The Maoist Insurgency in India

(Individualism vs Collectivism, 31 Oct 2012)

Tej Pratap Singh ·

The Indian Maoist movement, popularly known as the Naxal movement, arose from the broader communist movement in India. The words Naxal/Naxalism/Naxalite owe their origin to the Naxalbari village of the Darjeeling district in the state of West Bengal, from where the peasant insurgency led by the Maoists began in 1967. The Naxal uprising was led by Charu Majumdar (chief ideologue), Kanu Sanyal (peasant leader) and Jungel Santhal (tribal leader). Chinese media described the Naxal movement as a ‘spring thunder’ which quickly spread to other parts of the country and caught the imagination of the nation. The movement nevertheless subsided after the death of Charu Majumdar and the arrests of Kanu Sanyal and Jungel Santhal in 1972. However, the movement was revived in the 1980s by the Peoples War Group (PWG) in Andhra and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in Bihar. The Naxalites are currently considered to be the most radical groups among the Indian communists.

Causes of Naxalism/Maoism

Before going into the question of a possible solution, it is appropriate to examine the causes of the Maoist insurgency. Its roots can be traced to the socio-economic conditions in India. Unless and until these underlying structural causes are addressed, Maoism cannot be defeated by state repression. For the time being it appears that movement has been crushed, but sooner or later it will reappear and probably with greater vehemence than is being witnessed currently. In the post-Charu Majumdar period it was felt that the movement had come to an end, but restarting in the 1980s it has bounced back with greater intensity and covering large parts of India. If current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is correct, then the Maoist movement therefore constitutes the greatest national security threat for the Indian state.

Hunger, starvation, malnutrition, ill health and untimely death provide a fertile ground for the growth of left wing extremism. The ‘Red Corridor’ in government parlance or ‘compact revolutionary zone (CRZ)’ in Maoist language constitutes the most poor, backward and underdeveloped part of the country. These areas are predominantly inhabited by Adivasis (tribal groups) and Dalits (lower castes), who are amongst the most marginalised and exploited sections of the Indian society. These two ‘wretched of the earth’-groups constitute the most significant support base of the Maoist movement. In fact, the Maoists explicitly claim to be fighting for them. The so-called upper caste (landlords), who also double as moneylenders along with state officials such as Patwaris (village level revenue officials) and forest guards, have been oppressing the underprivileged Adivasis and Dalits. Resistance of these groups was always suppressed by the privileged classes, with active support from the state in the name of law and order.

In addition, the human rights activist Binayak Sen rightly argues that the so-called Red Corridor should be declared a famine stricken region and the Adivasis and Dalits a famine stricken community. More than sixty percent of the population of this region and more than sixty percent of the Adivasis and Dalits have a Body Mass Index lower than 18.5. The criteria laid down by the World Health Organisation determine that a community or region should be classified as famine stricken if more than one third of the population has a BMI lower than this number. Sub-Saharan Africa for example has been declared to be famine stricken region on this basis. Consequentially, if the WHO criterion is applied to the Adivasis and Dalitis as a community and the Red Corridor as a region then they should be given this very same classification. It is because of this abysmal poverty in the eastern and central Indian regions that Maoists have found fertile ground to expand their influence, and to carve out their guerrilla zone in order to wage war against the Indian state.

Military or Political Solutions

Since Maoism is a political problem its solution also needs to be political. Naxalism was militarily crushed in the 1970s, but its revival and subsequent spread proves beyond doubt that any military solution will not be a lasting one. Only the actors will change but the malaise will remain. Therefore, the need of the hour is to address the socio-economic roots of the Maoist insurgency. Once underlying structural causes have been addressed the Maoists will not get the congenial atmosphere to exploit these problems, which they need in order to achieve their objective of overthrowing the Indian state through a protracted people’s war, replicating the Chinese/Vietnamese revolution. In these unconventional and asymmetrical wars the stronger not necessarily win; sometimes weaker parties emerge victorious in protracted asymmetrical conflict, as for example happened in Vietnam and is happening in Afghanistan.

Several strategic analysts are nevertheless of the firm opinion that unless and until the insurgents have been decisively defeated they will not come to negotiating table. They argue that if insurgents are in a strong military position they have no reason to negotiate because they are sensing victory. Strategic analysts cite the examples of Punjab, Tripura and Andhra, where insurgents were decimated by lethal force. However, success in one state is no guarantee that it can be replicated mechanically in other states. If this would be the case then the COBRA (Combined Battalion for Resolute Action) counterinsurgency force of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), which has been created to fight Naxals using the pattern of the Greyhound of Andhra, would have succeeded in crushing the Maoists of the Dandkarayana region in central India.

