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India’s Aging Guerrillas Still Believe in the Struggle

As India’s police conjure up the specter of urban Maoist terror, the real insurgency remains deep in the jungle.

A Maoist state-level conference in a Jharkhand forest in 2010. (Alpa Shah)
A Maoist state-level conference in a Jharkhand forest in 2010. (Alpa Shah)

Editor’s Note: Last week, India’s police launched a surprise, nationwide series of raids on left-wing activists. The raids concentrated on nongovernmental organizations and individuals who fight for the rights of lower-caste communities and tribal groups; five activists were arrested and numerous materials were seized. They follow on from earlier, but more narrow, police actions in June.

According to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, the police targets were part of a network of “urban Naxals,” referring to one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies. They are being portrayed as conspiratorial terrorists connected to an alleged plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At least one of the activists, Telugu-language poet Varavara Rao, has been a supporter of the Naxalites in the past.

But many Indian commentators have refuted any notion that the disparate police targets—who include such figures as an 81-year-old Jesuit priest—are part of the Naxalite movement, or that the Maoist group, founded in the 1960s, has any real presence in India’s cities. Instead, critics such as opposition leader Rahul Gandhi say “Urban Naxal” is becoming a label used to cast any opposition to the government as potential terrorism.

In this piece, adapted in part from her new book Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas, Alpa Shah looks at the real Naxal movement, from their origins as idealistic students in the 1960s to their continued fight against the state from jungle hideouts today. (The book is published by Hurst in the United Kingdom, University of Chicago Press in the United States, and HarperCollins in India.)


Deep in the forested hills of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, on a freezing December night in 2008, I made my way past three sentry posts to a solitary mud hut, set apart from the rest of the village. The soft-spoken, slightly balding, middle-aged man inside went only by a nom de guerre, Gyanji.

Like the guerrilla platoon outside guarding their leader from assassins dispatched by the Indian state, Gyanji was dressed in olive green fatigues and carried all his worldly belongings in one small rucksack. But in the dim the light spreading from the kerosene lamp, I noticed the tender soles of his fair-skinned feet. He had been constantly on the move in the rural backwaters of India for 25 years, often sleeping under the stars in the forest, rarely staying more than a few days in one place. But in contrast to the dark broad feet of the tribal soldiers outside, layered with years’ worth of skin which made them as tough, dry, and cracked as the red earth they had walked barefoot since they were born, Gyanji’s feet were still soft from the childhood care and protection they had received in his upper-caste home.

In the hills, where the local tongue of Nagpuri trilled through the forests like song, and even India’s majority language, Hindi, was a rarity, Gyanji’s polished English stood out. Over the year and a half that I lived in those mud huts as a social anthropologist, between 2008 and 2010, I discovered that he could recite Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Bernard Shaw, that he had a master’s degree in mathematics, and that his siblings included a bank employee, an accountant, and a computer scientist who had emigrated to Canada.

It was only Gyanji who had gone astray from the eminently upper-middle-class path laid out by his parents. Inspired by the revolutionary spirit in the universities, and by the peasant rebellions that had been sweeping India in the decades before, at the age of 24, Gyanji cut ties with his family and took the oath of becoming a “professional revolutionary.” He joined a group of men and women who today call themselves the Communist Party of India (Maoist)—also known as the Naxalites—and are leading what is now the world’s longest ongoing armed revolutionary movement.

Although an armed force of less than 10,000, and now mainly confined to the hills and forests of central and eastern India, these Naxalite rebels have haunted the Indian state for the last five decades. The foot soldiers who make up most of their People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army come mainly from India’s tribal populations, popularly called Adivasis, and they’re fighting for very different reasons from the abstract ideals of leaders like Gyanji.

