Human Rights and People's War in Nepal
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These all collection of articles are excerpted from the Himal Magagine.

September/October 1997 Vol 10 No5

Cover Stories

Red Star over South Asia

Dipak Gyawali

In the more impoverished parts of South Asia – from the western hills of Nepal to the badlands of Bihar, in the forests of Andhra Pradesh or the marginalised hinterlands of the Brahmaputra valley – Maoism is no idle intellectual pursuit. Body counts from its practice are too near to home for comfort, and the deeper issues it raises too close to everyday living to ignore.

Nepal, for instance, has seen more lives lost in the year-and-a-half-long Maoist "people's war" than were doomed in the entire 1990 "people's movement" which ushered in parliamentary democracy. The village populace is terrorised in the pincer of Maoist violence and police retribution. Yet this sudden rise in the terror thermometer had, till recently, merely resulted in an embarrassed silence in Kathmandu's corridors. Only when the present left-right coalition government proposed enacting a draconian "anti-terrorism" bill, which would affect urban liberals and politicos more than the Maoists, did the issue merit public debate.

South Asia's modernist elite are by now so distanced from the countryside that no emotional chord is struck when rural folk die needlessly and cruelly. Deaths in Bosnia are more immediate to Delhi drawing rooms than killings on the Bihar Plateau. Because downtown Kathmandu has as yet to see a serious bomb blast, the terror in the hills of the central-west districts does not even constitute distant thunder.

The rural poor are so alienated from the state and its structures, so despairing of relief, that the ideology of revolt is seen as the only salvation. Maoist cadres are born of deep-seated causes: wildly inappropriate education, joblessness, conspicuous consumption of the upper classes, cultural alienation, ethnic anger, etc. But these challenges cannot be confronted and eradicated with violence, whether from the state or the Maoists.

The trite response of the uncommitted to rising Left extremism is to call upon the government of the day to resolve the problem through so-called political means. But "political resolution" requires tackling the "root causes" of despair and underdevelopment, and few politicians have the wisdom or sagacity for that. A "political resolution" requires astute statesmanship imbued with a deep sense of justice. In none of the Maoist hotbeds of South Asia is such a polity in sight.

The most members of the establishment will do under the circumstances is mouth easy development slogans, with no trace of commitment or understanding. Their tendency will be to let an insurgency simmer in low boil as long as it does not harm national institutions and urban centres or damage large-scale physical infrastructure such as power grids and highways. If those get targeted, then the fashionable clamour for "political resolution" vaporises, and the political establishment, business and academia discreetly look the other way while the army, police or paramilitary engage in mop up.

When an elite loses its creativity, it falls back on the easy path of repression. In this, they are assisted greatly by the current crop of politicos everywhere in the region who are self-serving, increasingly cut off from those that they represent, and incapable of constructive engagement. Moreover, if swift action and surgical precision is not guaranteed and the effort becomes a prolonged, resource-consuming warfare, it only adds fuel to the Maoist fire.

If the establishment class brings about ruin through hypocrisy, the ideologues of the extreme Left more than make up for it with their rejectionism. For they disparage elected parliaments as nothing but meeting places for idle chit-chat. They maintain that the poor and the oppressed do not have the wherewithal to even begin to use such democratic infrastructure or procedures. In an inequitable world, such institutions are fated to be manipulated by the rich and the powerful to maintain their status quo hold over the means of production, thus perpetuating exploitation in a more palatable form. To use the more colourful expression of Nepal's Maoists, parliament is like a butcher shop "where they display a goat's head but sell dog meat". Radical change through armed uprising, say these ideologues, is the only language the exploiters take seriously.

To an impoverished mass wallowing in a sea of fatalistic despair, this is heady wine; but it leaves too many unanswered questions. A revolt born of a sense of unfairness could conceivably be countered by a just apportioning of national resources. But the ideologues of the far Left would do well to really understand world history, their own societies, and what Mao meant, before pushing their poor cadres and supportive villagers into the cauldron of terror.

Look around, and you will see that the Maoist ideology of revolt has taken root only in societies where old civilisations are almost a spent force, creaking under their own dead weight in the face of the modernist onslaught. After all, it was the failure of a decrepit Confucian polity that could no longer keep Western mercantile capitalism at bay, coupled with the ravages of World War II, which led to the spectacular success of Maoism in China. A common Han culture allowed much of the contradictions in society to be defined in terms of economic class rather than caste or ethnicity. Once the issues of economic equity were resolved through a Maoist levelling, society could go back, as China has now, to business as usual. This is why the land of Mao today hardly supports Maoists, be it in the jungles of the Philippines or of Andhra.

Turn your sights, then, to the erstwhile Hindustan where, too, an enfeebled and deeply fractured society grapples with the pulls of modernity. But then, the simple doctrines of class struggle seem hardly adequate in a Subcontinent where the economic classification is super-imposed upon by a myriad of other distinctions – of caste, language, region, religion, ethnicity, and now, nationality. Can the genie of revolt escape from the bottle and spread across the land when it can only read the taxonomy map of class struggle?

In other words, South Asia's Maoists are sadly out of touch if they believe that their crusade will cover the whole Subcontinent as it did the Han mainland. For there are enough other pressures at play which will dilute or divert what may even start out as a Maoist movement. Thus, rebels of the Indian Northeast or the JVP Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka may have sworn by the Red Book, but ultimately they have followed an ethnic agenda. The forces of religious extremism ('fundamentalist', if you will) or nationalistic fanaticism, ironically, drink from the same well that the Maoist would, only to churn out cadres of the far-right rather than the far-left.

