India and its Maoists: failure and success

Ajai Sahni
20 March 2007

The slaughter of fifty-five policemen in an encampment of seventy-nine at Rani Bodli in the heavily forested Dantewada district (8,362 square kilometers of forest in a total area of 10,239 square kilometres) of Chhattisgarh state, on 15 March 2007, has once again focused sharp national and international attention on the growing but little understood Maoist threat in India. Such bouts of attention ordinarily have the character of a three-day flu of indignation and political finger-pointing after each major incident; it is useful then to recall that, just ten days earlier, member of parliament Sunil Mahato and three others had been killed by the Maoists at a public function near Jamshedpur in the state of Jharkhand.

In the brief interregnums between these incidents, the national-security leadership in Delhi sought to divert Indians' attention with superficialities, such as pointing out that incidents of Maoist violence declined by 6.15% in 2005-06. There was less attention on the fact that total fatalities remained at roughly the same level - 677 in 2005 and 678 in 2006 - underlining the growing lethality of the movement. It is useful, in this context, to recognise the sustained intensity of the movement over the past years:


Fatalities in leftwing extremist violence in India








2007 (to 31 January 2007)










Source: computed from ministry of home affairs (MHA) annual reports (various years), and statement by the union minister for home affairs, Shivraj Patil, in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) on 6 March 2007.

India's other boom

Recent incidents and trends, moreover, need to be assessed within a context of the steadily expanding Maoist "protracted war" that has systematically extended itself to afflict, in varying measure, 182 of India's 612 districts. The Maoists have also set up a secret organisational structure for "mass mobilization" - regional bureaus, and zonal, state and "special area" committees - that encompasses at least twenty-two of India's twenty-eight states, including the national capital, Delhi. A "lead team", a preliminary group to guide Maoist mobilisation in a "perspective area", was formed in Jammu & Kashmir in 2006. The "Eastern Regional Bureau" is now exploring opportunities for an advance into Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura in the northeast.

Ajai Sahni is executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, and editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review.

Also by Ajai Sahni in openDemocracy:

"Massacre in Mumbai: the Pakistan connection"
(12 July 2006)

"India under assault"
(20 February 2007)

Worse, the marginal decline in incidents and the relative stability in fatalities in 2005-06 was not the consequence of any dramatic initiatives on the part of the state and its agencies, except in Andhra Pradesh, where the police and paramilitary forces, led by the state's elite counterinsurgency force, the Greyhounds, have made life impossible for the Maoists. Much of the Maoist violence (over 47% of total incidents and 57% of total fatalities in 2006) was concentrated in Chhattisgarh, where the Maoists propose to locate their "central guerrilla zone" and create their first "liberated area", and where they have been confronted with significant popular resistance.

Several states registered a decline in incidents and fatalities. The de-escalation in violence over much of 2006 was, however, a decision taken by the Maoists, not one imposed on them. This period has been marked by massive seizures of weapons in transit, as well as a Maoist engagement in a number of violent agitations against economic policies and on other sensitive issues, indicating that the extremists were engaged in an intensive effort of political mobilisation and the consolidation of military capacities.

In any event, the temporary de-escalation came to an obvious end after the ninth congress of the Maoists - held at an undisclosed forest location, believed to be in Jharkhand on the last days of January and 1 February 2007 - resolved to focus on four key aims:

  • "to advance the people's war throughout the country"
  • to extend support to the "nationality struggles against Indian expansionism" in Kashmir and the northeast
  • to call on "dalits (the oppressed segments of the pernicious Hindu caste system) to rally under the revolutionary banner to militantly resist... growing attacks and discrimination"
  • to mobilise a "militant mass movement against the neo-liberal policies of globalisation, liberalisation, privatisation", focusing immediately on "SEZs (Special Economic Zones) and displacement", and on marshalling support from "small industries and traders" who have been "pushed... to bankruptcy" by the "massive imperialist/TNC (trans-national company)/CBB (comprador-bureaucrat-bourgeoisie) offensives".

In effect, the Maoists propose to exploit each existing and potential pool of grievances, every Indian faultline, in order to engineer a gradual consolidation across the country. "Front" and "cover" organisations are already widely active to organise opinion and disruptive protests on these issues; the worst of these have been witnessed in West Bengal in recent months. It is useful to note in passing that the resolutions of the ninth congress are only a crystallisation of what has long been planned by the Maoists.

There is a measure of bewilderment among many in the international community regarding the apparently "inexplicable" resurgence of the demonstrably "failed ideology" of Maoism, which has evidently been disgraced and rejected even in the land of its birth. Such a perspective rests largely on an extraordinary unfamiliarity with the prevailing ground realities in this region, and an image of India that is overwhelmingly shaped by high rates of national growth, the country's performance in a handful of sectors, and the steady augmentation of Indian billionaires. What is left out of this picture is the enormous - and on some assessments, growing - neglect of the rural hinterland and the progressive marginalisation of rural populations (over 742 million people in 2001, and growing), where the Maoists find most of their recruits and sympathisers.

Delhi's retreat

Maoist violence, moreover, does not necessarily reflect the extraordinary strength and appeal of this movement, but rather exposes the weakness and vulnerabilities of the Indian state. Compounding high, and in some areas rising, levels of mass distress, is the near-complete absence of the state and its administrative and security agencies. This is certainly the case in the "tribal" areas - including the worst-affected districts in Chhattisgarh - which have, as a matter of deliberate, well-intentioned, but essentially misguided policy, been kept out of the sphere of normal administration in order to "protect" the "unique cultures and lifestyles" of the tribal people, for six decades (and, indeed, much longer, under British administration). This is also the case in wide rural areas where governance has been degraded to the point of irrelevance, or has been intimidated into a withdrawal by Maoist violence.

The multiple deficiencies in state capacities are manifest in basic data relating to policing, particularly in the areas worst afflicted by Maoist depredations. The police-population ratio in India stands at a dismal 122 per 100,000, just over half of the United Nations-recommended ratio of 222 per 100,000 (1:450), and between a half and a third of various major European countries. Moreover, the Maoist-affected states are uniformly worse off: Bihar stands at fifty-seven per 100,000; Jharkhand, eighty-five; Orissa, ninety; Andhra Pradesh, ninety-eight; and Chhattisgarh, 103. These figures reflect sanctioned strength, and actual availability in most states is well below this figure. Further, the police-area ratio is also abysmal. The Indian average stands at an inadequate 42.4 policemen per 100 square kilometres; Chhattisgarh has just 17.3. Deficiencies in arms, equipment, transport, communications, protection and infrastructure are also endemic.

It is only recently that the Indian political and security establishment has begun to acknowledge the seriousness of the Maoist threat - and there is still an insufficient consensus in assessments across states. Even with the best of efforts, it will be years before the cumulative deficiencies of the existing security establishment are neutralised and an adequate mechanism of response is consolidated. Until then, there is little to prevent the continuing Maoist expansion and excesses.

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