Economic and Political Weekly July 22, 2006
The Spring and Its Thunder
The presence and growth of the Maoist movement today is
essentially due to the dire socio-economic situation of people living
in the "affected" parts of the country. Like at the time of the
Naxalbari upsurge 39 years ago, even today it is a combination of
stark poverty, an indifferent or even exploitative state machinery
and oppressive feudal/business elites in different parts of the
country that has been at the heart of the Maoist insurgency.
The mainstream media is full of stories
and analysis about the so-called
"Naxal menace" - and the alleged attempt by Maoists to
create a contiguous liberated corridor cutting through
the tribal dominated belt from Andhra Pradesh to
Bihar through Chhattisgarh, Orissa and
Maoist activities have been reported in over 160 districts around
the country in many of which they are trying
to establish "liberation zones" where they dispense state functions
of administration, policing and justice. (Here the reference
to Maoists is exclusively to the CPI (Maoist) formed through merger
of the People's War Group and the Maoist Communist
Centre in 2004. There are other equally important streams of the
Naxalite movement, chief among which is the CPI(ML)
Liberation group with strongholds in Bihar and presence in many
parts of India.)
What is also worrying many in the Indian establishment is the
growing profile of the Maoists in neighbouring Nepal in recent
months and its implications for the movement's growth in India.
While the two Maoist movements have good relations
with each other, it is not clear to what extent they have any kind of
active collaboration on the ground.
The Naxal Terror Watch, a right wing blog site that suppo- sedly
monitors Naxalite activity in India claims (quite ridiculously of
course) that the "PWG's current goal is to destabilise India and
the subcontinent by a well coordinated strategy with
international revolutionaries, and support from
Pakistan and China".
The repeated use of the term "menace"
(as in "Dennis the Menace") by both the Indian government and media
shows that the Indian state does not want to project
the Maoist movement as too grave a threat as yet or at least does not
want to acknowledge this in public. Another and more
sinister implication of this term however is that Naxalism is to be
considered a nuisance or a problem at the same level
as malaria or encephalitis and the "infectious" Naxalites are to be
stamped out like mosquitoes!
(All the millions of tonnes of DDT used over the decades have not
eradicated malaria in the country, so maybe
there is a lesson in that somewhere.)
In a status paper on the "Naxal problem", placed in Parliament by
union home minister Shivraj Patil on March 13 this
year the UPA government spelt out a policy to combat the challenge
posed by the "Naxalite menace". The 14-point policy
stresses the urgency for the states to adopt a collective approach and
pursue a coordinated response to counter the
Naxalites. It emphasises that there will be no peace dialogue by the
affected states with the Naxal groups unless the latter
agree to give up violence and arms.
At the same time the paper acknowledged that the spread of Naxalism
was not merely a law and order problem. "The policy of the
government is to address this menace simultaneously on political,
security, development and public perception management
fronts in a holistic manner", it said.
Another component of the policy is that it asks political parties to
strengthen their base in Naxal-affected areas so that
the youth could be "weaned away" from the path of Naxal ideology.
More ominously the paper says "Efforts will continue to be
made to promote local resistance groups against Naxalites but in a
manner that the villagers are provided adequate security
cover and the area is effectively dominated
by the security forces".
The paper is however silent on the recent upsurge in violence between
the state-sponsored vigilante group Salwa Judum and the Maoists
in Chhattisgarh, which has been dubbed
by the media as a virtual "civil war".
At one level, as even its critics acknowledge, the presence and growth
of the Maoist movement today is essentially due to the
dire socio-economic situation of people
living in the "affected" parts of the country.
Like at the time of the original Naxalbari upsurge 39 years ago, even
today it is this combination of stark poverty, an indifferent
or even exploitative state machinery and oppressive feudal/business
elites in different parts of the country that has been at
the heart of the Maoist insurgency.
Tribal Belt Focus
It is no coincidence at all that the tribal belts of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa,
Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, where the Maoists are
most active, are also among the areas in
the country that have the lowest development indicators.
Though information on the socio-economic profile of the adivasi
population in India is quite sketchy available data shows that maternal
mortality (between 8 and 25 per 1,000) among them
is more than double the rates in the advanced
regions of the country.
Similarly, the infant mortality rates are between 120 and
150, which is more than double the all-India average of 55. All these
adverse health indicators are largely due to inadequate access to the
right foods - iron, protein and micronutrients
such as iodine and vitamins - and lack of
access to healthcare services.
A decade ago, the World Development Report observed,
"The cycle between hunger- disease-low
levels of productivity (measured both in terms of absence from work
as well as duration)-low wages-indebtedness-reduced
consumption levels-disease-is reflective of
how the development process has largely bypassed the tribals".
