I should preface this by saying I’m by no means and expert and this is just a general overview of a very complex situation. There are so many dimensions to this struggle that I couldn’t even begin to cover them all at once. The Naxalite uprising touches on issues as diverse as race, sex, class, land rights, the future of the environment, the long history of Adivasi resistance, the formation of the Indian state and the realities of 21st century capitalist development. We often ask ourselves: what will the next great revolutionary moment look like and how will a modern capitalist state react to it? And that is what is happening, right now in India. That said, we shouldn’t forget that these are real people with real, complex motivations and attempts to reduce them to some “revolutionary subjectivity” are patronizing if not a bit dehumanizing. Still, I think it’s worth having a discussion about how this conflict is developing. Hopefully people with more knowledge will be able to contribute what they know.
Note: I’ll be importing a lot of stuff from the paper I wrote so if the writing style looks academic…. that’s because it is. It’ll be obvious when I’m interjecting though.
First, I think we should get an idea of what exactly the Indian state is and what it isn’t.
The so-called “Red Corridor”:
The so-called “world’s largest democracy” is home to 1.2 billion people. It is renowned for being a rising BRIC nation in the “developing world”, yet it remains one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world with mass poverty, a surging slum population, non-existent infrastructure and government resources in many places; while on the other hand, some of the most prosperous businesses and richest people on Earth call India their home. It is at once the shining star of globalized capitalist development and also the underbelly of the system’s utter exploitative, destructive reality. The global bourgeoisie has all but accepted that the first world’s potential for growth has been saturated, with the remaining productivity to be turned over to the rentiers, the public wealth cannibalized to keep the old dollar empire on life support until it inevitably withers away into the history books. At some point the BRICs will have to take the stage in a big way. So long as India remains both “democratic” and capitalist, it will remain a testing ground for development in this sense. But as we know, the contradictions of capital don’t adhere to neat plans and schematics. The first world’s proletariat (essentially India, China and SE Asia) are coming to face the reality that their expectations of a better life are being met with a very different reality. Those that have seen their material reality improve are hanging by a thread and know they can be thrown back into the industrial reserve army just as quickly as they were moved into the new urban landscape from their old homes. Several million Chinese workers had this reality visited upon them in the wake of the global recession. Were it not for the dramatic response of the Communist Party there, we might be having a very different discussion right now. Where the Chinese and Indian cases differ will offer a lot to help us understand the dynamics of 21st century capitalist development. So let’s look at how the Indian case first, since an actual revolutionary movement is ongoing there and the dynamics are, in my opinion, even more exaggerated.
In 1967, Naxalbari, West Bengal, a massive uprising took place against the town’s landlords. The uprising was led by a group of radical Marxists that broke off from the established Communist Party of India (Marxist). These Marxists and the fighters that followed their leadership became known as ‘Naxalites’. I could spend some time talking about the leadership but I think first we should get to know the people that made up the movements support base: the “Adivasis”.
The primary base of support for the Naxalites are the Adivasis, a general term used for “scheduled tribes” and “indigenous peoples”. It is important to understand that the Adivasis are not a homogenous social group (Bijoy 2008, 1756). This category accounts for 635 distinct communities (out of 5,653 total), 577 of which are considered scheduled tribes. These tribes make up 8.32% of the total population (84.23 million people), dispersed across 23 of India’s 28 states and union territories; a geographic area of about 15% of the country’s territory. Population sizes within this category vary between different groups, with the Gonds numbering over 5 million and the Great Andamanese only 18 (Bijoy 2008, 1756). The regions with the largest Adivasi populations are in central and northeast India, precisely where Naxalites exert the most influence. States with the most active Naxalite presence in central India are Andhra Pradesh where 6.59% of the total population are Adivasi, 26.30% in Jharkhand, 31.76% in Chhattisgarh, 22.13% in Orissa, 20.27% in Madhya Pradesh and 5.50% in West Bengal (Bijoy 2008, 1757).
