Away from the tourist trail, India is threatened by the Maoism that toppled Nepal's monarchy
As I write, police in the Indian state of Orissa are searching for the bodies of their comrades in a mountain reservoir. The dead are among 37 members of an elite counter-insurgency unit missing after Maoist rebels strafed and sank a police launch. Hundreds of police and paramilitary troops supported by helicopters are now combing the surrounding forests for the guerillas who carried out the attack. It could be a scene from any one of a dozen films set during the Vietnam or Algerian wars. But it is a slice of real life in a large swathe of India that little resembles the shining, modernising, booming, English-speaking entity celebrated by magazine cover stories and books with titles such as Planet India and Think India.
India has battled separatist insurgencies ever since independence in 1947, with parts of the country’s periphery under some form of military occupation on an almost continuous basis. Only rarely have these savage little conflicts, with their cruel cycle of rebellion and repression, made international headlines or affected the benign image of India so skilfully burnished by the post-independence elite. But the Maoist insurgency may represent something different and much more dangerous to the republic.
Unlike the long-running rebellions in north-eastern states such as Assam and Nagaland, it is not confined to a border area or limited to a particular, ethnically distinct group. On the contrary, the Maoists have a significant presence in 14 out of India’s 28 states. Moreover, the insurgency has grown without the benefit of sanctuaries or training camps in neighbouring countries, and its successes cannot plausibly be attributed to the secret agents of Pakistan or any other foreign hand. And though India’s democracy has long proved its resilience, even in the face of appalling terrorist attacks and political assassinations, it is possible that the Maoist revolt could genuinely threaten the economic basis of the new India.
The sinking of the police launch in Orissa is the first major attack by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) – formerly the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre – since their comrades in Nepal achieved an electoral triumph this spring. It’s arguably their most daring operation since December, when Maoist guerillas broke 300 prisoners out of jail in the state of Chhattisgarh. It may be the most successful since March 2007, when uniformed and well-armed cadres stormed a police post in the same state, killing 55 members of the security forces, at no loss to themselves. In recent years there have been many smaller outrages including successful assaults on a police training academy near the state capital of Orissa, the assassination of a federal MP at a football match and the seizure of a passenger train for 12 hours in Jharkhand. The Maoists are often referred to as Naxalites or Naxals, in homage to the bloody revolt that began in Naxalbari, West Bengal, in 1967. The first Naxalites were agricultural workers organised and led by Communists inspired by Mao’s China. The movement was joined by radical students enraged by the caste and landholding inequities of rural -India. They carried out a policy of “annihilation” of “class enemies”, assassinating university administrators, politicians and policemen before the movement was crushed, its key leader dying in police custody in 1972.
Naxalism never recovered in West Bengal, which is today governed by legal Marxist Communist parties. But it revived and spread widely in other eastern states, beginning in the 1980s, even before India’s liberated economy began to take off. The new Naxalism has little middle-class participation and no support from Beijing; it seems to be a genuine grassroots movement. Its cadres are recruited from the rural poor, the landless, from low-caste labourers oppressed by higher-caste landlords and above all from the so-called tribals or adivasis.
The adivasis are India’s aboriginal hill tribes – the subcontinent’s equivalent of Amazonian or North American Indians. Most are animists or Christians. They rank among India’s poorest inhabitants, have often been driven from their ancestral lands and say they are discriminated against by government officials. Certainly the hilly forested areas in which they live tend to be even worse served by the state than other parts of rural India: the schools lack teachers, government doctors don’t turn up to the clinics. Where there is education, it is often provided by Christian missionaries – or by the Naxalites. In some rural areas, villagers prefer the Maoists’ “people’s courts” to government ones, which can take years to resolve even simple cases.
The so-called Red Corridor stretches from the Nepalese border all the way to Tamil Nadu in the south and the easternmost parts of Maharashtra in the west. But it covers mostly rural jungle areas that are of little interest to tourists, and until recently, were of little economic significance. However, the large stretches of the country where Maoists are able to challenge or neutralise the authority of the state – 165 out of 602 districts – are of growing importance to Indian and foreign business. Several of the regions that have seen the fiercest fighting -between the Indian state and the Maoists are rich in iron ore, coal, bauxite and limestone – raw materials desperately needed by an expanding economy.Companies like ArcelorMittal and Tata are building huge steel plants in Jharkhand and Orissa. South Korea’s Posco is building a £6bn installation in the latter state despite violent demonstrations by local tribals. This spring, Naxalites twice raided an Essar Steel plant in Chhattisgarh, burning vehicles and equipment and cut off electricity to the same district by blowing up transmission towers. They also murdered villagers who had indicated a willingness to sell their land for the expanding plant.
Like their fellow Maoists in Peru’s Shining Path, the Naxalites are capable of great cruelty. Though their cadres use guns, bows and arrows, and even spears to fight the security forces, they prefer the sickle when killing and mutilating alleged informers and traitors. -Local militias raised to fight the Maoists have been equally brutal, driving tens of thousands of people from their homes.
If you read the Indian papers, the drumbeat of Maoist attacks -begins to sound like the news from Iraq or Afghanistan: a police fort overwhelmed here, a Land Rover blown up by a landmine there, an oil pipeline ruptured, another official assassinated. Nevertheless, India’s spreading Maoist insurgency has had remarkably little coverage abroad, even though the insurgency cost some 1,400 lives in 2007 and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared in 2006 that it is “the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country”.
