After 37 years of bloodshed, peace is on the agenda

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 July, 2004, 12:00am

Ageing revolutionaries are finally coming in from the cold

With their hearts full of romantic Che Guevara-like images and their heads ruled by the tenets of Maoist theory, a crop of idealistic young men and women left their comfortable middle-class existence in Calcutta to head a peasant revolt in southern India.

Now, 37 years later, and after much bloodshed, there are signs the ageing revolutionaries who banded together to form the People's War Group (PWG) may finally be coming in from the cold.

Andhra Pradesh state last week said it would lift a ban on the group, a precondition demanded by the Maoists before they would engage in peace talks.

If they materialise, the talks would mark the first time that any of the many Maoist groups active across central India and in parts of the south have agreed to lay down their arms.

Andhra Pradesh Home Minister Jana Reddy said the PWG could function like any political body.

This transition to a normal existence is a milestone in the history of the Indian Naxalite movement, so called because it originated in the eastern town of Naxalbari where a peasant uprising was suppressed in 1967. The bloodshed led to the young idealists from Calcutta moving to the dirt and hunger of the villages.

For years, a bloody struggle has been under way between these groups and the state.

If upper-caste landlords hacked landless labourers to death for demanding a fair wage, armed Maoist groups would retaliate by burning houses as landlords and their families slept inside.

When the police intervened, officers would be shot. Then the police would take their revenge by attacking Naxalites.

In the past four years, 187 people, including 67 politicians, have been killed by the PWG in Andhra Pradesh.

The PWG draws its inspiration from Mao Zedong's theory of organised peasant insurrection. It believes in capturing political power through an armed struggle based on guerilla warfare.

This strategy entails building up bases in rural and remote areas and transforming them first into guerilla zones and then as liberated zones. The eventual objective is to install a people's government through a 'people's war'.

Of late, though, disillusionment has set in among rural dwellers, partly because they are invariably caught in the middle during armed clashes and partly because the old revolutionary ideals seem to have been corrupted.

Their ostensible liberators seem just as cruel as their traditional oppressors. In one incident, a group of women in Andhra Pradesh banned the entry of Naxalites into their village.

A PWG squad raided the village, thrashed the women and shot dead several village officials.