Instead of being the harbinger of any kind of meaningful and participatory
development, the Indian state since independence in 1947 has been basically
predatory in the experience of the indigenous
people. The state and its various agents have exploited them, violated
their rights at whim and robbed them not just of resources
but of their very human dignity.
Here I want to clarify the mention of 1947 above, because I think essentially
the marginalisation of indigenous people (and dalits) in this ancient land
of ours has been happening over several millennia
with the various waves of migration from outside thriving on their
outright conquest, displacement or co-option. (To put it in the
framework of Hindu mythology what we
are talking about is that almost 3,000 years
after the Aryan prince Ram co-opted the indigenous Hanuman
to help him defeat the Dravidian Ravan – the descendants
of Hanuman are still being treated like
Defenceless against the predations of the modern Indian state and its
agents the tribals have naturally come under the
influence of the Maoists, who offer them protection and mete out instant
justice to their exploiters. Whatever objections one may have to the kind of
violence employed there is no getting around the fact that the
spread of the Maoist movement among
indigenous populations - in the absence of equally effective alternatives -
is a natural outcome of the situation on the ground in
these areas. The point about available alternatives is important because
in most - though not all - areas where the Maoist
insurgency is making its impact felt, they are
often the only real counter to the exploitation of the indigenous people by
other organised groups such as state officials,
businessmen and plain criminal elements.
This is all a bit simplistic of course and it is true that the Maoists have also made
several mistakes; for example the destruction of transport and educational
infrastructure in some of the tribal areas apparently
in a bid to keep Indian security
forces at bay.
This has deprived local populations of whatever few benefits they
ever derived from the Indian state.
More serious is the problem of the Maoists killing "informers" and others
deemed to be their opponents when other methods of dealing with them
could have sufficed. The recent report by a group of
intellectuals and activists who went as part of an independent fact
finding mission to Dantewara district in Chhattisgarh had this
to say about nine widows they met whose
husbands had been abducted and killed by Maoists for going to the
government sponsored refugee camp: "Whatever their
husband's alleged crimes for which they
were given a summary death penalty, these widows were hardly oppressors,
pathetic defeated women, helplessly thrusting out
their passbooks without knowing what they contained or what they
might do with the money, now that their husbands
These kind of lapses are all reasons today for the alienation of the
Maoists from a section of their own constituencies, both
among the urban intelligentsia as well as the tribal people themselves.
Such a rift is dangerous and as we see in the case of
the Salwa Judum operations in Chhattisgarh it gives the Indian state
and other vested interests opportunity to try and pit ordinary
people against the Maoists.
There are also other important criticisms made of both the theory and
practice of the Maoists - from within the broader left
movement and outside it - that they need
to heed carefully.
One has to do with their dealings with the indigenous people
themselves. Writing in The Hindu recently E A S Sarma, former
secretary to the government of India, who was also part
of the same fact finding team to
Chhattisgarh mentioned earlier says: During the last two decades, the
Maoists gained a mass base among the adivasis by taking up cudgels on
their behalf against corrupt government functionaries, exploitative
traders, and moneylenders.
The trouble began for the Maoists when they started dismantling
the traditional political structures of the adivasis at the village
level and began tinkering with landownership.
Those that did not belong to their "sanghams" in the villages were considered
anti-Maoist and dealt with firmly, sometimes brutally.
The headmen of the villages and others intimidated by the
Maoists, along with the non-tribals, started grouping together and
working out ways to sabotage the Maoists' efforts.
Without "exoticising" the indigenous people one can safely say that the few
remaining parts of the country, which still have indigenous/tribal
populations left in a majority and where the Maoists are active
are really the last bastions of their entire
It is not clear to what extent this happens, but it seems that the Maoist
intervention has certainly upset several aspects of traditional
tribal life, customs and beliefs, the value of which can be
decided only by the indigenous people
themselves, and not outsiders - even those
with revolutionary intentions.
This is a very important point because while the Maoists have chosen
to act as the protectors and liberators of indigenous
people from exploitation they should not, as outsiders, impose values
completely alien to the local culture. There
are many aspects of the project of
"modernisation" promoted by the progressive
and radical left that despite all good intentions have many negative
implications in the long run.
(In fact leave alone "teaching" the tribals anything the Maoists,
with some humility, can probably learn a few things from the
people they are helping resist oppression and spread these values to the
rest of the country. While it is true that indigenous
societies have become easy victims to the machinations of outside forces
that are technologically better equipped and unscrupulous to boot they
are far superior in social, moral and ecological terms to
those who conquer them.)
