They have been considered one of India’s most pressing threats, and the recent attack by the Naxalites that ambushed a convoy of the Congress Party went that much further. The ambush took place over the weekend in Sukma on the Maharashtra, Andra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh border. Reports suggest that there were as many as 200 Maoist rebels who inflicted heavy losses – 28 killed and 24 others wounded – before fleeing.
The attacks have shaken the establishment. Among the dead were four state party leaders including Mahendra Karma of Chhattisgarh, and five police officers. For BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar, “This new aggressive strategy of the Naxalities is a real threat to the Constitution and the rule of law. It is a challenge to sovereignty.” Former police chief of Punjab state KPS Gill is pessimistic about the new surge – the government of the day did not “have the political will and bureaucratic and police set-up to prevent such attacks.”
How the Naxalites have been treated has varied. In 1967, when the movement first made its presence felt in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari, the Home Minister Y. B. Chavan treated the matter as a case of “lawlessness” in action. The mistake was classic but fatal. During the 1970s, the state authorities moved in on the movement hoping to crush it with repressive enthusiasm. As usual with such measures, the quotient of extra-judicial killings and corrupt practices accompanied the operations. Legislation was passed to enable various state authorities to take measures – the attempt, for example, by the N.T. Rama Rao government to free up arms licensing in Andra Pradesh in 1983 for individuals to protect themselves against the Naxals.
However brutal any reaction against the Naxal movement has been, the authorities have been incapable of getting away from the socio-economic problems its followers capitalise on. The West Bengal State Secretariat, when conducting an enquiry into the uprising, found that, “Behind the peasant unrest in Naxalbari lies a deep social malady – malafide transfers, evictions and other anti-people actions of tea gardeners and jotedars.”
They gain political traction in areas of horrendous poverty – regions such as Warangal, Adilabad and Karimnagar. The agrarian revolution of the Indian state may well have been pushed with enthusiasm, but economic disparities were not going away in the development drive. Tribal populations were being displaced. Corporate and government malfeasance was rampant. The Naxalites, for all their brutal measures, can count among their constituency tenant farmers and the dirt poor tribes peoples they claim to represent.
Today, they remain one of the last formidable Maoist movements, having a formidable presence in 20 of India’s 28 states. The Indian Home Ministry claims there are thousands of fighters whose leaders refuse to negotiate with the government till paramilitary soldiers are withdrawn. State authorities have been in the habit of arming local vigilantes. The country also persists in employing that great imperial shackle – the sedition law. Civil rights tend to be shredded.
Governments have pondered what model of “integration” to best employ, but these have not been successful. Corporate misappropriation and exploitation – be it from mining and energy firms – remains a stark problem in states such as Chhattisgarh. In 2010, a defense analyst Raman Dixit would write in the Journal of Defence Studies that “social integration” would be the best move against the problem. Exploitation of the poor and scheduled casts would have to be rectified. The right over forest produce would have to be assured.
The rhetoric of the bullet is, however, a powerful one. Old formulas are hard to abandon. Painful realities are easy to ignore. Prakash has urged for a “unified strategy” in dealing with Naxalism, one that blithely ignores the social context of the rebellion. “It is not a development issue. It is about the Maoist belief to change power through violence.”
But the power of the bullet will be futile in the face of a movement that will remain powerful as long as the social conditions exist to sustain it. Naxalism’s success is a direct attribution to the failings of governance. Far from being a cancer, a mutation that says little of the Indian political tapestry, it says everything about it – development that is uneven, inequities that persist with painful relevance.
The best work of revolutionaries is, of course, done by the establishment of the day. It is they, more so than the Naxalites, who will change. Till that happens, the Maoist group shall remain what China’s People’s Daily once described as: “a peal of spring thunder.”