On a wider level, theirs is a struggle for tribal autonomy against a state that they see as repressive, brutal, and prejudiced. But for any individual Adivasi, their reasons for joining the Maoists were often more personal. Take, for example, Kohli, a gentle, sensitive, 16-year-old Adivasi youth with radiant dark skin and a coy smile, whose rifle was nearly as tall as himself, and who was once assigned as my bodyguard. He had run away to live with the guerrillas after a trivial fight with his father about a glass of spilled milk while working in his tea shop. Rather than breaking with their pasts as Gyanji did, the Adivasi youth found in the guerrilla armies a home away from home, and often moved in and out of them as though they were visiting an uncle or aunt.

To the government in New Delhi, however, both Gyanji and Kohli are simply terrorists, a dangerous cancer that must be eradicated. And these mild, gentle men who brought me tea every morning I was with them, insisted on carrying my bag despite my protests, and rehydrated and cared for me when I was sick, were killers. An attack last year that drove the nation into an anti-Naxalite frenzy was on a Central Reserve Police Force battalion patrolling the construction of a road.

On April 25 and 26, 2017, the bodies of 26 soldiers were wrapped in the Indian tricolor, garlanded with marigolds, a flower used in most Hindu rituals. They were airlifted from the forests of Sukma district in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh to their far-flung hometown cremation sites, from the foothills of the Himalayas to the banks of the Yamuna River more than 700 miles away. Many of them came from backgrounds just as poor as the men who had killed them—the police force is one of the routes out of rural destitution.

The daughter of Sanjay Kumar, who was killed in a Maoist attack in Sukma, Chhattisgarh, wails during his funeral near Dharamsala, India, on April 25, 2017. (Shyam Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

That was just one of the many bloody skirmishes between the Naxalites and the Indian state. The insurgents have blown up security forces, derailed trains that defy their blockades, killed people they deem are police informers, and delivered brutal summary justice in their “people’s courts,” creating a climate of fear and terror. Data collected by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism contracted for the U.S. Department of State’s annual country report on terrorism presents the Maoists as the third-most prolific terrorist group in the world by total attacks in 2016, after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the Taliban.

The latest Indian government campaigns against the rebels began more than a decade ago. In 2006, two years after the three major armed Naxalite groups united as the Communist Party of India (Maoist), the then-prime minister, Manmohan Singh, declared the rebels the single gravest internal security threat facing the country. This signaled a new wave of security operations to hunt down the Maoists and to silence their sympathizers and supporters. Painting a “red corridor” from the border with Nepal in the north down to Andhra Pradesh in the south, the Indian intelligence agencies claimed that 40 percent of India’s land area was affected, encompassing 20 of the 28 states, and 223 of 640 districts. The numbers are hard to verify and were possibly inflated to justify an increase in security and defense budgets. Indeed, more than 100,000 soldiers were dispatched to surround the Maoist guerrilla strongholds in the center and east of the country. They were accompanied by a squadron of helicopters and special operations forces teams with exotically implausible names such as “Cobra,” “Jharkhand Jaguar,” and “Greyhounds,” who were trained in jungle warfare schools to fight the guerillas with their own tactics.

In the villages where I lived, the search-and-destroy missions by the security forces generated terror. Those who could, fled to neighboring villages as the patrols mounted the hills. Villagers had been used as human shields by the security forces and as informers to find the Maoists in the forests. Others had been caught in the crossfire and brutally beaten by soldiers during raids, accused of harboring the rebels. Scenes from Vietnam War movies played out regularly in the forests of India. Like Vietnam, generals boast of better “kill ratios” to the media—but the attack in Sukma is said to have tipped the balance well in favor of the Maoists last year. An earlier attack nearby in 2010 killed 76 security personnel, now commemorated in concrete statues. In the past decade, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, almost 7,000 people have been killed, of whom 40 percent have been civilians, 34 percent Maoists, and 26 percent security forces.

In the aftermath of the Sukma attack last year, the home minister, Rajnath Singh, called a high-level meeting of government ministers, police, security forces, and intelligence agencies to plot an invigorated new counterinsurgency approach. “We need to bring aggression in our policy. Aggression in thinking, aggression in strategy, aggression in the deployment of [security] forces, aggression in operations, aggression in development, and aggression in road construction,” Singh said. The government promised a final objective; a coordinated battle on security and development fronts that would be fought to the finish and won.