Kennedy & King (2011) demonstrates that the Adivasis are even lower in the Indian social order than the “untouchables” which are themselves at the bottom of the Indian caste system. The following table offers a picture of their abysmal health situation:
(Kennedy & King 2011, 1640)
Other indicators of socioeconomic standing point to a similar picture of deprivation. Guha notes, for example, that
the literacy rate of adivasis is, at 23.8 per cent, considerably lower than that of the dalits [untouchables], which stands at 30.1 per cent. As many as 62.5 per cent of adivasi children who enter school dropout before they matriculate; whereas this happens only with 49.4 per cent of dalit children. While a shocking 41.5 per cent of dalits live under the official poverty line, the proportion of adivasis who do so is even higher – 49.5 per cent. (Guha 2007, 3306)
Guha (2007) argues that, although these scheduled tribes are internally diverse, they share many of the same economic, social, cultural and political characteristics and relations to the broader Indian society that distinguish them (p. 3306). It is, for example, possible to draw distinctions between the Adivasis and the Naga who live in India’s northeast corner and northwestern Burma. The Naga, who themselves experienced the blunt end of British colonialism and Indian neocolonialism (as will be demonstrated later), are still relatively better positioned to take advantage of the education system and have been “largely exempt from the trauma caused by dispossession; till recently, their location in a corner of the country has inhibited dam builders and mine owners from venturing near them” (Guha 2007, 3305-06).
The issue of dispossession, in addition socioeconomic deprivation, has also been a major rallying point for Adivasis and the Maoist groups that seek to recruit from them. It is impossible to talk about the Adivasis and not also talk about the land- much of Adivasi culture, religion and history is tied into their relationship with land. Within the states and regions that the scheduled tribes are found, they are mostly found in the hills and wooded areas surrounded by villages and highways. Closeness to the vast natural resources that permeate the region was for a time the dominant means of subsistence and livelihood for the Adivasis. Means of subsistence, however, has had to give way to India’s capitalist development in the form of forestry, dams, and mines (Guha 2007, 3306). This history, grounded in the land and forests, has been in direct conflict with external forces since the pre-colonial era and has continued in its post-independence neocolonial form. The list of conflicts that arose and continue today based on land issues between the state and Adivasis is remarkable:
Beginning with the revolt of the Pahariya in Bihar in 1778, the Kolis of Maharashtra (1784-1785), the Tamar of Chota Nagpur in present-day Jharkhand (1789, 1794-1795, 1801), the Chuari Movement in Bihar (1795-1800), the Koyas in Andhra Pradesh (1803, 1862, 1879, 1880, 1822), the tribal revolts in Chotanagpur (1807-1808, 1811, 1817, 1820), the Bhils in Western India (1809-1828, 1846, 1857- 1858), the Kols in Chotangpur (1818, 1831-1832), the Singphos in Assam (1825, 1828, 1843, 1849, 1869), the Mishmis in Arunachal Pradesh (1827, 1855), the tribals of Assam (1828), the Khasis of Assam (1829), the Mundas of Jharkhand (1820, 1832, 1867, 1889), the Kherwar uprising in Jharkhand (1832-1823), the Lushais of Assam (1834-1841, 1842, 1850, 1860, 1871-1872, 1892), the Daflas of Assam (1835, 1872-1873), the Naiks of Gujarat (1838, 1868), the Khampti in Assam (1839- 1843), the Gonds of Bastar in Chattisgarh (1842), the Kondhs in Orissa (1850), the North Kachari hills of Assam (1854), the Santals in Jharkhand (1855, 1869-1870), the Naikdas in Gujarat (1858), the Syntengs of the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya (1860- 1862), the Phulaguri uprising in Assam (1861), the Juangs in Orissa (1861), the Sentinel Islanders in the Andaman Islands (1867, 1883), the Raig-mels of Assam (1868-1869), the Nagas of Nagaland (1879, 1932, 1963-1971), the Bastar tribal uprising (1811), the Tana Bhagat rebellion in Bihar (1913, 1914, 1920, 1921), the Gond and Kolam revolt in Andhra Pradesh (1941), the Koraput revolt in Orissa (1942), revolts against the Japanese occupation army by the tribes of the Andaman Islands (1942-1945), the Mizo revolt in Mizoram (1966-1971), the Warli revolt of Maharashtra (1956-1958), the Naxalbari in West Bengal (1967-1971), and so on, the resistance continued into the contemporary times in various forms. (Bijoy 2008, 1758)
