After an experiment with a ceasefire and abrogated talks, the ban on the Communist Party of India-Maoists was re-imposed by the government of Andhra Pradesh on 17 August. This followed the killing two days earlier of provincial lawmaker C Narsi Reddy, a septuagenarian leader of the ruling Congress party, and eight others in Narayanpet in Mehboobnagar district. The attackers arrived on motorcycles and showered bullets at a public function, killing also the town’s municipal commissioner and the Reddy’s son, among others. The ban was said to have had the concurrence of the central government, even though its spokesman in Delhi described the matter of law and order as a ‘state subject’ under the Indian Constitution. Some might have welcomed this reference to the Constitution, however opportunistically it might have been used. But the fact is that the Centre has been closely coordinating anti-Naxalite operations throughout the country, and Union Home Minister Shivraj Patti had assured all support to related measures taken by the Andhra Chief Minister YS Rajashekhar Reddy.
The Hyderabad government’s ban order under the AP Public Security Act of 1992 listed seven mass organisations of workers, peasants, youth, students and writers associated with the Maoist party. They include the Radical Youth League (RYL), the Radical Students Union (RSU), the All India Revolutionary Students Federation (AIRSF), the Rythu Coolie Sangham (agricultural workers’ organisation), the Singareni Karmika Sangham (a powerful trade union in the collieries), the Viplava Karmika Sangham (another trade union), and the Revolutionary Writers Association popularly known by its Telugu acronym Virasam. More than the ban on the parent party, it is the outlawing of the mass programmes of these affiliate organisations which will have serious repercussions on the ground. These groups have widespread membership, with regular programmes and publications.
The poet P Vara Vara Rao and writer G Kalyan Rao, leaders of Virasam who together with legendary poet-singer Gaddar were the Maoist party emissaries to the peace negotiations, were arrested. They had quit their charge in April 2005, expressing futility of the role in view of the growing repression by the state. Meanwhile, interestingly, the women’s organisation affiliated to the rebels was not banned. Similarly, the Jana Natya Mandali people’s theatre group led by Gaddar was not included in the list, though the expectation is it might be entered subsequently.
New phase of confrontation
The ban per se would not have been all that significant because the CPI-Maoist, like its former avatars, the People’s War group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), was already functioning as an underground party. The leaders of CPI-Maoists and the CPI-ML Janashakthi who had come to Hyderabad for the peace talks in October 2004 had emerged from the forests and returned there after ten days of open presence, including four days of peace talks. The 15 August killing was exceptional, but not altogether unprecedented. Every time the police killed some important Maoist leader, the rebels have declared their intention to take revenge.
However, the current ban represents the start of a new phase in the confrontation between the Naxalite movement and the Indian state. The outlawing came after the chances of resumption of peace talks had effectively disappeared, and the police had intensified its operations to kill Maoist leaders and cadre, and to capture or harass sympathisers. The Maoists, too, had resumed retaliatory action of kidnappings and killings. Above all, the approaches by the mediators in the Committee of Concerned Citizens (CCC) received little response in recent months. The civil society in Andhra Pradesh had pinned great hope on the CCC’s initiative to organise a second round of talks so as to reverse the intensifying climate of violence.
The re-imposition of the ban indicated the determination of the Hyderabad government to withstand civil society pressures and to resume its armed operations to suppress the Naxalite movement. This decision condemned by most of the political parties including the allies of the Congress, the TRS (Telengana Rajya Samithi ), Mazlis, the CPI and the CPI-M. Only the Telugu Desham Party and the BJP supported it, maintaining that it had been mistaken on the part of the Congress government to have let the ban lapse in July 2004 in the first place.
The new phase in the confrontation was also indicated by the Union Home Ministry’s initiative to coordinate the anti-Naxalite operations. A 30 July 2005 meeting of the chief ministers and the directors generals of police from the nine Naxalite-impacted states agreed to set up a task force to launch joint operations. A policy of “zero tolerance” towards the Maoists was announced. The Tamil Nadu government had already banned the Maoist Party on 12 July, and the Karnataka government had also earlier launched joint operations with the Andhra police. That action had led to the killing of many PWG leaders as well as Saketh Ranjan, editor of the RSU’s journal.
Paradoxically, the resumption of the ban reflected an admission of failure by the Indian state to tackle the challenge of the Naxalite movement over the past 38 years. The capacity of the movement to survive and to spread having been made clear, the hope was that the authorities may at long last look to address the root causes of the rebellion. There had also been the hope that the new Congress-led government at the Centre and the new Congress government in Andhra, which came to power after people rejected Chandra Babu Naidu’s repressive regime, would adopt a political approach to the Maoists rather than treat them merely as perpetrators of terrorist violence. But apparently nothing had changed, and here was the government, once again resorting to prohibition, combing operations in villages and forests, and encounter killings.