Neglect of Mass Action
Another aspect of the Maoist strategy that has come under criticism
from even those sympathetic to their cause is its
emphasis on action by a few armed squads as the only way to challenge
the Indian state, with no space for mass action in any
The use of violence as the first option creates a virtual light and sound
show of the Indian revolution without any evidence that the masses are
being politicised in any genuinely revolutionary
or meaningful way.
While the necessity of armed struggle in the really oppressive situations
is understandable, surely in a large and diverse
country like India there are many other ways to mobilise the people
and take the Indian revolution forward. However heroic
the efforts and sacrifices of the Maoists have been,
the simple fact is that a few heroes - minus mass participation
- do not a revolution make.
Talking about the Indian revolution, which is ostensibly the ultimate
motive of the Maoist movement, it is puzzling how
this can be achieved without involving other sections of the
Indian population who do not live in forests. After all the
adivasis constitute just 8 per cent of the overall Indian population,
besides which the area under forest cover is dwindling
by the day.
Unlike in the first phase of the Naxalite movement, the new base of
today's Maoist movement is no longer the small and
marginalised peasantry or landless labour but among tribal and
indigenous populations. Probably taking a cue from the
extreme repression unleashed by the state during the original Naxalite
rebellion or as a conscious strategy, the Maoists today
seem to be taking over parts of the country
where the Indian state is marked by its
Whatever the reason, this has meant that the Maoists themselves are
absent from the rest of the country - in the areas of the
Indian countryside where capitalist agriculture is wreaking havoc on
the lives and fortunes of small and medium farmers and
pushing many of them into the swelling ranks of agricultural labour.
The Maoists are also absent, except in the form of a few sympathetic
intellectuals and groups, from the small towns and
cities of India which are growing everyday
with the influx of rural people displaced by the Indian government's
neoliberal economic policies. Even in parts
of the country like Andhra Pradesh where
the movement has been around the longest and been the most intense
too there is hardly any relevant presence or activities
of the Maoists outside the forested parts of north Telangana.
The question that arises from all this is how does a movement that is
called Maoist have such a weak base among the peasantry
in the country after so many years of struggle?
And given its Marxist-Leninist origins how does it do away with the need
to organise the industrial working classes or the urban and rural proletariat
as an essential part of its revolutionary strategy?
Another conundrum is the attitude of the Maoists towards elections,
that with all their flaws and pitfalls are a democratic
concession wrested by the Indian people from their ruling classes
and a legacy of the Indian freedom struggle against colonialism.
To call for their boycott and actively attempt to disrupt them despite the
various possibilities of utilising them to expose the Indian state and
educate the masses is a lack of recognition by the
Maoist leadership of some of the victories
that the Indian people have already achieved
in the past.
It also reveals a puritanical mindset on the part of the Maoists that
participating in elections is somehow
"dirty" and "immoral" while armed action is "pure" and "moral".
The history of revolutionary movements worldwide shows that
opportunism can afflict both those who get involved in
parliamentary politics as well as those in underground armed struggles
and to be afraid of a particular tactic for fear of being
"corrupted" shows a strange lack of selfconfidence
by the Indian Maoists.
The fact is that India is ruled by a grand coalition of forces ranging from
the government, the bureaucracy, the army, business
and religious lobbies together with regional
elites of all kinds. In recent years there has also been a phenomenal
growth in operations of foreign corporations in the country
and under their influence, the Indian
government today is a junior partner in the
global designs of US imperialism.
To capture power in this country would mean capturing power at
multiple levels all at the same time and establishing genuine
hegemony over all aspects of national activity while keeping imperialism
at bay. None of this can be done through the use of simple slogans and
two point or three point dictums and will require complex struggles
of different kinds.
Having said all this, a very interesting thought occurs to me.
For any outsider looking at India all the internecine ideological
and political battles within the Indian Left movement would not really
seem to be too very relevant.
In the broad context of Indian politics it would
appear to him/her that the Left in all its diversity is actually part of
one 'parivar' with one component doing nothing but
parliamentary work and the other focusing only on armed struggles and
the middle consisting of many combinations of these
While such a view may seem overly naive and the prospects
of a genuine confederation of the various Left organisations
in the country appear unrealistic, it is necessary to keep
the concept alive for many reasons. An important one is that
given the way the forces of imperialism
are once again bent on recolonising different parts of
the developing world such a united front of the Left may
become not just necessary but inevitable too.
Recognising the importance of unity against common foes, both
domestic and foreign, by the broad spectrum of the Indian
Left could make all the difference between the country's sovereignty
and slavery even in the not-too-long run.