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23.4.2014 | Von:
Rahul Pandita

The war in the heartland

A brief history of the Maoist insurgency in India

Bei einem, den maoistioschen Rebellen zugeschriebenen, Anschlag auf einen Zug kamen 2010 im indischen Bundesstaat West-Bengalen 65 Passagiere ums Leben, mehr als 200 wurden verletzt.Bei einem, den maoistioschen Rebellen zugeschriebenen, Anschlag auf einen Zug kamen 2010 im indischen Bundesstaat West-Bengalen 65 Passagiere ums Leben, mehr als 200 wurden verletzt. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

India has a long experience of dealing with insurgencies. But nothing has proven to be more challenging than the Maoist rebellion in central and eastern India that has led to a civil war of sorts in its very heart. Today, there are large swathes of land where the Maoist writ runs large. There is complete absence, or very little presence, of the Indian state in these areas. A few years ago, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed the Maoists as the country's "biggest internal security threat." Today, the Indian state has pressed more than 100,000 security personnel in the Maoist-affected states. But the insurgency is far from over.

Naxalbari inspired and radicalised a whole generation of youth

The first seed of Maoist rebellion was sown almost half a century years ago in a small area in West Bengal. The Naxalbari area lay along Nepal and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), mostly inhabited by Adivasis, India's indigenous people. Most of them were landless peasants, working on a contractual basis on land owned by big landlords. They were treated very badly. The landlords took a lion's share of the crop, and the poor peasants did not get even enough to eat. Disputes over the sharing of harvest were very common.

In the mid 1960s, India was facing a severe food crisis. Millions of people were affected by the shortage of food. Many died of starvation. According to a survey of land ownership conducted around that time, it was revealed – and these were termed as conservative estimates – that 40 percent of the land was owned by only 5 percent of rural households. Life was a constant challenge for India's landless poor. On top of it, famines struck across India, in states like Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. To tide over the food crisis, the government envisaged and implemented the Green Revolution. While it did increase India's food grain output, the Green Revolution also created further disparities in society. It benefited only those farmers who could afford to buy chemical fertilisers and modern agricultural equipment.

Inspired by China's Mao Zedong and its ideology, a group of people, led by a man called Charu Majumdar began to work among the landless in Naxalbari. In short time, the peasants got organised and they began to fight the injustice meted out to them for generations. The violence began in May 1967, after a police inspector was killed by the rebels. In mid 1968, a group of these communists went to China to receive military and political training. The Maoist rebels began to be called as "Naxals" – from the village of Naxalbari where the first spark erupted. The Indian state sent its army that came down heavily on the rebels, managing to crush the rebellion in 72 days. Most of the leaders were arrested.

The Naxalbari movement might have failed but it inspired a whole generation of youth and served as an initiation to radical politics. In fact, the late 60s were heady days for the youth all across the world. In China a cultural revolution was in the offing. America was receiving a beating in Vietnam. On the streets of Calcutta, angry, restless youth were hurling crude bombs at police vans. Students from affluent families, studying in prestigious institutions were bidding goodbye to lucrative careers and going to the forests of Bihar and elsewhere to participate in the revolution. For such youth in India, Naxalbari became the shining light. And from there, the rebellion spread to other areas as well – to Midnapore in Bengal and to Bihar.

Widening Maoist influence: "Go to the village campaign"

The current Maoist movement and its strength is mostly the brain child of a school teacher in Andhra Pradesh's Warangal district. Kondapalli Seetharamaiah was involved in the anti-feudal Telangana movement in his state as a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Later, when the party split, he joined Charu Majumdar's breakaway faction, the Communist Party of India / Marxist-Leninist or CPI-ML. Seetharamaiah was inspired by Mao's principle of establishing a base area or a 'rear' for the guerrillas without which, he said, the revolution could not succeed. As early as 1938 Mao had written: 'History knows many peasant wars of the "roving rebel" type, but none of them ever succeeded. In the present age of advanced communications and technology, it would be all the more groundless to imagine that one can win victory by fighting in the manner of roving rebels.'

From his experience in Andhra Pradesh, Seetharamaiah had learnt that it was not possible to fight without first acquiring a safe base where the guerrillas could be trained, and which could also serve as a sanctuary for the rebels. At the same time he also laid emphasis on creating mass overground organisations.

Inspired by KS, as Seetharamaiah was popularly known, a number of students from Andhra Pradesh's colleges got attracted to radical politics. Many of them vowed to not have a family and dedicate their life to the cause of the "people's revolution." KS also saw to the formation of the Radical Students Union (RSU) on 12 October 1974. Its first State Conference was held in February 1975 in Hyderabad to strategise on how students' movements could be linked to the idea of revolution. Thousands of students attended the conference. In 1978, another overground organisation, Radical Youth League (RYL) was formed.

Together with RSU and a cultural troupe, the members of RYL began what was called the "Go to the village campaign". Brilliant strategist that KS was, he devised this method to enable the rebel students to integrate with the peasants. It was an effective method to push the party's agenda among the peasantry.

Adivasis were exploited badly by contractors and officials

During the summer holidays, students would form groups and each group would then cover a few villages. The students were so dedicated that in some cases they would be out for days in remote areas. Some comrades would later recall how they wouldn't get anything to eat for days, and a few of them even fainted with exhaustion. During such village campaigns, the student leaders would make the people politically aware and also gather information about the land-based relationships in the rural society. They would also look out for potential activists among the villagers.

