Economic and Political Weekly July 22, 2006
On Armed Resistance
The Naxalite rebellion has been a significant political movement
of our times. However, the growing displacement of open mass
activity by militaristic action in recent years has been a loss for
the movement. This article draws attention to some troubling
aspects of revolutionary violence – practical organisational
problems, serious ethical issues, a tendency to accord precedence
to the interests of the party over those of the people, and the
inherent failure of putting the movement’s social vision into
practice in the immediate.
By BELA BHATIA
"Saathiyon ke khoon se rangi rah par karna hoga aana jana…
(on the path coloured with the blood of our
comrades, we will have to come and go)".
These lines of a song sung by the Naxalites in Bihar are laced with a
certain sadness, as well as resignation to the inevitability
of violence and bloodshed on their chosen
path of 'viplav' or 'kranti' - as revolution
is known in some Indian languages.
The communist revolutionaries, who gave birth to the Naxalite
movement following the Naxalbari uprising in 1967, have since
traversed a long-distance. Some of them had remained outside the fold
of the original Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)
when it was formed on May 1, 1969. Those
who were inside the party then, later split for diverse reasons;
splits and mergers followed.
Today it is difficult to say how many CPI(ML) parties there are exactly.
These parties, along with those who had remained outside the original
CPI(ML), together form the Naxalite movement.
Revolution remains their common aim; however, there are differences
on questions of strategies and tactics. Thus, while
all acknowledge the need for armed resistance
at some stage, their present emphasis
on it varies.
While the CPI(Maoist) leads a largely underground existence, others
like CPI(ML) New Democracy are only partly underground, and still
others like CPI(ML) Liberation function openly.
The case for armed struggle has to be assessed not only on
theoretical grounds (e g, the necessity of violence for the
purpose of capturing state power), but also in the light of practical
experience. Since the Naxalite movement claims to be a
people's movement, it has to be accountable
to the people, and thus, open to public
It is with this motivation that I draw attention below to some of the
troubling aspects of revolutionary violence, based on my experience
while studying the Naxalite movement in Bihar, and to a lesser
extent Andhra Pradesh.
Foremost amongst the practical fallouts of resorting to violence as a
means of struggle is the organisational impact. An
organisation resorting to armed means has to adopt a certain kind of
organisational structure as well as processes. Such an
organisation can naturally not be as democratic
as it may otherwise want to be.
Instead, it needs a hierarchical and authoritarian structure on military
lines. Of necessity, it has to be a secret organisation
and guard this secrecy at all cost (including
developing "intelligence" within the organisation, punishing any
breach of discipline, etc). The political culture of such
an organisation is also oddly schizoid: camaraderie of an exceptional
type on the one hand, and deep suspicion (sometimes
leading to virulent action) on the other.
Underground existence also raises a range of problems. It means secret
hideouts, hide and seek with the police and intelligence
agencies, courier services, etc. Those who
are "sheltering" in the cities, towns or villages can live at best
uncertain lives. Life is all the more difficult for squad
members (called 'dalam' in Andhra Pradesh
and 'dasta' in Bihar).
Whether in the plains of Bihar or the forests of Andhra Pradesh,
in the face of ever-present danger they have to be on the move all the
time, and are often forced to lead a nocturnal existence. Squad
members face the threat not only of the
police and "class enemies" but also of
possible informers in their own fold. Their daily life has its share of
deprivations. They are almost totally dependent on the
people for their survival. And since most
of their supporters are poor, their food and
shelter tend to be very basic.1
Further, a political organisation which utilises arms has to acquire
the ability to procure, maintain and use these arms
purposefully and without compromising its principles.
Since the movement's inception, the Naxalites have believed in
procuring their arms by raiding police
pickets and armouries.
A lot of energy and human lives have been lost in such actions,
sometimes with little result. In Bihar, I have personally known some
very fine young persons who lost their lives in such
raids. As the Naxalite organisations have
grown and state repression has intensified, aspiration for advanced
types of armaments has increased (even though they cannot
keep pace with the arsenal of the Indian
state). Advanced technology means more
money, high-level training, and dynamics
of a different kind.
