It was only later and, as many activists and scholars following the issue have argued, as a consequence of this peculiar unanimity between the two rival fronts on the question of the restoration of Adivasi land to their rightful owners, that the Adivasis began to organise themselves and agitate for their rights outside the channels provided by the two ‘mainstream’ political fronts. No wonder a plethora of platforms and organisations emerged to voice the demands of the Adivasis, each with a slightly different take on how exactly to go about doing it, but the common thread that ran through them all was the distance they kept from both the UDF and the LDF.
It was in this volatile political mix that the Maoists decided to intervene. In fact, the process seems to have started even before the merger of the CPI-ML (Naxalbari) with the CPI (Maoist). In 1996, a pro-Maoist organisation ‘Ayyankalipada’ (named after Ayyankali, a 19th-century Dalit reformer) stormed the Palakkad Collectorate and held the district collector hostage for almost nine hours. This event heralded the entry of Maoist ideology in Kerala’s Adivasi politics.
However, soon after, a new kind of movement emerged under the banner of the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha and managed to capture the imagination of a wide section of Adivasis. CK Janu was the best known leader of this movement, which hit national headlines when Adivasis under Janu laid siege to the Muthanga forests in Wayanad demanding the State to recognise their right to land. The protesters had to be forcibly evicted by a large number of security forces. Since then there have been several rounds of negotiations between representatives of the Adivasis and the state government.
In the midst of these developments, the radical leftists failed to garner much support among the Adivasis. Since successive governments have been unable to fulfill many of the promises made during the negotiations, the Maoists zeroed in on that as the key to stage their comeback in Kerala.
After the Maoists made their presence felt in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the police in all three states acted swiftly and raised special police forces such as Thunderbolt (Kerala), Anti-Naxal Force (Karnataka) and Special Task Force (Tamil Nadu). These special units were expected to ‘perform’ on the lines of the Greyhounds, which former Union home minister P Chidambaram, impressed by the anti-Maoist special force’s outstanding success in eliminating the bulk of the Maoist leadership in Andhra Pradesh, had once hailed as a model counterinsurgency force that should be replicated across all Maoist-affected states.
A Maoist Tag for Crushing Dissent
The arrests of Maoist leaders and sympathisers has once again brought back radical Left politics into conversations in Kerala. Many are openly coming out in support of the radical left while some romanticise the ideology. Even as opposition to Maoist ideology is not entirely absent in the civil society, most of the groups do not hesitate to target the State for violating the human rights of Maoist suspects.
Former Naxalite leader Venu tells Tehelka that after the merger of the CPI-ML (Naxalbari) with the CPI (Maoist), the unified party has been trying to make its presence felt in the state. Many former Naxalites, who were active until the 1990s, have now found another lease of political life as Maoists. Yet, Venu argues that the social and political conditions prevailing in Kerala and elsewhere have changed drastically from that of the late 1960s and ’70s, when the Naxalite movement had first erupted, and feels there is no chance for Maoist politics to thrive in these parts of the country.
According to Venu, besides the lack of conducive socio-political conditions, it is illogical to assume that a generation averse to physical labour would opt for the revolutionary path, which involves extreme physical work among other things. Once a firebrand Naxalite, Venu argues that it is an irony that the Maoists who don’t swear by the Indian Constitution, demand the rights that the Constitution guarantees. He recalls the heyday of the Naxalbari movement when they used to boycott the courts, refusing to even indirectly endorse what they denounced as the class-biased judiciary.
Talking of the present-day Maoists, Venu alleges that many of them infiltrate environmental and human rights organisations, making them more vulnerable to police action.
Not everyone agrees with Venu’s views, though. Take Professor TT Sreekumar, who teaches social sciences at a reputed institute in Ahmedabad. Sreekumar says Maoist activity in tribal areas is not a new phenomenon. All political parties make hay from the plight of the Adivasis and the Maoists are doing the same, he alleges. The State blames Maoist presence for forcing it to send in the security forces for operations in the tribal areas. The professor tells Tehelka this is a one-sided narrative that the State propagates to justify its plans for suppressing protests by the Adivasis.
Many civil society activists allege that to spread their ideology Maoist sympathisers infiltrate various peoples’ movements for land rights and environmental protection, which are led by organisations not belonging to any mainstream political party. Thusar Nirmal Sarthy, secretary of the Peoples Human Rights Movement, which many consider to be pro-Maoist, denies this charge. He says that many civil society organisations fail to acknowledge that the State has become increasingly militarised, which is reflected in means it deploys to scuttle dissent and resistance by the people. The trope of ‘Maoist presence’ comes in handy for cracking down on inconvenient voices and organisations with a contrarian view on development and governance.
MN Ravunny, veteran communist leader, who is secretary of ‘Porattam’ (Struggle), another organisation allegedly linked with the Maoists, claims that his organisation has never tried to infiltrate other civil society movements. Instead, he points out, it was the intervention by the radical Left in the 1990s that opened the doors of mainstream attention for issues concerning the Adivasis.
The Maoists have been trying to carry out their political activities in the state since the 1990s through various frontal organisations such as Adivasi Vimochana Munnani, Viplava Sthree Vadi Prasthanam and Ayyankalipada, but have so far been unable to influence the Kerala youth in the way the Naxalite movement had done in the 1970s and ’80s.
In Karnataka, though, the Maoists also tried to get foothold in the urban areas, in addition to focussing on the strategic Adivasi zones, the effort suffered a setback due to differences within the party leadership leading to a split and the arrest of some prominent leaders.
In his reply to a question raised in the Lok Sabha, the then minister of state for home affairs RPN Singh said in 2014 that there were 76 ‘Left-Wing Extremist’- affected districts in India. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, two districts from Karnataka (Chikmagalur and Dakshina Kannada) and two from Kerala (Kozhikode and Malapuram) are on that list. This shows that despite their claims to the contrary, the Maoists could not succeed in opening up a new war front in the Western Ghats.
Going by the reactions triggered by the arrests of the rebel leaders in the social media, it is quite clear that the Maoists have a sizable number of sympathisers, mostly from the ranks of those who are disillusioned with the ‘mainstream’ political parties. This growing sympathy notwithstanding, the unending — and apparently insurmountable — challenges faced by the Maoist party in implementing its strategy across the country indeed call for a rethink on the limits of Maoinspired guerrilla war in India.