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From Naxalbari to Chhattisgarh : Half-a-century of Maoist Journey in India

Even as the Naxalite/Maoist movement continues to haunt the Indian state, its future is not secure, for Mao’s revolutionary strategy for China of the 1920–40 period is no longer applicable in today’s India. The movement has, however, unwittingly acted as a catalyst of progressive reform in rural India. A post-Maoist revolutionary strategy is, nevertheless, long overdue.

A peasant uprising in May 1967 in an obscure corner of the north- eastern tip of West Bengal, called Naxalbari, triggered off a movement that has continued to haunt the Indian state for the last 50 years. Although the uprising was crushed by the police within a few months, from then on, nothing could ever be quite the same in India. The burning embers under the bodies of those who were cremated (the peasant protestors killed by the police, who are still revered as martyrs in the historiography of the Naxalbari movement), sparked fires in other parts of the country. As, some years later, a Hindi poet from North India was to express the mood of solidarity with the name of Naxalbari :

…This simple word of four syllables

Is not just the name of a village,

But the name of the whole country. [1]

The spread of the message from that village to other parts of the country during the last half a century raises certain basic socio-economic and political issues :

(i) the Naxalite/Maoist armed struggle had been the longest surviving revolutionary movement in the history of peasant resistance in India. Its sustenance can be attributed to the continuity of grievances of the rural poor, particularly the Dalits and tribals, whom the Communist Party of India (Maoist) [CPI(Maoist)] has been able to mobilise in a movement against the state ; (ii) the Indian state had all along responded to their grievances by following the old colonial militarist policy to suppress any protest by the peasantry in every part of India—whether the Maoist-led armed resistance in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, or even the non-violent demonstrations staged by oustees from their homes, as a result of projects like the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat, or the POSCO steel plant in Odisha ; and (iii) the need for self-introspection among the leaders and followers of CPI(Maoist) regarding their strategy and tactics, and the future direction of the movement.

It may be useful in this connection to recount in brief the trajectory of the Naxalite movement during the last 50 years.

Three Phases of the Movement

The first phase of the Naxalite movement (from 1967 during which it spread to Srikakulam and other parts of India) reached an end in 1975, when the imposition of the Emergency, accompanied by ruthless police action, snuffed out whatever little pockets the Naxalites had occupied in scattered parts of the country. The lifting of the Emergency, and the general elections of 1977 which installed a United Front government at the centre, allowed the release of Naxalite leaders and activists.

This led to the second phase of the movement, which was marked by an internal debate about the strategy and tactics to be adopted in the future. This debate also raised questions about the role of the Communist Party of China in inspiring and supporting the early stage of the movement (which was hailed by Peking Radio as a “Spring Thunder”), its later distancing from it, and still later (in the 1977–79 period), its propounding of the “Three Worlds” theory, under which it virtually advocated an alliance with the United States to defeat the Soviet Union which it considered to be its “main enemy” in those days. [2] As for the debate over strategy and tactics, among the old survivors of the movement and the new followers who joined it, they moved in two different directions (not necessarily depending on the generation gap)—one prioritising participation in parliamentary elections, trade union activities and mass agitations, the other returning to the old policy (charted out by Charu Mazumdar) of village-based armed struggle to seize power. The CPI (Marxist–Leninist) (Liberation) could be recognised as the main proponent of the trend that put stress on mass agitations and participation in elections.

Those who chose to follow the other direction of armed insurrection claimed to be the rightful owners of the legacy of Naxalbari. They were represented mainly by the CPI(Marxist–Leninist) (People’s War) [CPI(ML)(PW)] and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC)—which resorted to the old path of peasant-based guerrilla warfare.

During this second phase of the movement, it was the CPI(ML)(PW), in the decade spanning 1990 and 2000, which was able to regain the Naxalite space in the Indian political scenario. Primarily based in Andhra Pradesh, and led by a charismatic Communist revolutionary, Kondapally Seetharamaiah, the PW could expand its influence and control a large terrain bordering Odisha and parts of Maharashtra. Here the party picked up the threads from Srikakulam of the 1970s, and mobilised the rural poor around the old issues like land to the tiller and minimum wages for agricultural labourers. The CPI(ML)(PW) guerrillas drove out the local feudal oppressors and commercial exploiters, and introduced alternative mechanisms of governance that ensured equitable distribution of resources and social justice through popular participation.

At around the same time, the MCC had set up bases in Bihar, carrying out similar revolutionary activities. In 2004, the PW and the MCC, and several other Naxalite armed groups, merged into a newly named political party called the CPI (Maoist).