Maoist uprisings have often quickly acquired religious and ethnic overtones or been marginalised by religious extremism. The same individuals who may have turned out Maoist, then, provide the foot soldiers of the Babbar Khalsa, the Shiv Sena, or the various jamaats. If there were no Taliban, there would surely have been t he Red Brigade. Fight against economic injustice, incidentally, has been easier through the religious metaphor of Islam with its strong commitment to an equitable universal brotherhood than through a class-defined Maoist one.

To be sure, there will be a few areas where classic Maoist strategy can in fact be applied, such as in the killing fields of Bihar or the forests of Andhra. However, there is little likelihood that insurgencies will spread as they come across barriers that transcend the class divide. In which case, it is so easy for the state forces to isolate any insurgency and keep it from 'infecting' other regions.

Assume – and it is a very big assumption – that the Maoists wrest state power. What next? Given all the constraints within complex societies, what can they do within a realistic time frame that would make a difference? Willy-nilly, they would have to come back to issues of professional management, meaningful education, reformed and capable bureaucracy, a justice system with integrity inspiring faith, a banking and tax structure that is fair and efficient, as well as a whole gamut of reform measures. The Maoists dismiss these as unrevolutionary and renegade reformism.

Deep-seated problems can be resolved only by engaging injustice in society head on, openly and fearlessly, overground and in broad daylight, maintaining a moral upper hand on every front and a transparency in every issue, every inch of the way, much as Gandhi did. Covert hit-and-run movements cannot do this because they engage the enemy not in its area of weakness, which is the moral front, but in its area of strength, which is military might.

Furthermore, the very sociology of underground brotherhood militates against them. Like all romantic drift, the Left movement too is caught in a dilemma between purity and pragmatism. Born as a protest movement within the Left, the Maoists naturally have had to spend more energy on keeping the flock of true believers intact rather than to spread and grow. To keep schisms from emerging, they have to keep exit costs high, which means descending to the nadir of retribution against both the wayward insider and the popular outsider. Unable to engage in the creative issues of societal reform, they have ensured that, to enhance their self-image of revolutionary purity, the destructive spiral of violence, and only more violence, will become the glorious never-end of Maoism in South Asia.

The Chinese Way in Telangana

The early days of the Telangana Movement in southern India serves as a measure of subsequent Maoist efforts in the region.

by Stephen Mikesell

Maoism first appeared in the Subcontinent in the course of the revolutionary peasant movement that spread in early 1947 in the Telugu-speaking Nalgonda and Warangal districts of eastern Hyderabad, known as Telangana. Up until the 1947 transfer of power by the British, Telangana was under the despotic rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad. The cadres of the Communist Party of India initiated the Telangana Movement during the Second World War as a genuinely indigenous mass campaign against the landlords and the state aristocracy. 

At first, the communists maintained a facade of cooperation with the Indian National Congress in the state, pledging to support Hyderabad's accession to India, and aiming the revolt at ending the illegal exactions and other landlord excesses. However, the "intense particularism" of the Telugu-speaking people and general peasant discontent encouraged the communist leadership to expand the movement to an attack on the government.

A chain reaction of village revolts led to the establishment of gram rajs (village 'soviets'), complete with people's courts and militia, land seizures, and the expulsion of the landlords and local officers of the Nizam's government. A full-scale guerrilla army was quickly recruited and virtually all of the Nalgonda and Warangal districts, encompassing 3000 villages, 3 million people, and an area of 16,000 square miles, came under communist control.

Maoist ideas were first brought to India by the Andhra Provincial Committee of the Communist Party in the neighbouring Telugu-speaking section of the then Madras State, Andhra, when it sought to import revolution to its side of the border in 1948. Mao's four-class theory, which promoted uniting all the progressive forces in an agrarian revolution against imperialist monopoly capital and its local allies, the feudal landlords and comprador bourgeoisie, and which thus tolerated wealthy "nationalist" peasant classes, suited the Andhra communists. This was because they were dominated by Kamma landlords in possession of 80 percent of the land in the fertile delta area. 

The Andhra communists declared that Mao's "new democracy" should serve as a "guidance to India". The Indian revolution was presented as analogous to the Chinese revolution, requiring a prolonged "people's war" in the form of an agrarian revolution culminating in the capture of political power by a democratic front. This was to be different from the Russian revolution. The Andhra communists thus proposed to unite the entire peasantry, including the rural bourgeoisie or rich peasants, under the leadership of the working class for "guerrilla warfare (the Chinese way)". 

The Movement Stumbles

The Telangana Movement began to falter in late 1948 when the CPI made this shift from targeting the traditional local enemies, especially the aristocracy, to imperialism, as represented by the Nehru government at the Centre. They called on their former enemy, the Nizam, for protection against the state. When the Indian army marched into Hyderabad in 1948, and proclaimed an "Azad Hyderabad," the Andhra communists were joined by the Razakars, a private army representing extremist Muslim sentiment, against the "fascist troops". Within a few days, the Indian army quelled all resistance, except for the communists, who resorted to hit-and-run guerrilla tactics.

To subdue the communists, the army brought in 60,000 troops and used the strategy tried by the British in Malaya, of forcing the peasantry into special camps so as to remove the guerrillas' base of support. The army killed nearly 4000 cadres and militant peasants and jailed another 10,000. The populace was terrorised by the police and military, and property worth millions was looted or destroyed. 

Unable to mobilise the people, remnants of the guerrilla army got involved in a series of "indiscriminate and unnecessary terrorist actions against non-military individuals". This brought much disrepute to the leadership. All in all, the efforts to stir the masses to violence by power of example led only to individual terrorism, which resulted in further isolation and repression of the party. Its membership quickly shrank from 21,000 to 7000. 

