Deep red in the heartland

Quiz: What is CCOMPOSA? Led by Nepal's Maobaadi, violent communism is picking up steam in South Asia even as it disappears from the rest of the world, and it is happening without help from Mao.

The gun battles over Siachen and Kargil, and the long-lasting identity-related conflicts of Kashmir and the Indian Northeast, have diverted attention from some of the long-lasting Maoist insurgencies in the heartland of India. Even the six-year-old 'People's War' in the midhills of Nepal has come to attention of the larger region only after the declaration of the state of emergency by the Nepali government in late 2001. There is today a north-south band of insurgency inspired by the ideology of class warfare that stretches from large parts of midhill-Nepal to the Dandakaranya region of India, which encompasses India's communist heartland in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra states.

The red rebellion is thus a growth phenomenon in South Asia, inspired by the inability of democratic institutions all over to deliver social and economic progress and attracting the under-educated rural youth with gun-wielding romanticism. Like the mighty leaders of SAARC, the leftist 'ultras' too seem to be tantalised by the thought of a South Asian coming together. Though it is not clear whether such cross-border or regional alliances can really work, under the initiation of the Nepali Maoists, the violence-espousing reds of South Asia have even set up a regional network called the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations of South Asia (CCOMPOSA).

Many of today's Maoist cadres would not even know of the Naxalite movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but they are inspired by the same model of rural overthrow of local feudals that was fashioned by Charu Mazumdar. Back then, Mao Zedong was the hero and the helmsman for Maoists everywhere, but today's Maoists have to survive with little 'external' support. China cannot be considered even remotely an ally at a time when the Beijing government has gone out of its way to assure Kathmandu's rulers that they have no truck with the Nepali Maobaadi. Perhaps it is this lack of support from any international quarter – and the possibility dwindles even further with George W. Bush's worldwide 'war on terrorism' – that the Maoists of South Asia have decided that there is at least some safety in banding together in CCOMPOSA.

The Coordination Committee emerged out of a meeting of comrades from nine Maoist parties, which happened somewhere in West Bengal in July 2001. There are four Indian groups in this alliance – the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (People's War) of Andhra Pradesh, the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) of the Bihar plateau, the Revolutionary Communist Centre of India (Maoist) and the Revolutionary Communist Centre of India (MLM). The Bangladeshi groups in CCOMPOSA are Bangladesher Samyabadi Dal (M-L), Purbo Bangla Sarbahara Party (CC) and Purbo Bangla Sarbahara Party (MPK). Sri Lanka and Nepal have one party each in the combine, the Ceylon Communist Party (Maoist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).

The vision of this alliance is to stretch the revolutionary "successes" achieved recently in Nepal across larger parts of South Asia. This proposed "Compact Revolutionary Zone" is to stretch from Hyderabad to Kathmandu. Said the document to emerge from the July 2001 meeting: "We declare our principled unity and conscious determination to hoist the Red Flag of Marxism- Leninism-Maoism and Communism in all its splendour from the silver summits of the Himalayas and throughout the region."

Threat assessment

At the ground level, Maoist movements are active mainly in Nepal and India. On 26 November, the government of Nepal declared a state of emergency after Maoists walked away from a fourth round of peace talks and launched a frontal attack on the Nepali army. The November action represented a major shift in the Nepali Maobaadi tactics, as they had previously avoided confrontation with the Royal military. Clearly, the extreme communists hope that the achievements of the Nepali Maobaadi – highlighted internationally because they are fighting a nation-state rather than the Indian Maoists who might as well be fighting in the bush – will inspire dormant movements across the region. In the early 1970s, it was the Naxalites in India whoinspired Nepal's communists, today the situation may well be reveresed.

After years of ignoring the Maobaadi of Nepal, the Indian media, intelligence community as well as the larger establishment has suddenly become concerned about the spread of this violent band so close to the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Press reports indicate growing Indian concern about emerging ties among rebel groups of Nepal and India. In September, India's Intelligence Bureau Chief, KP Singh, was reported to have said that there is a threat to relations between India and Nepal being entangled in the new ties emerging among the leftist insurgent groups.

