Home >Opinion >Online-views >The curious case of Maoists in Kerala

Among all conflict-related updates this past week, there was a curious one from South Asia Terrorism Portal. The New Delhi-based aggregator highlighted anti-business incidents in Kerala that local authorities attribute to Maoists.

On 18 November, the office and staff quarters of a resort in the state’s northern, relatively forested, and relatively poor Wayanad district was trashed. Attackers left behind posters celebrating the 10th anniversary of the formation of Communist Party of India (Maoist). The pre-eminent left-wing rebel conglomerate had arrived at that milestone in September 2014.

This was preceded by an incident on 10 November, when a group of nine masked men partly trashed the corporate office of Kochi-based Nitta Gelatin India Ltd. Witnesses claim the attackers spoke Malayalam and Hindi: they accused a Nitta plant of polluting Chalakkudy river, which lies to the northeast of the metropolitan area, and generally ignoring the welfare of local residents. A Maoist zonal committee claimed credit for the attack by what it calls its urban action team.

At first look, these attacks seem more Greenpeace than Maoist, flashy propaganda hit than part of a protracted war. The terrorism portal cites a CPI (Maoist) leader from central India as having denied the Kochi attack, raising speculation that it could have been perpetrated by local activists. After all, Kerala-based activists have a history of taking on businesses seen as polluting; or predatory in terms of depleting vital natural resources like water and soil nutrients—such targets have included marquee names like Coca-Cola India.

But the denial could equally be a ploy to diminish focus on an as-yet-small but dedicated band of city-based sympathizers. (Maoists have not denied the attack in Wayanad—a tiny but telling demonstration of we-are-for-the poor—located in a planned expansion area near the tri-junction of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.)

Whatever the claims and counter-claims, the episodes provide an interesting insight into Maoist play at a crucial time for the rebellion.

Various left-wing rebel incarnations since the 1960s meticulously conducted studies of what they termed objective conditions for rebellion. Such studies have sampled eastern, central and southern India. The 1980s Report from the Flaming Fields of Bihar by Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), for example, was for long a Bible for students and practitioners of rebellion. A study by Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Peoples War in the 1990s planned the penetration of southern Chhattisgarh of the present day, within the Maoist stronghold of the Dandakaranya region. The group also sampled several parts of southern India. A key work was a study of objective conditions in the Malnad region of western Karnataka: poor, underdeveloped, with deep-rooted caste-based exploitation along the Western Ghats. This area abuts northern Kerala.

The studies travelled with CPI (M-L) Peoples War when they merged in 2004 with Maoist Communist Centre of India to form CPI (Maoist). Such rebel wisdom also included a document from that year, ‘Urban Perspective: Our Plan in Urban Areas’. It’s a revealing, sometimes chilling, blueprint of thought and possible action that wove together networking with the disillusioned, dispossessed and plain angry in Indian cities—counting among them residents of slums, labourers, incensed students and intellectuals, even allies among so-called civil society groups.

Alongside, CPI (Maoist) has maintained a steady pitch against the race for economic growth at any cost—usually to the poor and powerless. A 10th anniversary statement by CPI (Maoist)’s central committee shrieks disapproval: “The Central and State governments…had already signed a huge number of agreements, selling out the resources to foreign and Indian corporates…Now they are under greater pressure…the imperialist MNCs and Indian compradors, ever more desperate to plunder the resources of our country and exploit the labouring classes to the hilt. Therefore the added haste to crush the struggling people, no matter how much blood is shed."

While this last point is aimed mostly at the extractive industry and other big, land- and habitat-hungry projects in east, north and central India, several rebel plans of action appear to have come together in a nascent manner in Kerala.

Despite crushing pressure since 2009 on Maoist resources and networks in general, combined with the state’s police having twigged on relatively early to Maoist ingress—Maoists have been far less aggressive here than in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu—Kerala has remained on the wishful-thinking radar of the rebels. Doing a Greenpeace, as it were, could yet prove to be an exploratory, and important, step in a new phase of rebel activity with implications in rural and urban areas of other states.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His previous books include 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.

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