There is an enduring attitude when it comes to accepting reasons for conflict and rebel alternatives in areas of Maoist influence. A stubborn suspicion points to the spectral hand of Mao Zedong—and the real hand of China—conspiring to take over India from the inside out.
It’s a legacy of India’s political and policy errors being leveraged by others. Pakistan is blamed for trouble in Jammu and Kashmir; China, Pakistan and Bangladesh for north-eastern India. But the Maoist rebellion is trickier to pin on the so-called foreign hand. The simple truth is that lack of governance—which includes the lack of administration, shabby follow-through of state-funded development plans and non-delivery of the criminal justice system—has fuelled left-wing rebellion. Indeed, Maoist rebels like to demonstrate their way is better by offering people in their areas of influence the Janatana Sarkar, or people’s government. Areas which the state long ago, and deliberately, abdicated.
The rebel vision is to seize power, though with a vastly reduced force—now estimated at 9,000 armed cadres, down from the mid-2000 estimate of twice that number—it is unlikely to get there. But where they can, in areas of maximum rebel influence, or so-called liberated zones that today mark large tracts of southern Chhattisgarh and a small adjacent slice of eastern Maharashtra, the experimental Janatana Sarkar fills the void. (I’ve seen aspects of it in the Lalgarh area of West Bengal, but Maoists have lost control of that area in the past two years). Like the rebellion, Janatana Sarkar runs on intensely local imperatives. It is not an Indian imprint of bookish Maoism.
Typically, each Janatana Sarkar cell comprises a cluster of between five and seven settlements or villages; a population of 5,000 or so in a mixed geography of forest, hill, farmland and plains. A cell committee that administers Janatana Sarkar consists of adult villagers under the direct supervision of a Maoist political functionary.
Mostly, Janatana Sarkar resembles a mix of the village-level panchayati raj and block-level development and administrative functions, with clearances for various initiatives and projects taken at progressively higher levels of local and regional Maoist administration—the area committee, divisional committee, and so on up the scale. The Janatana Sarkar development committee would, say, undertake digging or dredging of ponds, and building of check dams. Janatana Sarkar’s agricultural committee inputs seeding and cropping techniques, clears land for farming (even redistributing or managing land appropriated from those marked as police informers) and injects the practice of cooperative farming. A corollary, the forest committee, supervises gathering of what government economists label minor forest produce—leaves, flowers—and bamboo; this is a revenue source for both residents and rebels. The medical committee arranges basic healthcare and runs a network of barefoot doctors.
The education committee handles basic education, teacher training schools and also indoctrination—this input comes directly from the rebel propaganda unit in the area. This dovetails with the cultural committee, used to motivate people to join the rebels; so it also has a talent-spotting role alongside propaganda.
As with education and culture, the rebel twist is evident in the defence committee, which provides for about five people in every settlement to be trained in the use of basic, locally made guns; some would continue to use traditional tribal bows and arrows, and axes. This village-level structure is a direct route to the militia—Jan Militia—that supports regular armed Maoist cadre in defence, raids, triggering pre-set explosive devices, and gathering intelligence. This is close to the heart of the rebel structure, as is the justice committee, which rules on a wide range of matters from infringements that can lead to fines, flogging or banishment; to summary execution for suspected police informers. The finance committee feeds it all. It taxes merchants of forest produce like those dealing in tendu leaves, small shop owners, transporters, timber merchants and all manner of contractors.
In some circles of government administration, it has become fashionable to highlight the Balaghat model, named after the area in southern Madhya Pradesh that has since the mid-2000s seen steady erosion in Maoist influence. The irony is stark. What a conscientious collector of Balaghat did between 2006 and 2009 was implement government schemes for infrastructure, healthcare and education, get government employees to do their job and involve locals by visiting settlements. Teamwork with local police provided protection from Maoist reaction.
Basically, the Balaghat model is the do-your-job model. It’s either that, or the Maoists or others like them, firmly made in India, will continue to give it their best shot.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.