The Maoist Women’s Liberation Front posing for a photograph in Jharkhand in 2009. (A.M. Shah)

New Delhi has pledged many times in the past to destroy the Naxalites before and yet they endure. Every year in November, across the forests that are their strongholds, the Maoists celebrate the deceased in a martyrs’ week. These meetings of guerrillas in clearings in the forest, lined with crepe paper bunting and memorials draped in red cloth, are ephemeral as all traces of their presence must be erased to evade the security forces. Nevertheless, they fly their red flags painted with a hammer and a sickle, sing the socialist anthem, “The Internationale,” and, in remembering the thousands that have been killed, they seek to regenerate life in the revolutionary spirit from the dead.

These traditions go back to their origins. They first made their mark on the Indian countryside in May 1967 with a small uprising in the foothills of the Himalayas. There, in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari, from which they get their name, peasants and laborers occupied land, reclaimed it as theirs, demanded that the landlords cancel all their debts and end intergenerational bondage. The Chinese Communist Party broadcast the Naxalbari events widely on Peking Radio, announcing the establishment of a red area of rural revolutionary armed struggle, and the People’s Daily newspaper declared that “A peal of spring thunder has crashed over the land of India.” But within a few months the uprising was brutally crushed by the police and many of the leaders were killed or imprisoned.

Nevertheless, the embers of the rebellion ignited sparks in other parts of the country, in Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, Koraput in Orissa, and the plains of Bhojpur in Bihar and Birbhum in West Bengal. The leaders of these rebellions—mostly upper-caste, middle-class intellectuals—formed different revolutionary parties and claimed that India needed the strategy that Mao Zedong had used against the Japanese in the 1930, when conditions in China were also “semi-colonial and semi-feudal.” They began plans for a protracted people’s war mobilizing peasants to establish rural bases and eventually encircle the cities to capture state power in the fight for a global communist society.

Drawn by the romance of the movement, many bright urban youths from upper- and middle-caste and class families renounced the comforts of their homes and their university classrooms to work with the poor. It was the Indian equivalent of being a 1968 Parisian rioter or an American counterculture dropout—except that while radicalism, for many in the West, proved a temporary home, for the Naxalites it was a life-altering choice.

It was at university that Gyanji, who once meditated alone for his nirvana on the banks of the Ganges, found kindred spirits among teachers and fellow students. They discussed and debated how to bring “heaven on earth” and create a communist society; linked hands with the protests against the Vietnam War, the uprisings in Paris, and the rise of the American Black Panthers; and distributed pamphlets on “the death of God.” Fired by the passions of those who had taken to the streets and challenged the injustices of governments in faraway places, moved by the poverty and oppression in the slums around them, they were disenchanted by the corruption of party politics and the failures of the Indian state to address inequality.

Gyanji’s trajectory suggests a continuity between the ideals of a communist revolutionary and a long history of renunciation for liberation in Indian society. Whereas one—the renouncer—seeks emancipation for the individual in the future, the other—the revolutionary—works for the ideal of liberation for communal ends in the present. Indeed, the stark social hierarchies of Indian society have come hand in hand with a long tradition of putting renunciation to work for political purposes. Mahatma Gandhi, clad in his white loincloth, is perhaps the obvious example.

Though their political purposes were different, like Gyanji, some of these historical renouncers turned away from seeking their individual liberation and waiting for their departure to another more equal world and focused on questioning the inequalities of the present. They had subverted the religious monk ideal of extinguishing the future and leaving the world for their own personal freedom, and instead committed to creating a liberated world for everyone. And so, these high-caste Naxalites broke with their pasts and “declassed” and “de-casted” themselves, resolving to make a better world. Gyanji, who was once unable to cross a line of ants without chanting a mantra in case he stepped on one, took up arms.

