An account of the Naxalbari movement in India fails to get to grips with the problems and consequences of the Maoist insurgent strategy, argues Susan Ram
In India’s 2019 general elections, the startling margin of victory scored by the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its muscular leader, Narendra Modi, was paralleled by a sharp decline in the strength of the parliamentary Left. The Communist Party of India (CPI), by far the oldest party on the Indian Left, was reduced to just two seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s national parliament. The bigger and more combative Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), which broke away from the mother party in 1964, going on to become a preeminent force in three States (West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura), and which remains India’s largest Left party, found its parliamentary contingent cut to three (down from nine in the previous parliament).
Predictably, this combined tally of five, the lowest in the Indian Left’s parliamentary history, has inspired a spurt of obituaries in India’s corporate-dominated media. The failure of the CPM to gain a single seat in its erstwhile strongholds of West Bengal and Tripura has attracted particular attention; headline writers and hostile TV pundits have been unsparing with the clichés, in general hailing what they gloatingly present as ‘the end of the road’ for India’s Communist movement: by far the dominant force on the Indian Left.
Meanwhile, across great swathes of often remote territory extending down the eastern side of India, from Bihar and West Bengal in the north to Andhra Pradesh in the south and embracing tracts of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh in the centre, a third Communist tradition continues to exert its sway. Maoist in terms of inspiration, analysis and tactics, this stream comprises multiple players and tendencies, its multifariousness reflected in a daunting array of acronyms and a factional history of byzantine complexity. However, a commitment to armed struggle and an emphasis on mobilising peasants and landless workers, often of tribal or low caste origin, in rural ‘base areas’ have acted as unifying elements over the fifty years of the movement’s existence.
This current has experienced considerable ebb and flow. Today, it is estimated to control pockets in 68 districts spread across ten states, with the bulk of its activity limited to 35 districts. The human toll associated with its activities offers another way of assessing its impact and effectiveness. While reliable data is thin on the ground, various estimates ascribe something like 13,000 deaths to Maoist-related activity and its suppression. Civilians are thought make up more than half of those killed, followed by party cadres (perhaps 4,000 deaths), and security personnel (2,300-3,440).
Origins of Indian Maoism
Indian Maoism emerged in the late 1960s, in the context of the schism within the world Communist movement. As the Soviet and Chinese CPs fought it out on the global stage, parallel divisions erupted within the Indian CPI, and were exacerbated by the 1962 border war between India and China. In 1964, tensions, including sharp divergences over strategy, prompted a section of the central committee to break away to form the CPM. At a time when the Chinese Cultural Revolution was in full radicalising bloom, it was not long before the new party itself came under pressure from the left. In West Bengal, where the CPM was now the leading force in the United Front governing the State, a group of local party leaders splintered off to place themselves at the head of a peasant uprising in Naxalbari, a village and community development block in the north of the State.
Naxalbari and the land occupations carried out there by tribal tea-plantation labourers across a few months in 1967 would become a template for the (Maoist) Indian revolution and provide it with a name: Naxalism. Henceforth those on the Indian left broadly committed to a ‘Chinese’ strategic revolutionary path, with its prioritisation of rural armed struggle over other forms of politics (participation in elections, trade-union work, the building of mass fronts) would be collectively known as Naxalites.
By 1972, the opening drumrolls of Naxalite ‘Spring Thunder’ (the phrase comes from a 1967 editorial in People’s Daily in which the Chinese CP lauded the recrudescence of Maoism on Indian soil) had been silenced, in part because of the force applied against the movement by the CPM-led West Bengal government. A second phase, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, saw the movement reassemble itself outside Bengal, predominantly in central and southern Bihar and in the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh. Then, in 1985, the fateful decision was taken to move beyond the elimination of landlords and other class enemies to target the Indian state directly. The following third phase would see a dramatic escalation in Naxalite activity, leading to a wholesale militarisation of the movement during the 1990s.
Naxalites in the twenty-first century
During the first years of the new century, Indian intelligence estimates of Naxalite strength ran to more than 60,000 active cadres, a good portion of them armed. Two coordinated and particularly deadly Maoist ambushes of security personnel in April 2010 led to the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, describing Naxalism as India’s ‘biggest internal security threat’. Reprisals were intensified, resulting in multiple ‘encounter’ killings (often involving the execution of rebels already in police hands) and the displacement of something like half a million Adivasis (tribal people) from their ancestral lands. By most assessments, the application of pulverising state repression, together with governmental ‘development’ initiatives pursued in Naxalite-prone areas, have served to rein in the movement significantly and reduce its mobilising capacity.