Exact measures of land-loss are hard to determine, however there are some key indicators. From 1961 to 2001 the number of cultivators has decreased from 68.18% to 45% in the tribal districts and the number of agricultural laborers increased from 19.71% to 37%, indicating a “steady loss of land” (Bijoy 2008, 1762). The Indian state response to this land crisis has been a history of broken promises, ulterior motives and a general inability to control the rapid consumption of land and resources that accompanies economic development. Even where the state has made seemingly genuine attempts at recognizing the land rights of Adivasis, the enforcement mechanisms end up toothless or worse- used as a pretext for mass evictions. The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) first acknowledged the land rights of Adivasis in 2004 during the “forest case” of the Supreme Court (Bijoy 2008, 1762). However, it has been the MoEF itself that have initiated some of the most violent evictions in the name of conservation, such as that outlined in a circular issued May 3, 2002 and carried out over several years:
Between May 2002 and March 2004 alone, evictions were carried out from 152,400.110 hectares (Lok Sabha Starred Question No. 284, dated August 16, 2004). About 300,000 forest dwellers were evicted from their habitat and deprived of their livelihood during this period. Their houses were burnt, crops and food were destroyed, women were raped, and men were shot at and killed. Hundreds of villages were set on fire or demolished, which led to clashes and deaths in police firings. (Bijoy 2008, 1764)
These atrocities are not isolated instances, and mass evictions, killings and almost indiscriminate violence on behalf of the state have been recorded on a regular basis in recent years (Bijoy 2008). When the original inhabitants are removed, the industrial development that replaces them is often accompanied by mass pollution, resource depletion and other externalities, and India is no exception:
With 60% of Haiti’s bauxite mined between 1957 and 1980, the island’s environment was left ravaged, its finances and politics in tatters. In Surinam, denuded of most of its mountains and forests by this hunger for bauxite, it led to what is remembered as the “aluminium war”, and ended in 1980, with an army coup. (Kak 2010, 4)
It would be obvious to say, given this information, that the Adivasis, like so many indigenous populations in the developing world, are extremely oppressed, economically exploited and diametrically opposed (generally) to the objectives of globalized capitalist development. Seeing companies come in from around the world and literally murder and destroy their way into land that is not theirs, taking resources that are not theirs, and making millions from it all is an easy way to compound the grievances the people have had since the pre-colonial era. And when it became obvious that even the most established of organized left opposition could not garner modest concessions, a violent and radical break was bound to happen.
In the late 1960’s a major split occurred within the established Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] between those who argued that participation in the political process was necessary and a more radical wing that argued for taking up armed struggle against the state. The latter group broke with CPI(M) to create the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) [CPI(M-L)] and adopted their official program in 1970 (Banerjee 2006, 3159). The CPI(M-L), within the People’s War Group (PWG), began working with comrades in the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) who had themselves begun fighting in West Bengal. It was not until 2004 that these various groups joined to form today’s Communist Party of India (Maoist) [CPI(Maoist)], advocating a very similar program to that of the CPI(M-L) in the 1970’s (Banerjee 2006, 3159). There remains, however, significant differences between the CPI(Maoist) program and that of the CPI(M), with the former rejecting parliamentary participation and the latter embracing it:
That its abbreviation (CPI(M)) mimicked that of a party that had fought and won elections under the Indian Constitution was surely not accidental. We are the real inheritors of the legacy of revolutionary Marxism, the new party was saying, whereas the power-holders in Kerala and West Bengal are merely a bunch of bourgeois reformists. (Guha 2007, 3310)
The very existence of the CPI(Maoist) program suggests significant discontent among the Adivasis and other supporters with the performance of the CPI(M). Whether this discontent is based on ideological differences (reformism versus radicalism) or material factors (lack of concessions earned by CPI(M) from the state, poor organizing, etc.) is a different but serious question. Either way, the key support base of the Naxalite movement determined that their interests were not being met, first by the state, and second by the established CPI(M), which was for a time the main link between the disaffected masses and the state.
