The early days of the Telangana Movement in southern India serves as a measure of subsequent Maoist efforts in the region.
Maoism first appeared in the Subcontinent in the course of the revolutionary peasant movement that spread in early 1947 in the Telugu-speaking Nalgonda and Warangal districts of eastern Hyderabad, known as Telangana. Up until the 1947 transfer of power by the British, Telangana was under the despotic rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad. The cadres of the Communist Party of India initiated the Telangana Movement during the Second World War as a genuinely indigenous mass campaign against the landlords and the state aristocracy.
At first, the communists maintained a facade of cooperation with the Indian National Congress in the state, pledging to support Hyderabad´s accession to India, and aiming the revolt at ending the illegal exactions and other landlord excesses. However, the “intense particularism” of the Telugu-speaking people and general peasant discontent encouraged the communist leadership to expand the movement to an attack on the government.
A chain reaction of village revolts led to the establishment of gram rajs (village ´soviets´), complete with people´s courts and militia, land seizures, and the expulsion of the landlords and local officers of the Nizam´s government. A full-scale guerrilla army was quickly recruited and virtually all of the Nalgonda and Warangal districts, encompassing 3000 villages, 3 million people, and an area of 16,000 square miles, came under communist control.
Maoist ideas were first brought to India by the Andhra Provincial Committee of the Communist Party in the neighbouring Telugu-speaking section of the then Madras State, Andhra, when it sought to import revolution to its side of the border in 1948. Mao´s four-class theory, which promoted uniting all the progressive forces in an agrarian revolution against imperialist monopoly capital and its local allies, the feudal landlords and comprador bourgeoisie, and which thus tolerated wealthy “nationalist” peasant classes, suited the Andhra communists. This was because they were dominated by Kamma landlords in possession of 80 percent of the land in the fertile delta area.
The Andhra communists declared that Mao´s “new democracy” should serve as a “guidance to India”. The Indian revolution was presented as analogous to the Chinese revolution, requiring a prolonged “people´s war” in the form of an agrarian revolution culminating in the capture of political power by a democratic front. This was to be different from the Russian revolution. The Andhra communists thus proposed to unite the entire peasantry, including the rural bourgeoisie or rich peasants, under the leadership of the working class for “guerrilla warfare (the Chinese way)”.
The Movement Stumbles
The Telangana Movement began to falter in late 1948 when the CPI made this shift from targeting the traditional local enemies, especially the aristocracy, to imperialism, as represented by the Nehru government at the Centre. They called on their former enemy, the Nizam, for protection against the state. When the Indian army marched into Hyderabad in 1948, and proclaimed an “Azad Hyderabad,” the Andhra communists were joined by the Razakars, a private army representing extremist Muslim sentiment, against the “fascist troops”. Within a few days, the Indian army quelled all resistance, except for the communists, who resorted to hit-and-run guerrilla tactics.
To subdue the communists, the army brought in 60,000 troops and used the strategy tried by the British in Malaya, of forcing the peasantry into special camps so as to remove the guerrillas´ base of support. The army killed nearly 4000 cadres and militant peasants and jailed another 10,000. The populace was terrorised by the police and military, and property worth millions was looted or destroyed.
Unable to mobilise the people, remnants of the guerrilla army got involved in a series of “indiscriminate and unnecessary terrorist actions against non-military individuals”. This brought much disrepute to the leadership. All in all, the efforts to stir the masses to violence by power of example led only to individual terrorism, which resulted in further isolation and repression of the party. Its membership quickly shrank from 21,000 to 7000.
It was the taking up of the Chinese line that led the Telangana Movement to stumble in late 1948 and suffer its terrible reversal in the early 1950s. Beginning as a mass peasant movement to achieve certain economic demands, the movement expanded into a liberation struggle to overthrow the Nizam. However, when the crusade expanded into a struggle against the Indian Union, it lost the support of the peasantry, which merely wanted the overthrow of feudal relations and not a fight against the Indian army for an abstract “people´s democracy”.
