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Friday, 13 November 2009

India's Naxalites: Wages of feudalism

In 1966, on hearing of a peasant rebellion that had erupted in Naxalbari, a small hamlet in West Bengal in India, Chairman Mao Zedong of China said that “a single spark can light a prairie fire”. He likened the forays of the small group of Maoists as sparks that would ignite agrarian unrest in India to a level unbearable for the government. In a year’s time, West Bengal saw the formation of a government led by the the Communist Party of India -Marxist (CPM), but those who began the “Naxalite” movement saw this party as dominated by the “oppressor classes” and had formed their own “Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML), that rejected the peaceful path of elections in favour of armed struggle. Its leader,the frail but charismatic Charu Mazumdar, was soon captured by the security forces,and died in custody. His followers took to the jungles but soon fizzled out.

Why? The reason was that the Indian peasantry - especially the landless - were too scared of the big landowners to risk their lives in armed assaults. A few “class enemies” were killed,and some of them publicly beheaded, but such sights failed to ignite rebellion in the broad masses,who stayed quiet. Most had an option to armed struggle and used it: elections. In the 1967 elections the once all-powerful Congress Party was reduced to a minority in several states, including in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Or perhaps it was not the din of democracy that blocked the spark from settling the prairie aflame but the bitter memory of the Communist agitation of the 1950s in Telengana ,which too had been suppressed viciously . Hundreds of revolutionaries had been killed,and the trauma was great enough to convince the Communist Party of India that elections rather than armed struggle was the way of the future, a course rejected by its “Maoist” cousin. By 1973, the Maoist “Naxalite” movement had been brutally stamped out, although several of the cadres of the CPI(ML) escaped death and imprisonment. Indeed, many went: aboveground” and took to conventional careers. It was only during the last years of the 1980s that the movement revived again, regaining its 1960s strength by the end of the 1990s. The reason was the income inequality created by economic reform. While the new policies had made about a quarter (and thereafter a third) of the Indian population prosperous, the gap between them and those at the bottom of the ladder increased enormously. Cable television,which spread from the 1980s, opened the eyes of the rural poor to the lifestyles of the rich,and although incomes grew,wants increased by much more. In several parts of the country,those at the lower ends of the social ladder began moving up,helped by a policy of providing low-cost education.In the South, because unlike in the north of the country, the Muslim elite had not migrated to Pakistan, the Muslim community began to prosper,matching the rest of the population in education and income. Land reform began to get implemented across the country in the 1970s,following Indira Gandhi’s spectacular 1972 victory on the slogan of “Garibi Hatao” ( “Abolish Poverty”). In Kerala,each landless labourer was given a tenth of an acre of land on his landlord’s farm,thus making eviction impossible. As a result of this new-found security, agitations for higher farm wages multiplied,and Kerala farm wage rates went up by several times.In Karnataka too, a vigorous labd reform was implemented that took land away from landlords and gave it to tenants who till then did not own the land they tilled. Wherever such reforms were successful, the local economy flourished. However,in some parts of the country,diehard feudal interests prevented land reforms from getting implemented. They ignored the many laws passed in favour of the landless and the small peasant,and continued to have despotic control over the many who worked on their fields. Even today,a third of the country still retains vestiges of feudalism.This includes parts of the states of Maharashtra,Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh,Orissa, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. Not surprisingly, it is in such places that Naxalism has reared its violent head. Because the landlords control the voting booths, and have the local administrative machinery in their pockets,the very poor find that democracy does not deliver for them. So they get attracted to the simple message of the Naxalites: join us,and we will together vanquish your oppressors. Since the 1990s, a tenth of India’s 600-plus districts have come under the control of the Naxalites (or Maoists,as they are also called), at least during the nights,when police dare not venture out from their stations.

The only panacea for this situation is inclusive development, that ensures a reasonable distribution of income to the underprivileged.The problem facing authorities in India is that the Maoists seem totally opposed to any form of development. They block the building of factories,and sometimes even roads. Interestingly,in India,they have been in the forefront of moves to ensure that the country’s uranium reserves remain unmined. In each location where uranium gets mined,Maoists protest. As a result,India’s nuclear reactors were starved of fuel,until the 2008 nuclear agreement signed with the IAEA ensured a steady supply. Maoist activities have held back development, so that some claim that they wish to ensure that poverty continues,till such time as they themselves will come to power.

In the meantime, areas where the insurgents are strong suffer.An example is Nandigram in West Bengal,where a giant factory was to be set up by the Tata Group to produce the world’s cheapest car,the Nano ( at a price of Rupees One Lakh each). Political rivals of the ruling CPM party joined hands with Maoists to ensure that the factory was not built, despite the fact that more than 70,000 jobs would have been created locally by the factory. In all regions controlled by them,the Maoists are against big projects,fearful thatthe spread of prosperity will affect their popularity, and bring in outsiders who are less amenable to their control than the poor (largely tribal) population that forms the bedrock of CPI(ML) support.

In Nepal, Indian government agencies stood aside as the Maoists took control of the state. Only when they began to reveal their bias towards China (and their hatred of India) did the Government of India realise that it had been nurturing a Frankenstein. Till last year,Nepalese Maoists were given sanctuary in India, especially in West Bengal. They were assisted in numerous ways by officials in Delhi against the Monarchy in Nepal, an institution that has always had a tense relationship with Delhi,which has always favoured the democratic parties rather than the Palace. In the 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi blockaded Nepal in order to force the King to abdicate his powers in favour of elected representatives. The last King of Nepal,Gyanendra, has seldom hidden his distrust of Delhi, a sentiment that was reciprocated. However, once the Maoists came to power,they showed their true colours. These days,there are reports that the Maoists (Naxalites) in India are getting help from across the border in Nepal.If so,this would be a worrisome development.

In India,the policy has always been to ignore a problem until it gets too painful to remain unaddressed. Today,the Naxalite movement has become - in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s words - the Number One security problem in the country.The newly-appointed Home Minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, has vowed to tear up the roots of this violent insurgency,and is creating special units for the purpose.Defense Minister A K Antony has said that if needed,the armed forces will go into operation against the Maoists. However, such police action should be accompanied by anti-feudal measures as well as by an acceleration of development projects. Economic growth fused to social justice is the best defense against the Maoist insurgency that is growing in India.


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