“Mao and Chou En-lai were great leaders. Your Nehru was not.”
The year was 1966. The Cultural Revolution was at its peak, and both the Naxalbari upris-ing as well as the great offensive by the Burmese Communist Party were still a year away, when Thuingaleng Muivah and Thinoselie Medom Keyho of the Naga National Council (NNC) led 300 Naga rebel fighters to China for weapons and training. While the rebel rank and file learnt the rudiments of guerrilla warfare, the Chinese put Muivah and Thinoselie through an intensive course in “Ideology” and “People´s Warfare” at the College of Diplomacy, Beijing, where dozens of foreign revolutionary leaders underwent ideological orientation at that time.
The instructors at the elite college soon enough recognised which of the two Naga rebel chieftains was more receptive to “Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse Tung Thought”. More than 20 years later at Oxford, Li Feiyu, a teacher at the College of Diplomacy recalled, “Thinoselie was a soldier. His interest in politics was very limited, while Muivah was very bright.”
Within a year, Thinoselie returned to fight the Indian army in the Naga Hills, where a separatist campaign has raged for more than 40 years now. But Muivah stayed on until he had thoroughly imbibed “Mao Tse Tung Thought”. He now leads the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, or NSCN, the strongest of the Naga rebel factions, while Thinoselie has remained with the nearly-defunct NNC. Speaking to this writer at his rebel base last year, Muivah said, “Mao and Chou En-lai were great leaders. Your Nehru was not. One must follow their revolutionary example.”
Muivah remains convinced that “China is the only hope for revolutionaries”, although he is somewhat defensive while talking about the withdrawal of Chinese support to revolutionary movements across Asia and the growing ties between Beijing and even military dictatorships such as the one in Burma. “This may be a temporary phase,” he explains.
Whether Muivah is right or wrong, the fact remains that a whole generation of leaders of Northeast India´s ethnic separatist movements still live in the shadow of China, even though today it is a Big Power rather than the epicentre of revolution. Says Paresh Barua, commander-in-chief of the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), “Mao´s texts are basic readings for any revolutionary.”
Unlike Muivah, Barua has never been to China.
It is a reflection of China´s geopolitical interests that its involvement with Indian revolutionary groups has been limited to the Northeast. Beijing has never been too keen on supporting Indian communist groups like the CPI (M-L), despite their avowedly pro-Maoist outlook. Even in the case of the “Spring Thunder of Naxalbari” the Chinese only expressed moral and political support for the movement. On the other hand, between 1966 and 1976, they trained and armed at least nine batches of Naga, Mizo and Manipuri rebels, about 1200 men in all. The Nagas and the Mizos were trained in large groups of 200 to 300 guerrillas, the Manipuris in small batches of around 20 each.
Says one Indian intelligence official who brought about the surrender of a whole group of China-returned Mizo fighters: “The Chinese realised before long that most of the Naga and Mizo rebels they trained were not interested in ideology. They found out that training a Muivah was not enough. So they started creating nuclei of pro-Maoist movements and the 17 Meitei Ojhas was the first experiment.”
Manipur´s rebel People´s Liberation Army (PLA) grew up around the core of this group of Meitei (valley-dwelling Hindu Manipuris) Ojhas (´pioneers´ in Manipuri). Beijing provided them with guerilla warfare training but did not provide arms, saying that Mao Thought was the best weapon. The PLA proved adept at increasing their support base while resorting to weapon snatching for arming their cadres. Almost an entire guerrilla army was created with looted arms.
The leaders of the PLA continue to regard Mao as a cult figure of revolution. “The Chinese were dismayed with the Nagas and Mizos, as they were with the Kachins in Burma later. They wanted a more ideologically committed group, which they found in the Manipuri PLA leaders,” says R. Sanjouba, Manipur´s leading political analyst.
The PLA was, however, the last of the Northeast guerrilla groups to be trained by the Chinese in the 1970s, for as relations between New Delhi and Beijing began to improve, the latter discontinued support for the revolutionaries of the Northeast.
What most restricted the appeal of Maoism in the Northeast hills was the absence of a clear class cleavage in the region. Added to that was the influence of the Church on Naga and Mizo politics, and its opposition to Maoist ideals. As a result, Maoism never got to seep too deep into already powerful politics of ethnic separatism in Northeast India. The Naxalites from further west did not find much of a base here, and their influence was limited to pockets such as in the Karbi Anglong hills of Assam where they penetrated the local autonomy movement.
Most leaders of these separatist or autonomy movements were happy simply to use the Maoist tactics of guerrilla warfare while generally ignoring its political ideology. The Mizo National Front pointedly refused to use Maoist rhetoric even though hundreds of its guerrillas were trained in China.
Asked why the NSCN or other rebel groups did not organise along Marxist-Leninist lines, Muivah says, “Ours is primarily a struggle on the nationality question. We are not Indians but have been forced to become one, and our main contradiction lies with Delhi, not amongst ourselves. Marxism-Leninism and Mao Thought should be carefully applied, with local conditions in mind.”
Maoism is no longer even what it used to be in the Northeast. Said Bisheswar Singh, the founder of the Manipur PLA, just before his death, “China was a great inspiration to us, and Mao still is. But there is a limit to his appeal now.”