The seven-decade insurgency is on the wane after a change in New Delhi's military approach has breached several Maoist strongholds, entrapping or wooing the guerilla fighters into submission.
Around mid-November, the Indian security forces gunned down at least 26 rebels of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist), an outlawed outfit, in a forested area of Gadchiroli in western state of Maharashtra. Among those “neutralised”— the security lingo for killing in combat — was Milind Teltumbde, one of the top rebel leaders of the outfit who carried a reward of 5 million Indian rupees (around $ 65,965) and was responsible for numerous bloody attacks on security forces across the country.
The death of Teltumbde, both friends and foes of the CPI-Maoist agree, has deeply damaged the radical movement once described as “the single biggest internal security threat” by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. At least 10,000 people, including non-combatants, have been killed in the conflict in the last 20 years, making it the second-most bloody conflict in India after the one in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, which is directly ruled by New Delhi.
The armed communist movement is at its lowest ebb since the formation of CPI-Maoist in the autumn of 2004, as its cadres and middle-level leaders are increasingly deserting the movement.
The life of Shambala Ravinder, a top Maoist military commander, illustrates the argument.
Almost 30 years ago, Ravinder — then a boy in his late teens — left his mud house with a thatched roof in Thamadapalle Ippagudem, a nondescript village in central Telangana, a south Indian state, for a village close to Kotgul, where the recent police action occurred.
It was in the 1990s that the left-wing movement, led by the underground Communist party People’s War Group (PWG) gathered steam in Telangana, then still part of undivided Andhra Pradesh state. Over the next 20 years, Ravinder rose in the Maoist military rank. The PWG merged with the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in 2004 to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which went on to become a fighting machine that ran circles around security forces with guerilla tactics borrowed from Mao Zedong’s handbook.
When this correspondent met him in Abujh Madh, a 4,000-square-kilometre forest in the heart of partly Maoist-controlled Bastar Division of south Chhattisgarh, in 2010, Ravinder was heading one of the two military commands of the party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), and one of two battalions. During my five-week stay in the camps, I rarely came across a fighter who faithfully believed in a China-style (1949) revolution.
“When Salwa Judum [a state-sponsored yet controversial vigilante movement to curb Maoist rebellion] eventuated…we realised how relevant Chairman Mao [Zedong] was. People requested us to keep a platoon in the village for protection,” he said in a recorded interview, adding that victory against the state would depend on strengthening the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army.
An abundance of rifle-carrying Maoist fighters, with automatic and outdated single-shot gunpowder guns, were present in the camp, where political and military training was imparted under Ravinder’s tutelage.
“I am also the chief of the military training programme,” he said.
It was the heyday of the armed version of the Indian Communist movement which has dazzled and dipped periodically over the last decades, since the first peasant uprising in 1946, led by the Communist Party of India (CPI), founded in 1925. Following the rise of China, its chairman Mao Zedong captured the imagination of the Indian Communists, who broke away from the mainstream left to form the armed Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) in 1969. They were referred to as Naxalites due to a peasant uprising in Naxalbari village in northern West Bengal.
CPI-ML embarked on a mission to seize state power through armed uprising but the movement folded in four years. Following several splits and subsequent mergers in the party, came the turning point in the movement’s history when PWG and MCC joined to form CPI-Maoist in 2004, headquartered in the forest areas of the Bastar Division of south Chhattisgarh.
Bastar in Chhattisgarh state turned into a fortress of the Maoist cadres. Its members were present in a heavily forested region but with little signs of administration in the 80s and 90s. Over the next 30 years, Bastar became the launchpad for the Maoist rebels’ shoot-and-scoot operations. After the PWG-MCC merger, CPI-Maoist dominated nearly half of the division, said Sundarraj P, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) of the Bastar Range.
“In 2000, when the Chhattisgarh state was carved out from the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh, more than 18,000 (43 percent) out of 42,000 square kilometres of Bastar was seriously affected by left-wing extremism,” Sundarraj said in an elaborate e-mail to TRT World.
By then, Ravinder’s military career had taken off as well.
