The attack in southern Chhatti­sgarh this past May 25 has again raised questions — and some bogeys — about India’s internal conflicts and the place Maoist rebels occupy in this universe. What’s the situation? And what is likely to happen?
The short answer is that over the past three to four years, Left-wing rebels led primarily by Communist Party of India (Maoist) have been severely depleted by the surrender, arrest or death of leaders and cadres.
Pressured by the onslaught, often knee-jerk, of both central and various state governments, the Maoists’ effective area of combat has shrunk to southern Chhattisgarh and adjacent areas of western Maharashtra and southwest Odisha (known as Danda­karanya), Bihar, a few pockets in Jhark­h­and, a sliver of Andhra Pradesh.
While it is an emphatic weakening, the area is still vast, and cadre numbers and abilities enough to inflict severe damage in areas of strength.
The Dandakaranya zone, where the attack on May 25 took place, is both major Maoist sanctuary, and core laboratory for administration, education, healthcare and way of community living and economic activity run by the Janatana Sarkar, or people’s government.
This remains among the most inaccessible and forbidding policing and combat terrains in the country. This is where top Maoist military leadership shelters. This is where some of the most battle-hardened cadres are.
Naturally, this is also where most government forces combating Maoists are located. For Maoists, this region is also quite different from the rough and tumble in Bihar and Jharkhand where Maoist rebels have for long been less concerned with trying to provide an alternate grassroots model; because of what can be called ‘objective conditions’ of rebellion, more engaged in retribution and survival.
The Maoists’ duress is manifold. Among other things, they appear to be increasingly hard-pressed to communicate issues. There is a core hard-Left-leaning pool in urban India that will continue to provide recruits for on-ground action and eventual, ideological leadership.
As ever this core is driven by angry intellectualism, and can move easily, generationally, from farmers’ rights-related land issues prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s to, say, land-related issues of tribal rights, and callous, often-corrupt land acquisition for various projects.
Given the enormity of such ongoing government- and business-led misdemeanour, it may be of some surprise that the intensity of Maoist recruitment has waned. But tools of protest and redress increasingly available in India’s imperfect but dogged democracy — Right to Information, protests by local communities and civil society, judicial and media activism, investor watchdogs — are showing ways to negotiated solutions that do not require the gun.
The Forest Rights Act is not perfect — indeed, several critics feel it does little to protect the interest of tribal folk. PESA, or Panchayat (Exten­sion to Scheduled Areas) Act is also known for lack of true application.
And the Land Acquisition, Resettlement & Rehabilitation Bill, 2011 is floundering in Parliament as it takes hits from political and corporate interests seeking to weaken it; give less to the project-affected. Yet, there are entirely democratic and non-violent moves to strengthen such ostensibly people-friendly legislation.
In this respect, in their strategic measurement the Maoists appear to be focusing more on the negative aspects and failures of India than calculating the aspirational, positive aspects and strengths of India.
I believe this, as much as great force applied by central and state government by using vast numbers of paramilitaries and police against Maoist rebels, will ensure that Left-wing extremism remains in pockets. Nobody with rational expectations expects Left-wing extremism to disappear, because the root causes that feed it are unlikely to disappear for the next few decades.
Anybody disagreeing with this assertion need only to look at the internal conflict map since 1967, when the so-called Naxalbari phase exploded into play, and contributed the words ‘Naxal’ and ‘Naxali’ to India’s tragically robust vocabulary of conflict.
This initial movement, what I term Mark I, was physically demolished by the early 1970s. But successive movements — factions and large groups coalescing and breaking rapidly with rebel ego and expediency — worked through the 1980s and 1990s to emerge as Mark IV in 2004, with the formation of CPI (Maoist) after the merger of two major factions.
As India grew, prospered and evolved, so did rebellion, spreading from one district to nearly a third of India’s 600-odd districts, from basic to intense.
Now, with massive state domination and internal party contradictions it has already morphed into Mark V. With such pressure it is not unrealistic to expect CPI (Maoist) to further fracture along geographic and organisational fault lines, though there are already desperate efforts to knit and evolve this organisation, extend limits of indoctrination and sanctuary, maintain routes of resupply.
One future is clear: whatever the formation, Left-wing rebellion is here to stay.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. He addresses conflict situations in South Asia.