Is communist ideology good for India?


Rahul Pandita

Rahul Pandita surrounded by rebels (& copy private)
is a journalist and author of the book "Hello, Bastar: The Untold Story of India's Maoist Movement". He has been reporting from the regions where Maoists are active for years and interviewed the leader of the movement in 2009. He currently works as a senior editor for the daily newspaper "The Hindu" in New Delhi.

Translation: Stefan Mentschel

History of the Maoist Guerrilla Movement in India

Maoist rebels control entire areas in east and central India where the Indian state is barely present. They are supported by the people who live there, whose everyday life is marked by hunger and poverty. The government is finding it difficult to master the problem - also because it does not take the causes seriously enough.

An attack on a train attributed to the Maoist rebels in 2010 in the Indian state of West Bengal killed 65 passengers and injured more than 200. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

India has years of experience in dealing with armed insurgency. But none has been as challenging as the Maoist rebellion in east and central India, which has turned into a kind of civil war in the heart of the country. There are whole stretches of land there that are de facto controlled by Maoists and in which the Indian state is barely present. A few years ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Maoists as the "greatest threat to the country's internal security". The state has now dispatched more than 100,000 security forces to the affected regions to deal with the situation. But there is no end in sight to the uprising.

Naxalbari inspired and radicalized an entire generation

The seeds of the rebellion were planted almost half a century ago in West Bengal - in the Naxalbari region on the border with Nepal and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Mainly members of the native Indian population lived there, the Adivasi, who had to earn their living as day laborers in the fields of rich farmers. The big landowners kept a large part of the harvest for themselves, so that the Adivasi did not even have enough to feed their families. Conflicts over the distribution of the harvest were the order of the day.

There was famine in many parts of India in the mid-1960s, affecting millions. The situation was particularly devastating in states such as Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, where numerous people died. According to a study, at that time five percent of farmers owned more than 40 percent of the arable land. This led to a constant struggle for survival, especially for the landless peasants. To counteract famine, the government implemented a reform of agriculture. Although the so-called Green Revolution made it possible to increase food production considerably, new lines of conflict arose, as only large farmers who could raise the money for artificial fertilizers and modern agricultural equipment benefited from it.

Inspired by Mao Zedong and his communist ideology, a group led by an activist named Charu Majumdar began to become politically active in Naxalbari. Within a short time she succeeded in motivating the landless farmers to defend themselves against injustices that had existed for generations. The violence first broke out in May 1967 after a police inspector was killed by the rebels. In mid-1968 some insurgents went to China, where they received military and political training. The Maoists were soon called "Naxalites" - after the village where the spark of the revolution ignited. In the end, he was crushed by the army with the help of the rebellion.

Although the Naxalbari uprising failed, it inspired a whole generation of young people for whom it was the beginning of a political radicalization process. In any case, the late 1960s were an exciting time for the world's youth. The Cultural Revolution had begun in China. The US was beaten in Vietnam. Angry youths threw fire bombs on police cars in the streets of Calcutta. The children of influential families who studied at prestigious universities abandoned lucrative careers and moved to remote parts of the country to join the revolution. For these young Indians, Naxalbari was both a model and a glimmer of hope. Eventually the rebellion spread to other regions - for example to Midnapore west of Calcutta or to Bihar.

Expansion of the Maoist sphere of influence: "Out into the villages"

The Maoist movement in its current expansion and strength is the spirit child of the teacher Kondapalli Seetharamaiah from the Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh. As a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), he initially participated in an anti-feudal movement in the Telangana region. Later, when the party split, he joined Charu Majumdar's faction, nicknamed "Marxist-Leninist" (Communist Party of India / Marxist-Leninist, CPI / ML).

Seetharamaiah was convinced of Mao's idea to first establish a basis for the guerrillas, without which a revolution could not be successful. As early as 1938 Mao had written: "History has seen many peasant uprisings, none of which have been successful. In the age of modern communication and technology, it would therefore be wrong to continue to believe that you can win as vagabond rebels." Seetharamaiah had also learned from personal experience that an uprising without safe retreats is impossible for the fighters. In addition to underground work, however, he also concentrated on building legal front organizations and mass movements.

The radical political ideas of KS, as Seetharamaiah is called, inspired students at the universities of Andhra Pradesh. Many of them fully committed themselves to a life for the "people's revolution". KS also founded the Radical Students Union (RSU) on October 12, 1974. The first RSU Congress with thousands of participants took place in Hyderabad in 1975, where the connection between the student movement and the ideas of the revolution was discussed. In 1978 another front organization was formed, the Radical Youth League (RYL).

Soon afterwards, RSU and RYL started a campaign called "Go to the Villages" camgain. As a brilliant strategist, KS developed this method to bring the rebelling students together with the farmers. It was also an effective way of spreading the party program among the peasantry and finding active supporters among the villagers. Some of the young comrades later recalled that they often traveled for days in remote areas, had little to eat, and that some of them passed out from exhaustion.

