On October 24, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) lost around 30 of its cadres in a >covert operation jointly organised by the Greyhounds of Andhra Pradesh and the Special Operations Group of Odisha. This occurred in the densely forested region of Malkangiri district in Odisha. Many in the establishment, including some among the security forces and the media, have since claimed that it marked the beginning of the end of the Naxalite movement in the country. Unfortunately, this may be far from true.
Euphoria of this kind is usually the result of a lack of understanding of the true nature of the Maoist movement. The phenomenon is much more than a mere militant movement. It partakes of an idea, pernicious though the idea might appear, which cannot be destroyed merely through a military-style setback. In the past half a century of its existence, the Naxalite (now Maoist) movement has weathered many such ‘setbacks’.
Down but definitely not out In its initial stages, the movement had strong ideological moorings, receiving guidance from leaders like Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal, Santosh Rana, Kondapalli Seetharamaiah, Nagabhushan Patnaik and T. Nagi Reddy, to mention just a few. This kind of grounding enabled the movement to withstand changes in methods adopted by the authorities, including techniques such as ‘cordon and search’ and counter-terrorist operations such as ‘Operation Green Hunt’.
Over the years, the trajectory of the movement, as also its character, changed and it became more brutal and sanguinary. Nevertheless, it still maintained a veneer of being true supporters of the poor and the downtrodden, especially the tribal people. It did lose some of the support it previously enjoyed among sections of the urban intelligentsia, but Maoism still resonates with some of the more ideologically oriented elements in universities and colleges. The movement consequently still has considerable depth. It would, hence, be highly invidious to liken it to movements such as the Boko Haram in Africa — as obliquely hinted recently in a submission by the Chhattisgarh government before the Supreme Court.
It is a sign of the times to be blasé about almost anything and everything. Slogans such as ‘China’s Chairman is our Chairman’ may no longer reverberate in the country, but the Maoist movement has not entirely lost its elan. It is less visible in the urban areas, but in many pockets of the country, especially in the more remote areas in the heartland States of the country, the Maoist movement is still a force to reckon with. It is only kept in check by a large security presence.
A dip in violence levels during 2013-2014 has been followed by signs of a Maoist revival in 2015 and 2016. Apart from West Bengal, where economic and developmental measures appear to have weakened the Maoist stranglehold, elsewhere in the country there are few signs that the movement is in retreat. The entire Dandakaranya region, which includes vast areas of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, considerable parts of Chhattisgarh, especially southern Chhattisgarh, as also large spaces in Odisha and, in addition, Jharkhand and parts of Maharashtra, show signs of a Naxalite revival. The strategic importance of this entire region is quite obvious when one looks at the map of India.
Fashionable once again Recent reports further indicate that from this core, the movement is now radiating out to other parts. This includes the crucial tri-junction of the three southernmost States of India, viz. Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. Both in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, there is growing concern at the manner in which the movement seems to have resurfaced. Adilabad, Warangal, Nizamabad and Khammam are the areas in Telangana where signs of such revival are currently evident. Naxalite ideas have once again become fashionable among college and university students. In Andhra Pradesh, re-emergence of Naxalite activity in the Araku Valley after nearly two decades is causing a great deal of concern among the authorities. Charges are being raised that leaders in Andhra Pradesh are siding with mining barons against the interests of the local tribal people. Threats to politicians and their backers are being freely held out.
In Chhattisgarh, Dantewada, Bastar, Bijapur and Sukma are the main centres of Maoist activity currently. Many areas within these districts remain out of bounds for the local administration, the police and the security forces. This is despite years of efforts devoted to ‘pacifying’ the belt. Ambushes of security force personnel occur at regular intervals. In March this year, seven Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans were killed in Dantewada by a skilfully concealed Improvised Explosive Device (IED). During the same month, three members of the highly trained ‘CoBRA Battalion’ of the CRPF were killed in an ambush in Sukma. Both Dantewada and Sukma also figured prominently in terrorist attacks on security forces during 2015. The same pattern is being witnessed in Bastar. Several of the attacks take place even when anti-terrorist operations are being conducted.
Descent from high ideology We are, hence, hardly at an inflection point in the battle against Maoists. Major strides have undoubtedly been made over the years to improve the condition of the ‘poorest of the poor’ and the ‘wretched of the Earth’ (to quote Frantz Fanon). Nevertheless, the gap still remains wide, enabling movements such as those of the Maoists to exploit the situation.
Admittedly, there is little in common between today’s Maoists who indulge in unbridled and often gruesome violent acts and the erstwhile purist revolutionaries of the Charu Majumdar era who had hoped to bring about “A Spring Thunder over India”. Yet, there is still more than an umbilical link between the latter and today’s Maoists. This cannot be ignored.
Between the first phase of Naxalism (1967 to 1972) and today’s Maoist movement, vast changes have occurred in the taxonomy of Naxalism. Till the turn of the century, the movement retained at least some of its original ideological underpinnings and intellectual effervescence. Today, it has metamorphosed into a highly rigid and militaristic movement, more intent on terrorising segments of population than on supporting people’s causes. It maintains its own small arms factories where it fashions much of its weaponry. It has a well-established arms trail to obtain state-of-the-art weapons from sources outside the country. It is extremely adept in the use of IEDs, and in resorting to unconventional methods to deploy them. This had led to large-scale security force casualties (in 2010 in an IED explosion in Dantewada, 76 CRPF personnel were killed). Over the past decade, the Maoists seemed to have had the better of the exchanges with security forces/civilians in terms of casualties — averaging a ratio of three security forces/civilians killed for every Naxalite. The jury is still out whether — in part at least — this transformation is a reaction to a shift in tactics on the part of the administration of employing a combination of counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency techniques.
Twenty-first century Maoism cannot obviously claim to be a legatee of the ideological movement launched half a century ago. At its inception, it had proper credentials to be listed as a true Marxist-Leninist movement. No longer. It today suffers from a lack of tall leaders as well — the present party general secretary ‘Ganapathy’ can hardly measure up to the ‘giants’ of the past.
Nevertheless, the movement cannot be written off. It still has reservoirs of support in many rural pockets, and still more so in the more neglected and forgotten tribal regions of the country. It is still able to convey an impression that the Maoists are the ‘torch bearers’ of ‘an idea’ whose time is about to come. Central and State governments, the administration and the security establishment need to recognise that the movement cannot be approached from a purely law and order point of view. The process of improving the conditions of the poor and the tribals clearly need to be speeded up if the movement is to be effectively checked.
M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.