The Naxalite Rebellion: Social Inequality and Violence in India
While it is seldom mentioned in the Western media, the Naxalite rebellion in India represents a significant threat to the establishment in its effectiveness and its level of popular support. According to some reports, the Naxals control up to one-third of India’s territory at any given time, and in some places they have established alternate governments. The Naxals, an alliance of various parties across India representing the country’s poorest and most exploited people, have taken up arms against India’s government in what they say is a struggle against widespread poverty and oppression perpetuated by the policies of the ruling class and the theft of land and resources by Indian and multinational corporations. Both in India and in the West, the establishment views the Naxals as violent extremists who must be eliminated. The fact that the Naxals are retaliating against severe poverty, oppression, and exploitation is agreed upon by all sides― however, the legitimacy of the Naxalite struggle remains a topic of debate. While the conflict is undoubtedly bloody, establishment voices continue to advocate violent suppression of the insurgency even as its popularity grows. The response of the Indian ruling class so far has been to ignore the obvious economic solutions and instead focus on a counterinsurgency campaign using police and paramilitary units to suppress the rebellion, despite the criticisms of numerous human rights activists. This kind of response is certain to prolong the violence. Until extreme poverty and social inequality are eliminated, social tensions will exist and violence will occur, both in India and elsewhere.
According to a study published in 2010 by researchers at Oxford University, India contains more impoverished people than all of sub-Saharan Africa, with over 421 million living in deep poverty in eight of India’s 28 states― the highest concentration of severe poverty in the world (Nadkami, Dube). The study used a “multidimensional poverty index” (MPI) created by experts at Oxford to conduct a more in-depth examination of global poverty which does not focus solely on monetary conditions. The MPI concentrates on ten main factors in poverty, including access to nutrition, education, electricity, and sanitation. The Oxford study found that the severity of poverty in some parts of India exceeds that of Africa, and that the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh contains a level of poverty close to that of the war-torn Democratic People’s Republic of the Congo, a country with a similar number of people. The study also found that about 1.7 billion people worldwide, or approximately one-third of the world’s population, live in “multidimensional” poverty― 400 million more than World Bank has estimated to be in “extreme” poverty using its analysis based on household income (Burke 1-2). Considering India’s severe poverty conditions, it is not surprising that an armed movement such as the Naxals has arisen in the country, as armed struggle is easily perceived as a means of survival by people who lack access to the basic necessities of life.
India, the world’s second most populous country, has seen much economic growth in recent decades due to industrial development projects. The country has accepted billions of dollars in IMF loans over the past decades and has established policies highly favorable to multinational corporations (“India in Talks…”). Most of the upper- and middle-class in India support the neo-liberal economic reforms the country has adopted which have spurred growth; however, this economic growth has been highly uneven and its benefits have not been shared by India’s lower classes who find themselves marginalized in the face of increasing industrial development and demand for resources. Poverty has increased in India despite economic growth. According to Siddharth Dube in the Montreal Gazette:
“India’s reality is that 80 per cent of the poor live in rural areas, where they are typically bereft of assets (particularly agricultural land), illiterate, malnourished and sick. And only scarcely less than in colonial India, they are deeply oppressed by the landed. The lowest castes remain the most impoverished; brutal violence and ritual discrimination are ubiquitous; and democracy is a fiction at the village level in all the major states except Kerala and West Bengal, where leftist governments have undertaken substantive agrarian reform.
These myriad disabilities bar the poor from participating in economic growth. They also ensure that the poor barely share in the gains of growth: little or nothing trickles down to them, too often not even higher wages for their labour. Moreover, these disabilities prevent them from translating universal suffrage and their massive numbers into political power. The record of the past half-century has proved all this beyond doubt.”
With corporate abuse and theft of tribal land a regular phenomenon in India, many of its dispossessed peoples look for alternative ways of exerting political influence as they neither consider the Indian government to be representative of their interests nor perceive a democratic process for obtaining such representation under the current establishment. The oppression suffered by India’s poor plays a fundamental role in shaping their view of society and politics― the ongoing structural violence they endure is not without consequence, as it conditions them into a bleak worldview based on a never-ending struggle for survival in which violence dominates every aspect of their lives. As people find themselves in desperate circumstances created by oppressive state and corporate policies, they can be expected to do what is necessary to defend themselves and their families― the Naxals enjoy the support that they do because they offer what many of India’s poor consider to be a feasible solution to the perceived lack of democratic representation and the loss of their land, resources, and livelihood to corporations.
The Naxals’ use of violence is a mere reflection of the routine violence experienced by India’s lower classes from ongoing economic exploitation.
