The 'spectre of Communism' maybe no longer haunts Europe from the pages of The Communist Manifesto. But it continues to haunt the ruling powers of India from its vast and volatile rural hinterland - in the shape of Naxalism. The armed movement carrying that name which was born in the turbulent 1960s, still survives in India. It has an abiding appeal among the dispossessed and underprivileged rural poor in several parts of India, who see in it a hope to free themselves from their present miserable conditions. The police and bureaucrats of at least eight Indian states (Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, which comprise a large chunk of the Indian land mass, and accounts for more than half of the Indian population), meet at regular intervals to devise ways and means to check the armed guerillas who operate in a narrow belt of Naxalite pockets that stretches across these states.
The Naxalite movement takes its name from a peasant uprising which took place in May 1967 at Naxalbari – a place on the north-eastern tip of India situated in the state of West Bengal. It was led by armed Communist revolutionaries, who two years later were to form a party – the CPI (M-L), or the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Under the leadership of their ideologue, a 49-year old Communist, Charu Mazumdar, they defined the objective of the new movement as 'seizure of power through an agrarian revolution'. The strategy was the elimination of the feudal order in the Indian countryside to free the poor from the clutches of the oppressive landlords and replace the old order with an alternative one that would implement land reforms. The tactics to achieve it was through guerilla warfare by the peasants to eliminate the landlords and build up resistance against the state's police force which came to help the landlords, and thus gradually set up 'liberated zones' in different parts of the country that would eventually coalesce into a territorial unit under Naxalite hegemony – a la Yenan of China!
The uprising at Naxalbari was crushed by the police within a few months. But although defeated, it unleashed a flow of events which escalated over the years into a political movement that brought about far-reaching changes in India's socio-cultural scene. The fact is that despite the continuing use of the most repressive methods by the police to crush its cadres - and in spite of a series of splits that had fissured the movement – during the last three or four decades, Naxalism as an ideology has become a force to reckon with in India. Its continuity can be explained by the persistence and exacerbation of the basic causes that gave it birth – feudal exploitation and oppression over the rural poor (who constitute the majority of the Indian people), and the Indian state's repressive policies to silence them whenever they protest.
The Historical Background
The birth and development of the Naxalite movement under the leadership of the CPI(M-L) should also be located in the contemporary global context of the 1960s.
This was the period in Europe, Asia and America, when new radical struggles were breaking out, marked by the rereading of Marx, the rediscovery of the sources of revolutionary humanism and the revival of the ideals that inspired individual courage and the readiness to sacrifice for a cause. These trends were reflected in the national liberation struggle of the Vietnamese people; in the civil rights and anti-war movements in the USA; in the students' agitations in Western Europe; in Che Guevara's self-sacrifice in the jungles of Bolivia in pursuit of the old dream of international solidarity of all revolutionaries; and in China's Cultural
Revolution which, in spite of being derailed by excesses, errors and crimes committed in the name of `class-struggle', initially began as a campaign for putting an end to bureaucratic authoritarianism and transforming the individual. The Naxalite movement was a part of this contemporary, worldwide impulse among radicals to return to the roots of revolutionary idealism. In the Indian context, it took the form of going back to the source of all revolutions in the Third World – the peasantry, which had a long tradition of fighting against imperialism and feudalism. The Naxalite leaders drew inspiration from the Indian peasant jacqueries of the18th and 19th centuries (which were directed against the British colonialists and their Indian landed agents), and the more modern organized armed peasants' struggles led by Communists in Telengana in south India in the late 1940s, as well as the contemporary Vietnamese war of liberation and other global demonstrations of protest.
Ironically enough, although the uprising in Naxalbari in May 1967 was crushed by the police within two months, the Naxalite ideology gained rapid currency in other parts of West Bengal and India within a few years. By the early 1970s, the Naxalite movement had spread from far-flung areas like Andhra Pradesh and Kerala in the south, to Bihar in the east, and Uttar Pradesh and Punjab in the north. Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh in particular became a mini-`liberated zone' for a brief spell, when Naxalite guerillas drove out the landlords, and set up alternative institutions of administration in several hundreds of villages. In parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the Naxalites succeeded in mobilizing the peasantry to recover lands that they had lost to the moneylender-cum-landlord class (to whom they had mortgaged their properties in lieu of money) and carry their harvested crops to their homes. In Punjab rich landlords and policemen were targeted by bands of Naxalites. In West Bengal itself - the birthplace of the Naxalite movement – armed peasants' struggles broke out in Midnapur and Birbhum, where some villages passed over to total Naxalite control during the 1969-70 period. Incidentally, in Andhra Pradesh and in West Bengal, the Naxalites found their main support among the aboriginal tribal communities, who had been the most oppressed and marginalized in Indian society – the Girijans in Andhra Pradesh and the Santhals in West Bengal.