***I think this could have major consequences for our understanding of revolutionary movements, ie. the break between what has become a reformist party into something more radical and armed… I’m specifically thinking about the resurgence of a new left in China… but more on that later***
Let’s look at a brief summary of the CPI(Maoist) program:
The CPI (Maoist) has reaffirmed the programmatic line of the Naxalites of 1970, committing to a “people’s war” (referring back to Mao) for seizure of power, and the establishment of a people’s democratic state. The proposed program of the party, however, once the new people’s democratic state is established, is one with which “a large chunk of the Indian political class should have nothing to quarrel about.” The party proposes to redistribute land to poor peasants and landless labourers according to the slogan “land to the tillers”; to ensure the land rights of women; to ensure that facilities for agricultural development are available; to regulate working conditions and to ensure that wages are adequate and equal between the sexes; to guarantee the right to work and “improved living conditions for the people”; and “to take special measures to proceed towards the elimination of regional inequalities.” (Harriss 2011, 318)
In addition, the Maoists have stated an interest in fighting against the Indian state’s efforts to set up “Special Economic Zones” (areas of low-taxation and regulation used to attract foreign direct investment from multinational corporations) in tribal areas, reflecting a broader incorporation of development issues that affect Adivasis (Harriss 2011, 318). This evolution in the party’s program reflects the changing dynamics of Indian economic development, one that is moving away from landlordism and into a more capitalist mode of production (a key criticism of the CPI(M) program has been its inability to address issues beyond land reform and landlordism).
The success of the Maoists have been both a result of their organizing ability and the utter failure of the state to provide even basic service:
As a senior forest official was recently constrained to admit: “In the absence of any government support and the apathetic attitude of the forest management departments towards the livelihood of forest-dependent communities, the Naxalites have found fertile ground to proliferate…” (Guha 2007, 3309)
Even most bourgeois commentators have been unable to deny that the grievances are real and the Maoists are the only game in town addressing them:
The trope of grievance is not irrelevant or misapplied in this case, as indeed the Planning Commission of the Government of India has recognized in its analysis (see note 2). The accounts given by Bhatia and Kunnath or by Balagopal also recall Ranajit Guha’s celebrated thesis on Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, in which he argued that “the general form of insurgency … had its roots in the relationship of dominance and subordination characteristic of Indian society for a very long period,” and against which there was always posed “the counter tradition of defiance and revolt.” Such defiance and revolt against dominance and subordination are shown in the Maoist insurgency, which is now deeply imbricated in the fabric of society in large parts of central and eastern India and will not easily be crushed, as the Naxalite movement seems to have been in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Harriss 2011, 326)
How has the state responded to the Naxalite insurgency? It would follow from the conclusions above that the appropriate response for the Indian state would be to find ways of addressing the long-standing grievances of the Adivasis which make up the support base of the Naxalites. Economic development programs, a radical overhaul of the healthcare system, recognition (in law and in practice) of indigenous land rights, political inclusion in the democratic system, and a reorganization of local state authority would go a long way to begin solving these issues. Similarly, an attempt to reign in corrupt officials would help cut off current and potential sources of rebel financing. The US Army Field Manual on Counterinsurgency lists the “need to obtain financial resources”, “internal divisions” and “inconsistencies in the mobilization message” among a number of key insurgent vulnerabilities (US Army 2006, 1-17). An effective state response would exploit these vulnerabilities where they are present. The manual also states that “COIN [counterinsurgency] is a combination of offensive, defensive, and stability operations” and within the general category of ‘stability operations’ is listed “Civil Security,” “Civil Control,” “Essential Services,” “Governance,” and “Economic and Infrastructure Development” (US Army 2006, 1-19). Essentially, the manual argues that building state capacity is central to combating the insurgency and establishing legitimacy, which they describe as the “main objective”:
Legitimate governance is inherently stable; the societal support it engenders allows it to adequately manage the internal problems, change, and conflict that affect individual and collective well-being. Conversely, governance that is not legitimate is inherently unstable; as soon as the state’s coercive power is disrupted, the populace ceases to obey it. Thus legitimate governments tend to be resilient and exercise better governance; illegitimate ones tend to be fragile and poorly administered. (US Army 2006, 1-21)
In order for the Indian state to truly defeat the Maoist insurgency, therefore, the state must reassert its legitimacy in areas where it has been lost. This would be especially relevant with regards to the state’s relationship with the Adivasis.