The Naxals take their name from a village in West Bengal (located in eastern India) called Naxalbari where the movement began as an armed rebellion against India’s government in 1967 inspired by Mao Zedong’s communist ideology calling for armed peasant revolt against the upper classes and an egalitarian redistribution of land and wealth toward the ultimate goal of a classless society. The movement spread across India’s central and eastern regions over the next three decades as it gained support from leftist intellectuals. The areas affected by the Naxalite rebellion include India’s poorest and most highly populous states― the “Red Corridor” where Maoism has quickly become popular. Naxalite ideology has taken hold among various classes of economically disposessed people in India, aligning them against the middle and upper classes in a struggle to overthrow the Indian government and establish state power (Nadkami). Among the poorest and most oppressed of the people whose interests the Naxals claim to represent are the Adivasis (tribal people) and Dalits (untouchables), groups which have endured severe exploitation by the upper classes (Buncombe 2). The Maoist-led insurgents use guerrilla warfare tactics, routinely attacking police with machine guns, landmines, and improvised explosives (Singh, “Indian…”). As the Naxalite movement has gained support, their attacks on Indian state forces have grown in intensity, with reports of increasingly more advanced weaponry being used by the insurgents (Chopra). Besides attacking police, the Naxals have targeted mining operations, industrial plants, government buildings, and cell phone towers, destroying equipment and attacking personel in the process. They have also called for regional general strikes against industry (Nadkami). India’s dense jungles combined with its extreme poverty create conditions favorable to a guerrilla insurgency, allowing the rebels to establish hidden jungle bases while receiving support from surrounding areas including villages and urban slums.
The Naxals have undertaken a strategy of supporting various national liberation struggles across India, in an effort to gain supporters and build a broad front against the ruling class. A resolution entitled “Nationality Struggles of India” passed in 2007 by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) cites an alliance between the ruling class of India and Western imperialism, stating self-determination as a primary goal of the armed struggles:
“Kashmiris and different nationalities of Northeast India, such as the Assamese, Nagas, Manipuris, Tripuris etc. have been waging armed struggle against the Indian government for their right to self-determination, including the right to secede from the so-called Union of India…
…The Indian ruling class and their imperialist masters, particularly US imperialism, have been suppressing these struggles mercilessly. They are being crushed under the boots of the Indian Army stationed in various states of the Northeast and in Kashmir. In Kashmir alone, the Indian military and paramilitary forces have murdered over 70,000 people in the last 16 years. (qtd. in Singh, “Naxalites…”).”
Besides stating that “all possible support” would be given to the national liberation struggles, the resolution also condemns the Indian ruling class for attempting to split the alliance by coopting the leadership of various organizations, although it claims the attempts have failed so far. The large number of groups engaged in armed conflict with the Indian government reflects a strong and widespread backlash against the establishment which cannot be attributed to a minor issue― a massive social, economic, and political imbalance exists in India which is reflective of overall global conditions of wealth disparity and vastly unequal power relations.
The Indian government is well aware of the socio-economic reasons for the Naxalite rebellion, although it has stuck with a counterinsurgency strategy that has led to an intensification of the violence. The reality of India’s social conditions is summed up in the words of Bahukutumbi Raman, a former head of the counter-terrorism wing of India’s external intelligence agency:
“There are two Indias. The dazzling India which we see every day on our TV channels, in the spins of our political leaders and in the writings of our so-called strategic analysts. But there is another India which we rarely see or write about. This is the India of grinding poverty, a victim of social exploitation of the worst kind, where the inhabitants – mainly tribals – are treated like chattels and domestic animals by the upper caste political leaders, landlords and forest contractors… It is this India coming out from under the carpet, which is flocking to the banners of the Maoist ideologue”s (qtd. in Buncombe 2).
According to the former Home Secretary of India’s federal government, V.K. Duggal, “Naxal groups have been raising mainly land and livelihood related issues. If land reforms are taken upon priority [sic] and the landless and poor in the Naxal areas are allotted surplus land, this would go a long way in tackling the developmental aspects of the Naxal problem” (“Indian Official…”). These and other statements by Indian government officials reflect a broad understanding of the true situation faced by the country’s poor― an understanding which cannot be dismissed as mere rhetoric.
Despite such acknowledgements of the social, economic, and political factors in the insurgency, the Indian government continues to engage in paramilitary and policing operations against the Naxals, often committing brutal or illegal acts in the process. Torture is commonly used in interrogations of suspected Naxals, who often do not survive police detainment (Nolen). Police have illegally confiscated pro-Naxal literature from people and arrested sympathetic writers and activists in a campaign of force to disrupt the movement (“Naxal Arrests…”). As the Naxals have made an effort in urban centers to recruit personnel, the Indian government has begun cross-agency operations to counter the threat including intelligence-sharing and providing specialized training to police (Bose). Some police forces in India have received improved equipment and more advanced technology to fight the Naxals (“More Machines…”) As the Naxalite movement has spread, the Indian government has increasingly relied on the use of paramilitary force in its attempts to put down the rebellion, although the overall effectiveness of its actions in reducing Naxalite activity remains in doubt (“India: Maoists…”).