It was the taking up of the Chinese line that led the Telangana Movement to stumble in late 1948 and suffer its terrible reversal in the early 1950s. Beginning as a mass peasant movement to achieve certain economic demands, the movement expanded into a liberation struggle to overthrow the Nizam. However, when the crusade expanded into a struggle against the Indian Union, it lost the support of the peasantry, which merely wanted the overthrow of feudal relations and not a fight against the Indian army for an abstract "people's democracy". 

In their subsequent analysis, the party leaders conceded that the degeneration of the movement into terrorist tactics contradicted and was incompatible with the spirit of partisan struggle. Where partisan struggle aims to overturn the regime in close conjunction with mass struggle, developing according to the growth of mass consciousness and initiative, the terrorist tactics end up as nothing more than destruction of particular individuals by squads acting in isolation from the people. This, in turn, creates the illusion that the main evil are individuals rather than the regime.

Looking back, the leaders said that the party should have limited its action to defending the gains of the Telangana peasantry when its democratic initiatives such as the retaking of land came under attack from the Centre and its armed forces. This would have strengthened the hands of the fighting people and peasants and isolated the Indian government in its support of the feudal landlords. It was definitely a mistake to turn the movement into a liberation war against the Congress Party without securing wider support, which was unavailable in the context of the euphoria surrounding Independence and what seemed then to be the Congress's liberation of the country from imperialism. 

Transplanting Mao

The Telangana communist leaders also came to recognise great flaws of transplanting the Maoist formula to the Subcontinent. Partisan war was sheer necessity for the Chinese peasant, as the urban working class was small and the cities were in foreign control in pre-revolutionary China. In 1927, the Chinese revolutionary army was already 30,000 strong, and its was backed up by a friendly Soviet Union, which provided help for the final offensive. The lack of a good and unified communications system kept the enemy from carrying out concentrated and swift attacks on the liberation forces.

In the Subcontinent, by contrast, partisan struggle alone, no matter how widely extended, cannot ensure victory over the enemy. Guerrilla forces are invariably small and poorly armed, and even if they create liberated zones, they will be surrounded by hostile forces. The government's armed forces are well organised and widely distributed, and a well-developed communications system allows forces to be easily concentrated against guerrilla activity.

Despite the mistakes of its Andhra leadership, the Telangana Movement is the only example of armed insurrection in South Asia which actually "liberated" any significant area and started an experiment in an alternative way to organise society and politics. The movement pushed the question of agrarian revolution to the forefront, compelling unwilling Congress leaders to embark on reforms, albeit half-heartedly. It forced the pace of the states' reorganisation on a linguistic basis, demolishing the unprincipled and arbitrary division made by former British rulers. The Movement helped the Communist Party emerge for the first time as an effective, widely-recognised political force.

Most importantly, perhaps, the Telangana Movement made the Indian communist movement confront the theoretical and ideological questions concerning the strategy and tactics for a people's democratic revolution in India: the role of the peasantry in such a revolution, the place and significance of partisan resistance and rural revolutionary bases, classification among the peasantry and the role of revolution among different strata, the place of the working class and urban centres, the meaning and import of "working class hegemony" and the Communist Party's role in realising it in a primarily agrarian society.

Today, the Maoist line is commonly described in the press as "far left" or "extreme left" due to its strong rhetoric, tactics and sectarianism. Yet, in its identification of imperialism as the enemy and its strategy of uniting the various democratic forces, including peasant landlords and national capitalists against imperialism, feudalism and monopoly capitalism, Maoism actually represented a development of the "right line" in an old struggle of left versus right tendencies within the Indian communist party that had been going on since the 1920s. 

Thus, the Indian communists found themselves allied with the Congress Party in battle against British imperialism when following the "right line". Whereas, at times when the "left line" was ascendant, it was bourgeois nationalism represented by the Congress which was the enemy.

The Andhra Central Committee's adoption of Maoism set it against the national communist leadership both at the time of the Telangana movement, when the national leaders were following the "left line", and subsequently, when it readopted the "right line". While ostensibly promoting the Telangana movement, the national leadership had actually set itself against it, as the shift from the immediate objectives of the movement to anti-imperialism meant that it abandoned the mass basis of the movement, thus dooming it.

S. Mikesell is visiting professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

Nepali Cart Before Horse
Managers of the newest leftist insurgency in South Asia, Nepal's Maobadi are exploiting the failure of the state by putting their reliance on degenerative violence rather than organisation.
by Shyam Shrestha

When the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) declared a "People's War" in February 1996 and attacked police posts in some areas in the Nepali hills, it came as a surprise to many. After all, the United People's Front, the political organ of the CPN (Maoist), was still involved in constitutional politics. And although the Front had boycotted the 1994 general elections, its strong showing in the first election held in 1991, where it emerged as the third largest party in parliament, had had people believe that the extreme leftists would not actually act upon their rhetoric of armed revolt.

This is the second Maobadi rebellion in Nepal. The first was the "class-enemy annihilation campaign" of 1971, carried out by the Coordination Centre, the embryonic organisation of what was to become the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist). Also known as the "Jhapa Movement", after the southeastern district where it was centred, this short-lived uprising was influenced by the Naxalites in Naxalbari, just across the border river of Mechi. The rebels went on a gruesome spree, chopping off the heads of some local landlords before they were brutally suppressed by the then Panchayat regime. (The CPN (ML) merged in 1991 with the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist) to become the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), which is the dominant partner in Nepal's ruling coalition at the moment.)

