India needs to reflect on the lessons from Peru's murderous Maoist war, which claimed 70,000 lives.

“When the shooting began”, wrote the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, “he thought it was thunder, another storm approaching. But he saw the sheer terror in the eyes of the creatures closest to him, and he saw how they went mad, running into each other, falling, getting into each others' way, blinded and stupefied by panic, unable to decide whether they should flee to open country or return to the caves and he saw the first ones whimper and fall, bleeding, their haunches opened, their bones splintered, their muzzles eyes ears torn apart by bullets.”

Graceful vicuña, prized for their wool, lay dead all around. “In their world strategy”, the young guerrilla who had led the killing explained to their caretaker Pedro Tinoco, “this is the role they've assigned us: Peruvians raise vicuñas. So their scientists can study them, so their tourists can take pictures of them. As far as they're concerned, you're worth less than these animals.”

Four decades ago, Peru's Sendero Luminoso, or “the Shining Path”, launched an insurgency almost unparalleled in its savagery — the inspiration for Mr. Llosa's masterpiece, Death in the Andes. Before it was eventually crushed by a brutal military campaign, seventy thousand lives were lost; half, Peru's Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) estimates, at the hands of the Maoists and a third to government bullets. Sendero began to fall apart after the 1992 arrest of its leader Manuel Rubén Abimael Guzmán Reynoso, but small numbers of insurgents continue to operate in Peru's jungles. The story of the Maoist group's life and death — and fears of its possible rebirth — hold lessons for India.

Peru first saw an insurgent movement in 1965, inspired by the uprising in Cuba. Less than six months on, they suffered a crushing defeat. The country's military, which deposed President Fernando Belaúnde Terry in 1968, learned some lessons from the experience and instituted land reforms.

During the tumult that preceded the 1965 uprising, Peru's communist party — the Partido Comunista del Peru, or PCP —split. In January 1964, a faction led by Saturnino Paredes set up the PCP-Bandera Roja, or “Red Flag”. In 1970, Guzmán led a split within the PCP-Bandera Roja. From the small provincial University of Huamanga, where Guzmán taught philosophy, the Frente Estudiantil Revolucionario por el Sendero Luminoso de Mariátegui (Revolutionary Student Front for the Shining Path of Mariátegui) slowly spread out.

Sendero launched military operations a decade later, targeting the police with considerable success. In the summer of 1982, groups of guerrillas launched simultaneous attacks on police stations at Vilcashuaman and Luricocha, over a hundred kilometres apart. The police were forced to withdraw from rural areas of Ayacucho, leaving Sendero in de-facto control of the countryside. Maoist courts began to settle disputes and enforce justice — often in a brutal fashion. Like India, the Maoist ascendency was founded on the state's anaemic presence in the heartlands. The police, in particular, were poorly trained, under-resourced and had little usable intelligence.

Many analysts believe the underlying objective of Sendero's strategy during this period was to precipitate a military coup against the Belaúnde regime, which held power between 1980 and 1985. Sendero hoped to precipitate a crisis which would compel the military to depose Belaúnde — leading to increased repression and an upsurge in peasant and proletarian militancy. Belaúnde was obliged to declare an emergency in some of Ayacucho's provinces in October 1981. Hundreds of federal police were pumped into the area, but with little success. Later that year, troops were finally flown in to the central sierra — setting off a decade-long war of attrition.

A Defeat Destined

In a 1982 party document, Desarrollamos la guerra de guerrillas, Sendero claimed the Peruvian state was “bureaucratic and landlord, dominated by a dictatorship of feudal landowners and the big bourgeoisie under the control of imperialism”. Much of Sendero's conception of Peruvian society drew on Mao Zedong's 1926 Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society and Left-wing author Jose Carlos Mariátegui's popular Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality published two years later.

