It is in the nature of things in India that permits the celebration of the Bombay Stock Exchange index touching a high of 18,000 while at the same time marshalling urban shock and outrage at the killing of over 70 paramilitary personnel by Maoist rebels in the forests of Chhattisgarh this past Tuesday. This is not so much about the schizophrenia of extremes, but attitudes that lead to widespread denial.
There is denial of the fact that the rebels are entirely Indian; they disagree with a situation that perpetuates a crippling system of corruption, and neglect—and abuse—of citizenry. India’s armed forces have for several years stood against being co-opted into anti-Maoist operations. It was most recently articulated by India’s new chief of Army that the Maoist rebellion is a socio-economic and law and order issue. The implied suggestion is that it is better sorted by those who perpetuate the problem.
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As to the Maoist “menace”, in these past days few expressed surprise as to why, even as in the past 40 years India has become more prosperous and progressive, each cycle of Left wing extremism since the farmers’ uprising of 1967 in the Naxalbari area of West Bengal has emerged bigger and stronger. Few acknowledged that there exist vast pools of negative energy driven not by hoary sayings of a long-dead Mao, but anger on account of denial of dignity and justice related to issues of caste; farmer indebtedness; loss of tribal homelands; abuse of resettlement and rehabilitation norms related to mining and industry; and brutal corruption in political, administrative and policing strata.
Such is the negative energy that ordinary men, women and sometimes, children are snared by Maoist ideologues and propagandists. With a range of weapons from AK series rifles to crude machetes these victims by any definition fight the undeniable might of the Indian state. It’s a manifestation of what a security analyst friend of mine calls “privileging violence”: Unless you take to the gun, the state won’t take notice of you. So, an estimated 10,000 militarized Maoist cadre dare to take on several hundred thousand police and paramilitary, the administration of several states in which the Maoist rebellion exists in various stages from preliminary to extreme, and the best minds of central bureaucracy and polity.
Perhaps it is again time to question some myths.
Maoism is not our greatest internal security threat. Poverty, bad governance and corruption certainly are. Maoist rebels, for better or worse, mirror India’s failings as a nation. The Ministry of Home Affairs has announced a commission of enquiry to figure out what went wrong on 6 April. But it must already know the answer: all of the above, plus a group of central reserve police force troopers that entered an ambush set by Maoist tacticians.
The ugly truth is: There’s a war out there. The tragedy of body bags and weeping relatives—on both sides of the divide—is a perennial lament of the brutality of war. In this recent incident, Maoists got the better of security forces as they also did in Silda in West Bengal in February this year, when they killed 24 police personnel. Security mandarins still get red-faced when discussing an error of judgment that led to the death of 38 elite “anti-Naxal” Greyhound forces from Andhra Pradesh while on an operation in Orissa in June 2008.
Equally, in incidents across the states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal, security forces have in the past five years got the better of Maoists by the hundreds. Several senior leaders including Politburo members of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), the country’s preeminent Left wing rebel conglomerate, are either in jail, compromised, or dead. The Maoist superstructure has been weakened by increasing coordination among police, paramilitary and intelligence personnel from New Delhi in concert with those of various states. This, too, is in the nature of this war.
It is true the rebels call themselves Maoists. And Mao did, after all, write in The Question of “Going Too Far”, Report on an investigation of the peasant movement in Hunan that revolution is not “a dinner party…or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined…kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous”. He believed revolution to be “an act of violence by which one class overthrows another”.
India’s Maoists practise this pre-1949 wisdom from what has come to be known collectively as the “Red Book”, as much an object of study for the revolutionary as it is for future generals in armies around the world for Mao’s brilliant guerilla thought and action. That is the limit of “Mao”, what administration spin doctors sometimes refer to as “foreign influence”. The fact is: India’s Maoists use uniquely Indian rationale to forward what is for them a political movement to try and force change.
What happens now?
The squeeze on Maoist rebels will remain, and worsen. In turn, Maoist rebels will react. As early as last October People’s March, a pro-Maoist journal, described the recent escalation of Maoist action “a slap in the face of the notorious home minister”—P. Chidambaram. This escalation is unlikely, by current reckoning, to take the route, say, of Islamist extremists, who go about exploding bombs in market places and public transportation in operations of pure terror. Maoist targets will largely remain symbols of the state.
But Maoists are yet to come up with a credible socio-economic alternative except in the form of basic rural communities in their strongholds of the Dandakaranya zone in Chhattisgarh. This will likely limit foreseeable Maoist activity to leveraging localized victims of state and corporate apathy and neglect, instead of a more broad-based movement as their comrades were able to effect in Nepal on account of that country’s greater poverty and political dissonance.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes on issues related to security in South Asia. His regular column in Mint appears alternate Thursdays.
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