The present-day Maobadi, who accuse the ruling communist party of being revisionist and reactionary, are well aware of what happened to that earlier revolt. Their armed operations indicate they have refined on the shortcomings of the Jhapa Movement in that their actions seem more coordinated, with the central leadership retaining overall control.

The Maoists are active in eastern and central Nepal, but the epicentre of their movement is the two contiguous districts of Rolpa and Rukum in the western mid-hills. This area is served neither by roads nor development activities. This poverty-stricken area is inhabited by Magars, a very 'backward' ethnic group which continues to be sustained through migrant labour in India. A region ruled historically by feudal princelings, the area even today retains a medieval relationship between the rich and the poor a classic setting for Maoist activity.

Over the 18 months of armed struggle in which close to a hundred people have been killed, it is true that the Maoists have succeeded in carving out a distinct political identity. But it is one that is based more on isolated acts of violence and the bravura of a few devoted cadres rather than on the revolutionary upsurge of an oppressed people.

When the insurgents trained their guns on the rural elite, and those identified as 'informers', they found favour among sections of the rural populace in the areas where they operate. However, it is significant that Maobadi have had negligible influence on Nepal's sizeable urban working class.

Gory Glory

The rise of the Maoist movement can be attributed directly to the failure of the leaders of the 1990 People's Movement to respond to the hopes of the masses. Despite the expectations engendered by the Movement, which ushered in democracy, not one of the several governments that have held power since then has done anything to deliver the rural peasantry, making up the bulk of the population, from the exploitative land relationships existing in the villages.

The marginalised peasantry thus finds it convenient to vent its anger at the local landlords and rich peasants the class immediately above it and the one that represents to it the state with all its shortcomings. The Maoists have exploited the situation by attacking this very class in the name of "People's War". If the militants do not invite extreme repression and avoid having to fight stronger forces of supression, their insurgency is likely to grow and continue for some time to come.

In that sense, the Maoists' most visible achievement in the first phase of their "People's War" has been the establishment of the politics of armed struggle. However, it seems they have over-emphasised violence, and in the process have forgotten the fundamental tenet of Marxist thought regarding its use. Doctrinally, Marxists opt for violence only as a last resort when all other ways to seek social progress have failed. Violence can only be a reaction to attempts by the ruling class to wipe out the peaceful struggle of the people with state terror. Mao, too, upheld this Marxist concept of using violence only to end violence.

Nepal's Maobadi, on the other hand, seem to understand the application of violence quite differently. They plead that armed action is a must from the very beginning of the struggle; it is something which can be applied at any time and at any place. There is no need to concentrate this highest form of struggle on concrete situations. The principle of armed struggle is accepted absolutely and a cult of violence propagated, with the Maoists boasting of the number of violent incidents and glorifying in the unnecessary deaths of their heroic cadres. "War, war, and war! From the beginning till the end!" is their battle cry.

And thus it is that the taking away of life has become acceptable and commonplace. In a country where earlier even five deaths would have created a nationwide distress, today, even as scores die, the polity refuses to be shaken out of its somnolence. In February 1997, Maoist-related violence had already been relegated to single column space in newspapers even as the leadership declared the start of a "second phase of operations" at the end of the first year of the "War".

Naive Revolution

There have been blunders aplenty by the Maoist leaders over the past two years. Most important was the inability to judge if the people were prepared for armed revolt. Even in the impoverished areas where there has been enthusiastic popular support, the militants did not work to educate the masses, nor to prepare them for the struggle to come. There was no thought to whether the public would be able bear the reprisals that were to follow soon enough. What the Maoists presented, therefore, was a sure recipe for anarchy, and a people in poverty are now doubly burdened by terror, perpetuated by the revolutionaries and the police.

The leaders' impatience to get on with armed struggle may have also lost them a voice in Kathmandu's political arena. For when they went underground with their well-established political organ, the United People's Front, the Maoists forfeited the avenue to apply political pressure above ground even as they continued their underground campaign. The Maobadi also made the mistake of lumping together everyone who disagrees with them. So, they have attacked both "class enemies" and those who do actually speak their own language. This has led to their political isolation, and also affected their public image.

On occasion, the Maoists have also displayed extreme naivete, such as when they raided the rural branches of the government-owned Agricultural Development Bank and destroyed loan records. The goal was to "liberate" poor villagers of their loan commitments, the Maoist leadership seemingly unaware that banks maintain copies of their records outside the branch office, too.

Indulging the Revolutionary

The Maoist movement has now publicly moved into its second phase, and it has been marked by revenge killings of those involved in doing away with real or suspected Maoists. As part of this agenda, both policemen and local exploiters have been killed. The plan is to generate an atmosphere of statelessness whereby they can easily step in and take over the administration.

To some extent, this plan has succeeded. In some areas, people live under a twin administration the government's and the Maoists'. This was greatly evident in the poor voter turnout in the local-level elections earlier this year in districts like Rukum, Rolpa and Jajarkot. The Maoists had announced a boycott, threatening to kill those who won the elections, and so in 42 village centres no one even dared file nominations. Elections could not be held in more than 70 village centres.

While such scare tactics may have succeeded in creating an aura of unquestioned authority around them, the Maoists do not sense that their revolutionary militancy and armed revolt also can be used, and is being used, by the former autocratic forces for reviving their lost powers. Although police action has killed 26 party militants, only one leader of significance has lost his life till now. The State's strategy seems to be to keep the militancy at a controllable level, while not finishing it off entirely by decimating the leadership just yet.