For this again, compromises on principled politics are hard
to avoid. Since open funding for this purpose is not possible, the party has to
rely on other means such as "levies" on
private contractors and development funds. Often, "extortion" of
big money is also involved. A considerable proportion
of the material and human resources of
Naxalite organisations are used up in this process.2
Sometimes the use of violence helps to achieve a short-term gain,
but intensifies violence from the other side, triggering a
spiral of violence. Once this escalation process is in motion, it can
be very difficult to contain, and often goes out of control.
Retaliatory violence acquires a dynamics of its own, often out of
proportion with the issues at stake. In this respect, class war
has similar characteristics to other armed conflicts.
There are many historical examples of violence going massively out of
control through gradual escalation.
Even the first world war, which started with a single assassination
(in Sarajevo), is sometimes interpreted in those terms. In the
context of a revolutionary movement, the tit for tat process
sometimes takes over and retaliatory violence becomes the main focus
of the movement, displacing all other activities.
In the worst cases, revolutionary politics gives way to petty revenge.
Aside from practical problems, the use of violence also raises
serious ethical issues. Even if violence is considered
justified in some circumstances, it is not possible to confine
armed struggle to these particular circumstances. For instance, even
if the killing of some "class enemies" can
be defended, armed struggle cannot be
confined to particular "targets", and is bound to engulf other
people as well. Even the assassination of a particular class enemy
can easily lead to the death of innocent victims who are caught in
the crossfire or just killed by mistake.
Besides individual killings "by mistake", there are instances
where a larger number of innocent people have been killed in a
Naxalite action (e g, the Kakatiya Express incident in Andhra
Pradesh and the recent explosion of a truck
As mentioned above, armed conflicts also have a tendency to
escalate well beyond their intended boundaries.
Further, even if a revolutionary organisation is determined to avoid
killing innocents and make restrained use of violence, there is no
guarantee that the other side will do the same. Massacres of
the labouring poor (including women and
children) by caste senas in rural Bihar
illustrate the problem.
A related problem is that there is little respect for due process.
Even in the bourgeois social order, nobody is supposed to
be deprived of his or her life without the facts of the case being
considered in a court of law based on impartial norms. By
contrast, revolutionary movements, which
aim to uphold progressive values, sometimes
end up perpetrating killings and punishments where the same
persons (possibly low level cadres) are the petitioners,
witnesses, jury and executioners.
The killing of suspected police informers is a telling example of this
problem. When someone is suspected of being an
informer, the safety of the movement may demand that he or she
be killed, even if the suspicion is unconfirmed. If it is considered
appropriate to kill someone when
the chance of his or her being an informer is, say, 50 per cent,
this implies (by the "law of large numbers") that when many
suspected informers are killed, about half
of them are actually innocent.
In some cases, the killing of innocents is extremely disturbing
from an ethical point of view. Consider, for instance, the
case of a mid-day meal cook in Karimnagar who was beaten to death
because she was suspected of being a police informer.3
Suppose that she was actually innocent. What possible ethical justification
can there be for beating a poor innocent mid-day
meal cook to death? In this instance, the family members were also
beaten up when they offered resistance. If the local people
knew her to be innocent, we can imagine
the impact that this incident might have on
them and on the local organisation.
Actions such as these might be easier to justify if there was a reliable
process, but the question is whether in politics of this
kind, which is largely underground, such
a process is possible?
If it is not, then we can only come to the conclusion that these
"mistakes" are an inevitable part of politics of this type. That a lot of
subjective judgment is involved cannot be denied. A young
woman in an Adilabad village explained
this to me further. She had "sheltered" me for two nights and I was
grateful for that. Giving that as an example, she talked about
how some closeness develops between the
'annas' (brothers; as the Naxalite cadres are known in Andhra
Pradesh) and those who may feed them. And soon the annas
may take any information provided by such persons as fact and act
upon it, while some hidden self-interests, old enmities,
etc, may well be involved.