Mao's simply-written tracts were profoundly attractive to a new generation of Maoist leaders emerging from Peru's desperately poor highlands: first-generation university students from artisan, peasant and petty-bourgeois backgrounds who were seeking an explanation for the backwardness and poverty of their people. Peru's complex hierarchy of race — with white Peruvians at the top and native Andean people at the bottom — coloured their Marxism. Slogans like necesitamos un gobierno de Indios (we need a government of Indians) or hay que matar a los blancos y destruir las ciudades que siempre nos han explotado (we have to kill the whites and destroy the towns, that have always exploited us) were just as popular as the work of Ernesto Guevara.

But, as the Cambridge University scholar Lewis Taylor noted in a perceptive 1983 essay, Sendero's characterisation of Peru as a rural, pre-industrial society dominated by feudal landlords was “hopelessly mistaken”. “Feudal landlords”, Mr. Taylor noted, “play no role in today's Peru, while large-scale landlordism, feudal or otherwise, as an economic force was decimated by a thorough-going agrarian reform between 1969 and 1976”. Post-reform Peruvian society, he argued, “was characterised by an expansion in the ranks of medium-scale farmers and comparatively well-to-do kulaks, who co-exist alongside vast numbers of semi-proletarianised minifundists [small farmers] and landless labourers, ‘feudal' landlords being conspicuous by their absence”.

Even in the backward Ayacucho zone where Sendero flourished, Mr. Taylor pointed out, “the only people who even remotely merit the title of large-scale landowners are in no way feudal, being involved in that most capitalistic of businesses, the cocaine trade. Neither has nearby Hauncavelica been a zone of great landlord influence, being a predominantly mining region”.

Put simply, Sendero sought to bring about a peasant revolution in a country that had ceased to be a peasant society. In 1980, agriculture contributed just 10 per cent of the Gross National Product and 20 per cent of the country's exports; some 70 per cent of Peru's citizens lived in its cities.

Peru's Maoists often adopted tactics that alienated their core constituency. In August 1982, Sendero destroyed the University of Huamanga's agricultural experimentation farm and slaughtered livestock that had been painstakingly acclimatised to the region's harsh environment. Workers at the farm were told it was an example of “imperialist domination”, since it was part-funded by western aid. Electricity generation and transmission systems were frequently destroyed, telephone networks disrupted and shops and schools burned down. Factories run by major multinationals such as Bayer and Nestlé were also targeted. In one bizarre operation, television stations relaying the finals of the 1982 football World Cup were destroyed — an action Sendero claimed it took because the sport was exercising a narcotic effect on the population.

Many groups of the Left had long understood that Sendero was headed towards a dead end. Between 1977 and 1980, Peru's working class mounted successful struggles for better working conditions and brought about a widening of democratic space. Key communist factions participated in the June 1980 general elections that Sendero had chosen as an occasion to launch its armed struggle. Even Peru's peasants increasingly turned against Sendero. In 1983, the organisation felt obliged to massacre 69 children, women and men in the village of Lucanamarca in the face of assaults by rural militia set up to support the military.

By 1992, when a Sendero car-bomb killed 24 and injured 200 in Lima, the organisation had lost much of its popular base. President Alberto Fujimori, who had staged a coup that April and dissolved Congress, was able to unleash the army and private death squads against the group, capitalising on the outrage.


Despite Sendero's death, there are well-founded concerns that conditions exist for the organisation to take root again. Ever since 1999 there have been credible reports that the group has tapped the cocaine trade in the valleys of the Apurimac and Ene rivers — a jungle region close to its birthplace. Sendero guerrillas have succeeded in mounting a series of murderous raids against Peru's security forces despite their numerical weakness. In next-door Colombia, the Maoist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has also used narcotics revenue to recruit new cadre and build resources.

Peru is not India; but the key narrative elements of Sendero's story will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has followed the rise of Maoist power in recent years. Both the government and the Maoists need to reflect on the horrors that seem, with increasing inevitability, to lie ahead.

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