On 22 April 1980, Lenin's birth anniversary, KS announced the formation of the CPI-ML (People's War), a new party that would carry forward the line of armed struggle. It was more popularly called the People's War Group (PWG). Ultimately, in the June of 1980, KS sent seven batches of five to seven people each to set up a base on the other side of the Godavari River – that is in the Dandakaranya forests, of which the Bastar region formed the largest portion. In North Telangana, the Maoist cadre began work among the women and children who hardly made a living collecting leafs of a local variety of the ebony tree, called tendu.

In the entire Dandakaranya forest area, comprising Bastar, the Gadchiroli region in Maharashtra, and in North Telangana, the condition of the Adivasis was pathetic. They were exploited badly by contractors, forest officials and other government servants. Those who collected bamboo sticks (for paper production) and tendu leaf (used in making beedi-cigarettes) were paid a pittance for their hard labour. For a bundle of 100 tendu leaves an Adivasi would be paid five paise. Similarly, one rupee would be paid for 120 sticks of bamboo. The Adivasis had no say in matters of rate. It was fixed by the contractor in consultation with the village headman.

After the Maoists came, this whole scenario changed. The Maoists made the Adivasis politically aware. Initially, the poor people were very wary of the Maoists. But within a few years, the Maoists entrenched themselves in this entire area. They undertook a lot of development work in this region. But soon, their whole focus was shifted to fighting the state forces. The first lot of Maoists was trained by a faction of the Tamil insurgent group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from the island state of Sri Lanka.

10,000 well-trained Maoist soldiers and a "part-time" Adivasi force

In 2004, the PWG merged with another major Maoist party, MCC – active in Bihar – to form the CPI (Maoist). From this time onwards, the Maoist gained a lot of strength and brought the Indian state under tremendous pressure by undertaking some audacious attacks on the state machinery. In one attack in April 2010, the Maoist guerrillas killed 76 police personnel in an attack in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. This is the highest casualty incurred by the security forces in a single attack anywhere in India. According to the Indian Home Ministry, between 2003 and 2012 nearly 8500 people lost theirs lives in the insurgency, almost 60 percent of them were civilians, 20 percent each belonged to the Maoist rebels and the Indian security forces .

The main fighting unit of the Maoists is called the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA). It consists of roughly 10,000 well-trained soldiers, many of them women. In fact, more than 40 percent of the Maoist guerrillas are women. Apart from PLGA, the Maoists rely on its base force, comprising of thousands of Adivasis in their bastions. Those in the base force can handle rudimentary weapons and work "part-time" with Maoists as and when their services are required.

The leadership comes mostly from the urban areas. The current supreme commander of the Maoists is Mupalla Laxmana Rao who is known by his nom-de-guerre Ganapathi. In his early sixties, Ganapathi is a science graduate and comes from North Telangana of Andhra Pradesh. The current Maoist leadership is dominated by Telugu-speaking cadre from that region. In the 1980s, many men were inspired to join the Maoist fold by their relatives or friends in the college. The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam calls this "strong-tie" phenomenon.

The Maoists mostly possess weapons looted from the Indian security forces. In an attack on a police armoury in Orissa in 2008 for example, they managed to loot away thousands of sophisticated weapons like AK-47 assault rifles. In many areas, they also run gun factories. Also, weapons are sourced from China through Northeast insurgent groups. These are smuggled into Northeast India through Myanmar and Bangladesh and eventually make their way to the Maoists.

Under increasing pressure, but still motivated and ready to fight

In the last two years though, the Maoists seem to be under pressure on account of sustained security operations. They are also facing a severe leadership crunch as most of their top leaders have either been arrested or killed in police encounters, many of which seem to be fake. The recruitment from urban areas has also more or less dried up. The leadership is ageing, with most of the leaders above 60. Many leaders have also deserted the party, citing the hegemony of Telugu leadership as main cause.

But to say, the Maoists are out would be premature. They still have the capacity to strike against the Indian state as is visible from the recent attacks on security forces and political leaders. They are highly motivated and know the terrain very well – unlike Indian security forces who struggle in the absence of modern facilities and harsh jungle terrain.

For years, the government of India insisted that the Maoist rebellion is a law and order problem. But with sharp media focus since mid 2000s, it has been forced to accept, though reluctantly, that the rebellion is mainly a socio-economic problem. The leadership from the urban areas may have joined the rebellion because of their belief in Maoist ideology. But the Adivasis who form the core of the guerrillas are into it because of hunger and deprivation and marginalisation. The void left by the Indian state has just been filled by the Maoists. There are Adivasis who do not even know that there is an entity called the Government of India. For them, the Maoists are the government simply because New Delhi has chosen to rule them in absentia.

The Indian state has promised that it will bring development in the Maoist-affected areas. But so far, nothing significant has been achieved. In the meantime, the poor Adivasis are stuck in the war between the Maoists and the Indian state. In remote areas, it is almost impossible to know what is happening on the name of security operations against the Maoists. The poor Adivasis and their habitat are getting destroyed. In its greed for natural resources that are in abundance in the Maoist-affected areas, the Indian state has chosen to forget its people and the promises made to them by the founding father of the nation.

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