Oraon Adivasis prepare their fields to sow rice in Jharkhand in 2009. (Alpa Shah)

The agricultural plains of Bihar, where Gyanji initially worked in the late 1980s, became known as India’s “flaming fields” due to the fierce caste wars fought among the Naxalites, their supporters, and the dominant caste landlords.

One of the poorest areas of India, the region was marked by great disparities between the high-caste landlords, who controlled large swathes of land, and the smaller farmers and especially the landless Dalits who worked for the landowners and were considered “untouchables.” The Naxalites tried to infiltrate the Dalit households to free them from their servitude. They killed several of the most oppressive landlords, chased others away to the cities, seized their land, and redistributed it among the landless and small farmers. They organized rallies, protests, and labor strikes demanding labor wage rises, elimination of bonded labor, and more equitable terms of sharecropping. They publicly beat men who had sexually harassed working women and they descended on masse into government offices to demand clean drinking water, better housing, and health-care provision.

“Violence,” Gyanji once told me, “is simply a means to an end.” No significant revolutionary change has taken place in the world without violence, he said. No change of regime, no change of state power: the English Revolution, the French Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, all the anti-colonial revolutions. “Our violence here is not indiscriminate or anarchic; we do not condone terrorism … [or] kill innocent people,” he clarified. Gyanji said it was easy to focus on the guerrilla guns and forget the wider, endemic “structural violence” supported and promoted everyday by the government, the ruling classes, and their representatives; the looting of land and forests from the people; the poverty they have brought; the treatment of the lower castes and classes as worse than animals. “The ruling classes pamper their poodles but thrash their servants,” Gyanji said. He was expressing a long history of justification for revolutionary violence that the violence of the oppressed is often seen as a response to the violence of the oppressor.

But in the 1990s, state repression increased and the high caste landlords retaliated against the Naxalites and their supporters by forming private armies or militias which went by names such as Ranvir Sena, Bhumi Sena, and Sunlight Sena. These senas (armies) came with their own war cry: “There is only one remedy for the Naxalites, cut them six inches shorter.” Dalits, in particular, were massacred overnight. They were often decapitated, as the slogan promised, to make them six inches shorter. Men, women, and children were killed. Eight one night, nine another night, 22 another, 25, and 35—so the growing slaughter continued as the police watched on. The houses of Naxalite supporters were burned to the ground.

There was nowhere to hide. The guerrillas could no longer take shelter in the mud houses, and the rice fields provided safety only when the crop was tall. So, in the late 1980s, following Mao Zedong and Che Guevara’s tactics, hoping to find India’s Yanan, they went in search of better geographical terrain for guerrilla warfare and began to retreat into the hills and forests of central and eastern India—into what are now the states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, and into southern Orissa, northern Andhra Pradesh, southeastern Madhya Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra and parts of West Bengal.

At the time, the Naxalite leaders who came from the cities and had experience mainly of the agricultural plains knew little about the tribal people who dominated these forested highlands—the communities of Oraons, Mundas, Hos, Paharias, Gonds, Birhors, Koyas, and many other Adivasi groups. They made up almost 10 percent of the total population of India but had been considered so lowly and wild that, for centuries, they had been left outside of Indian society without electricity, sanitation, education, or health care.

Though the modern state—with the British East India Company, followed by the government under the British crown, and then the independent Indian government—had penetrated the area, it was mainly for taxation and exploitation of the forests for military purposes, railway sleepers, and furniture. For the Adivasis, the state was policemen who beat you, officials who cordoned off your forest and let outsiders steal your timber, and soldiers who drove you like animals. The term used for the Adivasis by many officers was jungli: “savage.” When the Naxalites arrived, addressing local grievances, they chased away the forest and police officials, set up mobile health camps, and gained credibility among the locals.

Although the Naxalites were as foreign to the Adivasis as the officials, they treated the Adivasis with respect and dignity, gaining a legitimacy and an intimacy with local communities, establishing kinship links between the guerrilla armies and the villagers, making it easy for youth like Kohli to move back and forth.