It is disturbing that the Naxalite discourse seldom refers to the
ethical aspects of the use of violence. The premise seems to be
that "the end justifies the means". As the
secretary of People's War put it in a letter to the Committee of Concerned
Citizens, dated June 20, 1999: "The objectives and
aims of the struggle are much more important
than the forms and methods of the struggle. People will always have the
freedom to choose the form of struggle necessary for achieving the
The last statement can be read as a licence
for unaccountable violence. Sometimes the Naxalite discourse goes
further and glamorises violence as if it were a value
and a marker of revolutionary commitment.
Much is expected from a political movement that aims to be
transformative. Most importantly that it should be able to
put into practice its own social vision. An important value that the
Naxalites have tried to uphold in this respect is equality.
Thus, it is but natural that the movement should be tested on this count.
Unfortunately, the Naxalite movement (not unlike
some other autonomous movements in India) in its intra-party
dynamics has not always been able to ensure equality in all
respects to its "weaker" constituents: dalits and women.
These and other political issues call for further discussion,
insofar as they relate to the use of violence
in various ways.
The dalit critique of the Naxalite movement has been more vocal
in Andhra Pradesh than elsewhere. Due to the
movement's actions against big landlords and other feudal elements,
social oppression and untouchability have considerably
declined (in both Bihar and Andhra Pradesh). However, in recent
times questions have been raised by dalits from within
the party as well as observers of Naxalite
For instance, it has been pointed out that the hard and dangerous
work of handling guns is mainly done by dalits or
individuals from the lower castes and classes; therefore, those
who get killed are also mostly from these sections of society.
An additional charge is that while dalits and other disadvantaged
communities comprise the bulk of the Naxalite support
base, they are not adequately represented in the upper echelons of
the party leadership. Due to these and similar issues, the
Janashakti party in Andhra Pradesh underwent
a split in the second half of the 1990s.5
A similar criticism is also made regarding the position of women within the
movement. Even though women in the Naxalite movement have broken
their traditional boundaries, and their participation
has been significant (for example, the proportion of women in the
dalams in Andhra Pradesh is impressively high),
nevertheless, by and large, they have remained
Like the dalits, women are almost negligible in leadership positions.
The Naxalite movement has not been able to vanquish patriarchy,
which permeates the functioning and ethos of the
movement. The violent nature of the movement has contributed
to this, since patriarchy and violence have much in
common and tend to reinforce each other.
The Naxalite movement has also shown that armed resistance in
the context of a class war does not always question violence
that emanates from patriarchal norms. For example, in Andhra
Pradesh, the number of dowry deaths is incredibly high,
but this has not become an urgent issue for
action in the Naxalite movement.
Similarly, armed struggle has affected the Naxalite movement's
commitment to human rights. When we view the positive
contributions of the Naxalite movement, we could well describe it
as a movement for human rights. However, there are many
instances where the Naxalite movement
itself has abused human rights; almost all these instances are
to violence. These excesses have also had a serious impact on
the image of the movement, making it possible for the state
and the media to ignore the socio-economic
causes that have given rise to Naxalite politics, disregard the
essential humanism that motivates the Naxalite
endeavour, and dismiss it summarily as an
The spread of violence in Naxalite areas has also exacted a heavy
price in terms of development. Naxalite groups often oppose
various forms of development, such as the construction of roads,
which hamper their activities. Also, the overemphasis on violent
action and "war" with the police detract from other important issues
that the Naxalites could otherwise have taken up.
Naxalite areas are among the poorest in the country and there is
no dearth of essential demands to struggle for in these
areas - schools, electricity, water, health centres, etc. However,
these issues get eclipsed since most of the Naxalite groups
do not wish to engage with the present government except as an
enemy. Continuous conflict has also drastically reduced
the democratic space for other forms of struggle. For instance, in
Telangana villages, where direct state repression is
ruthless, anybody who dares to question
the government (even on basic issues such as water shortages or
a non-functional PDS) runs the risk of being labelled a Naxalite
In Bihar, too, democratic space for non-violent struggle has been
considerably reduced with the spread of armed conflict.