The repressive tactics of Indian security forces are likely to increase popular support for the Naxals. Besides confiscating Naxalite and other Marxist-Leninist literature which is not banned under Indian law, the police also routinely make lists of anyone attending pro-Naxal meetings or demonstrations, often arresting ideological supporters of Naxalism without legal basis. According to The Statesman in 2005: “Pro-Naxal organisations and leaders feel that the recent arrests of alleged Naxalites and seizure of alleged Naxal literature by police would hamper the planned peace process between the rebels and the state government” (“Naxal Arrests…”). Indeed, the deadliest attack yet occurred in early April 2010, in which Naxalite guerrillas killed at least 76 police and wounded another fifty. (Buncombe 1). Despite the Indian government’s forceful response to the insurgency, Naxals continue to gain popular support from India’s poorest areas and have begun using heavy weapons such as rocket launchers, which they used for the first time in 2009 against a Border Security Force camp in Bihar, catching security forces by surprise (“India: Maoists…”). Some Naxalite recuitment is a consequence of Indian military operations which injure or kill innocent villagers (Buncombe 2). Given the severe and widespread poverty in India, the longstanding mistreatment of the lower classes by the upper classes, and the current level of popular support enjoyed by the Naxals, it is extremely unlikely that any attempts by the Indian government to clamp down on the rebellion by force will produce any significant long-term results in eliminating the insurgency. More state repression will only produce more popular dissatisfaction with the government, fueling the insurgency which relies heavily on a sense of perceived injustice among the poor.
In an effort to undermine Naxalite recruitment, the Indian government has taken some steps to ease economic and social pressure on the poor in certain areas strongly influenced by the rebels. For the most part, however, these steps have not been adequate to seriously hinder the growth of the movement. The Indian government has made only minor, insignificant agrarian reforms in support of the poor, but at the same time it has opened the country to large multinational corporations such as Monsanto which are taking over India’s agricultural sector with patented, genetically-engineered crops (“Terminator Technology…”). In some places, the Indian government has enlisted the help of locals in fighting the Naxals, boasting job creation as a positive characteristic of its counterinsurgency program. According to one high-ranking Indian official, “With a view to wean away youth from the path of violence by providing them gainful employment, the government has earmarked a certain quota of vacancies in central police forces to be filled from Naxal-affected states” (qtd. in Kumar). Ironically enough, in attempting to “wean away youth from the path of violence” by employing them as police, the Indian government has adopted a policy which is certain to inflame the conflict and increase the level of violence. Its ongoing rejection of diplomacy and land reform as a means to bring an end to the violence reflects the unwillingness of India’s ruling class to seek a true, equitable solution to the conflict.
Because of the terrible conditions faced by India’s poor, several human rights activists have stated their sympathies with the Naxals’ cause, condemning the establishment for its prolongued mistreatment of the lower classes. Among these activists is Arundhati Roy, the prize-winning author, who said of the Naxals: “If I was a person who is being dispossessed, whose wife has been raped, who is being pushed off their land and who is being faced with this police force, I would say that I am justified in taking up arms, if that is the only way I have to defend myself” (qtd. in Buncombe 3). Another activist, Gautam Navlakha, said of the Indian government’s ban on Naxalite political organizing: “You proscribe them [Naxals], you banned them from political activities, you don’t allow them to organise and mobilise people because of fears of them gaining popular support and then you ask why don’t they take a democratic course? What democratic means have you left for them?” (qtd. in “FTN: Activists…” 3). The Indian government has made examples of some activists who have spoken out against official policy. Dr. Binayak Sen, a widely known and respected pediatrician and civil rights activist, has long been an outspoken critic of the Indian government, especially regarding its policy of forced land seizures. In 2007, Dr. Sen was detained for two years and, to the shock of many, sentenced to life in prison in 2010 on charges of sedition and conspiracy, a move which sparked street protests across India. While the Indian government claims he was secretly providing material support to the Naxals, Dr. Sen and others consider the prison sentence to be a response to his vocal ideological opposition to state policy and economic injustice, arguing that phony evidence and contrived testimony were used in his trial (Wax, 1-2). Despite such harsh measures by the establishment, the Naxalite insurgency continues to grow, thus validating claims by human rights activists that more state repression only serves to inflame the rebellion and that land reform and other necessary changes must occur for hostilities to cease.
