Each time a significant Maoist strike takes place, nightmare scenarios are indignantly discussed in media. It has happened again since April 24, when 25 troopers of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were killed in a Maoist ambush in southern Chhattisgarh.
Media reaction has ranged from calls for engaging the Army in this conflict over lack of governance and development, to near-nuking the rural areas where Maoist rebels conduct guerrilla warfare — and so, bring peace to urbanising, modernising India.
This is a dangerous pitch for escalating war instead of escalating peace.
It also ignores the fact that Maoists have suffered far greater reverses than police and paramilitary forces, whittled to an estimated quarter of their strength from a decade ago through a combination of deaths, arrests, surrender and rehabilitation.
And, perhaps most importantly, it ignores reasons why leftwing extremism has persisted since the igniting of the Naxalbari movement on May 25, 1967, in three hamlets near the eponymous village in northern Bengal. It’s what provided Mao-worshipping communists of the extreme Left their media-manufactured moniker: Naxal, and its derivative, Naxalism.
Surely there must be flaws of governance in a system that has repeatedly annihilated left-wing movements since the time of India’s Independence — the Tebhaga movement in rural Bengal, for instance — only to have these rearing their heads more emphatically with each cycle of resurgence, persisting through socio-economic development and growth of the power of the state. It’s nearly 50 years to the day since ‘Naxalbari’.
We need to consider why people go against the might of India’s State apparatus; an estimated 16,000 leftwing rebels and sympathisers have died since the late-1960s. What drives hitherto law-abiding citizens to pick up bows and arrows, axes, and looted guns ranging from ancient .303 rifles to more modern INSAS and AK series weapons to defend themselves and everyday aspirations of people they consider to be India’s most downtrodden, demeaned, and dispossessed of democracy?
India is witnessing what I term Maoism Mark V, a rebellion under siege. This comes after Mark I in the late 1960s and early 1970s across eastern, central and southern India; a splintered but stubborn Mark II in the 1980s; a prescient Mark III in the 1990s with the spread into the Dandakaranya region in central India and the seed of a guerrilla force — the Peoples Liberation Guerrilla Army; and the conglomerate of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), the beginning of Mark IV.
A joint press communiqué was issued on October 14, 2004, by Muppala Laxman Rao, or ‘Ganapathy’, the general secretary of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War and now chief of the unified CPI (Maoist), and Prashant Bose, or ‘Kishan-da’, the general secretary of the central committee of Maoist Communist Centre of India who assumed the second position in the merged entity. It could have been Mao Zedong talking: “This revolution will be carried out and completed through armed agrarian revolutionary war, i.e. protracted people’s war with the armed seizure of power remaining as its central and principal task, encircling the cities from the countryside and thereby finally capturing them ... while urban work will be complementary to it.”
That phase peaked in 2010 with spectacular strikes and great gain in operational geography—at one time affecting a third of India’s districts in forms from acute to mild — before massive counter-reaction by police and paramilitaries began to systematically box in Maoists. They are now under severe pressure and largely contained in a few forested or rural parts of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. Encircling cities, as Mao did in the 1930s and 1940s, to ultimately take over Beijing in 1949, is a fantasy.
Let me qualify the statement. The rebels will continue to fight even if their operational geography reduces. Even accounting for the guerrilla doctrine of attacking in strength and retreating when weak, Maoists will occasionally mount a spectacular attack just to remind the establishment—and prospective recruits—about the sting in their tail.
Besides the imminent May anniversary, July 28, 1972, is the day Charu Mazumdar, co-founder of the ‘Naxalbari’ movement died in police custody in Kolkata. Maoists take Mazumdar’s declaration in a 1971 issue of his party’s journal, Liberation — “Naxalbari has not died and will never die”—in letter and spirit.
It will likely be a time of activity in Maoist zones, certainly in the one “liberated area” they have in southern Chhattisgarh. It’s a matter of great shame for India, a continuing reflection of its failings, that they have any at all.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of several books including Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country