Another downside of armed power is that it has led to corruption
in the ranks. At the local level, having a gun can make
the person seem immensely powerful in his own eyes as well as
in the eyes of others. Often, the squad members are young
in age and this "power" can go to their
heads. There have been instances where individuals have misused
such power for private gain. Likewise, attraction for armed
power may lead unprincipled individuals
to join the movement.
Such corruption is often hard to prevent by the party leadership,
as it is not always able to control what happens at the local level.
Also, those who implement the party line at the local level
are not always "imbibed" in the Marxist- Leninist ideology.
Some of them have formed gangs after running away with
party arms, and turned against the party itself (e g, Jagnandan
Yadav group in Bihar).
Thus, the fact that someone becomes a "Naxalite" is no
guarantee of principled behaviour on his or her part. In order for
the Naxalites to be truly Naxalite it is very
important that they be subject to critical public scrutiny,
especially by human rights defenders.
Last but not least, the use of violence affects the political culture
of the movement. For instance, intolerance amongst
the Naxalites towards those who hold a different political view has
made itself felt time and again. This can be observed not
only vis-a-vis political opponents from
mainstream political parties, but also towards
other Naxalite parties.
There is no dearth of instances of killings of sarpanchs
and MLAs in the former category, or of
internecine conflicts within the Naxalitefold.6
Intolerance, of course, is also found in non-violent movements,
but it cannot find expression in a violent response.
Instead, differences have to be settled through reasoned argument,
or through means that may remain "non-violent"
but are nevertheless non-respecting of
the opponent (such as disregarding, defaming, etc). However, since
these are non-violent means (though may also be
problematic if seen as expressions of
dominance or undemocratic behaviour) they cause less harm and hurt.
In a violent movement, on the other hand, intolerance
and violence feed on each other. The shortcut of violence fans
intolerance and even contributes to the making of somewhat
arrogant individual personalities and, over time, also colours the
organisation as a whole.7
Intolerance in turn finds expression in violent actions
(such as the liquidation of political rivals) that have nothing
to do with revolutionary struggle.
Party and People
There are many problematic aspects in
the relationship of the underground party
with the people. Many instances make us feel that for the Naxalites
the party is more important than the people. Sometimes the
focus on the party is so pronounced that
"party" seems to encapsulate "people" in the minds of the Naxalite
leaders. Whenever there is a conflict, the interests of the
party tend to be placed over those of the people, even though this may
entail neglecting what the people think and want.
For instance, even as far as the use of arms is concerned, people
often defend their decision to take up arms by saying that
"the government does not listen to us otherwise".
However, the very same people also get tired of endless strife.
In fact, the leaders of the People's War (PW) in Andhra
Pradesh clearly admitted that "the people want peace" as a reason
for engaging in peace talks with the government in 2004.
However, after the peace talks broke down and the ceasefire came
to an end in January 2005, the CPI (Maoists) (formed by then
as a result of a merger between People's War and the Maoist
Communist Centre) had soon forgotten this - as was evident
in the spate of killings from both sides (roughly equal in number)
in the following months.8
In Andhra Pradesh, this constant strife (encounters and counter killings)
has led to a situation where the people feel that they are caught
between the state and the Naxalites.
It is ironic that a movement which promises
"liberation" can actually end up making people less free in some ways.
Joining the movement entails repercussions of diverse kinds: being a
"target" of the state and the social forces the movement
is struggling against; the danger of being implicated in legal cases
through false charges which are not small by any
means (e g, for murder), not being able to
lead even a semblance of a normal family
Joining Naxalite politics is basically inviting danger, death
and destruction on oneself and one's family,
sometimes even the community. In spite of these difficulties, it is a
fact that the Naxalites have been able to elicit the
support of the poor in the areas they
have operated in.
However, it can be argued that perhaps many more would have
joined or supported the movement if it was less taxing.
Besides, the dynamics of the movement are such that often it
becomes difficult to know whether the people are in it voluntarily
At times, the people find themselves trapped in circumstances
that make it difficult to leave the movement.