An abundance of scientific evidence exists that social and economic inequality are primary factors in violence. Two public health researchers, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, have authored a book “The Spirit Level,” published in 2009, which contains information compiled from approximately 200 sets of data showing a strong correlation between economic inequality and degradation in societal health. Wilkinson, who has thirty years of experience researching the effects of social inequality, has written several books on the subject. In “The Spirit Level,” Wilkinson and Pickett observe that wealthy societies which favor growth over equality tend to suffer from higher levels of unhappiness, shorter lifespans, and increased rates of violence, teenage pregnancy, obesity, addiction, and imprisonment. According to the researchers, social inequality manifests itself often as mental illness since it breeds alienation, isolation, anxiety, and consumerism. Wilkinson and Pickett claim that approximately one-quarter of the populations of Britain and the U.S. suffer from mental illness at any given time due to the strong institutionalization of social and economic inequality in the two countries. The researchers point out that the ill effects of social inequality are widespread across society, affecting both rich and poor, and that these effects can be seen across the world in various countries (Hanley 1-2). Because humans are social creatures, social inequality is reflected in the human psyche of all people as a feeling of incompleteness often accompanied by the urges to dominate or consume. These destructive tendencies exacerbate existing social inequalities and destroy human relationships, forming a cycle of increasing social tension and violence (as well as environmental devastation). Wilkinson and Pickett draw the obvious conclusion from their research that societal health and individual health are integrally linked, and that social equality is a requirement for each.
A study conducted by African and British researchers and published in 2006 compared various inequalities in the countries of Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Nigeria in Africa; Indonesia and Malaysia in southeast Asia; and Peru, Guatemala, and Bolivia in Latin America. The study found that ethnic and religious violence in these regions was primarily due to “horizontal inequalities in the area of land, income, capital, education, health services, political power, and cultural recognition” (“Ghana; Researchers…”). One interesting aspect of this study is its observation that economic and political inequality are less likely to lead to large-scale violent conflicts if they do not exist simultaneously. The coexistence of severe economic and political inequality is deadly, and like several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, conditions in India are undoubtedly ripe for social unrest as the poor find themselves both economically and politically disenfranchised.
John Foran, a professor of sociology at the University of California, has noted five key factors in several Third World revolutions: an economy dependent on outside forces; a repressive state serving exclusive interests; a culture of resistance; a falling economy; and a shift in global conditions favorable to social change (Foran 87). Considering the influence and investment of multinational corporations in India, the lack of democratic representation of the poor, the repressive tactics of India’s state forces, the increasing poverty in certain areas despite overall economic growth, and the country’s historical resistance to colonial domination, the Naxalite rebellion in India fits Foran’s model in several regards. The uprising, then, should be considered a predictable consequence to existing conditions rather than an anomalous occurrence. The underlying factors in India’s social unrest― all of which relate to inequality― can and should be adressed to prevent an unnecessary continuation of violence.
There is no shortage of voices condemning the Naxals for their use of violence. However, human rights activists tend to criticize the Naxals’ methods rather than the legitimacy of their struggle. Those siding with the establishment often overlook not only the violence carried out by Indian paramilitary forces in dealing with the insurgency, but also the structural economic violence suffered by India’s poor as a result of the collusion between the government and multinational corporations. The Naxals, as violent and barbaric as one might consider them to be, enjoy such a high level of support among India’s poor that they must be taken seriously. Besides constituting a physical threat, the Naxals represent a strong ideological threat to India’s establishment due to their willingness to address key political and economic issues which affect the poor― specifically, issues of self-determination. The horrible conditions suffered by India’s poor are the breeding ground of armed revolution, as it becomes the only perceived method of exercising self-determination. In India, it is acknowledged by government officials, human rights activists, and Naxals alike that the rebels are motivated out of resistance to severe oppression and exploitation. India’s government, however, continues to rely on forceful means of suppressing the insurgency, rather than undertaking the necessary land reforms and other vital steps to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Given the nature of social forces, it is unlikely that India’s ruling elites will ever willingly make such changes― a notion which the Naxals take to heart in waging armed struggle. India’s poor are undeniably the victims of a class war, and it is to be expected that they should fight back. Whether or not one supports the Naxals’ cause, an ever-increasing amount of scientific research suggests that the social tensions created by severe inequality lead to violence. As long as significant social, political, and economic inequalities exist within a society, a state of violence will exist irrespective of anyone’s moral or political sensibilities. As individuals, we can strive for the equalization of social relations, or we can ignore the ill effects of social inequality and hope for the best. If there is one, universal message to be understood from the words of sociologists, human rights activists, Naxalite guerrilla fighters, and Indian government officials themselves, it is: “Share, or suffer.”
-Peter Brown - revnewscolorado.wordpress.com
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