Naxalism spreads across central and south India
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab (October 2005)
Hollow silence permeates the room; periodically interspersed by echoes of a man’s voice that seems to come from a great distance. Because the room is bare except for an old television set, a small glass cabinet and iron book shelves in the far corner, smallest voice ricochets against the walls and the ceiling. A small plastic mat is spread in one corner for the visitors facing the wall where a huge laminated portrait of by now iconic revolutionary poet of Andhra, Gaddar, hangs along with one of his verses in Telugu eulogising immortality of the poet. An armed policeman hovers near the doorway as one waits for the famous bard to make his appearance.
Gaddar is very famous and he is nearly arrogant about his capacity to draw crowds. On the phone he says, ”Tell the auto driver to take you to Gaddar’s house and he will bring you.” Unfortunately, the driver does not know Gaddar’s house, and what is worse, he has not even heard of him. But many people do and as the auto rickshaw negotiates the broken road and the potholes to his house, which is nearly 25 kilometres from the heart of Hyderabad, people know where he lives.
He enters the room in quick steps, which he retraces equally quickly to fetch himself a small pillow to rest his knees on as he settles down on the bare floor. Jerking his head at an angle, he pushes the mop of white hair that has fallen on his left eye, but to no avail. Like rock stars, his hair continues to fall on his eyes throughout the conversation in which living up to his reputation of a bard, Gaddar mixes verse with prose, humour with threats to make his point. A self-confessed card-holding member of the communist Party of India-Maoists (CPI-M) and a founder member of Jan-Natya Mandali, the cultural front of People’s War Group (PWG), Gaddar is still a free man, despite the ban on CPI-M and its associated organisations including Revolutionary Writer’s Association, popularly known as Virasam, whose member, author Varavara Rao, is currently incarcerated. Not only this, Gaddar has been provided with state security, though he claims that in 1996 he was shot by one of the various shadowy groups of Andhra Police.
“One bullet is still embedded in my spine,” he says proudly. He also claims to have been an active member of the People’s War Group squad during his underground days, which implies that he underwent arms training in the forest. Yet he is a free man, when all his colleagues have either gone underground or are in prison. So why is he not in jail and why does he have police protection now when police wanted to kill him earlier? He laughs, throwing back his head. ”You ask them,” he says, referring to the police.
Elsewhere, K.G. Kannabiran, senior advocate and president, People’s Union for Civil Liberties and a member of Concerned Citizen’s Committee, whose members include retired IAS officers, lawyers, professors and so on and which is accused of being sympathetic to Maoists, explains Gaddar’s freedom by saying, “They cannot arrest him, because wherever he goes he draws a huge crowd. It would be impossible to put him behind bars.” The police say that he has not been arrested because his organisation Jan Natya Mandali is not among the proscribed Naxal groups. What about his profession of being a member of the Party? Well, there is no evidence of that. Clearly nothing about this murky Naxal business is uncomplicated. Except the end-state expressed unequivocally by the Party and reiterated by Gaddar for our benefit. “The armed struggle will not end. Even if the poor get their dues, the revolutionaries will not lay down arms till we attain our objective of a total revolution. The revolution may get postponed due to various circumstances, but our struggle will continue,” he says, this time without taking recourse to either poetry or humour.
Naxalism or Left-wing extremism is spreading through the Indian heartland not because its numbers are swelling and they are getting access to foreign arms, ammunitions and training, but because its sway among the educated, middle class is getting consolidated. Despite government’s assertion that Naxal ranks comprise criminal elements, which may be partly true, the fact remains that a large number of professionally-qualified people sympathise and clandestinely support a movement that has spawned a cottage industry of its own. Gaddar says, “The poor, illiterate and the unprivileged add to our numbers, but the driving force or the backbone remains the educated and upper caste people. How do you think the movement has been able to sustain itself for the last 30 year, despite government’s repression?” Even the top armed leadership comprises former teachers, lawyers and artists.