Massive exploitation of the Adivasi by traders and officials

On April 22nd, 1980, Lenin's birthday, KS announced the founding of the CPI / ML (People's War), a new Marxist-Leninist party with the addition "People's War", which dedicated itself to armed struggle and later became the People's War Group (analogously : People's War Movement, PWG) should make a name for itself. In June 1980 KS sent the first seven units, each with five to seven members, to the forest areas of Dandakaranya on the east bank of the Godavari River. There the Maoists started their political work among women and children, who made a poor living by collecting leaves from an ebony tree - tendu -.

In the entire low mountain range of Dandakaranya, which includes the Bastar district (now Chhattisgarh), Gadchiroli in Maharashtra and parts of northern Telangana, the Adivasi lived under poor conditions. Traders and government officials mercilessly exploited the people. For hard work like collecting bamboo for paper production or Tendu leaves for making Beedi cigarettes, they paid starvation wages. The Adivasi received just five paisas or 0.05 rupees for a bundle of 100 tendu leaves, and one rupee for 120 bamboo sticks (today's value around one euro cent). The Adivasi had no influence on the payment, because this was negotiated by the entrepreneurs with the village chiefs, who also benefited.

After the Maoists had become active in the region and the Adivasi had increasingly mobilized politically, the situation changed. In the beginning, people were extremely suspicious of the Maoists. But within a few years they managed to gain a foothold in the entire region. There they initially did development work. However, they soon concentrated on using force against state officials and members of the security forces. The first Maoist fighters were trained in the handling of weapons by rebels from the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from the island state of Sri Lanka.

Ten thousand well-trained Maoist fighters and a "part-time army"

In 2004 the PWG and other Maoist groups formed a new party, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) or CPI (Maoist). In the following years the Maoists gained considerably in strength and put the Indian state under considerable pressure with heavy attacks. In April 2010, Maoist fighters killed 76 police officers in a single attack in the Bastar region. That was the highest number of victims that Indian security forces had to complain about in an attack in their own country. According to the Interior Ministry in Delhi, a total of almost 8,500 people lost their lives in the conflict between 2003 and 2012. Around 60 percent of them were civilians, 20 percent each belonged to the Maoist rebels or the security forces.

The main fighting unit of the Maoists is called the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) and comprises around 10,000 well-trained fighters, many of them women. Overall, around 40 percent of the Maoist rebels are female. In addition to the PLGA, the Maoists rely on the support of thousands of Adivasi in their strongholds. These people are able to handle simple weapons and work "part-time" with the Maoist whenever their services are required.

The Maoist leadership comes mainly from the cities. Its current commander in chief is Mupalla Laxmana Rao, who is known by his battle name Ganapathi. He is in his early 60s, has a degree in science and is from northern Telangana. In general, the current leadership of the Maoists is dominated by men from this region, whose mother tongue is Telugu. This goes back mainly to the 1980s, when many young people were encouraged by relatives and friends to join the Maoist movement. The sociologist Doug McAdam from Stanford University calls the "strong-tie" phenomenon.

The Maoists obtain their weapons from attacks on security forces, among other things. During a raid on an arsenal in Orissa in 2008, they captured thousands of modern weapons such as AK-47 assault rifles. In some regions the Maoists run arms factories themselves. In addition, they are now getting weapons made in China. These are smuggled into northeast India via Myanmar and Bangladesh, from where they get to central India with the help of local rebel groups.

Under pressure, but motivated and ready to fight

In recent years, the Maoists have come under increasing pressure due to continued operations by the security forces. In addition, there is a leadership crisis, as the majority of top executives have either been arrested or killed. The remaining cadres are almost all over 60 years old, with some senior members of the party recently turning their backs in protest at the dominance of Telugu-speaking cadres. The recruitment of new members from urban and student milieus has now almost completely come to a standstill.

But to say that the Maoists are finished would be premature. They still have the capacity to strike and target representatives of the Indian state, as recent attacks against security forces and politicians have shown. The Maoists are still highly motivated and know the area in which they operate - in contrast to the security forces, who have to struggle with considerable problems in view of the harsh nature and lack of infrastructure in the primeval forests of central India.

For years, the Indian government insisted that the Maoist rebellion was a problem of law and order. But due to the increased reporting in the Indian media, the political leaders have come to realize that the uprising is primarily due to socio-economic problems. The urban Maoist leadership may have joined the movement for ideological reasons. But the Adivasi, who make up the core of the guerrillas, let hunger, poverty and marginalization take up arms.

The vacuum that the Indian state left behind in many places was filled by the Maoists. To this day there are Adivasi who do not know that an institution like the Indian central government even exists. For these people, the Maoists are the government - not least because New Delhi has never been interested in them.

In the meantime the government has promised to develop economically the regions affected by Maoist violence. So far, however, not much has happened - and the Adivasi are caught in the war between the Maoists and the state. Nobody knows what exactly is going on in the name of counterinsurgency in the remote regions of the country. However, there are indications that Adivasi are being robbed of their livelihoods and driven from their homeland under the pretext of fighting the Maoists. One reason for this is the wealth of natural resources in the troubled region. In its greed for raw materials, the Indian state seems to have long since decided to ignore the rights of its citizens living there.