In 1971, the playground of the high school, where I studied in Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh was taken over by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). We didn’t mind it because the jawans played volley ball with us and gave us chapathis at lunch time. The CRPF was there in big strength to weed out Naxalites who infested the countryside around.
Two years after the 1967 “peasant uprising” in West Bengal’s Naxalbari — the village that got the group their name — the Naxalites began to unleash terror in the Srikakulam district, bordering what was then Orissa.
It’s more or less in the same region that Maoists — as Naxalites call themselves now — have been getting a severe beating from the police forces of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha this week. After Monday’s ‘encounter’ at Malkangiri in Odisha, in which 24 Maoists were killed, the police are continuing their combing operations in the area. They have gunned down six more Maoists since Monday and among those killed are some of their important “leaders”, while many others are still on the run.
Perhaps the Naxals have never had it so bad since the death of their original founder Charu Mazumdar in the police lockup in 1972. With a publicly professed goal to ‘overthrow’ the Indian government through ‘armed struggle’ and ‘extreme violence’, they decimated thousands of security personnel and civilians in the last five decades. However, they are now coming to learn that terror begets terror.
Representational image. AFP
Forty-five years after I left Srikakulam, I still remember the stories of Naxalites beheading landlords who according to them were exploiting the peasants.
And to spread terror, they circulated photographs of severed heads they hung from doorposts of the landowners’ homes. I remember those gruesome photographs as if I saw them yesterday. And with the blood of those they butchered, they wrote slogans about “revolution” on the walls , declaring their allegiance to Marx and Lenin.
It was not till many years later that I was able to meet some Naxalites in the bowels of rural Telangana. They were all young, both boys and girls, ranging from postgraduates to school or college dropouts. They were gung-ho about the revolution that they day-dreamed was just round the corner to metamorphose India into a heaven on earth, a society of equals where there would be no injustice.
They threw at me rhetoric that included phrases like “fight against imperialists”, “annihilation of class enemies” and “armed struggle”.
At first they looked like cases of juvenile delinquency, kids out to have ideological fun who would soon get bored with it and settle down to jobs and marriages. Some did, but many went on and on, and the “movement” grew from village to village, district to district and state to state.
It was with both fear and hope that villagers, especially adivasis, supported them. The rural folk was terrified of what the red mobs, with weapons looted from police stations, would do if they didn’t back them. At the same time, villagers who were victims of exploitation at the hands of landlords, corrupt officials and the police saw hope in the Naxalites. Moreover, Indira Gandhi’s institutionalisation of caste-based vote-bank politics and corruption added to the neglect by successive Congress regimes in the states only drove adivasis closer to the Marxist-Leninist ‘soldiers’.
And by the time different Naxal outfits merged into Communist Party of India (Maoist) in 2004, they became active in what is called India’s Red Corridor, starting from the Nepal border and cutting through West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and parts of Karnataka and Kerala. The Maoists, as they were called since the merger, had an army of nearly 12,000 foot soldiers across states.
Besides, they had, and still have, lakhs of supporters and sympathisers everywhere, especially among academic bauddhiks (so-called intellectuals) who routinely find places in the media and dubious institutions starting from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to small-town colleges. Most of the bauddhiks, at least the ones I had the misfortune of being acquainted with, talk Maoism by day and drown themselves in scotch by night, but that’s another matter.
It’s not surprising that the Maoists virtually run parallel governments in small parts of the Red Corridor, collecting taxes, providing amenities like healthcare and even running kangaroo courts for quick justice. All this filled the Maoists with the cheap thrills of a “successful revolution”.
At some point, they were also in touch with Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for weapons and training, and they still have an open channel of communication with their counterparts in Nepal. The talk of Maoists joining hands with Islamic terrorists or getting arms from China has, however, never been confirmed.
On a rare occasion in 2006, even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, known for his economy of words, spoke up. He described Maoists as the “biggest internal-security threat” India faced. In 2009, the CPI (Maoist) was banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Maoist numbers and support dwindling
The good news, however, is that all this has been changing, even if at a slow pace. Their numbers have been dwindling and support diminishing.
The decline of the movement is not a sudden development. In a rare interview to Rahul Pandita, author of ‘Hello Bastar: The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement’, the General Secretary of the CPI (Maoist) and the supreme commander of the Maoists Mupalla Laxman Rao alias Ganapathi admitted in 2009, “Our war is in the stage of strategic defence … (it) will last for some more time.”
The Maoists were also in touch with LTTE for weapons and training, and they still communicate with their counterparts in Nepal. The talk of Maoists joining hands with Islamic terrorists or getting arms from China has, however, never been confirmed.
And in 2013, According to a report in Tehelka, Ganapathi admitted in a letter to party members that Maoists faced a leadership crisis with numbers of both leaders and members on the decline.
Indeed, the strength of the party’s Politburo has dropped from 14 to seven and the Central Committee from 40 to about 20, with the rest either killed by the police or lodged in jails. The number of the party’s active members or armed soldiers has fallen from nearly 12,000 to about 8,000.
This could be attributed to the fact that the police forces across states have stepped up their hunt for Maoists, killing them in real or fake encounters, and welfare schemes of governments have been benefitting affected villages, though to a small extent.
Besides, Maoists have also been digging their own graves by turning arrogant. Stories of their atrocities — killing innocent villagers on a mere suspicion of being police informers and forced recruitment — have been heard with increasing regularity. And they have been increasingly resorting to extortion, blackmail, illegal mining and even poppy cultivation to raise money for their operations.
Moreover, there has been internal bickering. The rift between the dominant Telugu lobby and the non-Telugu leaders and members has been widening. A good number of them have surrendered to the police and turned informers.
It’s clear that this week’s police ‘encounters’ on the AP-Odisha border were made possible because either the villagers or disgruntled Maoists blew the whistle.
The Maoists are down, yes, though not out. But now is the time to totally weed them out and remove the ideological pollution from India’s rural-scape. As in the case of forest brigand Veerappan, the Maoists’ biggest strength has been support from villagers, voluntary or forced. The authorities have been trying, and must continue to, deprive them of this support.
Any let-up in the combing operations by the police or the welfare schemes aimed at tribals would only help the ideological terrorists to regain strength. Ideological or not, the Maoists are terrorists and members of a banned organisation, and they and their supporters and sympathisers must be dealt with accordingly.