Maoist guerrilla fighters have ambushed and killed at least 73 officers of a paramilitary unit, according to a report in the New York Times. The attack is part of a long armed struggle in parts of India.
“By some unofficial estimates, roghly 200 security officers have been killed by Maoists during the past 12 months”, according to the article. For instance: “On Sunday, Maoists detonated a land mine in the state of Orissa, killing 10 officers and injuring 16 others. Last month, the Maoists blew up a railroad track, forcing the minor derailment of a passenger train. And in February, about 100 Maoists on motorcycles stormed a police outpost in the state of West Bengal, killing 24 security officers.” Aljazeera has a long list of Maoist attacks, from October 1, 2003 up until today’s operation. Most of all these attacks are directed at police and other security forces of the indan states; some of them involve the liberation of Maoist and other prisoners or the capturing of arms, a few of them have civilian victims.
Of coursel there is the usual state hypocricy in condenning the attacks. Palaniappan Chidambaram, Indian Home Minister, says he is “deeply shocked at the loss of lives”; according to him, “the Maoist attack showed the ‘brutality and the savagery they are capable of’ .” Was he ever ‘deeply shocked’ by the vilence of the Indian state against poor villagers in tribal areas, the areas where Maoism finds so much support? He studiously ignores the reason of attacks like these. They are part of a guerrilla war waged by a movement that tries to defend the interest of millions of the most oppressed an downtrodden people in India. And they are a reaction to a brutal counterinsurgency campaign by the Indian state, an effeort to crush the Maoist insurgency by force. That, no doubt, was the reason that the paramilitary patrol was on the place were they got ambushed in the first place. Attacks like these should be seen as assertive self-defence by the Maoist movement.
This movement had been in existence for many long and bloody years, as Aljazeera explains. The revolt started in 1967, when Maoist activists fought against a landlord in a West Bengal village called naxalbari. That is why this movement is usually referred to as Naxalites or Naxals. They are now active in a third of the country, in 16 states of India, in 195 disctricts out of a total of 604 disctricts., according to Aljazeera. There may be 10.000 trained and armed guerrilla fighters in the Maoist movement, and 54.000 people as active organised supporters, if the estimate of the Indian government is correct. Considering the size of the territories where the insurgents operate and have influence, these numbers almost certainly are a gross underestimate.
The Maoists , formerly organised in several factions, are now unified in an organisation calling itself the Communist Party of India-Maoist. They find support among tribal communities in the countryside. These communities are not only desperately poor: they are systematically marginalised and oppresed. That is why people in tribal villages rally to the Maoists.
Mainstream sources tell grim stories about Maoist attacks on police forces, and on villagers whom Maoists accuse of collaboration with the police. The other side of the story – the brutal oppression going on in the countryside – is sometimes mentioned as a factor in the war, but is rarely given its due weight as the root cause of the insurgency.
For understanding, for a vivid account of Maoist activity in India, we can usefully turn to a beautiful article written by Arundhati Roy: “Walking with the comrades”. It had appeared in Outlook India, on march 29, and its reading is highly, highly recommended. Roy describes her encounters with Maoists in fascinating detail. She explains how the Indian state basically confiscates tribal grounds, to allow corporations to build mines and dams that destroy the areas where these communities try to make a living. She explains how Maoists gradually found support amongst tribal communities, by helping to organise struggles against the onslaught of these corportions and against the state which enables these corporations.
We read horror story upon horror story – of a woman fighter whose first husband was killed by Indian state forces, and remarried. Her second husband was also killed by Indian state forces. of a mother whose son was killed by police, the body dragged behind a vehicle, the mother walking behind the police , mile after mile, to see her son’s burial. Villages burned, women raped. reaing all this, what may surprise the reader is not the violence of the Maoists. What may surprise you is the relatively limited character of this violence: not at al random but mainly – though not exclusively – directed at police, paramility forces and people actively supportive of these kind of forces.
Roy is clearly filled with admiration of what she sees of Maoism in action. Some details and comments are both funny and very moving. Her first encounter, for instance: she was supposed to meet a guide whom she could recognize because he would wear a cap and would carry an issue of Outlook magazine, and bananas. When she met the guide – a young guy – she found that he had a cap, but no Outlook: could’t find a copy, she read on a note the boy gave her. “And the bananas?” she inquires ” ‘I ate them’ he said. ‘I got hungry'” Roy: “He really was a security threat.”
But she is not without healthy doubts and criticisms. She laments the lack of criticism of earlier Maoist and related experiences – China, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. She mentions China, an example for indian Maoists. “China’s path has changed. China has become an imperial powe now, preyin on other countries, other people’s resources. Only, the Party has changed its mind.” Well, not that much, one might add. There was already the occupation of Tibet, in the heydays of Maoism…
She continues: “When the Party is a suitor (as it is now in Dandakaranya), wooing the people, attentive to their needs, then it genuinely is a People’s Party, ist army genuineely a people’s Army. But after the revolution how easily this love affair can turn into a bitter image. How easily can they turn upon the people. Today in Dandakaranya, the Party wants to keep the bauxite in the mountain. Tomorrow, will it change its mind?” Good questions, unfortunately.
The problems, however, may run somewhat deeper than Roy suspects. The People’s Party and the People’s Army may be supportive of people’s need, and may be supported by a large part of the people in turn. But they ar not controlled by these people. A central leadership – organised through the usual Stalinist hierarchies of Politburo, Central Committee, army leaderships, cadres etcetera – are in control. People debate and participate in the execution of policies. The basic outlines however, are handed down from the leadership, from above.
In case of Maoist victory – this leadership will be in charge – not the people themselves. And this leadership will be in charge of a state amongst other states, with all the pressures of competition that implies. That means that they will feel themselves forced to develop the economy, through state-led accumulation (as in Maoist China), thorough deals with multinationals, or through a combination of both (as in present-day China). And then, beware the people who get in the way of ‘progress’… That is the tragedy of top-down-revolutinary politics: it can lead to a somewhat better life for the oppressed, but it cannot lead to true liberation.
Roy doesn’t analyze Indian Maoism along these lines. But she feels the danger, and the reader feels with her. She has her doubts about some instances of maoist vilence – summary executions of people consedered traitors, for instance – as well. But then, what are the rebellious tribespeople supposed to do? “Go to the police?”
Do these people have an alternative, other than either submission to brutal oppression, or a war that brings new injustices and oppression? Roy does not find a way out. Revolutionaries, in India and elsewhere, have no other choice but to try to find such a way. However, Roy’s beautiful piece at least gives us an understanding of Maoism in India that is most welcome.