Naxalbari At Its Golden Jubilee

Literature on Naxalites

Alpa Shah & Dhrub Jain

[There are not many other issues in South Asia that have attracted as much scholarly attention in the last decade as India’s Naxalite or Maoist movement. At least 50 scholarly or political books, several novels, and numerous essays have been published since 2007.Given below a shortened version of review of some important books]

It is now 50 years since the landmark uprising of 25 May 1967 in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari from which today’s Indian Maoist revolutionaries derive their name ‘Naxalites’. Veteran communist activists, revolutionary minded students, and exploited peasants attacked oppressive landlords, redistributed their land to the landless, cancelled outstanding debts, and tried to end intergenerational bondage. Inspired by Mao Zedong’s 1927 ‘Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan’ and the strategy of a protracted ‘people’s war’ against the Japanese in the1930s, they analysed the Indian social formation as ‘semifeudal and semi-colonial’. Therefore— following Mao’s strategy—they sought to lead an armed guerrilla war that, beginning in the countryside, would mobilise the peasantry and eventually encircle the cities in a bid to capture state power in the struggle for a communist society. Though the initial uprisings were violently repressed by 1972, the Naxalbari movement has continued to inspire new generations of youth in India It has presented a captivating political imaginary—that of a society free of exploitation and injustice—and has moved thousands to sacrifice their lives for revolutionary change. The revolutionaries have come to represent those neglected by Indian power elites: they have given them a voice and are fighting not only for them to have control over their means of subsistence but also for the dignity that has been denied to them for generations. Elsewhere, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and China’s shift to state capitalism, communist struggles have collapsed, but in India, despite periods of intense state repression, the Naxalite movement has continued to grow. In 2004, the two large, armed Naxalite groups—the Maoist Communist Centre and the Communist Party of India (People’s War)—came together to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist) (which is why they are now so often referred to as the Maoists) and escalated their war against the Indian state.

By this time the insurgents had retreated from the exposed agricultural plains where they tried to mobilise landless peasants and small farmers against large landlords. They sought refuge in the forested, hilly areas of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal as well as adjoining parts of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Telengana. These terrains are better suited to guerrilla warfare: not only is it easier to hide in the jungles, but the Indian state has long neglected these regions and there is a comparatively limited state presence compared to that found in the plains. The hilly forests are also home to India’s Adivasis or tribal people, communities who have historically been the most excluded from the developmental processes of the Indian state. It so happens that the regions around this guerrilla terrain have some of India’s large untapped mineral reserves—iron ore, coal, and bauxite, in particular. And when, from the 1990s, the Indian state began welcoming big business in the hope of becoming the next world superpower, multinational companies began lining up to exploit these resources. The Adivasis who live on these lands, and the Naxalites who made their guerrilla strongholds amid them, were now in the way. It is perhaps then no surprise that with the formation of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), India’s then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, declared the Naxalites to be the single greatest internal security threat in the country and soon launched unprecedented counter-insurgency measures—dubbed Operation Green Hunt—against them and anyone seen to sympathise cause. It was estimated that the Naxalites comprised anywhere between 10-25,000 armed cadres with an additional100,000 Militia members, are present in 190 out of India’s 626 districts, and have the capability to strike in 90 districts, though the numbers changed all the time. Tens of thousands of members of the armed forces, police stalwarts and special police officers from across the country were mobilised in counter-insurgency and sent to surround the hilly forests of central India. Vigilante groups created to clear the area complemented these formal military operations. The most notorious of these was the Salwa Judum (literally ‘Purification Hunt’) in Chhattisgarh. There were gross abuses of human rights. Adivasis were pitched against each other. Villages were razed to the ground, many were raped and killed, with an overall result of more than 40,000 people being displaced. With the escalation of the military war against the Naxalites, the guerrillas claim that their armies have grown. Hundreds of people have been killed in the course of the conflict and the prisons of central and eastern India are now full of Adivasis arrested as Naxalites or for allegedly supporting the Naxalite cause.

The militarisation of the landscape of central and eastern India, characterised by bulletproof vehicles, tanks, buses, and security forces, drew national attention once again to the Naxalite revolutionary struggle and to the long-neglected Adivasi communities in the hills and forests of central and eastern India. Publishers internationally and nationally, from Penguin to Pluto, rushed to commission and quickly bring out books (in the case of some, several) on what has been pitched as ‘one of the most intractable and under-reported insurgencies in the developing world’.