“My ability to challenge the security forces single-handedly impressed the leadership. I was promoted in the PLGA,” Ravinder said.
In a matter of two decades, the PLGA grew from a handful of military squads with about five to 10 members in each squad to a formidable guerrilla outfit with several platoons, companies and even two battalions – with about 300 fighters in each – when it launched the most audacious attack on elite paramilitary forces of India in 2010, killing 75 soldiers.
Ravinder – who back then went by the nom de guerre Jagesh and Arjun – is still proud of the Maoist military formations which took shape partly under his command.
“It was an achievement [in Chhattisgarh] as in all the three decades, the party could not form more than a few squads in Telangana, despite huge mass support,” he said.
Sitting on a tarpaulin sheet and under two more stretched overhead to provide protection from the brutal monsoon rain, the AK-47-carrying commander said that the “primary factor” for the Maoists’ success was driving away from the forest guards, who allegedly used to harass the villagers routinely.
“It enhanced villagers’ confidence in the rebels,” argued Ravinder.
The other factor – according to a former top bureaucrat of Chhattisgarh – was an “outstandingly stupid policy” of the government.
“Funding Salwa Judum to fight the Maoists who are nothing but another set of villagers was – in one word – suicidal,” the former administrator said. Atrocities by Salwa Judum cadres at times outstripped even that of the worst criminals.
Cadres of Salwa Judum – which translates to the Peace March – periodically targeted villagers and raped women. Vijay – a junior Maoist militia – documented only a handful of villages around the main Indravati river in south Bastar.
“I got names of 64 persons who were killed and at least 1,570 houses razed in only a few villages,” he said in 2010. The Chhattisgarh government stated in court that between 2004 and 2010, a total of 1064 villagers and 739 government functionaries were killed.
In the late winter of 2013, this correspondent interviewed several women in a south Chhattisgarh village – Shamsetti – who was allegedly raped and then forced to retract their statements in the court of law against the accused, saying they “have not met” the accused earlier.
The achievement of the Maoists to push the state-sponsored vigilantes back to barracks was considered a stimulus for the rebels and “an estimated 300 to 500 boys and girls joined the party each year,” said Ravinder.
Salwa Judum was disbanded by India’s highest court in 2011, but the decade (2000-2010) witnessed nearly 7,000 deaths, which reduced to a little over 3,000 in the next decade (2010-2020), a statement of India’s Home Ministry in the parliament indicates. The death toll dropped from 1,005 to 183 in the past decade.
However, the party grew, owing to at least half-a-dozen other notable programmes.
The rebels pressured traders to enhance the price of forest produce, till then sold by the locals to traders from outside the region at a rate way cheaper than in the market. They denied mining companies – other than the traditional government ones – access to forest areas, empowered the tribal women and youth, provided elementary health care and basic and revolutionary schooling, while – most importantly – uniting the tribes under one red flag.
Yet, Ravinder lost faith in the left-wing movement.
He realised a Mao-style revolution is no longer possible in India and accepted a government-sponsored rehabilitation package for the senior Maoist leaders – not less than $30,000 – in 2014 and returned to Thamadapalle, Ippagudem. While giving me a tour of his three-acre cotton-producing farmland in 2016, Ravinder indicated that he is indebted to his family and the state for another opportunity to reboot life at 50.
“The society is changing and we ought to initiate changes in the party,” said Ravinder, sitting in his reasonably spacious single-storied house in Thamadapalle.
The party “exerted enormous pressure” – he said – by pushing him to lead too many military programmes while his “health was giving up”. His wife, Vatti Aadme, alias Devi, a Gond tribe woman, and Ravinder decided to leave the guerrilla life and have a child.
“We were disconnected from this society for decades, the child was planned to anchor us,” said Aadme, a former gun-carrying soldier of platoon-02 of the PLGA. Ravinder gave an account of their differences with the party.
“For a long time, the party demanded basic public services for the villagers and when the services were delivered – after our long struggle – it was denied,” said Ravinder.