The situation was alarming enough for the Indian government to investigate into its causes. It set up a committee to compile a report. Prepared in 1969, and entitled The Causes and Nature of Current Agrarian Tensions, the report acknowledged: "The basic cause of unrest, namely, the defective implementation of laws enacted to protect the interests of the tribals, remains..." It then added: "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." (Emphasis added). The term extremist is still being used by the Indian officials to describe the Naxalites, or any one resorting to armed resistance against the Indian government.
While the Indian countryside saw extensive guerilla actions, Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) in West Bengal, became the center of Naxalite urban violence from the beginning of the 1970s. Young cadres of the CPI (M-L) targeted police personnel and political rivals. They planned to build up an arsenal by mass scale snatching of arms and ammunition from police stations. These youth were mainly middle class Bengali students who had been inspired by the Naxalite ideology of agrarian revolution. Some went to the villages, lived and worked with the rural poor among whom they propagated the Naxalite ideology, fought shoulder to shoulder with them against the police, and laid down their lives. Those who remained in Calcutta hoped to supplement the rural movement with such violent urban actions that would keep the police and para-military forces fully bogged down in Calcutta, and thus cripple their capacity to intervene in the rural areas. But they underestimated the military strength of the Indian state.
Instead of fully implementing land reforms to alleviate their grievances - as suggested by many impartial observers as well as its own previously mentioned committee of 1969 - the Indian government chose the simplistic path of military suppression of peasant grievances. It unleashed a reign of terror on the Naxalite bases and the villagers who supported them. In Srikakulam, para-military forces swooped down upon Girijan villages, arrested thousands of young tribals, captured and killed their Naxalite leaders, and resorted to the policy of setting up `strategic hamlets' (as the US did in Vietnam) where entire tribal villages were removed, so that the mass base of the CPI(M-L) could be dispersed. In Birbhum in West Bengal, the Indian army was deployed to encircle the Naxalite-controlled villages, close in and kill the leaders. Thousands of their Santhal tribal followers were thrown behind bars..
Apart from the state repression, several splits within the Naxalite movement in the 1970s weakened its capacity to resist the police and army offensive. Many among Charu Mazumdar's comrades and followers became critical of his tactics of assassination of individual `class enemies', his indifference to mass fronts like trade unions (that led to the isolation of the Naxalites from the industrial workers), and the growing bureaucratization of the party organization. As a result, the CPI(M-L) split into several factions – often fighting among themselves. This fragmentation in the Naxalite ranks helped the Indian state to suppress them – for the time being.
By 1972, the Indian state had succeeded in defeating the Naxalite rebellion to some extent – its main trophy being the capture of the ideologue Charu Mazumdar from a Calcutta hideout on July 16, 1972. Mazumdar died in police custody 12 days after his arrest – raising suspicions about the treatment meted out to him by the police. The movement continued even after his death – with sporadic battles between the police and the Naxalites in far-flung villages in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and other states. But it faced increasing repression from the state. By 1973, the number of Naxalite activists and supporters held in different jails all over India had swelled to 32,000. News of their ill-treatment compelled more than 300 academics from all over the world including Noam Chomsky and Simone de Beauvoir to sign a note protesting against the Indian government's violation of prison rules, and send it to New Delhi on August 15, 1974 – the 27th anniversary of India's Independence day. A month later, Amnesty International released a damning report, listing cases of illegal detention and torture of Naxalite prisoners in Indian jails. Such attempts by academics and human rights organizations – whether in India and abroad – to highlight the plight of these prisoners, were soon snuffed out by the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, when she declared Emergency on June 26, 1975, which imposed censorship on publication of news, apart from clamping down upon public demonstrations of protest. With military suppression of their bases in the villages, dissemination of their leaders by the police, dissensions within their ranks, and choked out from any democratic avenue of expressing their grievances, the Naxalites reached the end of a phase of their movement in the late 1970s.
The new phase and situation
It was only after the lifting of the Emergency and the coming to power of the Janata Party (an alliance of non-Congress and anti-Indira Gandhi parties) at the Centre in New Delhi after the 1977 elections, and following a wide scale movement organized by various human rights groups in India and abroad, that the Naxalites were released from jails. The different Naxalite factions and their leaders found an opportunity to meet and chart out their new path of action in the light of their past experiences.. Although committed to the original strategy of eliminating the feudal order in rural India, they parted ways on the question of tactics - one group of followers deciding to lay stress on the parliamentary path of elections (e.g. the Liberation group of the CPI - M-L, concentrated in Bihar), and the others preferring to go back to the path of guerilla warfare, like the PWG - People's War Group - in Andhra Pradesh, and MCC - Maoist Communist Centre - in Bihar. During the last two decades since the 1980s, these two different streams of the Naxalite movement drifted along with their respective tactics – often fighting among themselves.
