Going by the recent spate of media reports about the links between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a Manipur-based rebel group, and the Communist Party of India (Maoist), or CPI (Maoist), it may appear that leftwing extremism will greatly proliferate. Reality is more graded.
The media triggers were the arrest of a senior PLA functionary in Orissa earlier this week, and last week’s filing of a chargesheet in Guwahati by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) against three PLA rebels. NIA accused them of “waging war against the country”, and specifically, “imparting training to the cadres of banned terrorist organization CPI (Maoist) and supplying arms and ammunition to the said outfit”. Attendant analyses also mentioned that senior members of both CPI (Maoist) and PLA have visited each other’s strongholds since 2006 to establish contact and cement ties.
Slain CPI (Maoist) politburo member Mallojula Koteswara Rao, who went by the nom de guerre of Kishenji, had the blessings of the party leadership to initiate ties. I’ve heard from Assam Police sources that Kishenji visited Thoubal district in Manipur for his reconnaissance with PLA. I’ve also heard that he established contact with the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa). The reception he received at the latter group was reportedly lukewarm: the Maoist precept of helping all under-classes, tribal or otherwise, and even immigrants, didn’t go down well with Ulfa leadership, who saw the nub of their insurgency resting on Assam-for-the-Assamese. More on such local imperatives shortly.
CPI (Maoist) and PLA links, even if somewhat hyped, aren’t surprising. Both CPI (Maoist) and PLA have increasingly been under pressure from the security establishment. PLA’s area of operation and traditional sanctuaries in Myanmar and Bangladesh have been curtailed. And CPI (Maoist) is greatly pressured, with key leadership and cadres either killed or in jail; and traditional sourcing of arms (looting armouries, taking weapons off slain police and paramilitaries) increasingly difficult to practice.
But this does not signal a realization of unified revolution in India, merely one organization feeding off the other for survival. Maoist ingress in the North-East can only come about for two key reasons. One: they find patches of poverty, bad governance, lack of development and “minority” angst that local rebel groups have left out of their footprint. And two: where such groups, like a diminished Ulfa; other groups in Assam in the dirt-poor Karbi Anglong and Cachar regions; Tripura; and Meghalaya have entered into ceasefire or peace deals with various state governments and New Delhi. But where development and governance have not—or will not—fill in the blanks that absence of conflict has left; in effect, sowing the seeds of disappointment and anger that CPI (Maoist) can leverage. But even this is no guarantee for success.
The reason is the intensely ethnic and tribal nature of north-east India. Maoists can’t win over the locally distressed in large numbers unless they take a leaf from their former comrades in Nepal (former, because their joining government with non-Maoist political parties since 2006 is seen by Indian Maoists as “revisionist”!). During years of rebellion, Nepal’s Maoists promised several minority ethnic groups, from the Rai to Mhadeshi, that they would ensure specific autonomies and benefits to safeguard their aspirations. A reason for the ongoing political fracas in Nepal is the inability of Maoists to lock ethno-regionally specific guarantees in the new constitution.
CPI (Maoist) might find that their comrades in Manipur, who also profess leftwing ideology, are driven more by interests of operating within a Meitei identity, typical of the Vaishnavism—or, the resurgent, indigenous Sanamahi worship that pre-dates the formal adoption of Vaishnavism in the 18th century—that drives the majority of residents of Imphal valley. Similar impulses drive United National Liberation Front, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup and even a relatively new group, Maoist Communist Party of Manipur. (The Naga and Kuki ethnicities of Manipur, whose homelands form a formidable ring around Imphal valley, have their own rebel persuasions.)
In this situation, it may help to track China’s interests. North-east India is its long-professed backyard. Indian intelligence practitioners possess documents that show senior leaders of some Manipuri rebel groups being approached by—and responding to—organizations that reportedly are fronts for China’s intelligence apparatus. A future corollary of concern? That China develops camaraderie towards “mainland” Indian Maoist rebels, a species it has for long ignored, preferring all these years to feed—directly or through third-country proxies—north-east Indian rebellions.
The developing story may be less about the Great Helmsman, and more about the Great Game.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues of conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and the just-published Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.
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