The Maoist bogey is thus kept alive as the government goes about reviving the much-hated Public Security Act which was used with such devastating effect by the Panchayat regime before 1990. The government is also using the Maoists as the pretext to enact an Anti-Terrorist Act, although there is stiff opposition to it. These acts would give wide-ranging powers to the police, the army and the intelligence agencies, which, because of Nepal's peculiar political arrangement, would mean ultimately power to the Royal Palace.

It is likely that until these legislative measures have been successfully implemented, the government will strive to keep Maoism alive in the hills, by continuing its crackdown on the grassroots cadres while giving free play to the top leadership. As soon as it gets the powers it is seeking, a violent suppression of the Maoists can be expected. They will be indulged no more.


The Maoists are isolated today due to their own policy of regarding all those who criticise them or who disagree with them as enemies. This holier-than-thou attitude could be their undoing, through sheer isolation. They seem not to have grasped the significance of the fact that even though practically every left group in Nepal has protested the violent repression of the Maoist movement, not one has indicated support for the "People's War".

The Maoists have a false sense that they are on the right track only because of the abject failure of mainstream parliamentary politics over the past couple of years. This cumulative failure includes the signing away of Nepal's hydropower options to India, the horse-trading to maintain coalition governments in power, the outright corruption of those who till a few years ago used to call themselves revolutionaries and democrats, and the inability to give a new push to development activities even as market forces move in to take over the hinterland.

This failure makes the Maoists all the more self-righteous and vociferous, but they are making their own mistakes. Nothing in their activities indicates that the Maobadi are trying to involve the local populace. They are taking to shortcuts and sloganeering rather than trying to raise the awareness level of the people to that of the leadership. The public is not being prepared to act for itself.

Mao Zedong's direction was that the revolutionary leadership should wait patiently until people are ready for action. Meanwhile, they should constantly educate the people and do whatever possible to arouse and prepare the masses for struggle. No action, howsoever well-intentioned, should be initiated until the people are prepared to follow. This is Mao's famous "mass line", and without this the "People's War" is bound to degenerate into a war without the people.

An objective and conscious revolutionary movement is not possible and a revolutionary theory to suit the country cannot be developed without understanding how Nepali society and the class struggle is developing. Nepal's Maobadi of today are moving ahead in the blind hope that all will turn out well once a class struggle has begun.

S. Shrestha is editor of the Nepali-language left monthly Mulyankan.

A Bypass for India's Diseased Heart

by Shishir K. Jha

...the battle must break out again and again in ever-growing dimensions, and there can be no doubt as to who will be the victor in the end – the appropriating few, or the immense working majority.

– Karl Marx in "The Civil War in France", 30 May 1871.

The 1990s have been a period of great euphoria among the ruling classes of India, for all the wondrous opportunities made available through 'liberalisation' of the economy. While the steady economic and political surrender to the consumerist demands of the elite and to Western capital continues, the 400 million Indians who are trapped in poverty can only dream revolutionary dreams.

Amidst the sheer persistence of the country's monumental social, economic and political ills, the Indian Left, and the Maoist movements in particular, have faced a daunting task in mobilising the resistance of the rural and urban working classes. And it is the state of Bihar, otherwise unceremoniously dismissed as "the diseased heart of India", which has defiantly kept India's revolutionary hopes alive with over a quarter of a century of Maoist struggles.

The deciding historical event which largely explains today's social conditions in Bihar and the continuous revolutionary reaction was the enactment of the Permanent Settlement Act by the British East India Company in 1793. This Act fostered and consolidated a specific relationship between the zamindars who had control over land and those who did not. Right up to the early twentieth century, the Permanent Settlement Act helped the upper-caste land-owning classes to continue their traditional dominance over the land in return for handing over a tenth of their total rental income to the state.

This Act also sowed the seeds of agrarian struggle, which has manifested itself for over 150 years in the Bihar-Bengal region. Peasants and tribals of the Chotanagpur region in the southern part of present-day Bihar, for example, were engaged in resistance throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In 1820-21, the Ho tribal peasants of Chotanagpur rose twice against money-lenders, zamindars and British rulers. The Oraons, another tribal community, rebelled in the years 1820, 1832 and again in 1890. To quell the ferocious Kol revolt of 1831-32, the British called in troops from as far afield as Calcutta, Danapur and Benares.

The Santhal Uprising of 1855-57 was widespread, covering Bihar, Orissa and Bengal, in which the Santhals were often joined by the lower caste peasantry. As many as 10,000 rebels were massacred in a final gruesome battle which crushed the uprising. The heroic struggle at the turn of this century by the Mundas of the Ranchi area inspired folkloric visions of a new society, which survive to this day in the form of songs and popular tales.

The baton of the peasant struggle was carried to the plains of North and Central Bihar during the early parts of twentieth century. Here, the agrarian protests often revolved around the issue of bakasht lands, lands that had been repossessed from tenants by zamindars for putative non-payment of rent. From the 1920s until the early 1940s, this land alienation was considerable between 2.5 to 3.5 lakh occupancy holdings annually. This, together with produce rent which prevented tenants from selling directly in the market and thus take advantage of increasing market prices, and an increasingly ecological burden on the peasantry, the structural features were in place for mass upsurges against the zamindari system.

The peasantry was mostly led by the Bihar Pradesh Kisan Sabha (BPKS), formed in 1929 by a charismatic leader, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati. The Kisan Sabha and the emerging Socialist Party together led a peasant organisation whose membership had grown to four lakh by 1939. The BPKS's demands were all-encompassing: the abolition of the zamindari system, cancellation of all agrarian debt, establishment of a system to transfer land to the tiller, and employment for landless peasants.

