‘Naxalbari 50’

Whither Maoist Movement?

Bernard D’Mello

[Revolution constantly facing the loss of its lifeblood and heartbeat in the course of its inevitable life-and-death confrontation with counter-revolution]

Unlike Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh, India settled for a middle-of-the-road approach. Soon after the transfer of power in 1947, the new regime headed by Jawaharlal Nehru and Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel sent its army into Telangana in 1948 to, among other things, liquidate peasant rebels directed by a Communist Party of India (CPI) leadership determined to complete the democratic revolution against semi -feudalism there. The Indian army, in fact, actively promoted semi-feudal restoration in the Telangana countryside. From the time of independence in 1947, India has had the resources and the potential to achieve a high level of human development, yet the great majority of the country's people have remained desperately poor. Tragically, India remains among the most poverty-stricken countries of the world, with most of the population still inadequately fed, miserably clothed, wretchedly housed, poorly educated, and without access to decent medical care. Hundreds of millions have been the victims of Indian capitalism's irrationality, brutality, and inhumanity. It is no wonder that for fifty years, the one persistent message of the nation's Maoists, the Naxalites, has been that India's deeply oppressive and exploitative social order is crying out for revolutionary change.

Fifty years ago, in May 1967, a Maoist faction within the CPI (Marxist)-the party had split in two in 1964--organized an armed peasant struggle in a remote North Bengal area called Naxalbari, but by mid-July of that year, it was brutally crushed. A few months later, Charu Mazumdar, who subsequently became the CPI (Marxist-Leninist)'s General Secretary, declared that "hundreds of Naxalbaris are smouldering in India... Naxalbari has not died and will never die". Subsequent events suggest that he was not daydreaming, for the power of memory—of the armed peasant struggles of the colonial period—and the dreams unleashed gave the movement a fresh dynamic. Many Naxalbaris "smoldered" in different parts of India from 1968 to 1975, most significantly in Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh and Bhojpur in Bihar—but they too were cruelly crushed by the military and police. The revolutionaries attributed these losses in part to their own failure to practice the "mass line", as well as to neglect of the long, hard, patient underground organizational work, which should have preceded the launch of armed struggle.

The second phase of the Naxalite movement, from 1977 to 2003, was marked by mass organizations and mass struggles, especially in North Telangana and other parts of the then-province of Andhra Pradesh, and in what was then central and south Bihar (the latter now the province of Jharkhand), as also in parts of what is called Dandakaranya, the forest area situated in the border and adjoining tribal districts of the states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Orissa. The Bastar region in southern Chhattisgarh slowly began to emerge as a stronghold. Armed squads and village-level militias were organized in self-defense. "Land to the Tiller" and "Full Rights to the Forest" were the core demands, and within the movement, emphasis came to be placed on sensitivity to issues of gender and caste. Especially in Bihar, the Maoist movement, with the backing of its armed squads, combated the upper-caste landlord senas (armed gangs) with considerable success.

With this expansion, however, the Indian state launched a full-scale counterinsurgency, and the party suffered the loss of some of its best leaders, especially in Andhra Pradesh. However, by the beginning of the new millennium, the movement became more difficult to subjugate, and having put in place a people's guerrilla army, it was ready to fight on even in the face of impossible odds. Mergers in 1998 and 2004 of Maoist parties committed to the practice of "protracted people's war" (PPW) made the movement a formidable force. In 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Maoists as the "single largest internal security threat" to the country. Since 2004, with two remarkable mass organizations already in place, the Dandakaranya Adivasi Kisan Mazdoor Sanghatan and the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangh—one of tribal peasants and workers, the other, of tribal women-and a Bhoomkal Militia (its name derives from a 1910 tribal rebellion) that feeds into the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army, the Bastar region has become a bastion of Maoist resilience. It has successfully prevailed over a state-backed, state-armed private vigilante force called Salwa Judum (translated as "purification hunt") and has even kept a major armed offensive of the paramilitary and armed police, called Operation Green Hunt, at bay. It has also managed to engage in "construction in the midst of destruction", putting in place Janathana Sarkars, or people's governments, albeit in embryonic forms, within its guerrilla bases.

What explains the persistence of revolutionary mobilization over five decades? Alpa Shah, a social anthropologist who has carried out long-term ethnographic research in a Maoist guerrilla zone in Jharkhand, has concluded that it is the "relations of intimacy" that have been built between the Maoist organization and the people in its areas of struggle that are crucial to understanding the movement's growth, development, and longevity. Shah holds that "an enormous effort was made to supersede and negate the specificities of caste and class divisions among all the people brought into the revolutionary fold. This involved, in particular, paying great attention to treating lower castes and tribes with respect and dignity as equals". On outreach to ordinary people, she emphasizes "the tone of the voice in which one was spoken to, the way one was greeted, the way one's house was entered, whether one sat on the floor like everyone else or required a chair to be found." She finds that the Maoists are "gentle and kind in everyday interactions.... They did not want special treatment and even insisted on doing things that no villagers would expect of their outside guests—like washing their used plates and cups and helping with household chores". They "treat the villagers as equals, overriding differences of caste. They had built relations of respect and dignity, but equally important, relations of joking and teasing.... [N]ot only was it common practice for high-caste Maoist leaders to eat from the same plate as low castes or for them to make a point of eating beef or rats to undermine quintessential markers of 'untouchability'." Basically such an approach has "enabled the Maoist guerrillas to be accepted by the local people as one of them".

Where, then, is the Indian Maoist movement going? The Indian state wants to sever these "relations of intimacy" of the Maoists with the wretched of the Indian earth, and is aggressively working to wipe out the movement by all available means, fair or foul, even violating with impunity Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and Protocol II, relating to non-international armed conflict. The Maoist movement is, in turn, bent upon overthrowing the Indian state, through a combination of protracted armed struggle, mass mobilization, and strategic alliances with the oppressed nationalities. Neither of these possibilities however, stands a chance of success at this juncture.

In taking on one of the most powerful capitalist states and ruling classes in the global South, the Maoist movement has become increasingly militarized, and the Indian state has in turn been striving to limit the movement's other strategic options, pushing it toward armed confrontation. Consequently, the movement is finding the going more difficult. The absence of "base areas" means that the party's mass-line politics has little chance of being popularly perceived as a superior form of representation to the establishment's discredited and corrupt form of liberal democracy. Nevertheless, there have been calls for "simultaneous uprisings in a wide range of geographic and social settings" in opposition to land grabs, creating great turmoil that might result in a revolutionary upheaval and herald a critical leap forward.

[source : Monthly Review, July 2017]

Vol. 50, No.5, Aug 6 - 12, 2017