Half a century on, what sort of balance sheet does this movement present? To what extent has it proved capable of realising its strategic goals? What has it been able to offer the millions of extremely oppressed people living in its key operational areas? And does its record mark it out as a viable way forward for the Indian left, as a movement with the potential to knit together the diverse strands of India’s working people (from organised industrial workers at one end to the horrendously exploited landless poor at the other), while offering effective defence against the brutality and lethal firepower of the Indian state?
Such questions need to be posed, and addressed, by any serious study of the Naxalite phenomenon. The book under review, published in 2018, represents a recent addition to an already crowded field; Indian Maoism has, if nothing else, spawned a vast literature, ranging from scholarly articles to field studies and vivid, partisan journalistic accounts. To what extent does the book break new ground, offer fresh insights or get to grips with the basic questions set out above?
The book’s author, Bernard D’Mello, is a Mumbai-based civil-rights activist and a journalist who writes regularly for the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), an influential journal on the Indian Left. Over the decades, the EPW has provided much space in its pages to debates surrounding the theory and practice of Naxalism; contributors have in general been sympathetic to the movement, although there have been critical voices. In step with this tradition, D’Mello treads warily, at times injecting a critical note into what in overall terms is an admiring account. His approach to Indian Maoism can be likened to that of a friend who, while capable of asking the odd awkward question, can be relied upon not to challenge the underlying story. While there can be no disputing the passion that courses through this book, the outrage at the deprivation, oppression and cruelty that continue to circumscribe the lives of Indians in their hundreds of millions, what might have been a hard-nosed appraisal of how best to set about changing this reality is allowed to become something else: a heroic narrative where moralism prevails over political judgment.
This romanticised perspective, reinforced by the author’s subjective conclusions following his own brief encounter with the movement, is evident in a passage towards the end of the book in which D’Mello seeks to account for Naxalism’s against-the-odds survival and persistence:
‘The Maoist movement in India is – alongside the one in the Philippines – one of the world’s longest surviving peasant insurgencies. Alpa Shah, a social anthropologist who has carried out long-term ethnographic research in a Maoist guerrilla zone in Jharkhand, has come to the conclusion that it is the “relations of intimacy” that have been built between the Maoist organization and the people in its area of struggle that are crucial to understanding the growth, development and persistence of revolutionary mobilization. These relations of intimacy are grounded in Maoism, which stems from Marxism-Leninism, and is principally concerned with how to bring about a just and egalitarian society even when the material conditions are unfavourable for this to happen. Alpa Shah’s explanation is the most authentic among the scholarly works on the subject that I have read. Moreover, it matches closely with what I came to believe in the mid-1980s after spending a week in Maoist areas of struggle in the then Gaya district of Bihar, and I have found no reason since then to alter my views’ (pp.250-251).
Notwithstanding their potential role in breaking down the multiple barriers (of caste, ethnicity, sex and religion) that undermine class solidarity in India, ‘relations of intimacy’ do not add up to a viable political strategy. Nor do they offer much by way of protection for those confronting a remorseless, lethally armed state security machine. The durability of Indian Maoism may lie elsewhere: in stubborn, unrelenting adherence to its founding principles, irrespective of the costs. Struggles may be lost; scores of civilians, along with revolutionary cadre, may be slaughtered; whole tracts of operational area may be abandoned in favour of new redoubts, leaving thousands of vulnerable people defenceless against reprisals by landlords, mining conglomerates and the state, but for the most part D’Mello does little to illuminate the weaknesses, misjudgements and deeply rooted errors that may be driving these grisly outcomes.