However, both before and after Independence, the peasantry were repeatedly betrayed by the conservative Congress leaders of Bihar. The Kisan Sabha could not muster enough strength to push the Congress into accepting its demands. The Sabha's over-dependence on a few leaders, like Swami Sahajanand, and its stronger ties with the tenants and middle peasants at the cost of the landless and agricultural labourers were its major weaknesses. The first wave of peasant struggle in the plains of Bihar, although unsuccessful in itself, did clearly put the writing on the wall.

Flaming Fields

The spectre of radical change haunts the semi-feudal interests of Bihar, and of India generally. The Congress party, which came to dominate Bihar's political scene after Independence, offered token measures to address the land problem. Without any shame or pretension, the Bihar Assembly passed extremely watered-down legislations, among others the Bihar Land Reforms Act (1950) and the Fixation of Land Ceiling Act (1962), which had enough loopholes to render them meaningless.

Because of the deep collusion between the state's governing elite and the semi-feudal landed interests to deny the peasantry their minimum share of land and its produce, the pre-Independence rural class characteristics of Bihar did not change dramatically. Merely, the British Raj was exchanged for an Indian Raj. Landlords, rich farmers and money-lenders were still ranged against tribal communities, poor and landless peasants and village artisans.

Such callous indifference was bound to ignite a reaction, and 25 years of silence in the countryside, following the BPKS-led agitation of the 30s and 40s, was broken in 1968 with a clarion call for militant peasant struggle issued by the Marxists-Leninists. This was a loud echo of the 'Naxalbari' struggle of the previous year. An armed struggle in the countryside against semi-feudal interests combined with area-wise seizures in order to finally capture state power was the leitmotif of these revolutionaries.

After the first wave of peasant struggles dominated by the middle peasantry ended in the mid-1940s, this time it was the poor and landless peasantry who are militantly asserting themselves. The new radical grouping which emerged was critical of the "parliamentary" tendencies in the Indian communist movement, and believed that the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had betrayed their revolutionary role. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), officially formed in 1969, emphasised the pivotal role of poor and landless peasants in smashing the edifice of the semi-colonial, semi-feudal Indian state.

The first congress of the Marxist-Leninists, held in Calcutta in May 1970 and inspired by Mao Zedong's Chinese revolution, adopted a full-fledged programme of action. The congress held that the "principal contradiction" of the period was between feudalism and the broad masses of the Indian people. Resolution of that contradiction would lead to the settlement of all other contradictions.

The districts of Muzaffarpur and Bhojpur were the first places in Bihar where the silence of the peasants was decisively broken. Heroic lower caste figures like Jagdish Mahto, Ram Naresh Ram, Bhutan Musahar, Rameshwar Ahir and Nirmal Mahto, were some of the early leaders struggling to ignite that single spark that would light the prairie fire. By the late 1970s, many central and some northern districts of Bihar were raging with the flames of peasant struggles.

Unlike Naxalbari in West Bengal, the place of its genesis, the Marxist-Leninist struggle in Bihar has endured. Unlike the other communist parties, the one persisting and defining theme of the Marxist-Leninist struggle here has been its ability to draw the sustained participation of the poor and landless against the arrogant, brutal and corrupt ruling classes. The state's fertile fields have been kept in flames by three dominant Marxist-Leninist parties, among half a dozen others. These are the CPI (M-L) Liberation, CPI (M-L) Party Unity and the Maoist Communist Centre.

Some of the mistakes committed in the early days of the struggle, from the early to mid-70s such as extraordinary dependence on annihilation of class enemies and neglect of mass movements have been apparently rectified, though much organisational and ideological re-direction may still be needed in order to launch and sustain a major struggle.

Belchi to Habaspur

Bihar's economy is overwhelmingly rural-based, with 74 percent of the population of 100 million relying on agriculture for survival. Sixty-four percent of the people belong to the 'backward' and 'scheduled' castes, 21 percent are Muslims and 'scheduled' tribes. Between 85-90 percent of the state's rural households own less than 5 acres of land each. The 'backward' and 'scheduled' communities have nursed a historical grievance against the upper castes who make up 15 percent of the population but have until recently largely dominated the economic, cultural and political structures. 

Four strategies came to dominate the Marxist-Leninist struggle for the heart and minds of Bihar's people. Perhaps the most successful has been the relentless combat on social issues. The constant battle waged by the lower caste rural poor in acquiring social dignity, or izzat, has been immeasurably successful. The Marxist-Leninists have thus been able to help deal a devastating blow to the cultural heart of feudalism.

Secondly, the focus has been on the seizure and distribution of surplus land under the illegal possession of landlords, mahants (religious heads), and other big landowners, which amounted to about 1.4 million acres statewide even after the implementation of 'land reform'. This is perhaps the most intense and violent of all the struggles, and success has been partial and concentrated in a few districts of central and south Bihar such as Patna, Bhojpur, Nalanda, Gaya, Jehanabad and Palamu. It is because of the challenge put up by the feudals against the concrete actions to seize land that the Marxists-Leninists have felt the need to arm groups of peasants.

Thirdly, the activists have mobilised a struggle for minimum wages of agricultural labourers. Even the minimum wage of INR 16.50 per day during non-harvesting periods and 10 percent of the crops during harvesting periods are not given to agricultural labourers. The struggle around wages can, however, create counter-productive tensions when the middle peasants are not able to pay the minimum to agricultural labourers. This has been a potentially divisive issue, for the Marxist-Leninist strategy clearly depends on uniting both these classes.

Finally, the activists have in the last decade succeeded in pressuring local administrations to undertake development projects in the 'backward' areas. Meanwhile, the rural population has been mobilised to monitor and ensure that the crores of rupees allocated for digging wells, building roads, providing of warehouse facilities, and so on, are not squandered. While forcing the "comprador-bureaucratic" capitalist structure to be directly accountable to the people, the Marxist-Leninists also want to intensify the contradictions within it.