This inaugurated the third phase of the Naxalite movement. It could embrace a vast territory stretching from Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha in the east, through Chhattisgarh and bordering parts of Maharashtra in the centre and the west, and to Andhra Pradesh in the south. Their achievements were acknowledged even by a government-appointed committee, which submitted its report to the Planning Commission in April 2008. This report described how, over several years, the Maoists organised their base in inaccessible and neglected forest and hilly areas, whose inhabitants (mainly tribals) had been denied their basic rights like minimum wages (for tobacco leaf pickers in Andhra Pradesh, for instance), and had been exposed to violence by feudal landlords, private contractors, forest guards and police. In these base areas, the Maoists carried out land reforms, established schools and provided health facilities, thus acting as a sort of surrogate government—described by them as janatana sarkar, or people’s government. [3]fWriters like Arundhati Roy and Jan Myrdal, journalists and social activists like Gautam Navlakha, and film-makers like Soumitra Dastidar who visited these areas during the last decade have recorded the achievements, as well as the limitations, of the Maoist movement in these zones under their occupation. [4]

The State’s Response

The Indian state—whether ruled by the Congress or the present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—has been consistently following a policy of belligerent militarist repression against the Naxalite movement, despite repeated warnings by its own agencies that what needed to be done was to redress the economic and social inequities. In 1969, when the Naxalite movement was spreading fast, the research and publicity division of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs came out with a report which acknowledged that

The basic cause of unrest, namely, the defective implementation of laws enacted to protect the interests of the tribals, remains ; unless this is attended to, it would not be possible to win the confidence of the tribals whose leadership has been taken over by the extremists.“ [5]

Some 40 years later, a government-appointed team of experts came out with a report for the Planning Commission, referred to earlier, reasserting almost in the same descriptive terms as the 1969 report, that the socio-economic conditions of the rural poor, especially Dalits and tribals, had not improved during the last three decades—as a result of which they had gravitated towards the Maoists who were offering them parallel structures of decentralised administration as an alternative to the police–politician–contractor dominated hierarchical power structure.

Instead of heeding such advice and warnings, and solving the socio-economic problems of the tribal people and other sections of the rural poor, the Indian state has resorted to military repression. This shameful history of repression has been well-documented by both human rights organisations in India and abroad, and well-publicised all over the world.

Political Economy of the Anti-Maoist Strategy

The latest form of police repression through the encirclement of Maoist bases and elimination of their leaders and cadres in the Dandakaranya area is fuelled by the Indian state’s need to free this area of any popular resistance against its neo-liberal model of so-called “development.” Under this model, the present rulers are opening up the womb of India’s earth—its mineral resources and forest wealth—to the rapacious multinational and domestic corporate business houses. They need places like Dandakaranya and other areas from where they can extract mineral and other natural resources to feed their industries. Such a plan of “development” necessitates the uprooting of the rural households from their homes and depriving them of their meagre sources of earnings, through the appropriation of their common space of forestlands.

It is this skewed political economy of the Indian state—bolstered by a militarist security apparatus—which has aroused the spirit of resistance, and revitalised the 50-year-old Naxalite movement. The Maoists are articulating the demand of the indigenous tribal population that they must have a voice in policies regarding the use of their natural resources. The stakes of both the Maoists and the Indian state are thus quite high in this mutual contest.

The Indian state is following a two-fold military strategy to destroy the Maoist movement—first, by capturing and killing its cadres, and second, by removing its ideologues from the leadership. The arrest of Kobad Ghandy (a well-known Maoist intellectual) and the killing of Azad in Andhra Pradesh have dealt a severe blow to the Maoist movement. Bereft of their political leaders—who have either been killed, or arrested, or forced to surrender—the well-armed Maoist cadres are now reduced to roving gangs of marauders and extortionists. The emphasis on militarism to the exclusion of ideological teaching has driven some of the cadres to anti-social activities. This alienates their sympathisers in civil society, and among human rights activists.

Future of the Naxalite/Maoist Movement

In its strategy, the CPI(Maoist) continues to adhere to Mao’s programme of agrarian revolution that was followed in China. But is it applicable in today’s India ?

As a more sophisticated bourgeois ruling class than the Chinese Guomindang, the Indian state had adopted a carrot-and-stick policy. It crushed the rebellion of the Naxalite tribals in Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam, and followed it by ameliorative measures in 1972, like setting up the Girijan Cooperative Corporation which advanced loans to the tribal farmers for agricultural improvement. In West Bengal’s Naxalbari itself, from where the Maoist movement started in 1967, the support base of the movement was neutralised by the introduction of land reforms by the Left Front government in the late 1970s, which benefited, to some extent, the poor peasantry.