For once one is labelled as a Naxalite it is difficult to return to
normal existence or even a life relatively free from suspicion,
fear and death. Also, if they have
participated in a Naxalite action and get
charged, the poor become more dependent
on the party to fish them out, as they are
not able to deal with the police and the courts on their own.
Thus, they may remain in the party because they need the
If they do leave the party, they are constantly harassed by the state,
and made to prove their neutrality in various ways.
For example, the government may ask them to sign a register in
the local police station every week, give them election
duty on polling booths during election
time, make them run errands like rounding up the villagers when a
government official comes, etc. However, even if they
cooperate with the local officials, they
remain in the black book of the police and
are never above suspicion.
Often, such "surrendered" Naxalites are forced to join
some other political formation that is more
acceptable to the state, such as a mainstream
political party, so that they can discard their old identity and
find protection in a new one. Some end up doing what
the police ask them to do, involuntarily or
even voluntarily: they become police informers,
coverts, or members of a vigilante
Some of them are also harassed by the party, and this pushes
them further into the clutches of the police.
The problematic relation between the
party and the people also manifests itself
in similar problems between Naxalite
parties and their "open fronts". People who join these open
fronts do so on the basis of the manifestos of these fronts, which are
committed to basic rights as enshrined in
the Indian Constitution.
fronts are not as "autonomous" as they perhaps think to begin
with, for the link with the party is vital. This link has proved
positive at times, for example when the
party offers "protection" to mass fronts at
open mass meetings (in Bihar, labourers did not even have a right to
hold a meeting, as this was enough to affront the landlords),
or acts in other ways as a 'suraksha
dasta" (protection squad).
However, the link between party and open fronts also has
many problematic dimensions. For instance,
if a peasant front is engaged in a
struggle for ceiling surplus land, and the party decides to "annihilate"
the landlord, the state is likely to target the members of
the open front since they are the only
Thus, members of the mass front pay the price for actions taken by the
underground party, even if the party owns up to its actions
(e g, through leaflets) as it usually does. In that sense the
"vanguard" party lets the people bear the
brunt of its actions (which are undertaken
on behalf of the people, but without their
knowledge and consent).
The basis of struggle by a mass movement as the notion of "rights".
When arms are used, even though the use of arms aims to affirm
rights and may do so, it also generates other dynamics. For
example, it generates fear. The opponent
is forced to yield, not because he or she has acknowledged
the right and gives in to the collective power of the
people who are claiming it, but often out
Likewise, arms also give power. Yes, in some ways they do give power
to the people. However, this is an "external" power, which is there
only as long as arms are there. When they are not, the
individuals or the social group are in a
weaker and more vulnerable position than
before. Moreover, such a power is not democratic, e g, it is not
and cannot be decentralised. Control does not rest amongst
the people but in more specialised agencies.
Thus, arms make the people dependent on these external agencies
and do not prepare them to fight on the basis of their
Something that was once beautiful may not be beautiful
now – "...time and bad conditions do not favour beauty," reminds
The story of the Naxalite movement on the ground certainly has
had beautiful aspects and inspiring moments. However, the
use of violence has taken a heavy toll. The downside of
violence has been so wide-ranging that it
may well end up negating what the
Naxalites stand for.
The Naxalite movement has been a significant political movement
of our times. Individual Naxalites, including many
exceptionally fine human beings who have lost their lives at the
altar of revolution, have been an inspiring example of idealism,
sacrifice and commitment. Politically, the movement has
raised important questions regarding India's democracy and
underlined the need to bring about "a people's democracy".
There have also been significant practical achievements in specific
areas: curbing of feudal practices and social oppression;
confiscation and redistribution of ceiling surplus land; more
equitable access to village commons;
higher agricultural wages; elimination of
the stranglehold of landlords, moneylenders,
and contractors; protection from harassment by forest department
officials and the police; heightened political consciousness
and empowerment of the poor,
The question remains whether the same results could not have
been achieved through non-violent or at least less violent
In the Naxalite movement, the inevitability of violence tends to
be taken for granted on the grounds that there is no
other way of overthrowing the state. In practice, however, the
movement has, for the most part, not been involved in overthrowing
the state but in practical struggles
for land, wages, dignity, democratic rights and related goals that
can be pursued no less effectively through open mass movements.
