The General’s Luck Runs Out

Does the killing of the notorious guerrilla leader Kishenji mean the end of India's four-decade Maoist insurgency, or the beginning of its next chapter?


NEW DELHI — Once you decide to lead a rebellion, there’s usually only two ways the story can end: Either you ride into the presidential palace, or you die alone.

So it went for Mallojula Koteshwar Rao, the elusive leader of the Maoist insurgency that has claimed over 10,000 lives over the last decade in India. A media-savvy guerrilla with the nom de guerre "Kishenji," Rao (above, at a press conference in 2009) had repeatedly eluded the best efforts of some 100,000 Indian troops tasked with hunting him down. On Nov. 24, his luck ran out. Acting on an insider tip, the Indian government dropped an entire battalion of elite counterinsurgency forces into a derelict village on the edge of the jungle near the border between West Bengal and Jharkhand provinces, in the country’s east. They emerged with the body of the 56-year-old mustachioed general, an outdated hearing aid in his ear and a stolen Kalashnikov by his side.

For the Indian government, Kishenji’s body is perhaps the biggest trophy yet collected in a 45-year war against the Maoists — a war that Kishenji himself had transformed irrevocably. The Naxal, or Naxalite, rebellion had begun in 1967 as an agrarian land revolt in the state of West Bengal. It had mostly petered out by the late 1970s, but never entirely abated, with fratricidal factions continuing to scrap over internecine disputes in the jungles of India’s eastern interior. It was Kishenji — a highly educated son of India’s highest social class who had given up his birthright to fight for what he called the "millions of disenfranchised tribals" — who united the factions in 2004, rebranding the Naxalites as the more respectable-sounding, and deadly, Communist Party of India-Maoist.

The Maoists under Kishenji stormed police stations for weapons and mining sites for explosives, unleashing havoc on unprepared, outgunned local police and killing scores as they turned India’s heartland into a war zone. It was a resurgence that would not have happened the way it did but for India’s rapidly growing economy and accordingly expanding appetite for natural resources — much of which are mined in interior states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, where the Maoists enjoy the most support. The rebels have often been the only thing standing between the region’s desperately poor indigenous residents and a roaring mining boom that has uprooted many of them from their homes, and in some cases leveled entire villages. The Toyota Prius, Beijing high-rises, and even the new Boeing Dreamliner are all made with minerals dug up here, and an estimated $1 trillion in resources is still sitting underground. 

If Kishenji’s legend was one part Che Guevara, it was also one part Frank Abagnale. Previous Maoist leaders were notoriously camera-shy; Kishenji played up his freedom fighter credentials all over India’s 24-hour news channels. His predecessors shunned phones; Kishenji gave the police his cell phone number, daring them to track him. Most of his colleagues wouldn’t dare be photographed; Kishenji invited photojournalists a dozen at a time to press conferences in order to brag about his exploits.

Kishenji talked up his frontline credentials, at one point claiming to have killed 100 men himself, but on the night of Nov. 23 he was far from the action, couch surfing in a university student’s room about 150 miles due east of Kolkata, in the town of Burishol. The man who thousands have fought to the death for was sold out by one of his own — for $40,000. Acting on the tip, over 1,000 elite Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) troops of India’s Central Reserve Police Force rushed to Burishol. But by the time they stormed the student’s residence the following morning, Kishenji had already fled, leaving his laptop and a stash of personal communications behind.  

With no time to change into his customary flat green combat fatigues, Kishenji fled into the forest wearing a powder blue windbreaker and slacks. But even an intimate knowledge of the jungle’s tangled paths was no match for a battalion of soldiers sporting infrared goggles. Guarded by only a small security detail, a fraction of the size of his usual phalanx, Kishenji found himself cornered, and started a firefight that lasted for over two hours. While the guerrilla leader and his loyalists desperately sprayed the forest with bullets, the CoBRAs retaliated with precision artillery. When the shooting stopped just before dusk, the advancing troops found a wiry middle-aged body bleeding out onto the forest floor. After hiding for four decades in malarial jungles and mining towns, Kishenji was dead. Forsaken by his fleeing bodyguards, he was killed less than a week after taunting the "useless and worthless" Indian forces for being completely incapable of catching him.

The Maoist insurgency may very well survive the death of its field general; there are several plausible replacement candidates, including Kishenji’s brother Venugopal. A massive retaliation attack at some point in the next month seems inevitable. The Maoists themselves have been doing their best to spin the killing, leaking stories to the press about their annoyance with a man who they now claim was little more than a figurehead to them. But there is no denying that Kishenji was the lifeblood of the rebel group, the operational commander who stirred his fighters to battle to the death against a far superior force. With their great uniter gone, the movement risks degenerating into turf wars and squabbles over who controls the profitable mining extortion trade that funds guerrilla salaries.

Kishenji’s demise also punctuates an incredible run for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has staked much of his reputation on the fight against a rebellion he once called "the gravest internal security threat we face," one more worrying than even Islamist terrorism. After years of condemnations from the media for incompetence, from human rights organizations for a policy of targeted assassinations, and even from the Supreme Court for creating illegal militias, the government’s strategic successes are undeniable. Conflict deaths this year are down by 40 percent; the Maoist organizational structure is being dismantled; and now its leader is gone.

Not everyone is celebrating. The Maoists, for all the chaos they have sowed under Kishenji’s leadership, enjoy widespread support in the indigenous communities where they operate. The mining companies fear the Maoists, often acceding to the latter’s extortionist demands — payouts that have made more than few rebel fortunes, and transformed the rebellion itself from a scrappy agrarian uprising into something that often resembles an elaborate and bloody protection racket. The indigenous communities know this, but still support the Maoists; they know they have few other options. Laws to protect tribal lands exist, but they are easily sidestepped by paying off corrupt politicians and police. The Maoists have brought this hypocrisy to light, however brutally.

In a way, the offensive that claimed Kishenji bears an eerie similarity to the past. After its founding, the initial Naxal movement grew for a decade, turning increasingly violent as demands for more egalitarian economic and human rights reforms went unheeded. By the late 1970s, the government had had enough of the unrest and liquidated dozens of the movement’s leaders. The violence subsided and the campaign was declared an unconditional success. But little was done to address the underlying causes for violence: inequality, a lack of justice, and a broken local government. Naxal student leaders voiced these concerns at the time, but nobody listened. Twenty years later, one of those same students tapped into the still-festering grievances to launch a new war.

Military advances may once again break the grip of Maoist violence, giving India another once-in-a-generation opportunity to stop the violence in its heartland. But the gains will be similarly short-lived this time around unless Delhi finally corrects the discriminatory practices towards its indigenous communities that have lingered since its independence. If not, it is only a matter of time before the next Kishenji heads down a jungle path into the shadows.

Jason Miklian is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

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