The erosion of the original Maoist bases in Naxalbari and Srikakulam raises an important question. Were the peasant supporters of the Maoist programme at that time ideologically committed to the political goal of overthrowing the Indian state and replacing it with a socialist system, or were they more concerned with their immediate economic needs—ownership of their little plots which was being threatened by encroachers, minimum wages for agricultural labourers, among other demands ? Once these demands were met by an accommodating administration within the structure of the Indian state, the erstwhile peasant supporters of the Maoist movement in Naxalbari and Srikakulam in the period 1960–70 withdrew into their cocoons of an assured sustainable existence.

What is the future of today’s Maoist bases (in 2017), described in colourful terms as the Red Corridor by the media ? These guerrilla bases are besieged from all sides by the Indian state’s armed forces. Regular raids and overrunning of the guerrilla bases by the security forces are shrinking the size of the “Red Corridor” and reducing the effectiveness of Maoist armed resistance. What is also disturbing is the surrender of some major CPI(Maoist) leaders, who had been ideologically committed to the cause for years. The most notable example is that of G V K Prasad (known as Gudsa Usendi), a long-time spokesperson of the party’s Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee, who along with his live-in-companion Santoshi Markam, surrendered on 8 January 2014. Explaining the reasons for leaving the party, he said that its leadership had ignored his oft-repeated objections to acts like the destruction of school buildings and indiscriminate killing of Adivasis in the name of destroying the spy network. He added, however, that his health problems were also behind his decision to surrender. [6]

Crisis of Maoist Political Strategy and Military Tactics

These developments persuade us to examine the intrinsic factors within the Maoist movement that have led, to some extent, to its present crisis. What went wrong ? Both the political strategy, and the military tactics following from it, were flawed from the beginning. As for the political strategy based on the Chinese revolutionary paradigm, what could have been valid for China in the period 1920–40, was not universally applicable in India with its diversified agrarian society and economy that was fractured by sociocultural values and practices, driven by caste and tribal loyalties. Despite their individual courage and self-sacrifice, the Indian Maoist leaders have remained crippled by a limited understanding of these complexities of the vast heterogeneous Indian society.

Unable to formulate a multipronged strategy for these various layers of our society, the Maoists concentrated mainly on the most exploited layer—the tribal poor in the inaccessible forest and hilly areas of the Dandakaranya region of central India and Jharkhand in the east. Here, they found fertile soil for experimenting with their programme. These people fit into the Maoist class category of poor peasants. They suffer from extreme forms of economic and social exploitation by landlords, as well as displacement from their lands by multinational industrial houses—the two enemies which could be described as “semi-feudal” and “semi-colonial” in Maoist theoretical terms.

Another factor that the Maoists found to their advantage was the militant tradition of peasant jacqueries that marked the history of these tribal populations from the British colonial period. The Maoists could revive this spirit in their attempts to mobilise them against their oppressors, by recalling the heroic deeds of their past heroes like Sidhu, Kanu, and Birsa Munda.

Thus, during all these decades, the Maoist political strategy of an agrarian revolution through guerrilla struggles had remained restricted to, and been tested only in the confines of a tribal society in inaccessible forest and hilly areas. Although successful within these areas, the CPI(Maoist) has not been able to build similar armed resistance against feudal oppression in the plains areas of the rest of India. Yet, the Dalit agricultural labourers who are daily terrorised by upper-caste landlords and traders in vast stretches of the country fit into the traditional Maoist category of “poor peasants.” Is the Maoist set of strategy and tactics, therefore, fit only for a particular favourable terrain ?

A Catalytic Agent

Despite their control over only a limited stretch, the Maoists’ articulation of the demands of the rural poor had sent loud echoes across the country, which often forced the Indian state to pay heed to those demands. The Maoist movement can be described as playing the role—unwittingly though—of a positive catalytic agent for the betterment of rural society in post-independence India. Since its first manifestation in the 1967 Naxalbari uprising, and following its development during the next decades, under its pressure, a recalcitrant Indian state has been compelled to enact a number of legislative reforms relating to forest rights of tribals, minimum wages for agricultural labourers and provision of rural employment, among other similar ameliorative measures. Despite breach of these reforms in practice—siphoning off funds to the private coffers of the axis of local politicians and traders, road contractors and building mafia, denial of regular wages to labourers under the laws—these legislative measures have provided useful tools to civil society groups and human rights activists in certain parts of the country to approach the judiciary, which often pressurises the administration to adhere to the government’s commitment to meeting the needs of the poor.