Force is no doubt needed but beyond a point it becomes counterproductive. This applies to both the Maoists as well as the state. Naxalism itself failed because of Charu Majumdar’s annihilation ideology. Majumdar famously said that unless and until a person has dipped his hand in the blood of a class enemy, he or she is not a true communist. Some blind followers therefore smeared their hands with the blood of enemies whom they had annihilated and some even went to the extent of making palm prints on the wall. This kind of mindless violence repelled many Indians despite them being sympathetic to the Maoist cause. In the same way state violence also created repulsion amongst the people. To win, both the Maoists and the state have to be careful in their use of violence, as an insurgency is after all a war of hearts and minds and not of territory. Whoever wins the hearts and minds of the masses will win the war.

In order to win the people over to the state side the Indian government is pursuing the US counterinsurgency strategy of clear, hold and build. This strategy is however mechanically applied in the form of a heavy deployment of paramilitary forces and area domination patrols in the Maoist regions, aimed to wrest the control of these region from them. The massive surge of troops and their patrolling in the region, intended to make their presence felt, has given the insurgents the chance to execute a new strategy of mobile warfare. Earlier they used to target only two to three security personnel in their hit and run guerrilla tactics, but now they are engaging entire companies of security forces consisting of more than seventy security personnel, and fight them through encircling tactics in face to face battle. After killing the troops the Maoists also snatch their weapons, thus increasing their armoury. This has happened several times in the Maoist dominated regions and is demoralising both the paramilitary forces and the government.

The Way Out

The Maoist movement is not a secessionist movement like the Northeast or Kashmir insurgencies. And since the Maoists are not separatists, opinions in the government and the armed forces are sharply divided regarding the use of military force against them. The insurgents themselves however are of the firm opinion that a military strategy will eventually be used against them and that only by defeating the Indian armed forces they can succeed in their objective of capturing political power. They know this is not an easy task and because of this they speak of a ‘protracted agrarian armed struggle’ against the state, seizing power in the rural areas and eventually encircling the cities. According to them this would force the enemy to surrender, just as happened in China. However, India is not China and the Indian army is not Chiang-Kai-Shek’s army.

For the Maoist insurgents the Indian state itself has been responsible for the conflict. The Adivasis and Dalits, who form the core of their movement, have been neglected by the Indian state. In the more than sixty-five years that have passed since India’s independence there has been no significant change in the life of these groups.  If they would have been brought into the mainstream and would have been made significant stakeholders in India’s economic growth the Maoists would never have gotten the opportunity to exploit the situation to their advantage. ‘Land to the tillers’ has been the old slogan of the Maoists but until this date eighty percent of the land is held by only twenty percent of the people. Barring a few exceptions most land reforms only exist on paper. Through various means, and with the connivance of state officials, many people still hold vast tracts of lands. On the other side there are large numbers of landless labourers and marginal farmers in rural India. Absent landlordism has still not been completely abolished. Causes of agrarian unrest still remain unaddressed.

The Adivasis have been denied access to forest land and resources, and only in 2006 the Forest Right Act has given them legal rights over the lands on which they have been living since time immemorial. If the socio-economic problems of Adivasis and other poor sections of the Indian society are addressed then Maoism will however swiftly lose its appeal among the masses. By only deploying large numbers of security forces and killing the top leadership of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) (CPI (Maoist)), the problem cannot be resolved. As long as the structural causes of extremism are not addressed, new leaders will always emerge on scene and carry the torch of people’s war forward, pledging to overthrow the semi-colonial, semi-feudal Indian State and  establish their own type of Democratic Peoples Republic of India.

For peace, both the Maoists and the state have to engage each other in a sincere way. The Maoists have to give up their armed struggle against the state and the state has to stop its policy of decimating their Central Committee and Politburo. Already government forces have either killed or arrested more than half of the membership of the Politburo, the Central Committee, and the Central Military Commission, the top decision making bodies of the CPI (Maoist). This strategy might succeed in short term but in the long term it is bound to fail as new leadership will emerge. The statements of a few Maoist leaders that armed struggle is non-negotiable is also not helpful in the dialogue process. If the insurgents are not ready to give up their armed struggle against the state, no state will talk to them as nothing has been left to talk about. In such a case the recourse to violence is the only option left to the state.

If the state cannot decimate the Maoists, the Maoists also cannot smash the Indian state. The idea of victory through protracted armed agrarian struggle is a hoax as globally speaking there is no possibility of overthrowing any state solely through guerrilla warfare. Nepal could therefore be a good example for the Indian Maoists to emulate. If the Nepali Maoist party can contest the elections, form and run the government, then why should this be impossible for the Indian Maoists? Radical left leaders like Prachand and Baburam Bhattrai in Nepal, Chavez in Venezuela, and many others took the parliamentary path and won elections in their countries. Now they are successfully running the governments in Nepal, Venezuela and several Latin American countries. Dialogue is the only solution to the violence unleashed by both the Maoists and the state. Otherwise it will eventually be innocent civilians who continue to suffer the most, guaranteeing that the whole nation pays the price for the insurgency.