What the rebels think today
The Battle for Bastar
Part I: Revolutionaries
In the early years of the 20th century, Gopal Krishna Gokhale remarked that "what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow". The claim soon turned hollow as, in quick succession, the capital of British India shifted to New Delhi; Mahatma Gandhi assumed control of the national movement; and Bombay supplanted Calcutta as the financial hub of modern India. In later decades, Bengal and Bengalis collected a long series of laments as, in political and economic terms, they fell further behind other parts of the country.
In the first years of the 21st century, however, Gokhale's prophecy seems to be coming true, not in whole, but in good measure. I have in mind the growing influence of armed Maoist revolutionaries. According to the latest report of the ministry of home affairs, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) is active in more than one hundred districts. At least fifty-five are reckoned to be 'seriously affected' by revolutionary violence. In the considered view of the prime minister, this constitutes the gravest internal security threat to the nation, surpassing in its gravity the insurgencies in the North-east and in Kashmir.
The Maoist movement gathered force after the merger, in 2004, of the Andhra-based Peoples War Group and the Bihar-based Maoist Coordination Committee. The name that this united force bestowed upon itself - the Communist Party of India (Maoist) - was at once grand and clever. Clever, because the abbreviated form mimicked that of the most important left party in India. We are the real inheritors of the legacy of revolutionary Marxism, the new party was saying, whereas the fellows in Kerala and West Bengal are merely a bunch of bourgeois reformists. Grand, because by calling itself a party rather than a mere 'group' or 'committee', it could escape the stigma associated with that dreaded word: 'Naxalites'.
Which is where Bengal comes in. For it was in the village of Naxalbari, in deepest north Bengal, not far from India’s borders with Nepal, China and (what was then) East Pakistan, that the movement first began in the form of a popular peasant uprising against the state government. Its leadership was assumed by the renegade cadre of the original CPI(M), who disapproved of their party's first attempt - this was 1967 - to try and change the system by working within and according to the Constitution of India. A three-cornered battle ensued, between the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Naxalites, and the state. There was much loss of life, and it took the better part of a decade before peace returned to West Bengal.
That story is well known to readers of this newspaper. What is less well understood, perhaps, is the subsequent spread of the Naxalite movement to other parts of India. An early emulator was Andhra Pradesh, where leading figures likewise left the CPI(M) to work among poor peasants and tribal communities. In time, they were to form the PWG, which has maintained a persistent presence in the upland districts of the state. Meanwhile, armed conflict broke out between upper and lower castes in Bihar, the former represented by private armies, the latter by the cadre of the MCC.
Moving northwards from Andhra, and westwards from Bihar, the PWG and the MCC steadily expanded their influence across the heartland of India. They found most support among the tribals, a group alternately condescended to and treated with contempt by politicians and administrators. Worse off than even the Dalits, and without effective leadership of their own, many adivasis saw in the Naxalites an agency somewhat more welcoming (or at any rate less oppressive) than the state.
In the last week of May, this writer travelled with a group of colleagues through the district of Dantewada, of whose 11 taluks the Maoists control as many as five. Dantewada used to be part of the princely state of Bastar, the name by which the region is still generally known. Its hilly and wooded terrain is now home to a brutal civil war played out away from the national gaze and mostly unreported by the national press. It is, however, a conflict of the gravest importance to the future of India. For it is in this region that the Maoists have dug their deepest roots. Parts of Bastar are under their complete sway, safe havens from where they can make deadly forays into areas controlled by the Chhattisgarh administration.
Bastar forms part of a contiguous forest belt that spills over from Chhattisgarh into Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. This was the mythical region of 'Dandakaranya', a name the Maoists have integrated into their lexicon. They have a special zonal committee for Dandakaranya, under which operate several divisional committees. These, in turn, have range committees reporting to them. The lowest level of organization is at the village, where committees are formed known as sangams.
We got a sharp insight into the Maoist mind in an extended interview with one of their senior leaders. He met our team, by arrangement, in a small wayside dhaba along the road that runs from the state capital, Raipur, to Jagdalpur, once the seat of the Maharaja of Bastar. There he told us of his party's strategies for Dantewada, and for the country as a whole.
Working under the pseudonym of 'Sanjeev', this revolutionary was slim and clean-shaven, and soberly dressed, in dark trousers and a bush-shirt of neutral colours. Now thirty-five, he has been in the movement for two decades, dropping out of college in Hyderabad to join it. (The profile was typical - the leading Maoists in Chhattisgarh are all Telugu speakers from Andhra.) He now works in Abujmarh, an area so isolated that it remains unsurveyed (apparently the only part of India which holds this distinction), and where no official dare venture for fear of being killed.
Speaking in quiet, controlled tones, Sanjeev soon showed himself to be both deeply committed as well as highly sophisticated. Their sangams, he said, worked to protect people's rights in jal, jangal zameen - water, forest and land. At the same time, they made targeted attacks on state officials, especially the police. Raids on police stations were intended to stop them from harassing ordinary folk. They were also necessary to augment the weaponry of the guerrilla army. Through popular mobilization and the intimidation of state officials, the Maoists hoped to expand their authority over Dandakaranya. Once the region was made a 'liberated zone', it would be used as a launching pad for the capture of state power in India as a whole.
Sanjeev's belief in the efficacy of armed struggle was complete. When asked about two land mine blasts which had killed many innocent people - in one case members of a marriage party - he said that these had been mistakes, with the guerrillas believing that the police had hired private vehicles to escape detention. The Maoists, he said, would issue an apology and compensate the victims’ families. However, on other (and scarcely less brutal) killings, he said these were 'deliberate incidents'; that is, intended as such.
We spoke to Sanjeev for close to two hours. All the while his eyes continually scanned the entrance to the tea-shop, taking in those who came in and went out. It was dark by the time we recommenced our journey to Jagdalpur, to proceed from there to Dantewada, and study by what means this threat to the Republic of India was being met. The agenda and actions of the Maoists have been presented in this article; the next article will analyse the major challenges to them.
This is the first part of a four-part article.