In my neighborhood, there was also Kohli’s sister Anju, who ran away from home to live with the squads. In her case, it was to get away from an arranged marriage, encouraged by her cousin, Chanda, who had become a platoon member some 10 years before. There was also their brother, Pramod, who, like Kohli, fought with his father and went to live with the squads for six months before migrating as a laborer to a brick factory. And there was Anju’s young cousin, Lila, who followed her elder sister. By the time I lived in the guerrilla strongholds, almost every Adivasi house had or knew someone who was involved as an armed cadre, worker, or sympathizer, and the Naxalites were called the Jungle Sarkar—the “forest state.”

‘In the last decade, according to the South Asia Terrorist Portal drawing on Ministry of Home Affairs figures, more than 7500 people have been killed, of which 57 per cent have been civilians, 23 per cent security forces and 20 per cent Maoists. The government offered handsome bounties —even up to between $2,000 and $3,500 and more for weapons—depending on the seniority of the Naxalite and the rifles with which he or she surrenders. But scholars, lawyers, and human rights activists have said that many of these surrenders are fake and that Adivasis are being coerced.

This is a new dimension to a long history of manufactured incidents. Rebels have been presented as killed in battle when they actually died under police torture. Vigilante gangs have once more appeared and many people have had to flee their homes. There are accusations of murder and mass rape conducted by vigilantes and the security forces alike.

Verification of events is tough. The few brave independent reporters, human rights lawyers, and activists entering the affected regions are chased out. Behind the state’s desire to destroy the Naxalites and “civilize” the Adivasis may be a deep cleansing of the region for the extraction of minerals. Under the Adivasi forests lie some of the country’s largest reserves of coal, iron ore, and bauxite. Business analysts have claimed that Indian mining is a success story in waiting for decades. Powerful corporations have signed deals to harvest the resources, acquire land to penetrate the landscape with mining operations, steel factories, and power plants. Mittal, Essar, Vedanta, Rio Tinto, and Posco have all scouted out the potential. But historic laws, which the Adivasis fought for in colonial times, prevent their lands from being sold over to non-Adivasis, to outsiders. And though these laws have been persistently undermined, they still prove an impediment to the outsiders who want the land. The Adivasis and the Naxalites who live amid them are in the way of India’s development mission. And so, human rights activists claim that behind the counterinsurgency operations is the aim of clearing out its forest inhabitants.

The Naxalites have a remarkable skill at survival, mixing guerrilla warfare with respect for locals that wins hearts and homes. Nevertheless, as the military might of the Indian state encircles and tightens their noose around them, they have been squeezed into ever smaller pockets of hilly forests. Forced to focus on their military strategy at the expense of working with the Adivasis, the conditions are ripe for the creation of factions, betrayers, and gangs.

And even if they aren’t crushed, the Naxalites may be ideologically doomed. Hanging on to an outdated and doctrinaire picture of India, they have been unable to take account of the serious changes in the Indian economy as it switches from an agrarian state to an industrial powerhouse.

The Maoists in Nepal, who the Indian Naxalites once nurtured, fought a successful 10-year people’s war and entered the mainstream parliamentary democratic process but their Indian counterparts see them as sell-outs. Many of the Naxalite leaders have now died or are in jail. The recruitment of new blood from the universities and colleges has been limited for at least two decades. Will the movement survive when the original founders die off? Will it become essentially a hill-village resistance movement, an ethno-nationalist movement, an indigenous people’s struggle, without the Maoist elements? Or will the inequalities, injustice, and caste violence that persist in much of India inspire a new generation to rise again, as they so often have, like a phoenix from the ashes? Indeed, in the aftermath of last week’s simultaneous police raids and arrests of intellectuals, lawyers and human rights activists across the country, are we seeing a new revolutionary resurgence when tens of thousands of social media users say #MeTooUrbanNaxal?

Alpa Shah is Associate Professor – Reader in Anthropology at LSE. Dr Shah’s writing is based on her insights living as a social anthropologist for several years among the Adivasis of eastern India.