A revolutionary movement that began several decades ago is acquiring the momentum to pose an enduring threat to India’s political stability and economic development.
By Prem Mahadevan
Since 2004, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly described Maoist revolutionaries as constituting the country’s most severe internal security threat. Notwithstanding such apocalyptic language, little consensus exists within the Indian polity about the nature and gravity of this threat. By focusing on the need to address the ‘root causes’ of political militancy, analysts and politicians alike have shown little appreciation for the underlying dynamics that sustain revolutionary violence. Meanwhile, the Maoists have established a presence in approximately 225 of India’s 626 administrative districts, affecting 40 percent of its land area and 35 percent of its population. Perhaps no other insurgent movement in recent history can boast a comparable rate of expansion.
The spring thunder of 1967
Conventional discourse holds that the Maoist rebellion began in May 1967, when a group of militant Marxists in the Indian province of West Bengal attempted to forcibly redistribute land to the local peasantry. Fighting broke out for a brief time in the obscure village of Naxalbari, only to be suppressed by police. Thereafter, the rebels became popularly known as ‘Naxalites’ or ‘Naxals’ and expanded their activities to other provinces across India.
The initial rebellion was a disorganized, ad hoc affair, driven by local grievances and carried over from the colonial era. Its character was similar to 19th century peasant revolts, with attempts to uproot patronage networks originally built to sustain the colonial regime. These networks were partly based on caste differences – a rigid form of class discrimination prevalent in rural Indian society – and were susceptible to gross abuses of power. Although the Indian state had outlawed caste prejudice, its weak administrative capacity meant that power structures at the village level remained biased in favor of established elites. Rebels continued to describe India as a colonial state, in need of liberation through comprehensive regime change.
A series of ideological splits during the late 1960s and early 1970s weakened the Maoist rebellion. The rebels were unsure, for instance, of how to react to China’s 1962 invasion of India. The more extreme factions declared unqualified support for Beijing – a stance that did not go down well with the vast majority of Indians, who were fiercely nationalistic and regarded China as an enemy. China for its part extended moral support to the rebellion, describing it as “a peal of spring thunder”.
Through the 1970s, the Maoists gradually lost ground to a campaign of attrition mounted by Indian police and federal paramilitary troopers. Their uncompromising strategy of annihilating ‘class enemies’ and reenacting the 1949 Chinese revolution in India drew revulsion from social groups that had previously viewed their agenda as progressive, even if violent. By 1980, a rethink became necessary. That year, one of the leading Maoist factions, the People’s War Group, adopted a new approach, emphasizing mass mobilization. It created front organizations and began recruiting leftist intellectuals to champion its cause under a narrative that emphasized developmental activity. Collaborative arrangements were forged with local politicians, who would protect the Maoists from law enforcement in exchange for their endorsement during election campaigns.
A momentous merger
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Maoist ideologues attempted to forge a common front against the Indian government. Their efforts were unsuccessful, as armed cadres of various factions frequently competed for control of extortion and smuggling rackets. In essence, the Maoist rebellion became a two-layered phenomenon: While remaining focused on the political task of seizing power, it simultaneously degenerated into an epidemic of armed banditry. Partly as a result of criminalization, the number of Maoist factions increased to 40, the most important being the People’s War Group and a smaller but more brutal faction called the Maoist Communist Center of India.
After 2000, Maoist groups came under increased pressure from provincial governments, which led to renewed talks on unification. Eventually, in September 2004, the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Center of India merged to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The new group combined the mass mobilization tactics of the PWG with the violent radicalism of the MCCI, thus posing a qualitatively new threat to Indian power structures.
Having failed to prevent the merger, Indian security and intelligence agencies have since been constrained in their efforts to halt the proliferation of Maoist influence across India. The development narrative espoused by Maoist ideologues and leftist intellectuals effectively precludes labeling the rebels as anti-national elements – a tag which would allow New Delhi to deploy the full extent of its armed might against them. Meanwhile, the Maoists have created base areas in central India, which effectively lie outside the control of government. Using landmines, they have denied Indian security forces access to forested regions where they run large-scale training camps.
The Maoists are estimated to have roughly 15,000 armed cadres and 45,000 active supporters, spread across nine Indian provinces. Their weaponry has grown increasingly sophisticated due to raids on government arsenals. Moreover, their extortion rackets are estimated to be worth $300 million annually. Most importantly, they dominate territories with vast reserves of mineral wealth, especially iron ore – reserves Indian industry needs access to in order to sustain economic growth. By placing these territories outside the reach of government and private enterprise, the Maoists ensure that the development deficiencies which they claim to oppose are in effect, perpetuated.
Human Rights Watch has noted that the Maoists are shutting down rural schools in a bid to create a captive pool of child soldiers. At present, the rebels already recruit children above age six to serve as scouts and informants, and those over twelve are given arms training to become combatants. Meanwhile Indian security forces, accustomed to confronting hardened separatist insurgents and foreign-born jihadists, are loath to use similar levels of force against fellow-citizens, particularly children. This has in effect allowed the Maoists to gain a psychological edge in tactical engagements. More than any other factor, it is the deep sense of demoralization among local policemen and federal paramilitary troopers that indicate the infirmity of the Indian state.
Hitherto, Indian security forces have suppressed violent rebellions with the fullest backing of the political elite. Such support is missing in the case of Maoists, largely due to a self-flagellating discourse that blames the Indian state for failing to promote developmental activity. In actuality, vast sums of money have been expended over several decades for infrastructure projects, only to be siphoned off by a nexus of corrupt local politicians, contractors and the Maoists themselves. The latter receive a cut of all developmental funding disbursed by the federal government, through contacts embedded in provincial bureaucracies that are responsible for the use of such funds.
Instead of being a development problem, the real root cause of the Maoist rebellion is corruption combined with armed extortion. Sizeable sections of the Indian middle class and political leadership still persist in viewing the issue as a backlash against rural poverty. With Maoist violence continuously legitimized in such public discourse, India will simply keep muddling through in its paralyzed state.
Dr Prem Mahadevan is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich. He holds a bachelors degree, a masters degree and a doctorate from King’s College in London. This article was published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN). Click here to view original article.
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