CPI-Maoist argues that if the government services from construction of roads to mobile telephone towers are indiscriminately allowed, it would facilitate entry of security forces in the rebel strongholds.
The remnants of the Maoist party, however, appear to be clinging on to its belief in the Chinese Communist Party’s pre-revolution strategy — to engage peasant-warriors to forcefully acquire land to form ‘liberated’ zones free of states’ intervention and connect such zones to seize state power.
However, once the government struck at the root of the problem and put Bastar on the development map, the Maoist’s fall started.
“We could never convert temporary military bases to permanent ones in the last 50 years as was envisaged by the party,” said Ravinder, a former member of both the military commission and the provincial committee.
Where the Maoists went wrong
Some of the erstwhile leaders and sympathisers – who are not averse to CPI-Maoists’ ideology – are disillusioned as well. Many argued excessive focus on military and less on politics may not have augured well.
“We call it a central dilemma,” a senior party leader said, sitting in a desolate suburban railway station.
“In Telangana, we have worked among the people, disrupted an entrenched caste system and thus gained peoples’ confidence. With the ensuing police action in the late 1990s, we were wiped out as we could not resist militarily.” The old man paused to inhale puffs from a tube of Esiflo, a steroid for a lung disorder.
“[Therefore] in Chhattisgarh, we focused on raising a force with a clear command structure and developed squads, platoons, companies and even battalions in quick time. But in the process, owing to lack of human resources, we possibly focused less on politics and more on the military aspects which did not work either. Question is, what is the right balance or approach for a revolutionary party?”
India as a country too changed dramatically over the last decade as a centre-left government led by the Congress was replaced by the Hindu rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“The society – for multiple socio-historical reasons – morphed into a right-wing one in a decade. Now, if activists are arrested or even assassinated there is hardly any protest and the sympathy for the rebels is receding,” the old man indicated.
However, the Maoists have largely been stuck with the old principles.
“We [Maoists] have failed to internalise the changes. The struggle for our original demands of land or forest rights for the indigenous people is important but that cannot be the only struggle in modern India,” he said.
Maoist, he admitted, failed to connect with key issues of India, from communalism to corruption or large-scale privatisation of the public sector to urban poverty.
State forces are multiplying
Maoists are now confined to about seven pockets with a “security vacuum” covering 7,000 square kilometres, a drop of 11,000 square kilometres in 20 years.
Since Sundarraj took charge as the IGP in 2017, as many as 62 camps of security forces, with many hundreds of police and paramilitary personnel, have been raised in areas inaccessible for the police just a couple of years ago.
“We have around 32 Battalions (each battalion may accommodate up to 1,000 personnel) of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) deployed in Bastar Range,” said Sundarraj.
Two semi-military forces, the Central Reserve Police Force and the Border Security Force (BSF), are deployed in South Bastar, while the BSF is deployed in north Bastar and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force in Narayanpur and Kondagaon, the central districts.
“About 1,000 kilometres of the road was constructed in the last two years in the Maoist areas, restricting the insurgents,” he noted. Another 650 kilometres is under construction.
“In addition, technology-driven interventions like satellite-based communications, aerial surveillance or tracking mechanisms have acted as force multipliers. Tangible operational outcomes like reduction in Naxal violence, civilian killings, security forces martyred indicates that the Maoist organisation is going through a lean phase in its 50 years of existence,” the IGP noted.
The central counter-insurgency strategy to woo the militants by revamping the ‘surrender policy’ has yielded results.
“Based on their ranks in the Naxal formation they get further monetary assistance varying from Rs one lakh to 25 lakh ($ 33,000). Central Committee members get Rs 40 ($52000) lakh, whereas politburo members get up to Rs 60 lakh ($80000),” noted Sundarraj.
Ordinary cadres are awarded with an “immediate monetary support” which is augmented if they surrender with weapons. A few have been recruited into the police – and some of them even won national awards for fighting their former colleagues – while others were imparted with skills and training and allotted residential plots, the police claimed.
As a result, at least two thousand gun-carrying cadres have surrendered since 2017, said Sundarraj.
Ravinder provided another argument for the surrenders.