But, if we leave aside these indirect beneficial spin-offs from the Maoist movement, we have to ask whether the basic Maoist strategy and tactic of capturing state power is applicable to the vast stretches of the rural plains (as well as the urban metropolises) of India, where the inhabitants cope with different types of problems emanating from various layers of the socio-economic system.

Changing Agrarian Economy

This brings us to the next problem that the Maoists have to face—the changing pattern of economy in the rural sector, which is the main site of the Maoist revolution. The changes challenge the traditional Maoist theory of agrarian relations. Recent findings suggest that India’s rural economy is undergoing radical changes—transforming the nature of landholdings, changing the character of the agricultural classes, giving birth to a footloose working class from amongst the poor peasantry who are forced to work in the non-farming sectors as contractual labourers. [7]

From the available evidence, it appears that the current trends in the Indian countryside do not conform to the conventional Maoist theoretical analysis of a rural society along a four-class categorisation of landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants and poor peasants. Such strict class divisions are being blurred by the intrusion of global neo-liberal industrial interests in the rural economy.

These powerful interests are disrupting the old economic feudal order, and dividing the rural population along different lines. The rural socio-economic power structure that was ruled by a class of big farmer-turned landlords (known as jotedars who were identified as the main class enemies by the Maoists) has been taken over by a variety of vested interests ranging from progenies of old landlords who have diversified into non-agricultural occupations like trading, services, etc, to extraneous forces like industrial houses, building contractors, road construction agencies, owners of passenger buses and trucks to carry freight, among others. They offer employment opportunities to the unemployed rural poor, which to some extent have loosened their dependence on agriculture and weakened their traditional semi-feudal ties. These rural poor have developed stakes in the economy according to their respective occupations.

We thus find a new generation of Indian rural population whose demands and requirements are different from those that were addressed by the Naxalite leaders and activists in the 1960–70 period. It is therefore difficult for the Indian Maoists today to mobilise these diverse segments of the rural poor into one homogeneous class of exploited peasants, with the single target of the amorphous “semi-feudal” system as their enemy.

A multilayered system of semi-capitalist relations, simultaneously marked by exploitation and concession, is developing in the Indian countryside. Exploitation (outside the factory system) is taking different forms—usurpation of agricultural land and forest areas by industrial and mining corporations ; recruitment of landless peasants ousted from these areas as contractual labour in construction projects ; trafficking of their women to the red light areas of cities. Concession is being meted out by these same forces of exploitation, through state-sponsored programmes like rural employment schemes as safety nets to counter the ill-effects of unemployment brought about by their industrial policies.

Their concessions also take ominous forms—like buying off sections of the exploited poor by recruiting them as paid agents for violent suppression of popular dissent. The most notorious example is the formation of the state-sponsored armed vigilante group Salwa Judum from among the tribal poor of Chhattisgarh, or the recruitment of unemployed tribal youth in the police force in Jangalmahal by the Trinamool Congress government of West Bengal to counter Maoist influence among the tribals—thus sowing seeds of division within the tribal communities.

Need for a Post-Maoist Revolutionary Strategy

In the face of this triangular challenge of exploitation, repression and concession by the state and its agents, the Indian communist revolutionaries are yet to shape a multi-level strategy that dovetails with the needs and compulsions of these various layers of the agrarian poor who inhabit the multifaceted complex that criss-crosses vast stretches of the Indian countryside—as well as other sections of the urban poor.

At the immediate level of operations, it has to revamp its entire organisational structure by purging its guerrilla squads of mercenaries and extortionists. But at a more fundamental level, it has also to break out from the time warp in which it remains trapped. It is a time warp. Its leadership imagines a situation where Mao’s strategy of revolution that succeeded in specific historical conditions in China way back in the 20th century will succeed in 21st century India.

Indian communist revolutionaries should realise that they are fighting quite a different war (and on a different turf) than what was fought by their Chinese comrades from the 1920s to the 1940s in China. They will have to forge a new strategy to cope with the neo-liberal capitalist features that mark the Indian rural economy and larger society today.

Besides, they need to fight the other threat of religious fundamentalism (represented mainly by the Hindutva-oriented armed organisations like the Bajrang Dal, which are patronised by a BJP-ruled centre). At its ninth Congress in 2007, the CPI(Maoist) recognised this threat by adopting a resolution “Against Hindu Fascism,” where it pledged to “do its best to defend the sections of the population targeted by the Hindu fascists,” and added that it was “willing to unite in a broad front with all the genuine democratic forces which would be willing to fight back the Hindu fascist offensive….” Ten years have passed, and yet it has done pretty little to rouse its armed squads to fight the Sangh Parivar goons who are on a killing spree against Dalits and Muslims all over India.

