In the more impoverished parts of South Asia – from the western hills of Nepal to the badlands of Bihar, in the forests of Andhra Pradesh or the marginalised hinterlands of the Brahmaputra valley – Maoism is no idle intellectual pursuit. Body counts from its practice are too near to home for comfort, and the deeper issues it raises too close to everyday living to ignore. Nepal, for instance, has seen more lives lost in the year-and-a-half-long Maoist “people´s war” than were doomed in the entire 1990 “people´s movement” which ushered in parliamentary democracy. The village populace is terrorised in the pincer of Maoist violence and police retribution. Yet this sudden rise in the terror thermometer had, till recently, merely resulted in an embarrassed silence in Kathmandu´s corridors. Only when the present left-right coalition government proposed enacting a draconian “anti-terrorism” bill, which would affect urban liberals and politicos more than the Maoists, did the issue merit public debate.
South Asia´s modernist elite are by now so distanced from the countryside that no emotional chord is struck when rural folk die needlessly and cruelly. Deaths in Bosnia are more immediate to Delhi drawing rooms than killings on the Bihar Plateau. Because downtown Kathmandu has as yet to see a serious bomb blast, the terror in the hills of the central-west districts does not even constitute distant thunder.
The rural poor are so alienated from the state and its structures, so despairing of relief, that the ideology of revolt is seen as the only salvation. Maoist cadres are born of deep-seated causes: wildly inappropriate education, joblessness, conspicuous consumption of the upper classes, cultural alienation, ethnic anger, etc. But these challenges cannot be confronted and eradicated with violence, whether from the state or the Maoists.
The trite response of the uncommitted to rising Left extremism is to call upon the government of the day to resolve the problem through so-called political means. But “political resolution” requires tackling the “root causes” of despair and underdevelopment, and few politicians have the wisdom or sagacity for that. A “political resolution” requires astute statesmanship imbued with a deep sense of justice. In none of the Maoist hotbeds of South Asia is such a polity in sight.
The most members of the establishment will do under the circumstances is mouth easy development slogans, with no trace of commitment or understanding. Their tendency will be to let an insurgency simmer in low boil as long as it does not harm national institutions and urban centres or damage large-scale physical infrastructure such as power grids and highways. If those get targeted, then the fashionable clamour for “political resolution” vaporises, and the political establishment, business and academia discreetly look the other way while the army, police or paramilitary engage in mop up.
When an elite loses its creativity, it falls back on the easy path of repression. In this, they are assisted greatly by the current crop of politicos everywhere in the region who are self-serving, increasingly cut off from those that they represent, and incapable of constructive engagement. Moreover, if swift action and surgical precision is not guaranteed and the effort becomes a prolonged, resource-consuming warfare, it only adds fuel to the Maoist fire.
If the establishment class brings about ruin through hypocrisy, the ideologues of the extreme Left more than make up for it with their rejectionism. For they disparage elected parliaments as nothing but meeting places for idle chit-chat. They maintain that the poor and the oppressed do not have the wherewithal to even begin to use such democratic infrastructure or procedures. In an inequitable world, such institutions are fated to be manipulated by the rich and the powerful to maintain their status quo hold over the means of production, thus perpetuating exploitation in a more palatable form. To use the more colourful expression of Nepal´s Maoists, parliament is like a butcher shop “where they display a goat´s head but sell dog meat”. Radical change through armed uprising, say these ideologues, is the only language the exploiters take seriously.
To an impoverished mass wallowing in a sea of fatalistic despair, this is heady wine; but it leaves too many unanswered questions. A revolt born of a sense of unfairness could conceivably be countered by a just apportioning of national resources. But the ideologues of the far Left would do well to really understand world history, their own societies, and what Mao meant, before pushing their poor cadres and supportive villagers into the cauldron of terror.
Look around, and you will see that the Maoist ideology of revolt has taken root only in societies where old civilisations are almost a spent force, creaking under their own dead weight in the face of the modernist onslaught. After all, it was the failure of a decrepit Confucian polity that could no longer keep Western mercantile capitalism at bay, coupled with the ravages of World War II, which led to the spectacular success of Maoism in China. A common Han culture allowed much of the contradictions in society to be defined in terms of economic class rather than caste or ethnicity. Once the issues of economic equity were resolved through a Maoist levelling, society could go back, as China has now, to business as usual. This is why the land of Mao today hardly supports Maoists, be it in the jungles of the Philippines or of Andhra.
Turn your sights, then, to the erstwhile Hindustan where, too, an enfeebled and deeply fractured society grapples with the pulls of modernity. But then, the simple doctrines of class struggle seem hardly adequate in a Subcontinent where the economic classification is super-imposed upon by a myriad of other distinctions – of caste, language, region, religion, ethnicity, and now, nationality. Can the genie of revolt escape from the bottle and spread across the land when it can only read the taxonomy map of class struggle?
In other words, South Asia´s Maoists are sadly out of touch if they believe that their crusade will cover the whole Subcontinent as it did the Han mainland. For there are enough other pressures at play which will dilute or divert what may even start out as a Maoist movement. Thus, rebels of the Indian Northeast or the JVP Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka may have sworn by the Red Book, but ultimately they have followed an ethnic agenda. The forces of religious extremism (´fundamentalist´, if you will) or nationalistic fanaticism, ironically, drink from the same well that the Maoist would, only to churn out cadres of the far-right rather than the far-left.
Maoist uprisings have often quickly acquired religious and ethnic overtones or been marginalised by religious extremism. The same individuals who may have turned out Maoist, then, provide the foot soldiers of the Babbar Khalsa, the Shiv Sena, or the various jamaats. If there were no Taliban, there would surely have been t he Red Brigade. Fight against economic injustice, incidentally, has been easier through the religious metaphor of Islam with its strong commitment to an equitable universal brotherhood than through a class-defined Maoist one.
To be sure, there will be a few areas where classic Maoist strategy can in fact be applied, such as in the killing fields of Bihar or the forests of Andhra. However, there is little likelihood that insurgencies will spread as they come across barriers that transcend the class divide. In which case, it is so easy for the state forces to isolate any insurgency and keep it from ´infecting´ other regions.
Assume – and it is a very big assumption – that the Maoists wrest state power. What next? Given all the constraints within complex societies, what can they do within a realistic time frame that would make a difference? Willy-nilly, they would have to come back to issues of professional management, meaningful education, reformed and capable bureaucracy, a justice system with integrity inspiring faith, a banking and tax structure that is fair and efficient, as well as a whole gamut of reform measures. The Maoists dismiss these as unrevolutionary and renegade reformism.
Deep-seated problems can be resolved only by engaging injustice in society head on, openly and fearlessly, overground and in broad daylight, maintaining a moral upper hand on every front and a transparency in every issue, every inch of the way, much as Gandhi did. Covert hit-and-run movements cannot do this because they engage the enemy not in its area of weakness, which is the moral front, but in its area of strength, which is military might.
Furthermore, the very sociology of underground brotherhood militates against them. Like all romantic drift, the Left movement too is caught in a dilemma between purity and pragmatism. Born as a protest movement within the Left, the Maoists naturally have had to spend more energy on keeping the flock of true believers intact rather than to spread and grow. To keep schisms from emerging, they have to keep exit costs high, which means descending to the nadir of retribution against both the wayward insider and the popular outsider. Unable to engage in the creative issues of societal reform, they have ensured that, to enhance their self-image of revolutionary purity, the destructive spiral of violence, and only more violence, will become the glorious never-end of Maoism in South Asia.