In fact, it is worth noting that the success and popularity of the Naxalite
movement itself owes more to the achievements
of its open mass movements than
to armed action.
The growing displacement of open mass movements by militaristic
action in recent years has been a loss for the movement, not a gain.
The preceding argument should not be read as a condemnation of all violence.
I agree with Noam Chomsky that
"No person of understanding or humanity will too quickly condemn
violence that often occurs when long subdued masses rise
against their oppressors or take their first
steps towards liberty and social reconstruction."
However, it is one thing to acknowledge that the downtrodden may
resort to violence in situations of acute crisis or oppression. It is another to endorse
organised violence. Perhaps the time has come to revive the more humane
approach advocated by
Bhagat Singh: "Use of force justifiable when
resorted to as a matter of terrible necessity: non-violence
as a policy indispensable for all mass
[An earlier version of this paper was presented in
an internal discussion of People's Union for
Democratic Rights (PUDR). I am thankful for the
comments received and the critical questions raised.
I am grateful also to fellow travellers in Bihar and
Andhra Pradesh who have helped me in myriad
ways to understand the reality.]
1 The lives of guerrilla fighters have inspired
many writings; see, for example, Anderson
2 Revolutionary groups in other countries have
also used extortion and other illegal means of
getting funds with similar dilemmas. This also
emerged in a talk I had with a former party
leader of Peru's Sendero Luminoso (Shining
Path), who related how when in his teens he
first joined the party, the work during the day
mainly involved petty theft, e g, pick-pocketing,
stealing watches, looting banks, etc, in order
to garner funds for the party. (Interview, Leiden,
February 11, 2006.)
3 'Maoists Beat Woman to Death', NDTV report,
August 15, 2005.
4 Mahesh (1999).
5 This is not to overlook the fact that when these
very disadvantaged communities (for example,
the Musahars in Bihar), who had so far always
been at the receiving end of repressive violence,
were first given guns, it did make them feel
empowered in a certain way. However, this
initial empowerment was followed by the highs
and lows of violent struggle, and the dalit
critique has to be viewed in the light of this
6 In Andhra Pradesh, for example, after the
breakdown of the peace process in January
2005 nearly 40 sarpanchs had been killed by
the second week of March [Kannabiran 2005].
In Bihar, internecine killings have plagued the
movement since the mid-1980s. It is only in
the last couple of years that there has been some
7 The same attitude of intolerance contributes to
discouraging dissent and debate within the
8 Estimate provided by the Human Rights Forum,
9 See Ngugi 1964.
10 In this context, the concept of 'shantimaita'
is an important one. In contrast with
'ahimsa', which does not envisage or allow
any violence, shantimaita commits itself to
peacefulness and non-violence but does not
rule out the possibility of violence erupting in
situations of severe social and political
upheaval. This concept was introduced by
Jayaprakash Narayan and was practised by the
Chatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini in Bodhgaya
from 1978 onwards.
11 Chomsky 1970, p 40.
12 Singh 1930, p 15.
Anderson, J L (1992): Guerrillas: The Inside Stories
of the World's Revolutionaries, HarperCollins,
Chomsky, Noam (1970, 2005): Government in the
Future, Leftword, Delhi.
Kannabiran, K G (2005): 'Vempenta Killings and
Maoists', Deccan Herald, March 11.
Mahesh (1999): 'Which Way Is Your Journey',
letter to the Committee of Concerned
Citizens; reprinted in the Third Report of the
Committee of Concerned Citizens, Hyderabad,
Ngugi, Wa Thiong'o (1964): Weep Not, Child,
Singh, Bhagat (1930, 2003): Why I Am An Atheist,
Samkaleen Prakashan, Patna.