The ‘tornado’ awaiting IndiaOctober 27, 2009
“I fear there will be a bloody revolution in India,” a retired Indian military officer remarked to this writer and other guests during a recent visit to New Delhi. It was shocking to hear the comment from a soldier, in a country that supposedly had given a voice to its huge population and was believed to be all-inclusive.
It is obvious that India’s much-praised democracy hasn’t brought any real change in the lives of millions of Indians. That some of the poorest men and women are now up in arms in parts of India is evidence enough that democratically elected governments must do more to provide rights and justice to the rural poor and ensure even-handed development in different parts of the country.
The Naxalite violence in India has caused pain to most thinking Indians. For them it is a matter of anguish that a growing number of Indians are disillusioned with their country’s democracy and see no hope of benefiting from India’s steady economic progress. They have picked up the gun to fight for their rights.
The Maoist-linked violence is spreading and engulfing new places. The vast region affected by the insurgency include the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal and runs south through Orissa, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. It is usually called the “Red Corridor” because the leadership for the rebels is provided by communist cadres labelled as Maoists. The Communist Party of India (Marxists-Leninists), despite suffering splits, is still the standard-bearer of the rebels.
According to reports in the Indian media, more than 220 districts in 20 or so states are now affected by Maoist-linked violence. Indian intelligence agencies believe the movement has at its disposal 20,000 armed cadres and over 50,000 regular members. Apart from the rural poor, indigenous tribes such as the Girijans in Andhra Pradesh and Santhals in West Bengal have been flocking to the Naxalite movement. The movement has appeal for the dispossessed and the under-privileged. In the words of its present leader, Mupalla Laxman Rao, in hiding somewhere in eastern India and better known as Ganapathi, his party’s influence has grown stronger and it was now the only genuine alternative before the people of India.
The Naxalite movement began as a peasants’ uprising in May 1969 in the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal. It was initially led by 49-year-old Charu Mazumdar and its aim was to seize power through an agrarian revolution by overthrowing the feudal order. Mazumdar died in police custody 12 days after his arrest in Calcutta in 1972 and became a hero to Maoist cadres that have increased in number and strength over the years despite splits in the movement. The Naxalite insurgency has sprouted after every defeat and is now stronger than ever.
India’s share of the world’s poorest people has increased to 39 percent from 25 percent in 1980. In comparison, the Below Poverty Line population worldwide has decreased from 1,470 million to 970 million. There are reportedly 301 million Indians below the poverty line, just 19 million less than in 1983. The Human Development Report by the UN has been ranking India among the lowest 60 or 65 countries in the list of 193 nations that are part of the annual study. India’s poor performance on this score was in spite of the around nine percent growth rate in its GDP. There are reports in the media about farmers committing suicide or selling their wives to pay mounting debts. Though the recorded figures of such cases aren’t high in a big country such as India with 1.17 billion people, it still indicates the desperate state of certain communities.
India’s poor and marginalised groups have on occasions showed their anger through the power of the ballot. This happened in the 2004 and also in the 2009 national elections. The Hindu nationalist BJP tried to seek votes by coining the slogan, India Shining, in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections as part of its claim that its coalition government had brought prosperity during its five-year rule. But the electorate thought otherwise as the majority, particularly the poor and rural voters, the lower castes and minorities hadn’t benefited from the progress that had mostly made the rich richer. Their verdict in the polls was against the BJP-led NDA alliance and in support of the Congress and its allies. The Congress won again in 2009 despite the incumbency factor because it was largely seen as the party that cared more for the rights of the poor and the rural voters and was conscious of the concerns of the minorities, particularly Muslims.
However, it is the ruling Congress now that is confronted with the challenge of responding to the needs of India’s restless rural poor and tribal communities. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently described the Naxalite insurgency as the single greatest threat to India’s internal security. Rahul Gandhi, son of Congress head Sonia Gandhi and the rising star of Indian politics, has been focusing on the vast Indian hinterland, visiting the under-developed rural villages and spending nights at the homes of Dalits, often termed the poorest and most oppressed people in the country. This cannot be enough to calm down the Naxalites, who are convinced that only force could win the Indian people their rights.
A showdown between the Indian government and the Naxalites is now imminent. The Congress-led government is mobilising hundreds of thousands of security personnel, mostly police and paramilitary forces, to launch an offensive against the Maoists mostly likely in November. It has ruled out the use of the military, but the operation will be coordinated from New Delhi as part of a central government initiative. Indian analysts and foreigners knowledgeable about India have pointed out that the country lacked a cohesive strategy to deal with the insurgency. The ruling elites have also been criticised for being slow in responding to the needs of the poorest communities, who were then easily recruited by the Maoists.
Such is the hatred of the Naxalites for the ruling elite that their leader Ganapathi, a former schoolteacher, branded Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister P Chidambaran as “terrorists.” In a recent interview at his secret jungle hideout with the weekly magazine Open, he said “the people will rise up like a tornado under our party’s leadership to wipe out the reactionary blood-sucking vampires ruling our country.” At another point, the 59-year old Ganapathi declared: “Those (government) sharks want to loot the wealth and drive the tribal people of the region to further impoverishment.”
By threatening to unleash a “tornado” of violence if the Indian government went ahead with its planned large-scale offensive against his insurgent forces, Ganapathi has made the intentions of the Maoists obvious. Already, his men, and even some women cadres, have carried out actions that are now normally associated with the Taliban. They have kidnapped and beheaded government officials, blown up electricity and telephone towers, destroyed roads and railway tracks, killed political opponents and attacked police stations and other official installations. The offensive against the Naxalites will certainly weaken and deprive them of some of their bases and hideouts, but the issue cannot be resolved by the use of force alone. Many members of the Indian intelligentsia sympathise with the cause of the Maoists and objective analysts see it as an economic issue and one concerning lack of justice. The Indian ruling elite needs to tackle the root-cause of the insurgency instead of applying force through the state apparatus to crush the rebels.