The Maoist danger now ranks third in the Indian Home Ministry's threat assessment, following closely on concerns over Kashmir and the Northeast. The Ministry has formed a Coordination Centre on Left Wing Extremism headed by the Union Home Secretary and India recently declared 23 rebel groups, including PW and MCC, as "terrorist" organisations, akin to the militants of Kashmir and the Northeast. India also has a new anti-terrorist law, the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) in the works, the passage of which would grant the government sweeping new powers.

Meanwhile, the far-left groups themselves are continuing to develop cross-border links. On 13 October, human rights activists and lawyers, some of them close to the Maoists, met in Kathmandu to form the Association of South Asian Lawyers and Human Rights Activists. Its convenor was Mukti Pradhan, a member of the newly formed Nepali Maoist "parallel government", the United Revolutionary People's Council, which is headed by the underground Maobaadi ideologue Baburam Bhattarai. Likewise, on 3 November, journalists sympathetic to the rebels, who call themselves "propeople" scribes, announced the founding of the South Asian People's Journalists Association (SAPJA). The well-known "Naxalite journalist" of India, Ananda Swawroop Verma, author of the book Rolpa se Dolpa tak (from Rolpa to Dolpa), is spearheading this effort. Krishna Sen, editor of the Maoist Janadesh weekly, is the Nepali delegate to the seven-member SAPJA co-ordination committee.

The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) also has a seat in this SAPJA committee, filled by Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, editor of the Assamiya daily Aaji. His membership is an indication that Maoists have also entered into working alliances with some Northeast separatist groups. Last year, a Nepali government commission on peace prospects with the Maoists, which was headed by Sher Bahadur Deuba (Prime Minister since July 2001), concluded that the Nepal's rebels have ties with the Northern Bihar Liberation Front and ULFA. Though not ideologically Maoist, ULFA's ranks include people sympathetic to the cause of class warfare, including some Nepali-speakers of Assam. However, ULFA's chairman, Arvindo Rajkhowa, in e-mail correspondence with Himal, denied having any link with Nepal's Maobaadi.

India's PW, however, does have links with the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, and this may seen at least indirectly to extend possible Maoist influence into Sri Lanka. The PW chief Mupalla Laxman Rao, otherwise known as Ganapati, has boasted, in an interview, of having received training from former LTTE fighters. Nepali and Indian Maoists also seem to have established contact with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN), a Northeast separatist group fighting for a 'greater Nagaland'. The LTTE, ULFA and NSCN are separatist organisations not fighting for class-equity but for ethnic self-rule. However, Maoists do not appear to be troubled by the possible lack of ideological justification — they are all welcome for being "national liberation movements".

People's war

Maoism seeped into South Asia from the north and east during the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s. While this particular brand of communism long ago passed from the scene in a China which has willingly embraced the marketplace, groups in India and Nepal are determined to sustain the movement. In fact, now that Maoist movements in Peru, the Philippines and Turkey have collapsed, South Asia is today's hotbed of leftist extremism.

Two non-insurgent Nepali Communist groups, the CPN (Unity Centre) and CPN (Masal) also profess to be guided by Maoist thought, although they explain that they are in the preparatory stages of the larger revolution and thus have not yet taken to guns. The Maobaadi, on the other hand, embraced the path of violence on 13 February 1996, and have since then not only managed to take control of substantial territory in the more isolated midhill regions but also claimed to have 'people's governments' in 22 of the country's 75 districts before the army was sent out to fight them. Nepal's Maobaadi are said to number approximately 5000 guerillas and enjoy an expansive structure of frontal organisations of women, students, farmers, trade unions and human rights activists. However, the real strength is only now being tested, with the deployment of army troops and the declaration of emergency in late November. Earlier, the Maobaadi had been fighting an unmotivated and under-armed civil police force.

