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#2926, 31 July 2009
Maoist Violence and its Limitations
Devyani Srivastava
Research Officer, IPCS
e-mail: devyani@ipcs.org

Since the formation of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in September 2004, the armed activities of the Maoists have gained unprecedented lethality and frequency across India. The virtual absence of the Indian state in some areas and excessive corruption in mostly tribal and forested areas coupled with a systematic implementation of guerilla warfare tactics has enabled the Maoists to consolidate their military strategy and perpetrate a rein of terror. Despite their military advances, however, the social and political expansion of the Maoists remains restricted. Even in the most conducive environment marked by oppression and acute backwardness, such as in Lalgarh in West Bengal and Kandhamal in Orissa, evidence from the ground suggests that the support for the Maoists brand of politics is at best limited. Why has this been the case?

The impact of the nihilist violence associated with the Maoist ideology upon its transformative and liberating capacity has attracted many intellectual writings, with Hannah Arendt’s work being among the most prominent. Writing in On Violence, Arendt critiques the effectiveness of violence in the phenomenon of revolution by questioning the political equation of power with violence - for instance, Mao’s declaration that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” According to Arendt, violence and power are at opposite ends, with one occurring where the other cannot.  Power stems from the support and consent of the people while violence, relying on instruments up to a point, can manage without the numbers. The resort to violence therefore, is actually the symptom of a crisis of power. Moreover, being instrumental by nature, violence can never create power as the obedience it exacts is never long-lasting. This distinction is particularly critical to understanding the limitations of violence in a revolution, for violence does not imply power, and without power, a revolution is not possible. Truly popular uprisings, therefore, do not require armed combat but only a shift in the loyalties of state structures (police, bureaucracy) against the state which can render the superiority of state-owned means of violence (used to suppress revolutions) useless.

Drawing upon Arendt’s argument, recent Maoist operations in Lalgarh and Kandhamal assume significance not so much for revealing a spread of the Maoists but for reflecting the limited transformative capacity of their revolution.

In Lalgarh, the initial phase of protests led by the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) did not see any major Maoist attack in terms of landmine blasts and ambushes despite an endorsement of the tribals’ struggle by the rebels. Reports from the ground explained that the central Maoist leadership was at odds with local Maoist cadres over the extent of armed activity - while the former supported intense action, local workers advised against it for fear of alienating the people. This is why later on when the Maoists unleashed a wave of terror against Marxist leaders inviting in turn the wrath of the state, explicit support for the Maoists is believed to have waned. Further weakening their base was the inability of the Maoists and the PCPA to run a viable parallel administration as had been promised to the people. Following a period of instant success through several projects including building roads, water reservoirs, and providing medical teams, the Maoists soon began to use their trademark coercive tactics against the people, forcing them to pay levies that further alienated the people.   

The violent attacks perpetrated by the Maoists against Hindutva fundamentalists in Kandhamal last year is another case in point. Their involvement was precipitated on the grounds of protecting the Christian community - mainly Panos Dalits - that had been subject to the oppression and pressure of the Sangh Parivar to ‘re-convert’ to Hinduism. However, given the tense relations between the Panos and the Kandhas (the dominant Adivasi community) and the Sangh’s Hindutva propaganda in the district, the assassination of Swami Lakshmananda in August by the Maoists worsened, instead of alleviating, the condition of the Christians. At least 43 Christians were killed and close to 13,000 displaced in the riots that ensued. Maoist involvement in the issue has placed the Christian community at the mercy of the Hindutva miscreants who continue to intimidate them while the Maoist cadres have escaped into hiding.

Both these cases are instructive in pointing out the ineffectiveness of the Maoist brand of politics. In both instances, while genuine grouses against years of oppression by the dominant political forces (Marxist and Hindutva) had created support for the Maoists, the latter’s excessive reliance on violence proved to be the dividing line between the target community (that became the victim of worse atrocities following Maoist intervention) and the rebels. The Maoist military advance, therefore, does not have the potential to translate into an armed uprising. While Maoists intellectuals may well argue that this stage is only a catalyst in paving the way for an armed uprising, and that time is on their side, the fact is that unless the rebels start providing social services, their brand of violence will only alienate the masses further.

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