Revisiting the online edition of The Nation (which describes itself as “the flagship of the left” in America) after a long time, I was pleasantly surprised to find in its current issue an article on the state of the Naxalite movement in India by the prolific Ramachandra Guha (what a year 2007 is turning out to be for him). For quite some time now, one has heard about the grave challenges posed by the Naxalite or Maoist movements across several states in India. However, I have yet to come across good analysis which offer concrete numbers and accurate information about the issue. Guha’s essay, which is based on his personal research through visits to Bastar and other affected areas, seems to provide at least a good starting point for those interested in finding out more about an issue that a lot of careful observers of Indian democracy have been consistently highlighting for some time. As Guha notes, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently described the Maoist movement as “the biggest internal security threat” confronting India.
Here are extracts from the essay, though it should really be read in its entirety:
“Until the 1990s the Naxalites were a marginal presence in Indian politics. But in that decade they began working more closely with the tribal communities of the Indian heartland. About 80 million Indians are officially recognized as “tribal”; of these, some 15 million live in the northeast, in regions untouched by Hindu influence. It is among the 65 million tribals of the heartland that the Maoists have found a most receptive audience.
… … This twin marginalization [of tribals], economic and political, has opened a space for the Maoists to work in. Their most impressive gains have been in tribal districts, where they have shrewdly stoked discontent with the state to win people to their side. They have organized tribals to demand better wages from the forest department, killed or beaten up policemen alleged to have intimidated tribals and run law courts and irrigation schemes of their own.
… … …How many Maoists are there in India? Estimates vary widely. There are perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 full-time guerrillas, each armed with an AK-47, most of them conversant with the use of grenades, many with landmines, a few with rocket launchers. They maintain links with guerrilla movements in other parts of South Asia, exchanging information and technology with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and, at least before their recent conversion, the Nepali Maoists. The Indian Maoists got a huge shot in the arm with the merger, in 2004, of two major factions. One, the People’s War Group, was active in Andhra Pradesh; the other, the Maoist Co-ordination Committee, in Bihar. Both dissolved themselves into the new Communist Party of India (Maoist). Since the merger the party has spread rapidly, with former PWG cadres moving north into the tribal heartland from Andhra, and erstwhile MCC cadres coming south from Bihar.
… …. ….How influential is the Maoist movement in India? Once more, the estimates vary widely. The Home Ministry claims that one-third of all districts in India, or about 150 in all, are recognized as “Naxalite affected.” But this, as the Home Minister himself recently admitted, is a considerable exaggeration. State governments have a vested interest in declaring districts Naxalite-affected, for it allows them to claim a subsidy from the center. Thus, an armed robbery or two is sometimes enough for a district to be featured on the list. My guess is that about forty districts, spread across ten states and containing perhaps 80 million Indians, live in a liminal zone where the Indian state exercises uncertain control by day and no control by night. Some of these districts are in the northeast, where the nighttime rulers are the Naga, Assamese and Manipuri rebels. The other districts are in the peninsula, where Naxalites have dug deep roots among low castes and tribals grievously shortchanged by the democratic system.
… … … In the long run, perhaps, the Maoists might indeed make their peace with the Republic of India, and the Republic come to treat its tribal citizens with dignity and honor. Whether this denouement will happen in my lifetime, I am not sure. In the forest regions of central and eastern India, years of struggle and strife lie ahead. Here in the jungles and hills they once called their own, the tribals find themselves harassed on one side by the state and on the other by the insurgents. Speaking in Hindi, a tribal in Bastar told me, “Hummé dono taraf sé dabav hain, aur hum beech mé pis gayé hain.” It sounds far tamer in English–“Pressed and pierced from both sides, here we are, squeezed in the middle.””