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A War in the Heart of India | The Nation

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A War in the Heart of India

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The Indian Maoists got a huge shot in the arm with the merger, in 2004, of two major factions. One, the People's War Group, was active in Andhra Pradesh; the other, the Maoist Co-ordination Committee, in Bihar. Both dissolved themselves into the new Communist Party of India (Maoist). Since the merger the party has spread rapidly, with former PWG cadres moving north into the tribal heartland from Andhra, and erstwhile MCC cadres coming south from Bihar.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that two Muslims have held the positions of chief justice and president of India. In fact, there have been three Muslims in each of these posts, which actually strengthens the author's point: M. Hidayatullah, M.H. Beg and A.M. Ahmadi in the former and Zakir Hussain, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in the latter.

About the Author

Ramachandra Guha
Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi Before India has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Also by the Author

His first mention in the US media occurred well before he became a leader of the Indian national movement—in The Nation magazine, in 1897.

Inside the great social historian Eric Hobsbawm there was an aesthete waiting to come out.

The general secretary of the united party calls himself "Ganapathi," almost certainly a pseudonym. Statements carrying his name occasionally circulate on the Internet--one, issued in February, reported the successful completion of a party congress "held deep in the forests of one of the several Guerrilla Zones in the country." The congress "reaffirmed the general line of the new democratic revolution with agrarian revolution as its axis and protracted people's war as the path of the Indian revolution." The meeting "was completed amongst great euphoria with a Call to the world people: Rise up as a tide to smash imperialism and its running dogs! Advance the Revolutionary war throughout the world!!"

Ganapathi is the elephant-headed son of Shiva, a god widely revered in South India. The general secretary is most likely from Andhra Pradesh. What we know of the other leaders suggests that they come from a lower-middle-class background. Like Sanjeev, they usually have a smattering of education and were radicalized in college. Like other Communist movements, the Naxalite leadership is overwhelmingly male. No tribals are represented in the upper levels of the party hierarchy.

How influential is the Maoist movement in India? Once more, the estimates vary widely. The Home Ministry claims that one-third of all districts in India, or about 150 in all, are recognized as "Naxalite affected." But this, as the Home Minister himself recently admitted, is a considerable exaggeration. State governments have a vested interest in declaring districts Naxalite-affected, for it allows them to claim a subsidy from the center. Thus, an armed robbery or two is sometimes enough for a district to be featured on the list.

My guess is that about forty districts, spread across ten states and containing perhaps 80 million Indians, live in a liminal zone where the Indian state exercises uncertain control by day and no control by night. Some of these districts are in the northeast, where the nighttime rulers are the Naga, Assamese and Manipuri rebels. The other districts are in the peninsula, where Naxalites have dug deep roots among low castes and tribals grievously shortchanged by the democratic system.

How, finally, might the Maoist insurgency be ended or at least contained? On the Maoist side this might take the shape of a compact with bourgeois democracy, by participating in and perhaps even winning elections. On the government side it might take the shape of a sensitively conceived and sincerely implemented plan to make tribals true partners in the development process: by assuring them the title on lands they cultivate, allowing them the right to manage forests sustainably, giving them a solid stake in industrial or mining projects that come up where they live and that often cost them their homes.

In truth, the one is as unlikely as the other. One cannot easily see the Maoists giving up on their commitment to armed struggle. Nor, given the way the Indian state actually functions, can one see it so radically reform itself as to put the interests of a vulnerable minority, the tribals, ahead of those with more money and power.

In the long run, perhaps, the Maoists might indeed make their peace with the Republic of India, and the Republic come to treat its tribal citizens with dignity and honor. Whether this denouement will happen in my lifetime, I am not sure. In the forest regions of central and eastern India, years of struggle and strife lie ahead. Here in the jungles and hills they once called their own, the tribals find themselves harassed on one side by the state and on the other by the insurgents. Speaking in Hindi, a tribal in Bastar told me, "Hummé dono taraf sé dabav hain, aur hum beech mé pis gayé hain." It sounds far tamer in English--"Pressed and pierced from both sides, here we are, squeezed in the middle."

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