Chairman Mao has a bad rep. And let’s be fair, some less-than-good things happened on his watch. Things like, you know, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution that killed tens of millions of people and desecrated invaluable cultural relics.
Still, he wasn’t all bad. Or even if he was, he did some pretty substantial things: he was instrumental in winning the Chinese civil war, founding the rurally focused branch of Marxist-Leninism that bore his name and writing some influential treatises on guerrilla warfare.
And those treatises/ideas on guerrilla warfare endure to this day. After the Cold War, you might have thought that Maoist- or other Marxist-inspired insurgencies disappeared in a puff of red smoke. Not so! Sure, some leftist insurgent movements have suffered greatly, particularly in Latin America as democratisation and concerted counter-insurgent campaigns have weakened both the motivation for and the ability to wage violent revolutions (we’re looking at you Sendero Luminoso and FARC, now both drug-carrying shadows of your former selves).
But elsewhere revolutionary insurgents have flourished. And nowhere is this more true than in South Asia. Ah, South Asia! Land of curries, cricket fanaticism, amazing mountains and Maoist insurgencies. How the DLR loves you!
Given its often rural economies and populations, South Asia is rife for Mao’s rural-focused revolutionary theories. And so it has proven: it is here that the Nepalese Maoists led a hugely successful campaign that eventually led to the de facto revolution that ousted bonkers King Gyanendra.
And just over the border, the Indian Maoists have become the cause celebre of the revolutionary insurgent world. Since 2004, when two geographically focused Maoist movements banded together to form the Communist Party of India-Maoist, the CPI-M has been a force with which to be reckoned (yes, that’s right, our campaign against sentences ending with prepositions even extends to creating ugly constructions just for pedantry’s sake). After nearly 40 years of the Naxalite campaign, a catch-all term for a variety of communit insurgencies that are so called because the movement began with an uprising in the town of Naxalbari in West Bengal, the CPI-M have emerged as a genuine threat to state governance in large areas of eastern India.
The eagle-eyed and well-read among you may notice the similarity between the CPI-M’s adopted moniker and that of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M), the banner under which the Nepalese Maoists waged their military and then political campaign until 2009. But there’s no proven link between the two. They remain ideologically similar, and the CPI-M may well have been inspired by the success of the CPN-M, but it would be politically risky for the Nepalese Maoists to transport guns or materiel to their Indian counterparts.
Still, the Indian Maoists have been doing quite well on their own. After a few years of largely uninterrupted growth in their activities, the state and federal governments finally got round to coordinating a response in the last couple of years. This has led to a few setbacks for the Maoists, but the cack-handed operations by paramilitaries in India and enduring poverty means that the motivations for the insurgency are as strong as ever.
Now, they have gained international renown through the kidnap of two Italian tourists in Odisha in March (yes, that’s Odisha nowadays, BBC. It’s been six months since they changed the name. Keep up!). The Italians were released, but two more kidnappings, of a state parliamentary member and a local civil servant, Alex Menonm in March and April have kept up the pressure. Kidnapping is not new to either the Nepalese or India Maoist campaigns. The tactic was first used in the 1980s in India and has continued sporadically since then, while local officials were regularly kidnapped by the Nepalese (although tourists were avoided to prevent international sanction).
These kidnap victims were all released, but the trend continues: just yesterday two people were kidnapped, including the local leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP party , in Chhattisgarh in the same district as Alex Menon. the kidnappings are proving particularly effective ways for the Maoists to force the governments into submission, with their demands often being met in full. It is also a way to win favour among high-profile victims: by treating the local politician well and subsequently releasing him, he has claimed he will agitate for Maoist policies focusing on improving conditions for tribal members.
The CPI-M, then, are here to stay. They’ve proven themselves a capable organisation, they are slowly building up their military capabilities, and even though still poorly trained, badly armed and suffering from a series of operations to remove their leadership, they are growing their numbers. They’re not going to be marching on Delhi, but they will be a constant reminder of the lack of governance in large areas of India’s impoverished east.