The actual response of the Indian state on these lines has been mixed. One local example may provide a key insight into strategies that may be repeated throughout the country. In West Bengal, in areas particularly affected by Maoist influence like Naxalbari, the local government has initiated reform programs such as the “comprehensive area development program” (CADP). CADP is designed to provide small farmers with supply inputs and credits for the development of agriculture, a program that has turned many poor peasants into mid-level landowners (Banerjee 2006, 3161). Reforms in Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh and Ganjam in Orissa sought to alleviate debt burdens for the rural poor – the net effect of these programs has been to create divisions within the Naxalite support base, eroding their ability to effectively recruit and maintain active membership (Banerjee 2006, 3161). There have, however, been some issues with this strategy. The reforms were in many ways partial and half-way measures that did not reach the majority of the rural poor. Although those that did benefit from the programs found themselves in an advantageous economic and political position, they often abused that privilege by exploiting a new class of rural poor that arose from the program’s neglect and dislocation of others:
Thus a new generation of landless people is emerging in the countryside. Although still less in number than in 1967 (the year of the Naxalbari uprising),t heir ranks are likely to be swelled by the addition of those whose lands are being bought over for the construction of development projects that the West Bengal government is planning on a large scale. (Banerjee 2006, 3161)
A few points can be gleaned from this example. First, it is apparent that the creation of new divisions among the rebel support base act as a wedge that disrupts further recruitment and frustrates the cohesion of the movement. This has practical short-term relevance, especially for areas that are most under control by the Naxalites. Second, however, this strategy does not have the same long-term appeal for the state. It is just as likely that these efforts will end up creating a new class of disaffected rural poor masses that can be turned against the reform agenda. A more concrete, long-term strategy would require the sustained presence of the local government acting broadly in scope and remaining sensitive to the dislocation and dispossession of those adversely affected by economic development.
And therein lies the contradiction. The neoliberal economic model that India and all other developing states like it rely on is not one that is capable of handling both the currently existing problems of inequality and dispossession as well as the new problems that will arise from it. Liberalism, as Zizek says, necessarily undermines itself and we see that no more clearly than in India.
Other attempts by local governments have been far less effective, and even counterproductive. In the case of Chhattisgarh, the local security forces (known as the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)) act as the main counterinsurgency force. First, there is the issue of manpower:
As of early 2008, there were 2,000 CRPF personnel engaged in Chhattisgarh counterterrorist operations, with 80% of this force deployed for passive defense measures such as protecting Salwa Judum camps, government installations, and political VIPs who travel in the region. (Miklian 2009, 443)
In order to make up for this shortfall, the CRPF hires “Special Police Officers” (SPOs) which are police jobs given to locals that are less expensive and may have local tactical knowledge. The CRPF, on the other hand, views the SPOs as “expendable and replenishable,” often putting them at the front lines as scouts (Miklian 2009. 443). This has created a new series of grievances among locals, with many former SPOs turning against the CRPF.
This process was used mainly to lay the groundwork for the development of Salwa Judum, a paramilitary counterinsurgency force. Salwa Judum was, ironically, designed by a former CPI(M-L) politician, Mahendra Karma, who was removed from the party in 1981 (Miklian 2009, 446). The goal of this paramilitary is to expand existing vigilante groups in Naxal controlled areas by recruiting from victims of Naxalite violence. Unfortunately, in practice, Salwa Judum has been used as a proxy for local security forces to carry out heinous acts of indiscriminate violence on the local population (Miklian 2009, 448). This has had the perverse effect of legitimizing the Naxalites and in some ways, and providing cover for Salwa Judum’s supporters to continue land grabs and the dispossession of locals:
Many military strategists, politicians, and Indian citizens are asking the question ‘Why isn’t Salwa Judum working?’, but Salwa Judum is in many ways a complete success, operating exactly as its founders intended as a land and power grab masquerading as local uprising. Its creation enriched its leadership both financially and politically, obfuscated the true nature of the conflict, and enabled corporations to exploit the veil of violence to achieve otherwise difficult objectives. Rural villagers are the primary losers, as their land has been expropriated, their civil rights trampled, and their livelihoods ruined from a preventable conflict. (Miklian 2009, 456)
This strategy is creating a dangerous precedent in other Indian states where Naxalites have some control, as is the case with paramilitaries like “Sendra” in Jharkhand and the Village Defense Committees (VDCs) in Maharashtra (Miklian 2009, 457). The danger here is that local officials and industrial interests will see the benefit of amplifying the conflict and using the resulting violence as justification for further dispossession of Adivasis, creating a new cycle of violence.
