Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong may be long gone from China, but the movement he inspired has cast a long and lingering shadow across parts of Asia. Today, Maoists in countries like India and Nepal occasionally make news in the United States for sporadic bombings and other clashes, quickly fading from the headlines once the violence dies down and often dismissed as communist relics of a bygone era.
But for the region, Maoists are anything but a closed chapter in history. They are an urgent, modern-day security threat for India, and an evolving political movement in Nepal that could determine whether the nation’s government collapses.
And although Maoist movements have ebbed and flowed over the years, they remain entrenched in segments of South Asia, where they are tapping into the anger of the lower classes, rural poor and indigenous tribes that feel their governments have alienated and exploited them for decades.
In India, the Maoists, or Naxalites as they are known there, have found refuge in the country’s dense forest and staged a series of bold attacks recently that have killed nearly 100 people since April — gaining enough ground that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called them India’s “biggest internal security challenge.”
In neighboring Nepal, the Unified Community Party of Nepal – Maoist (UCPN-M) has successfully moved from the battlefield to the political arena, where they have become powerful players who could ultimately decide the fate of the country’s fragile democracy.
While the movements in Nepal and India are generally unrelated, both are largely driven by bread-and-butter issues rather than a strict adherence to ideology, and they both share the basic goal of influencing the political system to do a better job of representing the underrepresented.
Roots of Resentment in India
According to Mahesh Rangarajan, a professor at the University of Delhi, the Maoist movement in India, also known as the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI – M), was formed in 2004 after the merger of two smaller groups. All such groups trace back to a violent uprising that began in 1967 in a village called Naxalbari in West Bengal — hence the name Naxalites. “It’s a Marxist political party which believes that the only way to create a just society in India is by an armed revolutionary overthrow of the existing state system,” Rangarajan told the Council of Foreign Relations in a recent interview.
Walter Andersen, director of South Asia studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, told The Washington Diplomat that the Indian Maoists, many of them early leftist university students, drew their inspiration from the Maoist movement in China and Marxist-Leninist philosophies. The movement, which today is led by an educated and politically astute cadre, slowed in the 1970s before making a comeback in the 1990s that coincided with India’s celebrated emergence as a global economic power and the world’s largest democracy.
Today, the Maoists and affiliated groups are thought to control more than one third of India’s 600-odd districts — dubbed the so-called “red corridor” — and more than 6,000 people have been killed since the rebellion for communist rule in these states began over four decades ago. The group — bolstered by an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 fighters — continues to feed off the resentment among people who feel bypassed by India’s rush toward prosperity.
Jeremy Page, South Asia correspondent for the Times in Britain, recently wrote that India’s boom “enriched a consumer class of 50 to 100 million people but largely failed to improve living standards for more than 800 million people living on less than a day.”
Page describes these people as “the Maoist primary recruits — poor farmers, landless laborers, untouchables and tribal minorities in remote areas.”
Since 2003, in fact, the Indian Home Ministry has said that the Maoist insurgency has gone from affecting 55 districts in nine states to 223 districts in 20 states.
Much of the support comes from the mountainous tribal belt on the eastern side of India, an area that is rich in iron ore, coal, bauxite and manganese — and that is attractive to outside companies looking to score an easy buck.
“That was a very backward area,” Andersen of Johns Hopkins University said, alluding to its undeveloped nature and lack of schools, hospitals and infrastructure. “But it is also a cornucopia of metals and hydroelectric. You had the outside world coming in and the tribal population resisting it. Hence the Maoist movement saw an opportunity to mobilize support. So that’s where their strength is.”
Rangarajan of the University of Delhi says that although the Maoist strongholds aren’t as widespread as some of the figures suggest, their presence — and grievances — do represent a significant pocket of Indian society. “These are dispossessed people, they’re extremely marginal — their life expectancy, access to health care, education, level of entitlement — is far below the national average. And it is these districts, many of them forested, some rich with minerals, that have got caught up in the throes of rapid economic development that makes India such a powerhouse. And the displacement of people by dams, by mines, by forest reservations and nature reserves, is seen by some as creating more fertile ground for such extremism to stick.”
That’s part of the argument Maoists use to refute claims that they represent a security threat to the nation. Instead, they warn that government policies will further alienate tribal communities and that increasing industry in the mineral-rich area will only add to the number of people already displaced by development.
Yet the Maoists themselves haven’t exactly been blameless in the conflict — despite casting themselves as the victims. Rebels have been accused of blowing up schools, police stations, factories, railway and roads. Many say the group has also extorted hundreds of millions of dollars from companies across India over the years. Rangarajan says it is well known that Maoists run extortion rackets, although he adds that the movement is not purely a criminal enterprise and retains many of its political beliefs. Deepa Ollapally, associate director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University, said the tribal dissatisfaction has been growing for generations. “But it has not become violent until more recently, and therefore there was not much attention paid to those grievances,” she said.
