Maoism: ‘Capitalising’ in India 6 April 2014
It is ironic that Indians exported Buddhism to China thousands of years ago and, in return, they have received Maoism. (Mao Zedong proposed that the Communist Party lead and use the Chinese peasantry, not urban-based proletariats, as the revolutionary force.) Was this an unfair swap: elevated and elevating Buddhist thought and pacifism in return for a radical ideology that uses violence to change and (hopefully) improve people’s situations? While a little flippant, the matter is worth contemplating in relation to India, particularly as both ‘systems’, to some extent, have developed from, or are concerned about, ways to overcome insidious negative aspects of the Indian caste system and to uplift human beings. Interestingly, Buddha’s wanderings and revelations occurred in areas now ‘infested’ with Maoist elements.
India sometimes is a peculiar place. When Communism was ‘on the nose’ in Western nations, Indian states were adopting it as a viable ideology. In 1957, voters in Kerala democratically elected the first communist government in the world. In West Bengal, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)) was elected to power and ruled individually or in Left Front coalitions for 34 years until 2011. Indians appeared to have few problems with these avowed communists being in power, provided they remained non-violent.
West Bengal is significant for another reason. In 1967, in a northern town called Naxalbari, a peasant movement wanting ‘land for the tiller’ quickly escalated to a local uprising. Militant agitators hoped that this would spark a revolution throughout India. (Communists love fomenting revolutions, although they generally, and often quickly, become conservative after their revolution succeeds.) The West Bengal United Front Government, of which the CPI (M) was then a small part, suppressed the militants. Nevertheless, an Indian movement had started to oppose feudal-type practices, to increase land ownership among the poor, and to help backward areas to develop. India is still dealing with these issues today, not just in Maoist-affected areas.
The Naxalite, or just Naxal, movement now has other names. These include: the catch-all term of ‘left-wing extremism’ (LWE); ‘Maoism’, with the movement currently led by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and its impressive-sounding People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army; or even ‘terrorist’, a loaded term that states increasingly use to negatively label violent anti-social groups that they find difficult to deal with or suppress. Until ‘9/11’, for example, elements in Kashmir opposing Indian rule or Uighurs opposing Han Chinese rule in Xinjiang were usually called ‘militants’ or ‘insurgents’, which suggested that their actions had some element of justification. Post-9/11, they all became ‘terrorists’, a term with much nastier connotations.
Regardless of its various names, left-wing extremism in eastern parts of the Indian peninsula has been significant. In 2007, Naxalites operated to some extent or another in half of India’s twenty-eight states and in 180 of India’s districts 640 districts. They controlled, or had an influence in, the so-called ‘Red Corridor’ that amounted to some 92,000 sq kms of territory, which is larger in area than West Bengal’s 89,000 sq kms. India’s SATPORG website lists ‘Fatalities’ from LWE seriously affecting eleven Indian states, with figures going back to 2005: Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Jharkand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal. Significantly, some of these states contain major mineral and coal deposits. Many are poor, backward and with serious social divisions and problems—perfect places for ‘liberating’ Maoist ideology to take flourish.
In 2009-2010, the Maoist movement appeared to peak, although we only know this in retrospect. In 2009, 208 Indian districts were affected by LWE. In May 2010, India’s prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, called the Naxal insurgency ‘India’s greatest internal security challenge’. To meet this challenge, New Delhi has sent some 100,000 paramilitary forces, led by the Central Reserve Police Force, to Naxal-infested areas. Various states have deployed some 200,000 police, with Andhra Pradesh developing highly mobile and lightly armed ‘Greyhounds’ to counter Naxalite activities, with much success. Air assets, particularly helicopters, have supported paramilitary and police operations. Intelligence has improved. Additionally, New Delhi has sought to uplift backward areas with more funding, development and infrastructure. This has helped, if only by showing that the government is concerned about people’s plight. Better roads, communications and facilities also have assisted counter insurgency operations. Nevertheless, according to SATPORG, LWE violence has killed over 6,000 people since 2005: 2,640 civilians; 1,670 ‘Security Force Personnel’; 2,100 ‘LWE/CPI-Maoists’. So far this year, only 84 people have been killed.
One major issue for India has been national coordination. Another has been mounting joint operations to prevent cross-border Maoist activities. A third has been that LWEs generally operate in remote and backward areas of India. (Urban Indians appear totally uninterested in Maoist ideology.) The 7,000-8,000 (possibly more) LWEs have benefitted from local support, provided willingly or coerced, and from capturing weapons. They have operated most successfully where state services are weak, negligible or corrupted, or by protecting lower castes and Dalits (formerly untouchables) from higher caste attempts to suppress, attack or seek retribution against them. Unlike insurgencies in Kashmir or Nagaland, there is no ‘foreign hand’ for New Delhi to point to as the cause of people’s militancy or to hide its own shortcomings or ineptitude. China and its CCP—Chinese Communist (or is it Capitalist?) Party—is not interested in fomenting peasant-based revolutions. This would be committing political suicide. Naxal areas are too remote for Pakistan to access. Perhaps the only link is with Nepal, which had its own uprising from 1996 until disarmed Maoists joined the political mainstream in 2006. Some Nepali Maoists may provide training to their Indian counterparts.
Currently, the Naxal movement appears to be waning. Most SATPORG figures end in June 2012, which suggests that this organisation thinks the worst is over. Equally, some analysts think that the downturn may be a tactical retreat by the Maoists regrouping to fight another day. Either way, India’s economic and social inequities will provide ongoing opportunities for Maoists to ‘capitalise’ on.
6 April 2014