Red Alert: 50 years and counting
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An hour west of the Teesta river, and a few minutes east of the Mechi river that separates India and Nepal, lies the now (in)famous village of Naxalbari. It is here in northern West Bengal, 50 years ago, that the armed insurgency that we now call Naxalism was born. The incident that bears the Naxalbari name was triggered on 25 May 1967 at the nearby village of Jote when police opened fire on a peasant uprising, killing nine adults and two children. Busts of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong and a memorial still stand in the village and bear testimony to that day.
A Communist-inspired peasant movement had begun decades earlier in many parts of eastern and central India, but particularly in Telangana. The Telangana Struggle, a collective movement of about 2,000 villages, and the associated political philosophy enunciated in the Andhra thesis, received a shot in the arm from Mao’s revolution in China. The seeds of the Naxalbari incident were sown when the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, decided to join mainstream Indian politics and split from the rest of the Communist Party in 1964.
Charu Majumdar of the CPM, born to a landed family in Siliguri but drawn to the cause of peasants, supported his comrades Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal in the militant uprising that took place in Naxalbari in 1967. This group came to be known as the founding Naxalites and codified their views in a set of articles written by Majumdar called the Historic Eight Documents. Majumdar first founded the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR) and then two years later the CPI (Marxist-Leninist). Majumdar died in police custody in 1972. The militant-left in India has morphed since that time.
After suffering significant setbacks in the late 1970s and 1980s, the modern rejuvenation of this militant struggle began with the founding of the CPI (Maoist), constituted in 2004 by the merger of the CPI (M-L) People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI). The CPI (Maoist) is designated a terrorist organization under Indian law and now conducts Left Wing Extremism (LWE) in the guise of a peasant revolution in the Red Corridor. That corridor spans parts of 10 states: Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. According to the Union ministry of home affairs (MHA), there were over 1,000 incidents of LWE in these states, led by Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar. By some accounts, LWE in India ranks fifth in the world in terrorist activity, behind the Islamic State, Boko Haram, Taliban and al-Qaeda. The MHA’s (ironically named) LWE wing defines Maoism as “a doctrine to capture State power through a combination of armed insurgency, mass mobilization and strategic alliances. They also use propaganda and disinformation against State institutions as components of their insurgency doctrine.”
Frustrated by repeated acts of violence, a people’s resistance movement against LWE, called Salwa Judum (SJ), was started in Chhattisgarh in 2006. This movement was co-opted by the State in later years and led to an escalating cycle of violence that culminated in a terrorist attack in 2013 which killed the self-styled leader of the SJ, Mahendra Karma, and nearly two dozen others, including former cabinet minister Vidya Charan Shukla. The SJ had resorted to a form of “scorched earth” policy that emptied villages of their populations and housed them in camps. Taking sharp exception, the Supreme Court had ruled in 2011 that the SJ was unconstitutional and ordered it to be disbanded. The Adivasis of Bastar, Sukma, Bijapur and Dantewada districts, in particular, were caught between the violence of the Maoists and arbitrary exercise of power by the SJ. For the last six or seven years, the government of India has followed a more cogent approach to combating LWE—what it calls a holistic long-term policy—that combines security, development, ensuring rights and improving governance and perception. An integrated action plan that covers 88 affected districts aims to provide public infrastructure and services. The stated goal of properly implementing the forest rights Act and ensuring entitlements of local communities to forest produce is often short in actual delivery.
What more should be done?
First, urban India should be made aware that a Maoist ideology is outmoded and deeply flawed. Maoist networks often collaborate with other forms of terror organizations and with foreign groups seeking to destabilize India. Even though infrastructure, opportunity and a fair share is not generally available to the Adivasis in the affected areas, a violent Maoist solution should be roundly condemned. Equally, civil society must hold both the federal and state governments accountable to provide access and opportunity to these poor, rural and often marginalized populations. Any extra-constitutional methods should be eschewed in favour of systematic soft and hard development. It is a vexing problem, but sustained development combined with an engagement with the people is the way forward.
Fifty years on, there is room for hope that with the right focus, Maoism will one day be found only in history books.
P.S.: “Twenty-first century Maoism cannot obviously claim to be a legatee of the ideological movement launched half a century ago,” says M.K. Narayanan, a former national security adviser.
Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand
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