The largest single strike against government forces in the four decade-old insurgency came in April when rebels killed 76 Indian paramilitary troops in a series of carefully planned ambushes in the tribal heartland of central India.
It was part of the Maoists’ stepped-up campaign in response to the Indian government’s own military offensive against the rebels. Meanwhile, hopes for a peaceful resolution to the standoff look slim, with the government offering talks on the condition that the rebels renounce violence, while the Maoists say the government’s offensive must stop before any negotiations take place.
Following the April attack, India has only strengthened its resolve to “hunt everyone down” who helped to commit recent attacks, as the country’s home secretary recently stated. But some human rights groups have leveled criticized at India for leaning too heavily on its military might to resolve the longstanding conflict — and trying to silence the political discussion over alternative approaches that address socioeconomic concerns ranging from poverty to the caste system.
“This is a bread-and-butter kind of struggle,” Ollapally said. “The government should be able to identify the problem and respond to it. And what I’m worried about is that the government is taking more of a military route. When the military is out there … it is easier for the Maoist to mobilize.”
Andersen agrees. “The government of India has unfortunately looked at it totally as a law and order issue, rather than a socioeconomic issue that has to be addressed,” he said. “Obviously no government can allow killing and bombing to go on, but at the same time you have to approach it from the socioeconomic perspective.
“They need protection for their economic interests, which have been ignored by in large,” he added. “And when you do take land, you need adequate compensation for the land, promises that their children will get jobs, that sort of thing, which have been ignored.”
Why has this been ignored?
“There is too much at stake for the Indian economy,” according to Andersen. “This [region] has enormous economic potential for India and they are already beginning to develop it and they see [the Maoist] as a problem.”
Nepal Teeters on Edge
Compared to their Indian counterparts, the Maoist movement in Nepal has had much more success influencing the government, but it also faces serious obstacles.
As in India, the Maoists in Nepal want the government to accommodate the various lower classes, including rural and ethnic groups that were largely forgotten under the 240-year-old monarchy in Katmandu.
“The middle class ruled the rest of the country and remarkable little development funds went to it,” Andersen said. “It was underdeveloped economically and underrepresented politically.”
Unlike India though, Nepal’s Maoists made progress integrating into the political system — though that progress is now threatening to unravel.
Following a 10-year civil war that left upward of 13,000 dead, the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist laid down their guns and signed a peace deal with the Nepalese government in 2006. Two years later, the Maoists came to power in what was once considered as the most unlikely of ways: an election, winning twice as many seats as their closest rivals and briefly heading up a power-sharing government, until a dispute over army integration derailed the coalition.
Now, the country faces its biggest test with a May 28 deadline to complete a new constitution to restructure the national government. Negotiations have stalled, with the Maoists launching nationwide strikes and threatening to draft their own constitution in an effort to pressure the prime minister and his coalition government to step down.
The parties continue to be deadlocked over whether to adopt a presidential or British-type parliamentary system, and how to create federal provinces and split resources between them, according to the Hindustan Times.
The parties have also failed to agree on how to reintegrate thousands of Maoist combatants back into the army, whose leaders still aren’t crazy about the idea of accepting once-bitter rivals into their ranks. So despite more than three years since the peace accord, many Maoist fighters remain in U.N.-monitored camps.
Lingering mistrust has also haunted the process. Maoist leaders worry that government leaders — or the “elites” as they call them — will ignore the reforms demanded by the country’s poor and will secretly work to diminish Maoist influence in Katmandu. Meanwhile, government leaders worry that the Maoists are not committed to democracy and have not done enough to disband their paramilitary group led by former Maoist fighters.
No one knows what will happen if — in all likelihood — the two sides fail to complete a constitution by the May deadline. In an interview with the BBC earlier this year, Unified Community Party of Nepal – Maoist (UCPN-M) vice chairman Baburam Bhattarai discounted the possibility of renewed bloodshed, saying, “Definitely we won’t return to the violent ways like we practiced earlier because at that time we were fighting against autocratic monarchy…. Now we have a republic [that] set up an interim constitution. We have a Constitutional Assembly.”
But more recently, Bhattarai was quoted by a local newspaper declaring that the Maoist party would rather go back to war than bow down to the government.
Under international pressure and fierce domestic counter-protests, the Maoists did call off a crippling nationwide strike last month, leading Andersen to suggest that perhaps the two sides may move closer to an agreement to avoid a fresh political crisis. Asked what the Maoists hope to get out of an agreement, Andersen said, “They are not quite sure on where things are going…. This is all new and they are reinventing the wheel as they go along.”
But he noted that the movement has a much better chance of success than the Maoists in India do. “Because the population is considerably larger and the political system weaker in Nepal, they have made more of an impact than in India. In India, they will be defeated — the state is too large and the area is too important. It is just a matter of time,” he explained. “There may be lingering problems, but ultimately they cannot win.”
About the Author
Seth McLaughlin is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.