In their subsequent analysis, the party leaders conceded that the degeneration of the movement into terrorist tactics contradicted and was incompatible with the spirit of partisan struggle. Where partisan struggle aims to overturn the regime in close conjunction with mass struggle, developing according to the growth of mass consciousness and initiative, the terrorist tactics end up as nothing more than destruction of particular individuals by squads acting in isolation from the people. This, in turn, creates the illusion that the main evil are individuals rather than the regime.
Looking back, the leaders said that the party should have limited its action to defending the gains of the Telangana peasantry when its democratic initiatives such as the retaking of land came under attack from the Centre and its armed forces. This would have strengthened the hands of the fighting people and peasants and isolated the Indian government in its support of the feudal landlords. It was definitely a mistake to turn the movement into a liberation war against the Congress Party without securing wider support, which was unavailable in the context of the euphoria surrounding Independence and what seemed then to be the Congress´s liberation of the country from imperialism.
The Telangana communist leaders also came to recognise great flaws of transplanting the Maoist formula to the Subcontinent. Partisan war was sheer necessity for the Chinese peasant, as the urban working class was small and the cities were in foreign control in pre-revolutionary China. In 1927, the Chinese revolutionary army was already 30,000 strong, and its was backed up by a friendly Soviet Union, which provided help for the final offensive. The lack of a good and unified communications system kept the enemy from carrying out concentrated and swift attacks on the liberation forces.
In the Subcontinent, by contrast, partisan struggle alone, no matter how widely extended, cannot ensure victory over the enemy. Guerrilla forces are invariably small and poorly armed, and even if they create liberated zones, they will be surrounded by hostile forces. The government´s armed forces are well organised and widely distributed, and a well-developed communications system allows forces to be easily concentrated against guerrilla activity.
Despite the mistakes of its Andhra leadership, the Telangana Movement is the only example of armed insurrection in South Asia which actually “liberated” any significant area and started an experiment in an alternative way to organise society and politics. The movement pushed the question of agrarian revolution to the forefront, compelling unwilling Congress leaders to embark on reforms, albeit half-heartedly. It forced the pace of the states´ reorganisation on a linguistic basis, demolishing the unprincipled and arbitrary division made by former British rulers. The Movement helped the Communist Party emerge for the first time as an effective, widely-recognised political force.
Most importantly, perhaps, the Telangana Movement made the Indian communist movement confront the theoretical and ideological questions concerning the strategy and tactics for a people´s democratic revolution in India: the role of the peasantry in such a revolution, the place and significance of partisan resistance and rural revolutionary bases, classification among the peasantry and the role of revolution among different strata, the place of the working class and urban centres, the meaning and import of “working class hegemony” and the Communist Party´s role in realising it in a primarily agrarian society.
Today, the Maoist line is commonly described in the press as “far left” or “extreme left” due to its strong rhetoric, tactics and sectarianism. Yet, in its identification of imperialism as the enemy and its strategy of uniting the various democratic forces, including peasant landlords and national capitalists against imperialism, feudalism and monopoly capitalism, Maoism actually represented a development of the “right line” in an old struggle of left versus right tendencies within the Indian communist party that had been going on since the 1920s.
Thus, the Indian communists found themselves allied with the Congress Party in battle against British imperialism when following the “right line”. Whereas, at times when the “left line” was ascendant, it was bourgeois nationalism represented by the Congress which was the enemy.
The Andhra Central Committee´s adoption of Maoism set it against the national communist leadership both at the time of the Telangana movement, when the national leaders were following the “left line”, and subsequently, when it readopted the “right line”. While ostensibly promoting the Telangana movement, the national leadership had actually set itself against it, as the shift from the immediate objectives of the movement to anti-imperialism meant that it abandoned the mass basis of the movement, thus dooming it.
S. Mikesell is visiting professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.