A Critical Reflection on the Maoist Attack in Chhattisgarh

In the context of eastern India, it is questionable how much value violent, offensive attacks on the state have for the larger goals of developing communism and the autonomy of the masses. 

India has had a Maoist insurgency for decades now.  The 90s were a time of relative quiet, with various communist groups factionalized and ineffective.  2004, however, saw the unification of the two strongest organizations–the People’s War Group (PWG) of Andhra Pradesh, and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) of Bihar–into the Communist Party of India (Maoist) (CPI-M); the armed wing was called the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA).  Since then, the movement has grown rapidly across central-east India, and has strong bases in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa, and Chhattisgarh.  The insurgency is rooted in the marginalization of the Adivasis (the indigenous tribal population of India) and the violence that they have suffered from six decades of capitalist development.  It was in Chhattisgarh where the recent attack on a Congress Party motorcade (one of the two biggest political parties in India) took place.

27 people were killed–both politicians and civilians.  Congress leaders were the target–one of whom was Mahendra Karma, the founder and leader of the notorious Salwa Judum, a fascist paramilitary organization which wrecked havoc on tribal populations in a violent effort to protect landowners and capitalists from the Maoists’ efforts to destroy feudal social relations and protect the autonomy of the Adivasi population from State and Corporate-sanctioned dispossession.  As Goswani argues:

Chhattisgarh marks the frontline of the explosive Naxal battle. With official state capacity unable to effectively respond, in 2005 the Chhattisgarh government began to secretly fund and arm a counter-insurgency group called Salwa Judum in Dantewada district. However, Salwa Judum has not contained the conflict; it has exacerbated it exponentially. Thousands of combatants and civilians have been killed. Nearly 40,000 villagers have been forcibly herded into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps where they are virtual prisoners, killed if they try to return to their villages. The camps are recruitment havens for Salwa Judum, enticing children to join their ranks as United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) workers look on helplessly. Tens of thousands more have fled to other parts of Chhattisgarh and neighbouring states.

To ask “Why isn’t Salwa Judum working?” misses the point. Salwa Judum is in many ways a complete success, operating exactly as a its founders intended as a land and power grab masquerading as a local uprising. Its creation enriched its leadership both financially and politically and enabled corporations to exploit the veil of violence to mine the rich tribal land. Using funding meant for IDPs, and from mining companies who contract protection and “ground-clearing” services to them, local Salwa Judum leaders function as warlords with their own personal armies. Rural villagers are the primary losers, as their land has been stolen, their civil rights trampled, and their livelihoods ruined from a preventable conflict  (Goswani 2008: 21-22).

So, no tears lost over his death.  The other politicians who were killed also seem to be drawing an apathetic response from the general public–while I personally haven’t looked too much at their identities and backgrounds, they seem to be universally panned as corrupt, reactionary opportunists.

However, there were a great many civilian government workers who were accompanying the motorcade, and perished in the firefight.  I question whether their deaths were “worth it” (if we can even make such a valuation of human life), and indeed, whether this assassination of leading Congress politicians had any real strategic value for the larger goals of the communist rebellion.  After all, the underlying foundation of capitalist/feudal exploitation and state terror is not the work of individual politicians, but of systemic material conditions and the general population’s acceptance of and subsumption into oppressive social relations.  There is a question of opportunity cost here–might not it have been a better use of the CPI-M’s time, energy, and resources to further consolidate the autonomy of the Adivasis in liberated zones, foster indigenous leadership, and engage in local development projects to bolster socio-economic growth and prosperity?

Such decisions might be the result of a disconnect between the Maoist leadership and the Adivasi population that makes up their popular base.  As Guha observes:

What we know of the leaders and cadres suggests that most Maoists come from a lower middle class background. They usually have a smattering of education, and were often radicalised in college.  Like other communist movements, the leadership of his one too is overwhelmingly male. No tribals are represented in the upper levels of the party hierarchy (Guha 2007: 3310).

As such, there is a chance that such attacks reflect the desires of the leadership, than they do the desires of the people on the ground.  And in addition, counter-attacks by the State will undoubtedly be borne by civilians, as has historically been the case.  Thus, there is also the question of whether the leadership properly contemplated the scale of the counter-attack, and their ability to defend civilians from state terror, when deciding on the ambush.  Already, 1000 security personnel have been released into the jungles to give chase to the rebels who carried out the attack.  Will the soldiers divert them away from the unarmed tribal populations, and defend them if the troops attempt abuse?  Or will the tribals be used as fodder in an attempt to use their suffering at the hands of the state as propaganda?

However, there is no denying that the attack served as a massive morale boost to the Maoists and their supporters.  Karma was responsible for the suffering of thousands upon thousands of poor tribals, and his death will be celebrated by many.  And perhaps such a morale boost was necessary, given the recent set-backs, defeats, and retreats of the past couple of years.  However, given the class-caste demographics of the leadership, speculations on the rational and popular nature of the attack are tenuous, at best.

However, I am still optimistic.  The People’s War in Nepal was carried through with spectacular victories against feudalism and monarchy (even if the Party has since regressed into a capitalist parliamentary organization), and India–while not a monarchy–has the same structures of feudalism and caste oppression that afflicted Nepal.  More investigation and research must be done in order to fully understand and analyze the CPI-M’s interactions with the Adivasis and their short-term and long-term tactics and strategies.

Un-linked Citations

  • Goswani, Namrata.  Miklian, Jason.  “India’s Violent Internal Dissent.”  Economic & Political Weekly.  Vo. 43, No. 21.  May 2008.  P21-22.
  • Guha, Ramachandra.  “Adivasis, Naxalites, and Indian Democracy.”  Economic & Political Weekly.  Vo. 42, No. 32.  August 2007.  P3305-3312.
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