This was a shocking statement in light of the ongoing Kashmir conflict or the horrors of the Sikh insurgency in the Punjab in the early 1980s and the fact that police stations are periodically torched and mobs fired on in other areas of India, including in states with no on-going insurgencies. For example, on May 26 of this year, police gunned down 15 demonstrators from the Gujjar caste as they assaulted a station in Rajasthan. Last year, West Bengal police and armed activists of the ruling Left Front government killed at least 14 peasants during a demonstration against the establishment of a special economic zone in Nandigram near Calcutta. Then there’s the conflict in Kashmir and the less well-known, complicated little insurgencies that wrack the strategically vital north-eastern states known as the Seven Sisters. They are largely populated by Indochinese peoples, whose languages and culture are much closer to those of China and Burma than to those of central India. In the state of Tripura, for example, the Christian-dominated National Liberation Front of Tripura wants liberation from “Indian neo-colonialism and imperialism” – and to evict economically successful Bangladeshi refugees. In three decades, the conflict has killed 11,000 people.
In general, India’s endemic insurgencies and outbreaks of rural violence tend to be dwarfed, at least as news stories, by the more serious challenges facing neighbouring countries like Pakistan. It’s also worth remembering that many 19th and 20th century European states had problems controlling the countryside, especially during periods of political and economic change.
The Indian state’s response to violent separatism, terrorism and armed revolution is not what you might expect given political India’s traditional tendency to lecture Western countries about “imperialism”. For example, few people know about the “dirty war” counter-insurgency operations in Punjab, which followed the storming of Amritsar’s Golden Temple in 1984. These broke the back of extremist Sikh separatism. But they involved unlawful detention, torture and the deaths of at least 10,000 people at the hands of police and state-sponsored death squads.
These days, in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, the Indian army enjoys surprising popularity thanks to its relief role in the October 2005 earthquake and improved efforts to win the hearts and minds of Kashmiris. However, the earthquake came 16 years into a conflict during which the area was under almost constant occupation by up to 500,000 troops, and in which at least 50,000 people have been killed. There has been extreme brutality on both sides, but the story of the security forces’ human-rights abuses is unfolding as NGOs investigate periods when the media and aid agencies were excluded from the Kashmir valley. Disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture and extrajudicial execution in the form of staged “encounters” have all come to light. Rapes by the security forces have been so common that many Kashmiris believe it is a deliberate policy.During the worst years of the Kashmir insurgency, interrogation centres near Srinagar were notorious for torture. Some suspects had their legs crushed with heavy rollers. Others had toes or fingers cut off. But sexual torture was the speciality of Indian security forces. Many of those who returned alive from interrogation were broken men, rendered sterile and impotent by genital electrocution.
So far, the Indian state has not mobilised massive resources to -battle the Maoist threat, leaving the task to relatively disorganised and inefficient state authorities. But if it does so, it may not be able to apply the draconian but effective methods used in Kashmir, Punjab and the Seven Sisters. The Maoist area of operations is simply too large and spread out.
Furthermore, all it would take for the Maoists to inflict serious damage to India’s economy and self image would be for them to engage in urban as well as rural terrorism. It worked for the Nepali Maoists. According to the Institute for Conflict Management, a think tank in New Delhi, the Naxalites are indeed preparing to take the struggle into the cities. It would not be hard for them to hide among the millions of migrants crammed into the slums. Moreover, extraordinary opportunities for urban terrorism and assassination are offered by the fact that Indian society is one in which even middle-class people can afford to employ domestic servants. Already there is growing anxiety among wealthy urban Indians about robberies and murders by servants, many of whom are migrants from the same rural areas falling under Maoist influence. In Nepal, Maoist recruits were given training by army deserters and Gurkha veterans; India’s urban centres include a much bigger potential fifth column for the Naxalites.
Of course, it would be a mistake to underestimate the strength of the Indian state or the resilience of a society with many more democratic outlets and institutions than Nepal. India’s sheer size allows it to survive catastrophic natural and human events that would shatter other polities. But it would also be a mistake for international observers to ignore the potential for revolutionary activity in a society so profoundly divided. Indeed, the international media’s preoccupation with India’s very thin upper crust – the 150m or so who can now afford a mobile phone, a fridge or perhaps even a scooter, the 1m or so wealthy people who are middle class by Western standards, the 100,000 dollar millionaires, and the 1,000 or so who are extremely rich by any standards – has obscured the travails of the remaining 900m inhabitants, many of whom live lives untouched or even made worse by rapid economic change. India’s calling cards as it seeks superpower status – and a permanent seat on the Security Council – are its growing economic power and its moral prestige as the world’s largest democracy. Both of these are extraordinary achievements. But her economic resurgence is febrile and is deepening the social divisions of a country planning its first manned space missions but unwilling or unable to provide basic amenities like running water to hundreds of millions of people.
This is a society led by a political class at least as well educated, modern and global in outlook as any ruling elite in the West. However, their connection to, understanding of and sympathy for rural masses – many of whom lead lives almost medieval in terms of both technology and social relations – is minimal. They live in the same country but a different world. Where those worlds collide is where the Maoist opportunity lies.