The literature on the Naxalites that has poured out in the last few years is fascinating for the array of writing it represents, the different kinds of interest it has generated, and the questions it has raised. There remains a dearth of first-hand, sustained research on the Naxalites and the people they live among, but the literature is as interesting for its analysis as it is for what it says about the authors and their perspectives on the issues at hand. There are several trends in the available literature. The first genre—emanating mainly from sociologists, political scientists, security studies specialists, and administrators—sees the Naxalites from within the purview of the Indian state and, as such, a problem to be addressed; they also seek to critically comment on India’s military response to the Naxalites. These congener — emanating mainly from scholars of political science as well as activists— takes seriously the Naxalite project of revolutionary social change and its proponents are thus compelled to reflect on the nature of the Indian state and its democracy, and to explain—in relation to the Indian state—the spread of revolutionary violence in India. The positions taken are varied—from an enthusiastic defence of the Indian state and a view of the Naxalites as extremists, to those who are more reflective challenges posed to the state and democracy which lie at the heart of the spread of the Naxalites. The third genre— emerging mainly from journalists and activists, partly aided by the Naxalites, who are attracted to some degree by the romance of the revolution—seeks to document (through travelogue and first-hand accounts of short trips) what life might be like in the guerrilla territories and armies. The fourth genre comprises the analysis of sociologists and anthropologists, based on sustained empirical research and concerned with the experience of the oppressed communities who have become part of the Maoist fold. There are also novels inspired by the Naxalites, which are notable for highlighting the challenge posed by revolutionary politics and mobilisation to ideals of the conventional family structure. The final genre is literature written by participants in the Naxalite movement itself, or by those who have been close to the movement. It is this last genre that provides the richest terrain for further research.

‘What is this Maoist business in India all about’ ask Robin Jeffrey, Ronojoy Sen, and Pratima Singh.

With the Naxalites taking centre stage in Indian politics once again, came a realisation that there was a major gap in the knowledge of contemporary India. People didn’t know much about either the clandestine movement that had existed underground for almost half a century or about the Adivasi populations it lived among, who had been overwhelmingly forgotten in Indian history, despite having a population the size of Vietnam. What emerges, invariably across the board—whether from a political scientist or a government administrator—is a strong critique of them and focus of the Indian state’s response to the Maoists and a call to develop Adivasi areas. These are based on the premise that the Naxalites have gained strength because they have addressed the genuine grievances of India’s tribal communities.

A range of edited collections have been produced, such as those by Jeffrey, Sen, and Singh, and Santosh Paul, driven by the goal of narrating as much as they can about the movement and the people it mobilises. Though hastily compiled, these collections are useful as they make available in one place a range of material (mainly already published articles) on the Naxalites. For instance, the Jeffrey, Sen and Singh collection not only includes essays from established scholars such as John Harriss, Sumanta Banarjee and Nandini Sundar, but also the reflections of journalists who have worked in Maoist areas, such as R B Harivansh who for many years edited the Prabhat Khabar in Jharkhand. It also contains interviews with Maoists and police officers, including one with the ex¬Collector of Dantewada and one with Special Police Officer. Although the volume defies coherence, perhaps this is its strength for seeking to provide varied perspectives on the Naxalites. In a similar vein, there are Ranjit Bhushan’s Maoism in India and Nepal, based on a series of nine lengthy interviews with Maoist leaders in Nepal, and intellectuals and activists sympathetic to the Maoist movement in India.

It is noteworthy for including not only interviews with Baburam Bhattarai and Prachanda, who once led the Nepali Maoists, but also Kameshwar Baitha, the first former Maoist to be elected to the Lok Sabha, and Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) [Liberation] (hereafter CPI(ML)) which has its roots in the Naxalites but is now a parliamentary party .The inclusion of these sections on the radical left in India demonstrates Bhushan’s own belief that the Maoist movement in India needs to abandon the armed struggle in order to make the necessary transformations through the parliamentary democratic sphere to further democratise Indian society. Santosh Paul’s The Maoist Movement in India includes the voices of progressive scholarly critics of the Maoists (for instance, Aditya Nigam and Jairus Banaji) as well as those of government officials (notably an interview by Shalini Singh with Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment and forest minister, on the collusion of mining lobbies and state forest departments).

Here, the overwhelming impetus is to see the Maoist movement as a problem and a threat to Indian democracy, to identify the ‘root problems’ of Maoist infiltrated areas, and to analyse how to best counter the movement. Paul highlights the government’s inability to address economic disparities, raise income levels, and alleviate poverty, and the battle for land as the dominant cause for sustained violence in the Red Belt. In this he sets up a position that is by- and-large a dominant one in the South Asian literature—that it is grievance (not greed) that drives the strength of rebel movements .Indeed, even the literature emanating from security studies experts who are seeking to understand the Naxalite movement in relation to wider ‘armed conflict’ and ‘un conventional warfare’ in order to offer solutions to the ‘Naxal problem’ reinforce the centrality of addressing the grievances of the people who are joining the Maoists. A distinction is made here—in particular by Scott Gates and Kaushik Roy of the Norwegian Peace Research Institute— between Africa and its ‘new wars’ and the low intensity conflict of guerrilla armies.

Perhaps the strongest critique of the Indian state’s military approach to the Naxalites emerged from a 2008 Government of India report submitted by a-member expert group appointed by the Planning Commission.

