Overlook the poor peasantry. Ignore the legitimate demands of labour. Implement the neo-liberal project blindly. Naxalism is what you get, says Aditya NigamBEHOLD, RED TIDE AT THE FLOODGATES
Overlook the poor peasantry. Ignore the legitimate demands of labour. Implement the neo-liberal project blindly. Naxalism is what you get, says Aditya Nigam
After the first burst of utopian energy in the late 1960s, Naxalism underwent a long period of silent transformation. The second phase, in the post-Emergency period, was one of intense churning and regrouping, a period of reflection on, and redefinition of, the various Naxalite groups’ relationship with democracy and democratic institutions. Most groups actually started limited participation in electoral processes and moved away from what had come to be known as ‘annihilation of the class enemy’ — that is, the killing of individual oppressive landlords. They started building organisations of democratic mass struggles like trade unions, peasant organisations and student organisations.
The current phase, in the form of ‘Maoism’, has been marked by the reassertion of the path of armed struggle and complete rejection of parliamentary participation. This is not an entirely new development. Rather, it represents the culmination of a long period of guerilla operations that have been carried out separately by three important groups in different parts of the country. The most important of these was the ‘CPI(ML) People’s War’ led by Kondapalli Sitaramaiah in Andhra Pradesh, popularly known as the People’s War Group (PWG).
Through the 1980s, the PWG built legal mass organisations of students, writers, peasants and other sections but soon moved into almost exclusively underground military operations and built up what turned out to be the most feared and awesome machinery of a guerrilla army. It was in the 1990s that the PWG moved away from mass struggles and became exclusively preoccupied with armed struggle.
It is in this period, especially in the 1990s, that the PWG expanded its guerilla operations in a whole belt extending from Andhra Pradesh to northern Karnataka and eastern Maharashtra as well as neighbouring parts of Chhattisgarh and Orissa. It also established relations with some important non-party organisations and movements such as Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, and the Bharat Jan Andolan that was set up by BD Sharma, a former civil servant who began working with the tribals of that region after he gave up his job.
The PWG managed to draw these movements into its close circle of allies and expanded its influence quite rapidly, despite the fact that it gradually became reduced to a terror machine, often indulging in wanton killings and extortion to finance its activities. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that all these movements shared the PWG’s politics, its philosophy of violence or its methods.
It seems that this expansion of its influence became possible largely because it was precisely in the 1990s that the democratic space for raising questions of poverty and exploitation virtually disappeared. This is one of the relatively understudied ironies of the 1990s that have otherwise been described, correctly, as a period of democratic upsurge. In this period the virtual erasure of issues of the working class or peasantry from the media and public discourse went hand-in-hand with a massive neo-liberal ideological attack on trade unions and organisations of the peasantry. The cynicism and ruthlessness with which the non-violent struggles of the displaced people of the Narmada valley — to take only the most well known example — were treated by the power bloc (including the media and the judiciary, who are deeply implicated in the new nexus of power), produced the general scenario where the PWG began to seem to many of the poorest an attractive option.
Added to this was the complete abdication of the space of mass struggles by the entire mainstream Left and its confinement to the parliamentary arena. While the preoccupations of the mainstream Left in this period were with largely abstract macro issues like defence of the public sector and opposition to foreign investment, the real issues that were beginning to emerge on the ground related to accelerated dispossession in the countryside. In northern Karnataka for example, what gave the PWG popular support was its defence of tribals who were being uprooted from their habitat in the forests, to make way for the Kudremukh National Park. This dispossession also meant denying the tribals their traditional access to minor forest produce and eliminating a whole way of life that lives in symbiosis with the forest. Elsewhere, in parts of Andhra Pradesh, the PWG confronted the issue of imminent displacement of peasants from their land that the government had acquired for private corporations.
As the violent displacement of common people from their habitat assumes unprecedented proportions, and with no recourse to justice — the judiciary being complicit in this game of dispossession — Maoism seems to offer an increasingly attractive option to many.
In the second half of the 1990s, the PWG and two other groups that relied exclusively on armed struggle, namely the CPI(ML) Party Unity and the Maoist Coordination Centre (MCC), both of which functioned in central and south Bihar, came together to form a legal front called the All India People’s Resistance Forum (AIPRF). The AIPRF functioned as a legal coordination centre as well as a forum for joint activity in the middle class constituency and effectively laid the ground for the eventual merger of the three groups. The Party Unity and PWG merged in 1998 and functioned with the latter name till 2004, when it merged with the mcc and adopted the name CPI (Maoist).
Adopting the nomenclature of ‘Maoist’ helped in laying claim to a shared project with the powerful Maoist insurgency in Nepal which had by then made Maoism a household name in the region. Further, the merger of three groups that functioned in different parts of the country under the banner of Maoism, conjured up for the Indian power bloc a fearsome vision of the ‘Red Corridor’ — a corridor that, it believes, extends from Andhra Pradesh via Chhattisgarh and Orissa through the contiguous regions of Jharkhand and Bihar right up to Nepal. The success of this merger and of the semiotics of its naming is apparent from the fact that Maoism is once again seen as a power to reckon with by its enemies, including the government and the media.
Nigam is a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies