Analysis: India’s Maoist challenge

The Adivasi tribal people are caught in a spiral of violence between security forces and rebels.

Naxal soldier
The Maoists are operating in a vast area, mostly in inaccessible jungles of eastern India [Al Jazeera]

Maoists from the Communist Party of India ambushed and killed at least 11 police officers in July, targeting security and construction sites in the eastern and northern Indian states of Jharkand and Bihar.

The armed group also killed senior political figures in May and June attacks. Vidya Charan Shukla, a senior leader of the Indian National Congress Party, was shot three times in a May 25 ambush. Shukla died on June 11, after 17 days on life support. At the time of the attack, he was on his way home to Chhattisgarh after a political rally in the nearby town of Sukma, around 400km from the state capital, Raipur.

More than 200 people were killed in the first six months of 2013 in similar attacks by the banned leftist group, indicating that India’s Maoist insurgency, which has seemingly been on the decline for four decades, seems to be picking up pace again.

The Naxalites

The Communist Party of India (Maoist), also known as “the Naxalites”, was founded on September 2004, following the merger of two of India’s far-left outfits: the Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist (People’s War) and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI). However, the beginning of the movement can be traced back to late 1967.

Many Naxalites see India as a backward, semi-colonial and semi-feudal state. Based on Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, the objective of the armed wing is to wage “protracted people’s war” (PPW) to seize political power and herald a New Democratic Revolution (NDR), under the leadership of the agrarian class.

The Naxalites are most active in India’s Red Corridor [Al Jazeera]

The government estimates the current strength of the armed Naxalites – known as the “CPI-Maoists’ People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA)” – to be around 11,500 fighters. In addition, there are believed to be 38,000 fighters in the “Jan (People’s) Militia”, armed with basic weapons such as bows and arrows and machetes. It is thought the Jan Militia provides logistical support to the PLGA, and occasionally participates in its attacks.

Demands and objectives

Citing the goals of the agrarian movement and the “land to the tiller” slogan, the main aim of the Naxalites is to change the present system of India’s governance, and to establish socialist-communist rule. The CPI-Maoists call this a “democratic revolution, which would remain directed against imperialism, feudalism and comprador bureaucratic capitalism”, according to a press release cited by the South Asian Terrorism Portal.

In order to succeed in their mission, the Naxalites are reportedly working to build a base of popular support, tackling socio-economic problems such as the failure of governance, getting involved in anti-mining agitation, and fighting land acquisition and discrimination based on caste. They establish bases in remote areas, among poor and impoverished communities.

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These areas are usually in the forested and mountainous parts of southern, central and eastern India; home to about 84 million tribal or indigenous Adivasi people. They are subsistence farmers, and many live in extreme poverty, with a lack of basic services.

The Maoists say they have taken up the Adivasi cause. The lack of basic amenities, including roads, healthcare, education, drinking water and effective governance provides the Maoists with an ideal community in which to propagate ideas of a “new democratic revolution”.

In many of the “liberated areas”, they have organised the Adivasis and taken up community projects to provide services the government doesn’t. In 2010, Al Jazeera visited one such village, Tholkobad in Jharkhand state, where under the name of the “agrarian revolution”, the Maoists were providing support to the villagers to improve farming methods. One village leader told Al Jazeera that the Maoists frequently visited their villages, and treated everyone equally.

The most affected

Whether they side with the Maoists or not, the most affected by the ongoing conflict are the 84 million tribespeople. They do not all necesarily know or understand the real agenda behind the “protracted people’s war”. They are victims of violence and counter-violence, and have seen minimal positive change in their living conditions.

A visit to any of these villages in the “Red Corridor” contradicts India’s narrative of economic growth. Basic healthcare, education and housing facilities are very limited. Yet many are filled with advanced, sophisticated engineering equipment for mining and industrial development.

Despite the fact that the Indian constitution guarantees the safeguarding of tribal rights, people here have been denied their due. Some have waited 50 years to be compensated for land they had to give away to the government for industrial growth, soon after India’s independence from the British.

Moreover, although the constitution gives the local governing body of villages – Gram Sabha – the right to reject any expropriation of land, displacement of the Adivasi people continues.

The villagers living in these “scheduled areas” complain of intimidation by corporations’ private security forces and sometimes even the government’s own security. They say they are threatened with violence, and told they must obey orders to give up their land. Many have been prosecuted and imprisoned for asserting their rights.

Soni Sori’s village is one such “scheduled area”. She is a tribal woman and a government schoolteacher in the Jabeli village of Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh. She was arrested in 2011 for allegedly acting as a conduit for extortion money paid to the Naxalites by a steel company. Local media reports suggest that she had promised to inform the local police about a major cadre of Maoists – a promise that she did not uphold, hence her arrest.

A member of an ashram – a spritual hermitage – in Dantewada, Himanshu Kumar has known Sori in person since her school years. He told local media that she had no Naxalite links.

“Police arrested and tortured Sori, as they do not want an educated tribal woman in the area who works for locals and makes them aware about their rights,” he said. “It’s a usual case in Chhattisgarh: Police force tribals to become informers and when they refuse, they are framed under false Naxal charges and tortured in jails.” 

Some voices of dissent against the government are silenced. Sori has been in jail for several months. She says she was subjected to torture and sexual abuse in police custody.

By July 2013, the Dantewada District Court had acquitted her in five of the eight cases filed against her.

Maoists, the self-proclaimed saviours of the tribal people, unleash violence on anyone they suspect of not supporting their cause. Sori’s father, a former elected Congress Party member of the village council, was shot at by the Maoists. They claimed he was a police informer.

The majority of the civilians killed in the spiral of violence are tribal people, and are often branded as police informers, before reportedly being tortured or killed by the Maoists.

Some tribal people find themselves oppressed by those fighting the Maosists – languishing in Indian jails, accused of doing basic favours such as giving water or food to the Maoists. From both sides, tribal people and the economically underprivileged have been the biggest victims of the 40-year war between the Naxalites and the Indian state.

Gallery: Violence as a tool

Warning: This gallery contains graphic images that some readers may find disturbing

The way forward

Tackling the problem in an effective way requires a multilayered approach. Nandini Sundar, a professor of sociology at Delhi University, draws attention to industrialisation and the state’s land acquisition policies. “If poverty is the context rather than the direct cause for the growing strength of the Naxalite movement, then the same must be said about India’s industrialisation regime, which is threatening to displace large numbers of people without providing commensurate employment,” she said.

Civil society and intellectuals such as Sundar believe that India must engage in greater dialogue between all stakeholders, and that villagers who face the direct threat of losing their livelihoods should be compensated accordingly.

The state’s use of excessive force is also cited frequently. “The security dimension should emphasise a calibrated use of legitimate force,” said PV Ramana, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis in New Delhi. “Neither security nor development should be overemphasised at the cost of the other.”

The government’s fight against Naxalites often seems to be counterproductive. Several villagers living in central and eastern India told Al Jazeera that, under the circumstances, they preferred the Maoists to the Indian government.

Ironically, the Maoists owe much of their growing support to the government’s counterinsurgency campaign. This has effectively elevated a movement with local roots into one with a national presence.

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The need for political reforms and the rooting out of alleged corruption from the system is another key element of the problem.

In a survey conducted in August 2010 by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 49 percent of Red Corridor residents support the government. Some 76 percent want the political system reformed, while 60 percent say they have faith in the democratic process.

Nandini Sundar believes that, even if taken at face value, what emerges from the survey is a strong preference for unconditional dialogue, political reform and developmental solutions over military action.

The Indian government has been pumping millions of dollars into the areas hardest hit in a bid to bring about socio-economic change, as part of a strategy to win hearts and minds.

But activists say that without any effort to change the basic structure of exploitation – in which, they say, the local government colludes with business interests to make decisions without consulting villagers – it is unlikely that this money will yield much that is useful.

Follow Kamal Kumar on Twitter: @kamalpkumar

Source: Al Jazeera