The man who India’s leftwing rebel ideologues have for long considered a guru had a way with words.
“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous,” wrote Mao Zedong (neé Mao Tse-tung) in The Question of “Going Too Far”, A Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan, a Blue Book, as it were, to his subsequent, adulatory Red Book, the leftwing rebel bible for decades. “A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
Indeed, Charu Mazumdar, a co-founder of the so-called Naxalite movement, was so taken with what he called “Mao Tse-tung Thought” that he quixotically declared in 1969: “Victory certainly belongs to us because China’s Chairman is our Chairman and China’s path is our path.”
It added in no small measure to Mazumdar’s reputation as an incendiary eccentric. And in turn it underscored Mazumdar’s own conviction of nihilistic terror to take ahead a peasant movement all the way to state power.
He over-extended Mao’s ideological blessing. “The rural areas need a mighty revolutionary upsurge ...” Mao had maintained in his early days as a rebel leader, as he employed the art of the possible by rousing millions in the countryside to achieve political victory in 1949. “(I)t is necessary to create terror or a while in every rural area, or otherwise it would be impossible to suppress the activities of the counter-revolutionaries in the countryside or overthrow the authority of the gentry.”
Mao was alive when the Naxalite movement broke ground in 1967, while other stalwarts of communism—Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Ulyanov or Lenin, even Mao’s spirit brother, the brutal Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin—were hoary history. Mao offered Revolution 2.0: A combination of punchy ideology, clever strategy, and great romanticism. A well-meaning young man from an impoverished corner of China who undertook the epic Long March, rose to dominate China, and was making it a power to match the Soviet Union, challenge America. Mao’s Red Book offered tactical and strategic guidelines along with rhetoric—the notion of “protracted” guerrilla war, a “People’s War”, to capture first the countryside and then encircle urban areas before taking them over. Along with agrarian revolution, he said, it was crucial never to lose sight of the ultimate goal of capturing political power.
It’s easy enough to trash Mao as vainglorious, warped, the absolute leader today reviled in China as 70% correct, 30% wrong. For China, which still puts Mao’s image on its money in pro-forma rigour, it’s as close to dismissal for a colossus who, after displaying military brilliance that rebel and ‘state’ generals alike study to this day, mismanaged the country to disaster, from staggering famine to purges that cost millions of lives.
But that’s not what India’s present-day rebels care about. For them ‘Maoism’ continues to be a means, a doctrine that isn’t yet a dead end.
The relatively disorganized Naxalite movement was shattered by state action in 1972, and squeezed completely by the time Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency in 1975. Over the remainder of the 1970s and early 1980s the movement broke into several dozen ‘ML’ factions, mainly nitpicking over personalities, doctrine and whether the “objective conditions” for revolution were right.
This is where the real beginning of latter-day—present-day—Maoists can be located. They quickly evolved far beyond their Naxalbari roots. Even as they continued to revere Naxalbari icon Mazumdar, they dispensed with his primary notion of immediate mobilization—a sort of people-are-ready-and-they-will-join-us-if-they-see-us-rebel approach. That had been tried, and spectacularly failed.
Post-Naxalbari rebels are more focussed, given to minutiae of planning from the ground up. Their leaders and ideologues are in for the long haul, using armed and unarmed cadres to work in tandem, employing Mao’s doctrine to expand from land-to-the-tiller to any issue that finds traction: caste, corruption, tribal rights, displacement on account of industrial projects.
It has always been doctrine, method over the man. For all his adulation by India’s leftwing rebels, Mao never directly supported a ‘Maoist’ cause in India till his death in 1976. He turned down entreaties of support from a Naxal delegation, but thought it worthwhile to instead support rebels in Northeast India!
This column is part of an ongoing series about the history, trajectory, the state, and implications of leftwing extremism in India on the 50th anniversary of the Naxalbari uprising. Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.
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