Reliance on poorly trained paramilitaries, death-squads and mercenaries saw limited success elsewhere, particularly in Latin America. Usually these cases ended up with total scorched tactics, mass murder and outright genocide (post on El Mozote incoming!). State terrorism is effective up to a point- it has the side-effect of legitimizing the opposition. It is still an open question as to how far the Indian state will push this tactic and it is known they are receiving a ton of support from the West in this regard. But we know how well they’re doing in Afghanistan, so….
As it currently stands the conflict is sort of at a stand still. Finding reliable and accurate current information about what is happening is very hard so its tough to say exactly where the battle lines stand currently (as if there are actually battle lines lol). Nevertheless I think we should use this thread to keep up with whats happening. I’m particularly interested in finding out more about the different leftist organizations and radical groups in India and what their relation to the struggle is.
Anyway, here’s some cool links:
If you haven’t read “Walking with the Comrades” you better read it right now: http://www.outlookin…e.aspx?264738-0
Here’s an Indian land rights activist and David Harvey talking about the struggle, capitalism, geography, etc: CLICK HERE
Land has become a key issue for both neoliberal capitalism and for people’s movements. Land Acquisition Act of 1894 is used to take over land of indigenous and rural peoples today in the name of the common good. India has had 55 million people displaced by large dams.
A related talk on primitive accumulation and capitalist development:
Finally, here’s a full list of sources I used for the paper I wrote. Some of them are better than others, but maybe someone will find them interesting:
Banerjee, Sumanta. “Beyond Naxalbari.” Economic & Political Weekly 41.29 (2006): 3159- 163. JSTOR. Economic and Political Weekly, 22 July 2006.
Bijoy, C.R. “Forest Rights Struggle: The Adivasis Now Await a Settlement.”American Behavioral Scientist 5112 (2008): 1755-773. Aug. 2008.
Collier, Paul, and Anke Hoeffler. “Greed and Grievance in Civil War.”Oxford University Press (2004): 563-95.
Collier, Paul, Anke Hoeffler, and Dominic Rohner. “Beyond Greed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War.”University of Oxford (2006): 1-29.
Fearon, James D. “Primary Commodity Exports and Civil War.”Journal of Conflict Resolution 49.4 (2005): 483-507.
Guha, Ramachandra. “Adivasis, Naxalites and Indian Democracy.” Economic & Political Weekly 42.32 (2007): 3305-312. JSTOR. Economic and Political Weekly, 11 Aug. 2007.
Harriss, John. “What Is Going on in India’s “red Corridor”? Questions about India’s Maoist Insurgency.” Pacific Affairs 84.2 (2011): 309-27. Pacific Affairs, June 2011.
Kak, Sanjay. “The Bauxite Mountains of Orissa.”Economic & Political Weekly (2010): 1-6. Economic and Political Weekly, 22 Sept. 2010.
Kennedy, Jonathan J., and Lawrence P. King. “Understanding the Conviction of Binayak Sen: Neocolonialism, Political Violence and the Political Economy of Health in the Central Indian Tribal Belt.” Social Science & Medicine (2011): 1639-642. Elsevier Ltd., 2011.
Miklian, Jason. “The Purification Hunt: the Salwa Judum Counterinsurgency in Chhattisgarh, India.”Dialectical Anthropology (2009): 441-59. 27 Oct. 2009.
Reynal-Querol, Marta. “Ethnicity, Political Systems, and Civil Wars.”Journal of Conflict Resolution (2002): 29-54.
Shah, Alpa. “In Search of Certainty in Revolutionary India.”Dialectical Anthropology 33 (2009): 271-86.
US Army. “Counterinsurgency.”Headquarters Department of the Army (2006).