All these activities have been directed against Bihar's ruling classes. They are like the "baron of old" who, in the words of Karl Marx, "thought every weapon in his own hand fair against the plebeian, while in the hands of the plebeian a weapon of any kind constituted itself a crime." Placenames such as Belchhi (1977), Parasbigha-Dohiya (1980), Pipra (1986), Kansara (1986), Arwal (1986), Khagri-Damuhan (1988), Tishkhora (1991), Bathanitola (1996), Ekwari (1996), and Habaspur (1997) among many others, are deeply etched in the mind and memory of Bihar's poor and landless peasants. Names like these mark the moments when the landed interests struck barbarically and mercilessly at the rural poor, killing thousands.

Since the early 1980s, the big landlords, in connivance with the Bihar state apparatus, have even organised themselves into private armies, or senas. The purpose of these well-equipped feudal war parties with names like Ranvir Sena, Kunwar Sena, Sunlight Sena, Brahmrishi Sena, Lorik Sena, Bhumi Sena is to strike terror among the peasantry in order to force their militancy to backtrack. Many such senas have, however, been liquidated by the different wings of the Marxist-Leninist parties of Bihar.

Land or Votes

CPI(M-L) Liberation, led by its general secretary, Vinod Mishra, is perhaps the revolutionary organisation of Bihar that has travelled the greatest political distance. In a "rectification" programme launched in 1977, the group moved away from an emphasis on "annihilation of individual class enemies" to a concerted attempt at organising mass peasant movements under the umbrella of a "Kisan Sabha". In 1982, this group took an even more radical step by deciding to enter the thickets of parliamentary struggle under the banner of the Indian People's Front.

At its Fifth Party Congress in 1992, the CPI(M-L) Liberation itself decided to come out into the open and participate in all kinds of progressive mass organisations and parliamentary forums. The group's overall electoral success has been waxing and waning. It won one parliamentary seat in 1989 and has one seat, won by a 'fraternal' Assam party, the ASDC, in the present Parliament. It sent seven members to the Bihar State Assembly in 1990, but this number was down to six in 1995, when the party polled around a million votes. The Indian People's Front was dissolved in 1994 because, it was claimed, it was absorbing and diverting the energies of the mother, Liberation, organisation.

It is too early say whether the Liberation group was well-advised to enter the parliamentary fray, but it certainly signals a sharp break from its earlier ideological moorings. On the one hand, the obvious benefit is a national presence and the possibility of intervening and giving shape to country-wide debates. On the other hand, there is the fear that electoral pursuit will dilute the struggle over land, thus compromising the very core of the Marxist-Leninist ideological agenda. The desire for easy electoral victories, it is said, will provide to some a reason to excuse themselves from the harder struggles on the ground. Other Marxist-Leninist organisations in Bihar, like the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the CPI(M-L) Party Unity, have refused to enter the electoral arena because of this perceived danger.

While the debate over strategy continues among the Marxist-Leninists, the stakes are becoming higher with each passing day. For arrayed against the peasantry this time are not only the Congress with its class interest but the centrist and very corrupt Janata Dal and the right-wing Hindu fundamentalists.

Ultimately, the Marxist-Leninist ideology will triumph or be defeated depending on the skill with which they use their parliamentary and extra-parliamentary options. While it is important not to let go of the down-to-earth struggle against exploitation of the peasantry, they must work to establish a national presence as opposed to strong presence in a few states like Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Assam (under the banner of ASDC).

The call by the CPI (M-L) Liberation for a "National Left Federation" of all communist parties may produce the urgent strengthening of India's anti-systemic forces. Much is riding on the success or defeat of the different communist strategies as they play themselves out in Bihar. Whether they will destroy or triumphantly restore the diseased heart of India is yet to be seen. A

Shishir K. Jha is PhD candidate at Syracuse University, New York.;

The People Behind the Peoples' War

The philosophy of "Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung-Thought", which caught the public's imagination in Naxalbari 30 years ago has now moved south to the forests of Andhra Pradesh.

by R.J. Rajendra Prasad

Ayear after his ideas ignited the plains of Naxalbari close by the West Bengal border with Nepal, Charu Mazumdar, the revolutionary, came to Andhra Pradesh to spread his radical ideas. But here, the kindling did not light.

Coming to Srikakulam in 1967, Mazumdar tried to organise a movement that had been launched by Vempatapu Sathyanarayana, secretary of the district committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). The movement collapsed completely in 1971, and Mazumdar's plans for Andhra were to be fulfilled only when Kondapalli Seetharamiah, a teacher in a Railway School in Warangal, founded the CPI (M-L) "People's War Group" (PWG).

Mr Seetharamiah, known as 'KS', remained Secretary of Central Organising Committee (COC) of the PWG until he was expelled by the Party in 1992. In his mid-70s today, he leads a retired life but does not hesitate to castigate his successors in the PWG for their failure to understand Mao Tse Tung Thought.

Dalam Revolution

The PWG's goals are to motivate the people to wage war and capture political power through armed insurrection. It rejects the politics of parliamentary democracy on the ground the oppressed masses have no chance to win an election without money and muscle power, available in plenty with the exploitative classes. The PWG traces its ideology to Mao's dictum that "power flows through the barrel of a gun" and adopts tactics of guerilla warfare with an armed cadre divided into dalams (squad) which maintain a string of hideouts. The PWG is said to have obtained arms from insurgents in Indian Northeast as well as from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam in Sri Lanka.