Gaddar is part-comic and part-poet. It is easy to dismiss his claims as tall and short on truth. But his assertions get unexpected support from a senior intelligence officer of Andhra Pradesh police. “The biggest road blocks to our efforts come from these sympathisers who you can find among the academia, media and law fraternity. In the garb of civil rights activists, non-government organisation and cultural organisations they support Naxalism. To my mind, they are bigger threat than those who pick up arms, because they give a veneer of respectability to his whole movement. These are the people we need to target first and foremost,” he says on condition of anonymity, adding, “According to my assessment there would be about 800 hardcore Naxal terrorists in Andhra Pradesh but their sympathisers would range between 3,000-4,000.”
The annual report of the ministry of home affairs for 2004-2005 puts the number at 9,300 hard-core underground cadre, holding around 6,500 regular weapons besides a large number of unlicensed country-made arms, of which around 3,000 to 5,000 are in Chhattisgarh alone. Intelligence reports suggest that from 76 districts in nine states two years back, the Naxal sway has increased to 12 states, which is rapid rise by all accounts. In 2005 alone, 510 people died in Naxal-related violence including 89 security forces personnel. Not only that, weapons, communication sets and literature captured from Naxals reveal their growing reach, expanding tentacles and sophistication over the years. As a former director of Intelligence Bureau says, “Today, Naxals are not a band of disgruntled, illiterate have-nots who have taken to arms. They are a regular force, with squads patterned on army platoons that are highly trained and motivated. The way they plan and execute their attacks; the way they understand and use complex circuitry for detonation of IEDs; the way they improvise their tactics point to the fact that their training is excellent.” Adds a former MHA bureaucrat, “In a war, you win or lose. But the important thing is to learn lessons so that you can convert your loss into a victory later on. The question is, in this protracted war, who has learnt lessons better. At the moment, it seems that Maoists have been better learners. Apart from their indoctrination, their training programme is very good. Learning from their early encounters with the police, they have improved their cadre as a professional force.” This needs no elaboration, a typical Naxal attack takes into account the main attack, a contingency plan and an escape route. The cadre moves with maps and communication sets, some of which are highly advanced. They have listening devices with which they hack into the police’ communication network; and most importantly, they have an excellent intelligence network, which is both shadowy and effective. An Andhra intelligence officer says, “I could be talking to a Naxal without knowing who he is. We know the faces of only a few top people, and even then our information on them is old and dated.”
Though Naxalism or Left-wing extremism has been going on for the last 30 years starting with the first Naxalbari uprising in West Bengal which was put down ruthlessly, it now seems to have reached a critical mass. Of the numerous Naxal groups, the big two, Bihar-based Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI) and Andhra-based Communist Party Maoist-Leninist or People’s War Group announced their merger last year and gave themselves a collective identity, the new party was called Communist Party of India-Maoists probably inspired by Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (CPN-M). Says a former home secretary who retired recently, “It was not a coalition, but a merger. The Maoists have got their act together. They have consolidated their organisational structure. While all this was happening, the state administration in most of these places was going from bad to worse, and the local administration had broken down completely. Maoists have now moved into this vacuum. “Moreover, with this merger Maoists have become an all-India party that implies that they have sunk their individual party differences. Since they know no state borders and only geographical barriers, they now easily slip from one state to another. Their pool of funds has got consolidated which has increased their buying capacity as far as weaponry is concerned. Perhaps, their training would also get a semblance of uniformity. In the last few years, according to intelligence officers there have been a few incidences of retired service personnel coming back to their villages and getting swayed by Maoist doctrine. Says one officer, “It is not difficult to imagine a situation where retired men from the armed forces return to their villages and find them completely overrun by Naxalites. It is quite likely that influenced by their beliefs and coupled with all round abjectness and injustice the may agree to train Maoist cadre. This is one explanation for the sophistication of Naxal training and tactics.” According to MHA’s annual report, ‘The Naxal violence during 2004 continued to be a cause of serious concern. Despite serious efforts at the Central and state levels to contain Naxal violence…. The overall quantum of Naxal violence remained more or less at the same level as during the preceding year. The problem, however, has affected a larger area, in varying degrees.’ The report further says that CPML-PW and MCCI continued to spearhead Naxal violence in the country, accounting for about 91 per cent of country-wide violence and 89 per cent of deaths. With the exception of Andhra Pradesh, which had initiated a peace process with CPI-M last year following an election promise, Naxal violence grew in various parts of India at the rate of 15 to 29 per cent, while in November 2004 CPI-M cadre killed 15 police personnel in landmine blast in Chandauli in eastern Uttar Pradesh, in August 2005 they killed an MLA in Andhra Pradesh thereby inviting a ban in the state and in just a few days blew up 22 CRPF personnel in another landmine attack in Chhattisgarh. In between these high profile attacks, they killed a number of police personnel, so-called police informers, local politicians, looted police stations, small armouries and ambushed police parties. Among their sensational heist was the one at Koraput in Orissa, where Naxals blocked the national highway in broad daylight to loot the armoury despite the presence of a CRPF party just a few kilometres away. That they have become increasingly bold in taking on the local police can be seen from the way they stop traffic on national highways to extort money, which they call tax from the passing vehicles.