Nature of challenge
The Common Minimum Programme (CMP) which the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) adopted in May 2004 when it came to power at the Centre supported by the left parties had an important perspective statement on the Naxalite challenge. The relevant paragraph was listed under the section on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, thus emphasising that this movement was essentially connected with the problems of the socially oppressed sections. It said: “The UPA is concerned with the growth of extremist violence and other forms of terrorist activity in different states. This is not merely a law and order problem, but a deeper socio-economic issue which will be addressed more meaningfully than has been the case so far. Fake encounters will not be permitted.”
This statement had raised hopes for a new approach to be taken by the UPA, especially in comparison to the earlier BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government with L K Advani as Home Minister, and Chandra Babu Naidu as chief minister in Andhra. Indeed, the reference in the CMP to the deeper socio-economic issues was on target, for the Maoist movement revolves around the issues of agrarian transformation, especially the problems of the landless and the small peasants.
It was the peasant resistance to landlords in Naxalbari in West Bengal in May 1967 under the land-to-the-tiller slogan that provided a name to the Maoist phenomenon in Indian politics — Naxalism. The movement underwent much churning in the succeeding decades, organisationally and politically, but the focus on agrarian revolution has remained at the core. The very fact that land reform as a state objective has disappeared from Indian policy-making in the age of economic liberalisation has kept the Naxalite agenda alive. The state’s anti-poverty programmes such as the NDA’s Food-for-Work or the UPA’s recently established Employment Guarantee Programme hardly meet the basic demand for land rights in rural India. The rise of backward castes to power in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, even though it may have democratised certain aspects of the polity, has had the paradoxical effect of freezing land relations.
The Naxalite movement is mostly active in the tribal areas spreading from Bihar to Andhra Pradesh and Maharastra, and also covering parts of Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. This spread is linked only to the inaccessible hilly terrain of these regions, but a conscious decision by the Naxalites to take up the issues affecting the tribal people, who are among the most exploited in society. India’s development process has led to commercialisation of forest resources, reducing the traditional access to forest produce. Alienation of tribal land to non-tribals has been a steady trend despite legal strictures. Mining-based industries and the construction of large dams have caused extensive displacement of the tribals, besides destroying their natural environment. A central Naxalite agenda is for tribal self-determination, asserting the rights of the tribals over local resources.
The government programmes of tribal development have ended up creating a new elite in the tribal areas even as increased poverty leads to massive out-migration. The recent bill for safeguarding land rights, introduced by the UPA, has been a case of too little, too late. The extension of the Panchayati Raj programme to tribal areas, giving greater power to the tribal village assembly is a modest measure in the right direction, but unless structural measures are undertaken to restore rights over land and forest, the Panchayati Raj structures will continue to be manipulated by local elites.
The Andhra government’s decision to have a special tribal battalion of some 1,200 men, a ‘Girijan Greyhound” to fight the naxalites is indicative of the approach guiding the present policy.
During the 1980s, the Naxalites linked themselves with the nationality struggles in the Indian Northeast, Jammu and Kashmir, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. This strategic decision had a significant impact on both, the agrarian movement as well as the autonomy movements. Each was a complex struggle involving class and nationality, as well as caste and gender. The decision therefore involved making choices on supporting autonomy movements led by the bourgeoisie, such as in case of Telugu Desham in [Karnataka], the Asom Gana Parishad in Assam, the Akali Dal in Punjab and the DMK in Tamil Nadu.
The formation of the smaller states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttaranchal was a welcome step in terms of providing people with more say in their affairs, but the new states were created keeping the overall power structure intact. As a result, the nationality struggles in these areas continue as integral parts of the agrarian and the broader democratic struggle. Interestingly, the government understood this linking of the Naxalites with other movements only in terms of a network among militants for training, supply of weapons and coordination against state operations.
During the 1990s, Indian politics and economy saw major upheavals linked to globalisation on the one hand, and communal politics on the other. The Gujarat riots of 2002 were symbolic of the magnitude of the latter trend. The processes of privatisation of public enterprises and retrenchment of workers have continued unabated in the recent years. While the ruling parties, the BJP and the Congress, were fully committed to the agenda of globalisation, the CPI and CPI-M tried to keep the critique alive on behalf of workers, the lower middle classes and the rural poor who suffered tremendously and largely silently under the process of economic reforms. But the main resistance to globalisation was put forth by the Naxalites, which has considered the stress on anti-imperialism paramount at a time of growing collaboration between the government of India and the US government.