In India, the first communist party was formed in 1925 and a Mao-influenced armed uprising occurred in 1969 in West Bengal.
“Russia and China attained revolution within 15 and 30 years respectively, following the formation of the communist parties. How long are Indian cadres expected to wait?” asked the former Maoist commandant.
Concurrently a series of humanitarian programmes, from finding jobs for the rural youth to addressing tribes’ right to the forest, along with building rural schools and developing mobile connectivity to connect villagers with the banking networks facilitated markets’ access to the Maoist land, also significantly alienated the rebels from the locals.
Two Bastar journalists – Kamal Shukla and Mangal Kunjam – who have covered the insurgency in great detail over the last two decades, agreed that Maoists are “decisively” on the back foot.
While Shukla claimed that the top Maoist leadership indicated to him that “it is time to work out a new strategy”, Kunjam underscored three factors indicating rebels’ failure to hold on to their key strongholds.
“A large number of cadres are surrendering and mostly those are not fakes as it used to be and secondly, the rebels are not getting fresh recruits,” said Kunjam.
“Earlier the police and the Maoists used to ask too many questions as we used to enter the forest. However, the restrictions have eased now,” said Kunjam.
Will they “disappear''?
M.A. Ganapathy, an officer who served in the Home Ministry division handling left-wing insurgency, acknowledged that Maoists had the advantage of expanding in pockets of Bastar “owing to the state's erstwhile policy to leave the indigenous population on their own”.
However, with a change in the government’s policy, Maoists have “very little manoeuvring space” now, he added
Ganapathy now heads the elite counter-terrorism unit of India – the National Security Guard (NSG). The days of the movement are numbered, he said.
“It is not a sub-national movement but an ideological one which is bound to lose steam with the penetration of the state and growth of the market in the Maoist areas,” said Ganapathy, who is apprehensive about the “depth of ideological clarity in the Maoist party with very few members of the motivated old leadership still in command”.
“Possibly in some parts, the militias are running the show on their own, without much control of the highest bodies, politburo or central committee,” he said.
With a global slide in communism, “people are not moved deeply by the idea of equality but by personal choice”, and thus “there is no longer a larger purpose behind the movement”.
“Sooner or later they will disappear. It is thus the right time for the Maoists to enter into a dialogue with the government to put an end to violence which does not serve any purpose, other than loss of lives,” Ganapathy added.
For the Maoists, however, talks with the government are untenable.
A former senior leader said that all the past moves to work with the government had collapsed after the administration “accessed our secrets and used it against us once the ceasefire ended, killing many comrades”.
“The Telangana and the West Bengal governments have severely breached trust,” the septuagenarian argued.
Thus, despite several attempts by civil society groups – including politically-connected spiritual preacher Sri Sri Ravi Shankar – the Maoists have refused all offers to negotiate peace. Maoists suffered heavily after initial rounds of dialogue with the representatives of the state in recent times, once in Telangana (2004) and the other time in West Bengal (2011), albeit informally.
Yet, the movement is not over and the sympathisers argue that with growing inequality in India, Maoists may launch a comeback if they can calibrate priorities. A recent report laid bare the stark imbalance in wealth distribution in India. “While the top 10 percent and the top 1 percent hold respectively 57 percent and 22 percent of total national income, the share of the bottom 50 percent has gone down to 13 percent.”
“The poor – rural and urban – are feeling the brunt of deep inequality and thus the relevance of a party which alone argues for the poor would not be totally irrelevant,” said Ravinder, who still feels deeply attached to his comrades in the far-flung hamlets of Bastar.
IGP Sundarraj too indicated that they are “not underestimating the capabilities of the Maoist to inflict damage to security forces”.
“We have to be vigilant and alert round the clock and bring this fight to a logical end as early as possible,” the IGP noted.
The underground communist movement of India might not fade away completely, just as it has refused to over the last five decades. However, occasional counter-offensives against the forces or “revolutionary violence” will also not resurrect CPI-Maoists unless they manage to connect with India’s working-class, who almost entirely reside outside the forest areas of central India.