India has several Maoist groups, although the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the People's War group (PW), are the most influential. These two groups came out of the Naxalite movement, which was practically destroyed in West Bengal and elsewhere by Indira Gandhi. PW's predecessor, the Communist Party of India (M-L), emerged in 1969 but splintered after the death of Charu Majumdar. According to a report by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, PW has about 5000 cadres, who function mostly in squads of 9-12 fighters. PW has formed four platoons in Andhra's Karimnagar, Warrangal, Adilabad and Khammam districts announced last year the formation of an armed wing called the People's Guerilla Army (PGA).

PW is mainly active in the Dandakaranya area, which includes parts of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh and Orissa, where the Maoists have parallel governments in about 125 villages. After the CPI-ML (Party Unity), another Maoist group, amalgamated with the PW in 1998, its influence has also grown in Bihar and Jharkhand. Another Maoist group, the MCC, already has considerable influence in these two states. According to the Indian Home Ministry's annual report for 2000-01, left wing extremism in Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa increased in the preceding year, although it decreased in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

Today's MCC is the group that had stayed out of the CPI-ML in 1969 and was then known as the "Dakshin Desh", although it took its present name in 1975. MCC's fighting groups are said to be organised in 50 squads of 20 people each. The MCC, which claims to fight for the cause of landless peasants and dalits, has been battling on two fronts — against the government and the Ranabir Sena, a private militia formed by the large upper caste, landowners of Bihar. On 27 November 2001, the PW and the MCC joined hands to organise a general strike in Bihar to protest the US attacks in Afghanistan. Although the strike was not successful, this joint call was another sign that the two groups, which had earlier looked upon each other as adversaries, may be coming together.

South Asia has many more groups that call themselves Maoist parties, but most are no larger than "study circles". The Ceylon Communist Party (Maoist), led by N. Sanmugathansan, is a member of CCOMPOSA, although it barely exists within Sri Lanka. The Jana Vimukti Peramuna (JvP) tried to launch violent revolts in 1971 and 1989. However, when its leader Rohana Wijeweera was killed in 1990, JVP was already ideologically transforming from pure Maoism to Sinhalese nationalism. JVP is now back into mainstream politics, which Nepal's Maoists categorically say they are not interested in. "The CPN (Maoist) is not the JVP of Sri Lanka," Maobaadi ideologue Baburam Bhattarai categorically told the Nepali Times in July 2001. "There is absolutely no possibility of the CPN (Maoist) turning into a parliamentary party."

Bangladesh too was not immune to the communist upsurge of the 1960s and 1970s west of the border. Siraj Sikder's Sarbahara Party had a strong beginning, but it was decimated by infighting and public backlash to its support for Pakistan during the 1971 war. Today, most of Bangladesh's former Maoists have become NGO activists, though a few Maoist-inclined groups remain.

Pakistan is one country where there seems to be no Maoist presence whatsoever at present, but for an elderly handful — as reported in Himal some years ago — that reminisce in Lahore's Anarkali Bazaar's tea stalls about Mao Zedong. Communist politicians in Bangladesh and Pakistan have faced the wrath of Muslim fundamentalism, which perhaps explains the distance between Muslim extremists and left-leaning South Asia.

Speaking of Pakistan, the recent spate of reports in the Indian media about Nepal's Maobaadi include intelligence 'leaks' about the support received by the Maobaadi from the Inter Services Intelligence of Pakistan, as a means of fomenting revolution adjacent to India's sensitive Hindi heartland. However, anyone with knowledge of the Maobaadi operations and ideology knows enough to disregard such a link. If there is one thing going in their favour, Nepal's Maoists are a 'homegrown' phemonenon, and represent the reaction to misrule and hopelessness. The money the Maoists have are seized from the banks, government and public of Nepal, and the guns are looted from the demoralised police and public. The Maobaadi would not have a need — thus far at least — to befriend the ISI.