Overall, therefore, the Naxalite challenge rests upon the issues of agrarian transformation, tribal people’s rights, the nationality movement and resisting imperialism and globalisation. All this adds up to what they characterise as the people’s democratic revolution to change the very character of the Indian state. Because of the issues they pursue, the Naxalites have a social base which sustains them despite a variety of repressive measures pursued by the state. In fact, over the past decade the movement has spread to new areas such as southern districts of Orissa and West Bengal as well as parts of Uttar Padesh and Rajasthan.
If the Naxalite movement is seen as a coming together of many streams, then they can be said to have a presence in all parts of the country. Of them the two major streams are the CPI-ML (Liberation) which participates in electoral politics and the CPI-Maoist which pursues armed struggle. The former has a strong base in Bihar and it has had seven to ten Members in the Legislative Assembly. It has an all-India organisation with state units and an active trade union and a women’s organisation. Its powerful student wing, AISA has often won the leadership at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
The CPI-Maoist, which emerged with the merger of the PWG and MCC in October 2004, had earlier taken into its fold the Party Unity of Bihar region. Liberation condemns the PWG as left adventurists pursuing squad actions which invite further state repression. The Maoists dismiss the followers of the Liberation line as revisionists taking the same path as the CPI-M, which has held on to power in West Bengal since 1977. These two formations are so mutually antagonistic that they rarely come together to fight any issue. Between them are placed a number of other Naxalite groups such as Janashakti which has worked together with the Maoist party in the peace talks in Andhra, the CPI-ML (New Democracy) which has been active in Jharkhand and Assam and lately in Punjab and Orissa on tribal and workers’ issues, and the CPI-ML (Provisional Committee) which is ostensibly trying to bring the various groups together.
The pre-organisational character of the Naxalite movement that was evident in the 1970s, the subject of this writer’s work Revolutionary Violence (1977), remains to some extent. For this reason, the movement as a whole remains mainly as an ideological force in Indian politics, whose appeal remains rooted in the concrete condition of the people. Meanwhile, the two main formations have emerged as organised parties, whose leaders are subjected to attack by state agencies and they suffer substantial losses. Overall, the question remains as to why the spiral of violence and counter-violence by the Naxalites and the state agencies never seem to end in the heartland of India.
Violence and peace in democracy
The oft-repeated plea that there is no place for violence in a democracy indicates a desirable norm for seeking peaceful constitutional response to fulfil a people’s aspirations. But when the coercive power of the state is used to defend the interest of the rich and the powerful or to eliminate resistance to injustice, the same can sound like a hollow claim. Social violence has grown in India with landlords’ armies in Bihar, factional murders in Andhra’s Rayalseema, and upper caste atrocities on dalits all over – to mention but a few examples.
Democracy is indeed meant for bringing about peaceful change through people’s representatives. But the fact is that existing power centres in society do not allow that to easily happen. Groups fighting for democratic rights have been pointing this out for over three decades now. The state response to the Naxalite movement was to capture and kill activists them by staging ‘false encounters’. Human rights groups which go under the acronyms APCLC, PUDR and PUCL, have investigated many such incidents in Andhra, Bihar and elsewhere. They have demanded that rule of law be applied to all such cases, and all persons suspected should be tried according to law rather than be eliminated. When the state itself violates the constitutional obligations with impunity, then the violation of law and civic norms becomes widespread.
When the talks between the Maoists and the Hyderabad government took place in October 2004 following a three-year initiative and protracted negotiations by the CCC (led by S R Sankaran, a respected former civil servant who had himself been kidnapped by the PWG some years ago), two things were clear. One was the acknowledgement by the state that the Naxalite movement was not just a law and order problem, but had socio-economic roots that could be discussed on the road to reducing violence. Second, it was brought home to the Maoists to recognise that the realm of the present Indian state did provide some space for socio-economic change despite its class character, and that if the space indeed opened up, the need for resort to armed struggle may be reviewed.
It was on the basis of this understanding that there was a ceasefire in Andhra for more than six months, when the common people were spared the dual pressures of violence from the Naxalites as well as the police. The historic talks that took place between the rebels and the government proved that dialogue was an essential element of democracy through which each side was called upon to recognise underlying truths. In these peace talks Indian democratic opinion saw prospects of mutual appreciation of each other’s positions in the spirit of “truth and reconciliation”. As in case of the Naga peace talks, or those between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, in this case too the hope was to proceed with the dialogue with the hope of suspending armed action by the two sides. But there were elements among the political circles and the police, both locally and nationally, which considered the policy too ‘soft’, which would only strengthen the Naxalites. In other words, the UPA government’s statement as contained in the Common Minimum Programme was not the only perspective guiding state policy.
