rallies. But this is also a deliberate decision. The MCC in Bihar and Jharkhand was traditionally a more militant force, while the PWG in Andhra had a greater component of mass activity. Since the merger of the two, the MCC line of thinking is said to have become predominant. Maoists have also concluded that the rapid success of the Nepali Maoists was due to an aggressive military strategy, and that this needs to be replicated in India.
Yet history has shown that armed action can yield only limited political or military dividends when up against the might of the Indian state. Of course, there has been an increase in Maoist activity. There is certain contiguity in the areas where Maoists are active, from Andhra to Bihar, a tract that has been dubbed by many as the ‘Red Corridor’. But this, coupled with the common reference to ‘180 Maoist-affected districts’, does not accurately represent the reality. The Maoists do not have control over any district headquarters. They hold exclusive sway only in very select areas of some districts in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, particularly in dense forests where the state is not present at all.
It is mass mobilisation that attracts committed cadre, awakens a sense of consciousness, and keeps a check on the criminal and degenerative tendencies within the party. Beginning with violence, rather than winning the genuine support of the people, has never been a sustainable strategy for any outfit anywhere. This focus on violence has also inevitably led to ‘mistakes’ – inadvertently or not, innocents get killed, and more often than not those victims are the people for whom the Maoists claim to be fighting. This not only creates a sense of outrage, but gives the state a pretext to repress. Not only do committed Maoists get crushed in that process, so do many others in politics and civil society who are seeking to dissent on fundamental questions within the system.
But civil society needs to bear its share of the blame as well. Across the board human-rights organisations are seen as being sympathetic to the Naxalites, and being relatively unconcerned when people are killed by Maoist actions. There have been instances when members of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a leading human-rights organisation in India, have refused to condemn Maoist atrocities. After the Giridih attack, Tridip Ghosh, a PUCL office-bearer in Jharkhand told a local daily that his organisation’s agenda is solely to expose the state’s crimes.
Journalists have not covered themselves in glory either, and tend to congregate at the other extreme. Most newspapers are heavily dependent on government revenues and usually toe the government line, especially on sensitive issues. This is true of Chhattisgarh, where to date only a few papers have looked at the negative fallout of the Salwa Judum. The prejudice seeps down to the local-level correspondents, who have vested interests tied with the local establishment. Few journalists in Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, for instance, were willing to stick their necks out and be critical of the campaign. Instead, one hears conversations among them of the last date for filing tenders and contractor kickbacks.
Since the Naxalbari uprising of 1967, an easy way out for left-liberal academics has been to mouth the truism that Maoism is the result of socio-economic problems, and that development is the answer. It is true that development, defined as effective government services and creating opportunities, can bring people into the national mainstream and reduce their incentives to join the Naxalites. Yet the issue here is as much of rights as of development. A person does not become a Maoist because there is no school or health centre in his village, but rather due to a wide variety of circumstances, from lack of justice to brutality of state officials to coercion from other Maoists. While development is indeed part of the solution, to treat it as a single solution is simplistic, and does not give enough importance to crafting specific strategies for different places.
The Maoist movement, for the most part, stems from political reasons, and the answer thus lies in politics and political parties. As long as parties continue to be inert in certain areas, and do not fulfil their core responsibilities – accommodating aspirations, putting pressure on local administrations, providing institutional protection to those who believe in the present system, standing up for the marginalised, speaking out against atrocities – there will always be space for alternative outfits. This becomes contentious in areas where the Maoists do not allow other political parties to operate, but there is no way out but to fill the political vacuum in a just manner.
The government claims to recognise that the situation is more than just a law-and-order issue, but it has done little to build up or act on a non-police solution. In fact, its own policies over the past decade – setting up special economic zones, doing little to tackle agrarian distress, dismantling the infrastructure for public health and education, lack of prompt redressal of grievances – have only contributed to the unrest. The state may have the right to suppress any movement that questions its authority and seeks to destroy its ‘monopoly over violence’; the establishment may think that engaging with a movement that questions the state’s legitimacy will set a wrong precedent; but the present strategy of pumping in money to the police force, or attempting a Salwa Judum-like campaign, can only yield limited benefits. Indeed, doing so has the potential to spark further unrest. What is needed instead is a basic engagement between both sides – one that may not lead to a neat solution, but can deal with issues raised by the Maoists and minimise violence.
The Maoists are different in situation to situation. In Andhra the rebels are being faced with a setback, and need to devise new strategies to recover support, even as their comrades fight a brutal war just across the border in Chhattisgarh. Jharkhand poses difficult questions for the Maoist leadership about the direction the movement is taking, with complicity in corruption, internal divisions and mindless violence. They also need to respond constructively and engage with the other sections of the ultra-left in Bihar, instead of merely categorising them as enemies.
But across the board, it is time the Maoists realise that they need to champion the causes of the poor without creating conditions that kill the poor – without picking up weapons. For as long as the rebels have the gun, police action cannot be dismissed as completely unacceptable. But the Indian state must also hear the voices of its people, address unresolved issues related to land, perform its core responsibilities and provide services to the people who need them most, encourage politics at the local level, and, perhaps most crucially, devise different strategies for different places. The legacy of Naxalbari, and the four decades that have passed since that uprising, deserve nothing less.
~ Prashant Jha is contributing editor of Himal Southasian based in Kathmandu