Maaobaadi take the lead

Nepal's "internationalist" Maoists now have links with ultra left movements and groups all over the world, but it is their links south of the border which are most significant. Nepali Maobaadis have strong ties with India's PW group and weaker links with MCC. In fact, Nepal's top Maoist leaders in India are said to use either their own shelters or those of the PW, and India's Maoist groups have also openly supported their Nepali comrades. For example, as early as 13 September 1998, India's Struggling Forum for People's Resistance organised a meeting in Calcutta and called on all Maoists in the two countries to join hands in support of the struggle in Nepal. Another group called the Solidarity Forum to Support the People's War in Nepal even organised a rally and public meeting in New Delhi on 13 February 1999 to mark the third anniversary of the insurgency in Nepal.

Maoist insiders say that Nepal's rebels had con-suited India's PW before selecting regions within the country that would be most conducive for launching their struggle. In 1995, PW strategists conducted two surveys to gauge potential insurgency and recommended Nepal's midhill Mahabharat range which runs across the country's length, as opposed to the high Himalayan region or the tarai plains. In particular, the PW 'consultants' suggested the midhills of mid-western Nepal. The PW also helped train the first few batches of the Nepali guerillas, although after nearly six years of struggle the Nepalis are said to have become more adept to rural guerilla tactics — particularly on hilly terrain — than even their former gurus. The Maobaadi fighters have also made ample use of landmine- laying and ambush techniques they have learnt from the Indian instructors. However, the Nepali comrades are said to lag behind on urban warfare techniques, which may be seen in the absence of their actions in the cities and larger towns of the country.

In early 2001, a Nepali police officer traveled to Hyderabad to learn counter-insurgency techniques from the Andhra police. During his visit, he was told by the Indians that the PW received arms and supplies from its Nepali comrades. Nepali government sources deny the connection and instead say that both groups buy arms from India's underworld. Nepali Maoists are also said to procure explosives and ammunition from Bihari criminal groups, which then can be easily carried across the open frontier into Nepal.

When Nepali Maoists began their People's War, it appeared that they were taking a leaf from the book written by the PW and the MCC. After battling since February 1996 and their quick spread across the midhills in particular over the last two years, the Nepali Maoists are today talking about leading the revolutionary struggle in the entire region. Nepali Maoists say they have considerable influence in the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM), which is thought to carry out some level of coordination for global Maoist activity. However, neither PW or MCC are members of RIM, which operates through a forwarding address in London. There are those who seriously believe that the influence of RIM is exaggerated, and who believe that it is used by the Nepali comrade simply to convince other Nepalis of their party's international connections.

Among Indian Maoists, the PW is said to have a fairly large network of disciplined cadre, while the Bihari Maoists are still said to be "backward" and centered only on the local struggle. MCC cadres still believe that interminglingof the the sexes would affect their effectiveness and the movement largely does not include women. PW, on the other hand, even has separate women guerilla squads. PW, however, has not been able to significantly advance itself over the decades, in sharp contrast to the Nepali Maobaadi, who have been spreading like wildfire across midhill Nepal. The Maobaadi in November even announced a shadow central government while PW is still fighting its battle in "guerilla zones".

Pusha Kamal Dahal, the Chairman of the Nepal's Moaists ('Comrade Prachanda'), in fact, has even been un-diplomatic and dismissive of his allies in the PW, saying in an interview with the Revolutionary Worker in February 2000, "For 25 years they say guerilla zone, but there is not any perspective, real perspective." Nepali Maobadis also appear to have combed more revolutionary guidebooks — from Stalin to Mao and everyone in between — than the Indian comrades. This shows in their present strategy, which is a fusion of a People's War in the hinterlands (from the Chinese model) and plans for urban mass uprising (borrowed from the Bolsheviks).

Comrade Prachanda now wants to share his 'success' with fellow South Asians. In a recent tract entitled "A Great Leap Forward: The Inevitable Necessity of History", he writes, "it has become an absolute necessity for the communist revolutionaries (to form a federation) to face Indian monopolist capitalism and its supporters and backers."

The twenty-fifth anniversary of Mao's death was quietly marked in September 2001. The Maoist movements of South Asia have survived long after their namesake's death, although their ultimate success remains as much in doubt as ever. It remains to be seen whether the recent spate of alliance building will advance the region toward a South Asian communist polity or if Maoists are destined to remain on the fringe.

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