During the peace talks and press conferences, the Maoists were confronted with many issues raised by democratic rights groups in the recent years. Could the Maoists be said to be respecting the norms of revolutionary violence when the common people were subjected to killings and torture by them, or when public property was destroyed? How did they explain individual annihilations by their squads, and did this reflect the Maoist norm of ‘mass line’?
On the issue of armed struggle, the Naxalite movement remains sharply divided. The CPI-Maoists have a People’s Guerilla Liberation Army mostly armed with weapons seized from the police, some of which are sophisticated weaponry such as the AK-47 rifles. Their small formations confront the police and paramilitary forces such as the Central Reserve Police Force and Indo-Tibetan Border force, taking advantage support of the villagers as well as the jungle terrain. How effective their armed resistance can be against the armed strength of the Indian state remains the major question.
Did the Maoists also reflect upper caste attitude and behaviour in their political practice? How far are they concerned with the rights of dalits and other backward classes? In the 1990s, after the upper castes opposed reservation for backward classes, the Maoists spearheaded the campaign for dalit and ‘other backward caste’ rights in many parts of India. But the caste issue is still not fully integrated with the class understanding of politics. Similarly, feminists have pointed out the prevalence of patriarchal values and behaviour in the Maoist parties. Moreover, the rebel women’s organisations have not been on the forefront of the variety of women’s struggles in contemporary India. One can legitimately raise the question whether the Naxalites have dialectically integrated class, caste and gender any better than the rest of the Indian communists, whose record on this matter remains poor.
Human rights activists have also challenged the Maoists, asking whether they practice democracy and civil liberties within their movement, which should after all be the embryo of their ‘ideal society’. Factionalism and splits have famously characterised the Naxalite movement, which is why there are over two dozen groups in existence at any given time. And so the natural question, are the comrades guilty of sectarian politics when they should be developing a united front? There was a time the intolerance of divergent opinion within the party was so stark that it led to killings – a tendency that seems to have subsided in recent years. The communist groups seem to resort all too easily to the mechanical understanding of revisionism and dogmatism. The revolutionary tradition of inner-party democracy ¬the minority accepting the decision of the majority while the majority respects the point of view of the minority – seems a fragile heritage.
The common people whose cause the Naxalites claim to represent confront day-to-day livelihood issues – of making a living out of agriculture and forestry, of finding water for their fields, access to affordable credit, market for their produce, and ways and means to access education and health. Such ground-level issues do not seem to figure prominently in the Maoists’ formulation of political strategy. Many of these activities which concretely help the poor are dismissed with terms such as ‘reformism’, ‘welfare work’ or even ‘ngo action’. The idea that cultural and educational work form an integral part of revolutionary strategy, together with political and military tasks, seems to have been relegated to the background. In the recent years, the Naxalite leadership has indeed tried to respond to these issues, but not entirely satisfactorily.
The issue of revolutionary creativity – the ability to assess the emerging national, local and global environment and adjusting to the evolving while pursuing one’s ideological goals – thus remains a challenge for the Naxalite movement in India. It is important not only to learn from the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions, but also from the experience of the Philippines, Nicaragua, Peru, Venezuela and Nepal.
Meanwhile, the Naxalite movement continues to spread despite suffering losses in terms of fighters as well as – from time to time – operational areas. The do represent a powerful challenge to the existing political economy in its phase of capitalist globalisation. To cope with this challenge the democratic forces of India must pressure all states authorities which are confronting Naxalites to return to political dialogue, and to stop treating the rebellion as a law and order problem. In Andhra Pradesh, the ground created by the peace talks of 2004 has now collapsed, and the state government and Centre both now demand that the Maoists lay down arms before resuming talks.
Indeed, the policy makers, be it in Delhi or Hyderabad, are now guided by a unified understanding of global terrorism. They are excitedly formulating a strategy of counter-terrorism US software, Israeli hardware and some Indian brands added. This strategy cannot see the difference between the CPI-Maoist operating in Andhra and Bihar, from the CPN-Maoist currently fighting the autocratic monarchy in Nepal. No doubt, they are revolutionary communists in solidarity with one another, but they are fighting different battles in their own countries. After all, these are Maoists who believed the great helmsman when he said that the people of each country must formulate their own strategy derived from their unique local conditions. Leaders of the Indian state must try and comprehend the nature of the Maoist challenge and address the socio-economic issues at its heart, so that another spiral of intensified violence in India can be avoided and prospects of peace and democracy enhanced.