But during this period, it is these armed groups which have emerged as the main challenge to the Indian state. They have also expanded their area of operations (from their old pockets in West Bengal, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh in the 1970s) to new guerilla zones in other states like Orissa, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in the new millennium. Their main support base in these states are the poorest and the most deprived classes – the landless and tribal people who are ousted from their homes by up-coming industrial projects, are being denied access to their traditional forest resources, regularly exploited by landowners and money lenders and persecuted by the police, and who continue to suffer from non-availability of education and health facilities in their far-flung and inaccessible villages.
Apart from expanding their guerilla zones within India, the PWG, MCC and other smaller armed Communist groups have been able to build a network with similar Communist revolutionary organizations in the neighbouring states of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal under the banner of the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organizations of South Asia. Their representatives met in a guerilla zone in eastern India in July 2003, to chalk out future strategy of coordination of their activities. All these South Asian Maoist parties are also members of a larger international organization called the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement.
It should be pointed out however that despite their survival for almost four decades, the Naxalites do not yet control any large area comparable to the `liberated zone' that the Chinese Communists could establish in Yenan within a decade or so in the 1930-40 period, or the sizable tract that the Maoists occupy in neighbouring Nepal today. They have not been able to reach out to the masses of the peasantry in the vast countryside of other parts of India, and have expanded only to a few isolated pockets and stretches of areas inhabited mainly by tribal and landless poor. Closeted in their rural underground shelters, the Naxalite leaders have ignored the task of setting up bases among the large number of workers both in the organized industrial and the unorganized sectors. They have also failed to build up a regular army like the Chinese People's Liberation Army, or the Vietnamese military organization – that helped both the Chinese and the Vietnamese to effectively fight their enemies.
These shortcomings have both crippled and distorted the character of the Naxalite movement. The failure to establish a `liberated zone' has frustrated their original strategy of setting up an alternative order to bring about agrarian and social reforms. Instead, all their energies are now devoted to defensive actions to preserve their pockets of influence, and offensive assaults which are degenerating into acts of terrorism against soft targets like village headmen or junior government employees.
The main villains always escape, as evident from their abortive attempt on the life of the Andhra Pradesh chief minister in October last. Moreover, the Naxalites in spite of their belief in armed resistance, have shied away from the task of squarely facing the violence of the Hindu communal forces – the new fascist face of the Indian ruling powers – who are increasingly occupying the political space in the country, and are also burrowing holes into the Naxalite support base.
If the Naxalites, along with other democratic and secular forces fail to resist this advance of Hindu fascism, their movement may soon be reduced to an insignificant factor in the current Indian political scenario, lacking any decisive power to change the balance of forces in favour of a revolutionary transformation of Indian society.
Lasting impact of Naxalism
But even if the movement declines and is suppressed, its ideology will continue to threaten the Indian ruling powers as long as they fail to put an end to the grinding poverty and social oppression that crush the Indian poor. Their pitiable living conditions nourish the soil for the rejuvenation of Naxalism. What is peculiar to Naxalism is not the physical occupation of and administrative control over land by its leaders and followers, but its lasting popularity among the economically impoverished and socially oppressed rural people.
We cannot but acknowledge that Naxalbari was a water-shed in the recent history of India – in more than one sense. It sensitized Indian society to the desperate efforts made by the rural poor to escape the intolerable conditions of economic oppression and social humiliation. It served as a catalyst in West Bengal (the birthplace of the movement) for the introduction of some limited land reforms by the Left Front state government there. Most of the progressive trends in Indian social activism today (like the growth of voluntary organizations working among the underprivileged and powerless, or the role of the media in exposing atrocities on the depressed castes and the landless, or the affirmative actions by human rights activists as agents of entitlement, acting on behalf of the dispersed social groups) can be traced indirectly to the issues raised by, or associated with, the Naxalite movement. Hand in hand with these political and social developments, Naxalism has left an indelible imprint on modern Indian culture. Apart from a rich crop of poems and songs composed by the participants and sympathizers (both urban and rural), major works of fiction, theatre and films have been produced in different Indian languages, dealing directly with the movement, or keeping it as the background. To understand today's India, it is essential to listen to these voices that describe the tortuous odyssey of a political movement that had been born from the womb of the bleeding Indian countryside.
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