“The road to world revolution”, Lenin supposedly predicted, lay through “Peking, Shanghai and Calcutta”. Like so many of his other predictions, this too proved wrong. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, however, it looked as if Calcutta was living up to that promise. The city walls were plastered with Mao Zedong (毛澤東) graffiti, proclaiming, “China’s chairman is our chairman”. Maoists, it seemed, were staging the final rehearsal for the communist revolution in India.
The party that was to bring about the revolution called itself the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). But it claimed to be the first and the only Maoist party in the country. It was born of a split in the Communist Party of India (Marxist), one of the two largest leftist parties in India. An armed peasant uprising in a place called Naxalbari in the eastern Indian province of West Bengal in 1967 heralded the birth not only of the CPI(ML) but also of “Maoist” politics in India.
Of Charu Mazumdar, the founder of the party, one of its former central committee members, Suniti Kumar Ghosh, later wrote in his memoir, “Charu had Mao Zedong’s name always on his lips, but his policies were at complete variance with Mao’s teachings”. He also revealed that Mazumdar had suppressed from his partymen the fact that his line was strongly criticised by Chinese leaders such as Zhou Enlai ( 周恩來 ) and Kang Sheng, whom a party emissary met in Beijing in 1970.
The CPI(ML) called all other Indian communist parties “revisionists” for taking part in electoral politics. The Maoists, or Naxalites, as they were often called after the name of the place where they led the first armed uprising by peasants, rejected parliamentary politics. To them, a protracted armed struggle was the only way to liberate the Indian state from the bourgeoisie.
Mazumdar predicted his revolution would come by 1975, but was caught and died in police custody in 1972, the year in which Mao shook the world and shocked Indian comrades with his historic handshake with US president Richard Nixon.
The CPI(ML) – and most other Maoist parties – sprouted in India after it split many times over leadership tussles, factional squabbles and ideological hair-splitting, leading to an alphabet soup of revolutionary forces. A resurgence of sorts came in the late 1990s, thanks largely to the Maoist insurrection in neighbouring Nepal in 1996. Two of the bigger such parties – the CPI(ML) People’s War and the Maoist Communist Centre India (MCCI) – merged in September 2004 to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
The CPI(Maoist) is very different from the Naxalite parties of the earlier decades. While the older parties had mostly urban centres of activity with its appeal among middle-class Indians and even sections of intellectuals, the CPI(Maoist) is an outlawed party that has been engaged in guerrilla warfare against Indian security forces, police and “bourgeois” politicians. Its “people’s militia” is reportedly 38,000-strong. And, the Maoists’ “base areas” and core support groups are mostly in forested outbacks where tribal people, the poorest of the poor in India, live away from the reach of the government and its laws.
Even before the CPI(Maoist) surfaced as a party, groups such as the CPI(ML) People’s War and MCCI struck terror in state after state in India. In 2001, the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, called the Maoist threat “the single biggest internal security challenge” for the Indian government. That was also the year a number of such parties across South Asia formed the “Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations in South Asia”. In 2013, the government said Maoists were present in a third of India’s 600-odd districts, many of which they controlled.
Maoism is alive and kicking in two countries in South Asia, in two very different forms.
But it’s the Maoist party in Nepal that has been the most successful in the region. Having launched their insurrection in 1996, Nepal’s Maoists have traversed long and diverse paths. Their battles in the forests and mountains of Nepal have claimed over 13,000 lives, led to thousand more cases of “disappearances” and shattered the tiny Himalayan nation’s traditional social and political systems.
The monarchy was gone in 2008. The world’s only Hindu state until then is now a secular republic. The Maoists contested the elections, joined and led governments. The party’s chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who is better known as “Prachanda” (the Fiery One), is currently serving his second stint as prime minister. Once it ended its armed insurrection, signed a peace accord and joined parliamentary politics, the US State Department removed it from its list of “terrorist” organisations.
But Dahal’s Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is only one among many Maoist parties in the country. As in India, communist and Maoist parties in Nepal join each other and split at regular intervals. In May this year, several of them merged with the UCPN(Maoist) to form yet another new party, Nepal Communist Party (Maoist-Centre) with Dahal as chairman.
The world revolution envisaged by Lenin may not have come to pass, but in Nepal and India the Maoists are marching on, even if it is down different paths.
Ashis Chakrabarti is a senior editor at The Telegraph in Calcutta