The report sought to recognise the Maoist movement as a political one, arguing that in its day-to-day manifestation it had to be seen as fighting for social justice, equality, protection, security, and local development.

The report, undertaken during Santosh Mehrotra’s tenure as head of the Rural Development Division of the Planning Commission, was later edited by him and published as Countering Naxalism with Development.

The book usefully brings together the recommendations of the expert group with those of police and intelligence officials (Prakash Singh and Ajit Doval); well-known scholars, Sukhadeo Thorat and Sandeep Sharma (the former having worked tirelessly for Dalit emancipation); and Indian Administrative Services officers with a track record for working on behalf of Adivasis and Dalits.

The latter include the former rural development secretary of the Government of India, K. B. Saxena; the late B. D. Sharma, who was once the commissioner for Scheduled Tribes for the Government of India; as well as S. R. Sankaran who, among other things, formed the Committee of Concerned Citizens to mediate with the Naxalites. The contributors to Mehrotra’s volume variously highlight the developmental challenges of Adivasi and Dalit populations who form a core part of the Naxalite movement’s mass base. B. D. Sharma, for instance, focuses on various legislative efforts to deal with Adivasis and their subsequent failure to be implemented, which in turn, he says, has further fuelled the conflict. S. R. Sankaran focuses on
the failures of forest policy and the circumvention of land reform policies for Adivasis, arguing for a proper plan for displacement (if displacement is absolutely unavoidable) and rehabilitation, and the proper implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act in order to resolve the conflict.

K. B. Saxena argues that the lack of enforcement of existing progressive legislation is the result of complicity between large landowners and government officials in the state, the effect of which is that the Adivasis lose out because they are not properly compensated for the sale of their lands, and are taken advantage of by government officials who abuse their lack of literacy to interpret rules in favour of the buyer. Sukhadeo Thorat and Sandeep Sharma further show the denial of opportunities and violence that Dalits and Adivasis face in their assertion for mobility and rights, and call for greater social inclusion.

The failures of the developmental state is nowhere more evident than in the diaries of Chandan Sinha, an Indian Administrative Services officer who between 2004-2005 was district magistrate and Collector of Paschim Medinipur in West Bengal, a region which is the heart of the Junglemahals and which became the centre of media attention for Maoist activity in 2008¬2010. Sinha’s Kindling of an Insurrection is a chronicle of one state failure after another:  villages unconnected by roads, without sufficient provision of drinking water, where people regularly die early because of a lack of medical facilities, a situation that is not uncommon in the Adivasi-dominated hills and forests of central and eastern India.

As with Mehrotra’s edited volume, the overwhelming message is in favour of a response to the Naxalites that addresses the various developmental problems and—crucially—that moves away from a military centred focus, which, they argue, can cause considerable collateral damage and lead to the greater alienation of affected communities. The expert report recommended the effective implementation of existing protective legislations for India’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes; measures to resolve problems of land alienation, bonded labour and indebtedness, and land reform; rehabilitation and resettlement; livelihood security and rural development; universalization of basic social services like education and healthcare; the empowerment of village councils; and the proper extension of good governance to affected areas. Mehrotra’s volume also includes a strong repudiation of state-sponsored vigilante groups such as the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, which the Government of India expert group report says ‘delegitimizes politics, dehumanizes people, degenerates those engaged in their “security”, and above all represents abdication of the State itself’.

Indeed, in Maoists and Other Armed Conflicts, Anuradha Chenoy and Kamal Chenoy, respectively professors of international relations and political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, further argue that looking at conflict through the lens of national security, or even simply under development, is insufficient. They call for a ‘human security approach’ to conflict, founded on dignity, justice, equity, rights, and human development that addresses structural inequalities.

They suggest that the Indian government has rejected any possibility of such an approach to the conflict and prefers to adhere to a national security and militaristic stance on counter-insurgency that relies on ‘fear mechanisms’, including torture, encounters, crackdowns, enforced disappearances, the creation of strategic hamlets, and the formation of local militias. They add that this occurs within the context of a network of overreaching undemocratic laws and Acts that legitimise these practices, and create the conditions for impunity.

These human rights abuses of counter-insurgency in Chhattisgarh are also the central focus of Nandini Sundar’s - The Burning Forest.

These are powerful arguments in the face of what has indeed been an overwhelming military attack by the Indian state on the Naxalites and the people with whom they live. Sadly though, the Planning Commission expert group report which is the core of the Mehrotra volume was never presented in parliament for debate. Instead, it was an Intelligence Bureau report, which described Maoist violence as the ‘biggest internal security threat’ to India, that grabbed the attention of home ministers and precipitated the security-centred response to the Naxalites and the development of huge numbers of central armed police forces in the tribal belts of eastern and central India.

This security-focused state response is captured in the two books brought out by P. C. Joshi on the Naxal movement.

As was the case with the Expert Report, the audience here is clearly the government, but in this case, the books are addressed in particular to the police and security services.

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Vol. 54, No. 14-17, Oct 3 - 30, 2021