When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared in April 2006 that “Naxalism was [India’s] single biggest internal security challenge,” he was formalizing and giving shape to a brutal counterinsurgency against the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Thirteen years later, the Indian state seems confident that it is succeeding. In April 2018, the Home Ministry reduced the number of districts affected by what they term “left-wing extremism” from over 200 at its late 2000s peak to 96.1
With much of its top leadership killed or arrested the Maoists, too, have indicated that they are on the back-foot at the moment.2
The recent change in leadership of the party, from the supposedly more ideologically inclined Ganapathy to the military minded Basavraju, also seems to point to the urgency of the military defense of their bases.3
We are, perhaps, seeing the end of the third, and most powerful, wave of Maoist recombination since 1967. In order to understand what is at stake for the Indian left, it is crucial to grasp what should be made of the CPI (Maoist) and the thread of revolutionary politics they have represented on the Indian left.
In their broad self-representation and common understanding, the CPI (Maoist) is the most organized and systematic mass force that has stood for three distinctive principles within the history of the Indian left. First, a consistent espousal (in theory and practice) of a revolutionary overthrow of the current ruling class and state. Since its inception in 2004 CPI (Maoist) has, with much justification, claimed that the mainstream left — the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (henceforth CPI and CPM) — has given up on any real commitment to a revolutionary transformation of Indian society. Indeed, this critique of the CPI and CPM has been one of the defining features of the traditions of the Maoists since their break with the CPM in the late 1960s. Second, the identification of the location of that revolution as beginning in India’s vast and impoverished countryside, in particular, among peasants. In doing so, the Naxalites outlined a distinctive focus of left-wing organizing. While their theoretical documents still claim that the revolution would be led by the urban proletariat, the progress of the revolution would be through the countryside surrounding cities. Revolutionary practice, therefore, ought to prioritize building a strong base in the rural hinterlands of India. Finally, the preeminence of armed force as a strategy to achieve the revolutionary transformation. The issue of employing violence has a long history within Indian communism, stretching back to the 1920s and perhaps earlier. From 1967 onwards, however, whether in the form of “annihilating class enemies,” or as a “protracted people’s war,” the Maoists have directed time and effort to acquiring and protecting their military capabilities. Any assessment of what is at stake in the forests of Central India, where the CPI (Maoist) is currently taking its stand, must grapple with each of these three elements.