The Communist Party of India as well as the CPI (M) criticise the PWG, maintaining that the masses will never achieve political consciousness as long as armed dalams are around to force a revolution. Other Marxist-Leninist groups maintain that rather than go underground, the appropriate goal is to build a broad, 'above ground', militant, mass movement on land issues.

As long as he held power within the organisation, KS ran the PWG with an iron hand, expelling dissenters such as K.G. Sathyamurthy and Mukku Subba Reddy, both members of the Central Organising Committee of the PWG who were strong on ideology. Under KS, in 1988, one dalam kidnapped four officers of the Indian Administrative Service in East Godavari district to secure the release of undertrial Naxalite prisoners. In 1994, a PWG unit got on to a train in Ghatkesar near Hyderabad and set it on fire, killing 20 passengers. Actions like these were justified as part of revolutionary strategy.

KS was, however, accused of practicing casteism (he belonged to the Reddy upper caste while those in the PWG he allegedly victimised belonged to the lower castes). After two years of debate, KS was finally expelled, accused of having taken inconsistent ideological decisions. Today, the PWG is headed by Muppala Lakshman Rao, alias Ganapathi, a school teacher of Beerpur village, Karimnagar District. He is secretary of the organisation's COC.

Andhra Disaperados

The PWG has been the most militant of the dozen or so revolutionary groups operating in Andhra. It has established a base in the Dandakaranya forest region on either side of the Godavari river, in the north Telengana districts of Adilabad, Karimnagar, Warangal, Nizamabad and Medak of Andhra Pradesh, in Bastar of Madhya Pradesh and Chanda of Maharashtra.

From 1981 to 1996, a total of 1140 leftist "extremists" have been killed in so-called encounters with the police. The facts behind these encounters have been questioned by various civil liberties groups. The police generally do not allow relatives to claim the dead. Recently, an association was formed to help claim those killed in encounters, with the pro-PWG folk singer Gaddar heading it. The association seeks justice by moving the courts to admit writ petitions and to give directions to the police. It is clear, however, that this is going to be an uphill task. A judicial enquiry into the death in encounter of Madhusudhan Raj, secretary of state committee of CPI (M-L) Janasakthi group (a rival to the PWG) upheld the police version after the family of the victim as well as the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee boycotted the enquiry.

A total of 1805 people were killed by the Naxalites during the same period of 1981-1996, most of them belonging to lower castes, such as washermen and cobblers. The PWG justified these actions by saying that they had targeted police informants. This charge have been denied by the people of the villages where the killings took place.

The PWG killed a Deputy Inspector General of Police, K.S. Vyas, as he was jogging in a Hyderabad stadium, and a Congress Member of Parliament, Magunta Subbarami Reddy, at his residence in Ongole. In Nizamabad, another Congress MP, M. Baga Reddy, escaped recently when a landmine exploded after his jeep had passed. Four Congress workers in the following jeep were killed. In 1996, the PWG blasted the Sirpur Utnoor Police station in Adilabad, killing all 14 policemen sleeping inside.

The Andhra Pradesh High Court has suggested that a peace commission be set up to solve the problem of Naxalite violence and the State's response to it. However, no headway has been made because it is difficult to get someone who enjoys the PWG's confidence to serve in such a commission. The PWG was banned by a Congress (I) Government in 1992 and the ban remains in place today.

China's Chairman

Why does PWG flourish in Andhra when its brand of politics is ailing elsewhere? A principal reason is perhaps the area's history of armed struggle, against the Nizam of Hyderabad state and the big zamindars. (See earlier article, "The Chinese Way in Telangana".) Perhaps an indirect legacy of the Group's activism has been the growing awareness among the people of the need to narrow the difference between the upper and lower classes. This is evident in events such as the 1996 elections, when a powerful Reddy candidate for Parliament was defeated in Warangal by a Lambada, a Scheduled Tribe candidate, or when a powerful Velama candidate was defeated by a handloom weaver in Karimnagar. Both won on a Telugu Desam ticket.

For all its ideological fervour and speaking the language of the gun, victory is nowhere in sight for the PWG. It has, at best, about 30 dalams of 15 people each based in the forests. Till now, the state police has found itself competent to handle the situation, with just a little help from a few companies of the Central Reserve Police Force and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. It also seems clear that the PWG's much-vaunted hold on the districts where they have strong presence is based on fear and intimidation. The result is that the Group's call for the boycott of general elections is consistently ignored.

The Group's assessment is that India is still ruled by the comprador bourgeois classes, who run the country at the beck and call of US imperialism, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The various revolutionary communist groups attribute the collapse of the Soviet Union to the ineptitude of Gorbachev rather than to any weakness in Marxism-Leninism. They say that ownership of land in the hands of a few is central to the exploitation of the toiling masses. In keeping with these 'radical' views, the PWG boycotted celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Indian independence.

The PWG is presently trying to internationalise its appeal. It attended an international seminar organised by the Workers Party of Belgium in Brussels in May 1996, along with 60 organisations of 40 countries. There, reports say, PWG leaders held talks with CPP of the Philippines, the PCP of Peru, TKP (ML) of Turkey, the Marxist-Leninist organisations of Senegal, and others.

Hopefully, however, the Group perhaps realises the pitfalls of importing revolution in whatever form, as its own experience indicates. After the Srikakulam movement which was started in 1967 collapsed in 1971, the PWG leadership assessed that they had made a mistake with the slogan: "China's Chairman is Our Chairman". Because the Savara and Jatapu tribes of the district could not identify themselves with a Chinese chairman.

R.J. Rajendra Prasad writes for The Hindu from Hyderabad.


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