This is not all. Kannabiran says that in parts of the Maoists-affected areas, they run parallel government complete with local courts called Jan Adalat, taxation system, schools, primary health centres and so on. “It is a revelation to see Maoist villages,” he says. In Andhra, following an election promise, the YSR Reddy’s government initiated a peace process with the Maoists in May 2004 and invited them for unconditional talks. Kannabiran was among those who brokered the talks. Both the government and the Maoists agreed to cessation of hostilities and the first round was held where Naxals were represented by PWG leader Ram Krishna. Two issues were on the agenda: Distribution of Land and Rural Employment. The talks were a fiasco. “I met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after the first round, because I knew that the talks would fail and I wanted his intervention,” says Kannabiran. Sure enough, talks failed after the first round by December 2004 and Naxals called off the peace process in January 2005. While chief minister Reddy in his presentation to home minister Shivraj Patil said that talks failed because Maoists used that period to increase their cadre (PWG strength increased by 50 per cent and Janashakthi by 100 per cent, according to the chief minister), Kannabiran says that the government used that period to reconnoitre the Maoists hideouts. Some say that the government also wanted to use that period the take photographs of Maoist leaders as they were allowed to hold meetings and give interviews to the press. “Basically, the government was not prepared for the talks. They had no idea and no sense of direction,” says Kannabiran.
But given that Maoists do not want to lay down arms till they realise their revolution, what were they trying to achieve through talks? “Many of our well-wishers were insisting that we should talk, so we agreed”, says Gaddar, adding that, “even though we knew nothing would come out of it. Besides, we wanted that time to consolidate our bases and structures. See, what is happening in Kashmir, aren’t you using ceasefire between India and Pakistan to consolidate your defences?” For people who spend their lives in deep forests, Maoists appear well-versed with their immediate environment and also with the history of past struggles which failed to materialise in revolutions. Unlike, Nepal, where Prachanda is an iconic figure, whose collapse may end the movement, Indian Maoists are not taking that risk. According to Kannabiran, there are two reasons for that. One, creating icons is against the spirit of the revolution which depends on the cadre; and two Indian Maoists want the cadre to understand that leaders are unimportant, the movement is. Hence, even if a leader or a few of the top leaders should get eliminated the movement should not get affected. Gaddar reiterates this by giving the example of how top leadership frequently gets expelled or downgraded by the politburo so that nobody becomes larger than life. “And our cadre continues to grow,” says a gleeful Gaddar. “Killing is easy, changing the mindset is difficult.”
On 15 August 2005, the Maoists killed an Andhra Pradesh MLA and the government re-imposed the ban on them. As a result, the Andhra Maoists, including Ram Krishna are supposed to have slipped into the forests of Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Though senior intelligence officials say that the grand Maoist goal of a Compact Revolutionary Zone (CRZ) is still a dream, parts of it are being realised, especially in the Dandakaranya forest which is contiguous to Andhra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Maharashtra and Jharkhand. That, in short, is middle India.