Writing from a critical Marxist perspective, Jairus Banaji observes that
‘Maoists and Maoist sympathisers abstract from the profound deformities of the movement to engage in solidarity with it at any cost. They posit an almost mystical identity between the Maoists and “the people” … [and] use the poverty and general backwardness of the tribal areas as an excuse for not engaging with [Maoist parties] politically.’1
The impact of Stalinism
Banaji’s article in International Socialism, together with Kunal Chattopadhyay’s important critique2 (both are from 2010), provide useful starting points for a political engagement with the Naxalite phenomenon. Both writers place the movement in the context of the longstanding, enduring sway of Stalinism within India’s Communist tradition. This has resulted, they suggest, in top-down conceptions of the revolutionary party and of the relationship between party and class. In the case of Naxalism, this tendency has expressed itself in the ‘substitutionism’ of a vanguard struggle where the bulk of party decisions are ‘taken and implemented over the heads of people but justified in the name of the people’ (Banaji, p.10). Such a tendency can only be reinforced by the clandestine nature of armed struggle.
A second fatal weakness, again with Stalinist inflections, relates to the way in which defining features of Indian Maoism have been lifted wholesale from outside. While the Naxalite movement has undergone some degree of evolution, its key principles and strategic vision remain rooted in the experience of the Chinese Revolution, particularly the ‘heroic’ phase initiated by the Long March (1934-5). As Chattopadhyay notes,
‘The strategy of “people’s war” was to be based on the path shown by Lin Piao, that is, relying on the peasantry, building base areas, consistently developing armed struggle and using the villages to surround the cities and ultimately capture them. That which, in China, was a compulsion caused by the defeats suffered in the cities, was turned into a voluntarily accepted strategy in the Indian case’ (p.3; emphasis added).
Such wholesale borrowing points to a third deadly error: the refusal to engage with India as it actually is: a country with a fundamentally capitalist economy, a long and rich history of working-class struggle, and established bourgeois democratic formations and practices. This has resulted in Naxalism’s self-imposed isolation from India’s organised industrial working class and from the millions more who toil, unorganised, in sweatshops, factories and mines across the subcontinent. In fact, key formative figures of the movement, such as the Bengali Charu Mazumdar, vehemently opposed the very idea of linking up with pre-existing working-class organisations or of adopting the ‘ineffective’ weapon of the general strike. Arguing that workers could not defend themselves through trade unions, Mazumdar exhorted them simply to ‘up sticks’ and move to the countryside to participate in armed peasant struggles. ‘Bloodshed and barricade fighting were envisaged,’ Chattopadhyay notes, ‘but without struggles that would really enhance the consciousness of the working class.’
For the most part, this stance continues to govern Naxalism’s class perspective and strategic goals; exceptions to the rule, notably the courageous efforts of veteran trade-union leaders such as Shankar Guha Neogi and A K Roy to organise tribal mineworkers in the 1980s, have failed to leave a lasting legacy. The movement has maintained a similar critical distance from bourgeois democratic activity of any kind, including participation in elections.
In the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, Marx wrote witheringly of the conspiratorial tendencies of the Blanquist-Jacobin tradition. ‘It is self-evident,’ he argued,
‘that these conspirateurs do not limit themselves to the mere task of organising the proletariat … Their business lies precisely in trying to pre-empt the developing revolutionary process, drive it artificially to crisis … to make a revolution without the necessary conditions of a revolution … They are the alchemists of the revolution, and they share all the woolly mindedness, follies and idées fixes of the former alchemists … Hence their deepest disdain for the more theoretical enlightenment of the workers about their class interests.’3
On the face of it, there seems little to connect the European revolutionists at the receiving end of Marx’s lacerating pen with the earnest, gun-toting party cadres pursuing their clandestine struggle across tracts of twenty-first-century rural India. All the same, the analogy Marx fastened upon to describe a dead-end political tendency fated for failure continues to carry force. In India, ‘alchemists of revolution’ are out there still, muttering their particular incantations as they trudge doggedly on.
1 Jairus Banaji, ‘The Ironies of Indian Maoism’, International Socialism, 128, October 2010. Retrieved from https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/10923/1/The_ironies_of_Indian_Maoism_PDF_version_.pdf
2 Kunal Chattopadhyay, The Path of Naxalbari: An Appraisal’, Radical Socialist, September 20, 2010. Retrieved from http://www.radicalsocialist.in/articles/marxist-theory/246-the-path-of-naxalbari
3 The most accessible source for this 1850 article by Marx is Shlomo Avnieri’s The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (Cambridge University Press, 1968), p. 201. Retrieved from https://books.google.fr/books?id=UG2bcaExDGkC&pg=PA201&lpg=PA201&dq=alchemists+of+revolution+Shlomo+Avineri&
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.