In order to resist the fascism of Hindutva, the present leaders of the Maoist movement need to move beyond exclusivist class-based politics, and formulate suitable tactics to “defend the sections of the population targeted by Hindu fascists,” as they pledged in their 2007 resolution. They should also recognise the importance of the new forms of popular protest against the neo-liberal economy—ranging from non-violent mass agitations like the Narmada Bachao movement against big dams, to sporadic explosions of violence by villagers resisting their displacement by multinational industrial projects like POSCO in Odisha, or popular demonstrations against special economic zones or nuclear plants.

The post-Maoist political strategy must include these popular concerns and form linkages with these social movements. This can help the hitherto isolated communist revolutionaries to become a part of the mainstream of popular resistance, dialectically interact with various movements, and both influence and learn from them, to be able to move further towards their goal of setting up a people’s democratic state.


[1Kumar Vikal, “The Name of a Village,” translated from Hindi, in Thema Book of Naxalite Poetry, edited by Sumanta Banerjee (Kolkata : Thema, 2009). - See more at : http://www.epw.in/journal/2017/21/naxalbari-and-after/naxalbari-chhattisgarh.html-0#sthash.osiifzyy.dpuf

[2In fact, the Communist Party of China (CPC) had always played an opportunist role, by choosing any stick to beat the Indian government with to suit its immediate national interests. Just a few months before the uprising at Naxalbari (which it was later to describe as “the front paw of the revolutionary armed struggle”), it chose to hail a violent mayhem in the streets of Delhi on 7 November 1966, created by a band of Hindu fanatics demanding a ban on cow slaughter ! Supporting these goons, the CPC’s official organ Jen-min Jinpao (People’s Daily), in its issue of 12 November 1966, described it as “a violent eruption of the Indian people’s pent up feelings against the Government… and a signal of the sharpening of class contradictions in India.” The CPC’s support to the Naxalite movement (which lasted for a brief period from 1967 to 1970) thus looks more like an attempt to find yet another tool (whether the Hindu communalists or the Naga insurgents) to create as much nuisance as possible for India. A detailed account of the complex relationship between the CPC and the Indian Maoists in the context of the changing priorities of Chinese national interests is available in the present author’s book, In The Wake of Naxalbari (Kolkata : Sahitya Samsad, 2008). The book was first published by the Kolkata publisher Subarnarekha in 1980. - See more at : http://www.epw.in/journal/2017/21/naxalbari-and-after/naxalbari-chhattisgarh.html-0#sthash.osiifzyy.dpuf

[3Report of the Expert Group Set Up by the Government of India to Examine Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas (New Delhi : Planning Commission), Chapter III, April 2008. - See more at : http://www.epw.in/journal/2017/21/naxalbari-and-after/naxalbari-chhattisgarh.html-0#sthash.osiifzyy.dpu

[4Arundhati Roy, “Walking with the Comrades,” Outlook, 29 May 2010 ; Gautam Navlakha, Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion (New Delhi : Penguin Books, 2012) ; Jan Myrdal, Red Star Over India (Kolkata : Setu Prakashani, 2012). Soumitra Dastidar’s documentary film covering more than a decade of the armed struggle in the Maoist belt is yet to be released. His book in Bengali, recording his experiences, entitled Maobadi Deray Ajana Kahini, has been brought out by Offbeat Publications, Calcutta in 2012. - See more at : http://www.epw.in/journal/2017/21/naxalbari-and-after/naxalbari-chhattisgarh.html-0#sthash.osiifzyy.dpuf

[5The Causes and Nature of Current Agrarian Tensions,” an unpublished monograph prepared by the Research and Publicity Division, Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi, 1969, p 9. - See more at : http://www.epw.in/journal/2017/21/naxalbari-and-after/naxalbari-chhattisgarh.html-0#sthash.osiifzyy.dpuf

[6Indian Express, 24 January 2014.

[7For a well-documented, theoretical analysis of these changes, I would like to draw the attention of all to two important articles : (i) “Does ‘Landlordism’ Still Matter ? Reflections on Agrarian Change in India” by John Harriss ; and (ii) “Maoist Movement in India : Some Political Economy Considerations” by Deepankar Basu and Debarshi Das. Both the articles were published in the Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol 13, No 3, July 2013. - See more at : http://www.epw.in/journal/2017/21/naxalbari-and-after/naxalbari-chhattisgarh.html-0#sthash.osiifzyy.dpuf

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.