Author : Niranjan Sahoo

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Sep 21, 2018
Checking urban Naxalism Late last month, the Maharashtra police arrested five prominent activists in connection with an  ongoing investigation related to the Bhima-Koregaon caste flare up in January this year. Earlier in June, the Maharashtra police had arrested five more activists claimed to have close contacts with Naxals and allegedly involved in organising a public meeting right before the Bhima-Koregaon caste riots broke out. In addition, the police then had presented a sensational letter implicating all five accused in hatching a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister of India. While the case is being heard by courts and the police investigation is still underway, the manner and method in which the police conducted the raids and arrested these well-known activists naming them as “urban Naxals” raises vital questions about the new labeling by the state and the soundness of current counter-insurgency strategy to target Naxals and their ideology. Who are the “urban Naxals” and how serious is their threat that is forcing the Indian state to take such desperate measures?

Urban Naxals: An old wine in new bottle?

Left-wing extremism (LWE) or Maoism, which took most regions of the world by storm in the 1950s, is today a spent force. In fact, it has nearly disappeared from the country of its origin i.e. China. Yet, its ideological appeal and Chairman Mao’s call for establishing the Proletariat State by "overthrowing semi-colonial bourgeoisie state" continues to attract followers and revolutionaries across many parts of the world. In India, while LWE has remained largely a rural phenomenon, yet since its appearance in the 1960s, the movement has been drawing great following and leadership from the urban areas, especially from highly educated dreamers and romantics. For instance, Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal, two original architects of Naxalbari revolt in 1967, were from affluent and non-rural background. While Charu Mazumdar came from an affluent Bengali peasant background and lived in the adjoining town called Siliguri, Kanu Sanyal was a high-caste Bengali refugee who spent most of his prime in city. Majority of the present leaders such as Ganapathy, Muppalla Laxman Rao, Kobad Ghandy, Anuradha Ghandy, Saketh Rajan, Sridhar Shriniwasan,  Ravi Sarma and B. Anuradha are also from cities and have left behind their comfortable lives to struggle for the poor and the exploited out of ideological commitment. While there is little doubt about the strong attraction of this utopian ideology among the highly educated urban youth, what has been the extent of its penetration in urban areas so far?  It is well known among analysts tracking LWE that for logistics and reasons of getting trapped by the security forces, Maoists have been avoiding urban surge for a long time. However, in the recent decade, particularly after the merger of 40 odd splinter insurgent groups in 2004 leading to the creation of a new group called the Communist Party of India (Maoist), the new formation brought out two major documents detailing their urban ambition. ‘The Strategies and Tactics of Indian Revolution in 2004’ and ‘Urban Perspective: Our Works in Urban Areas in 2007’ spelled out strategies and tactics to spread into urban areas and create an elaborate network of underground and over-ground support for the armed movement. With regard to their successes, there have hardly been any noteworthy achievements in all these years.  At the most, Maoists have been able to form urban cells in the industrial belts of Raipur, Durg, Surat, Faridabad and Bastar. Also, there have been reports indicating their strong gains in semi-urban centres such as Haryana’s Yamuna Nagar which has several sugar mills, timber and wine mills with history of labour unrest. The most predominant and visible modes of penetration appear to be infiltration into protests, agitations or demonstrations carried out against the government in urban areas. A clear demonstration of their strength was seen in places like Nandigram and Singur in West Bengal where they reportedly played a critical role in instigating and spreading unrest. Though the Maoists have not attacked any city centres directly, numerous attacks have happened in areas close to urban centres. For instance, the attack in Nayagarh and Daspalla towns in Orissa on 15 February 2008 and the attack against the Orissa State Armed Police camp at R. Udayagiri town in Gajapati district of Orissa on 24 March 2006 are a few such examples. Such attacks, however, remain few and scattered with the Naxalites focusing on covert operations in urban areas instead. Similarly, attacks in Aurangabad/Jehanabad jail in Bihar is a clear reminder of Maoist threats in urban areas. However, their urban surge has proved a disaster for them as they lost many of their top leaders. Their ideologues like Narayan Sanyal, Amitabh Bagchi, Kobad Ghandy were arrested by security forces from their urban hidings.  From many credible sources, including surrendered Maoists and the security forces, urban fallouts and  massive losses in the “heartland” in the last few years have made Maoists  to retreat and abandon their urban ambitions to cope with difficult time. In the last four years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre has done well to bring down LWE to 30 districts. According to official record, from once invincible 180 districts spread in 2011, their domination has been practically reduced to two States: Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. In short, LWE’s influence is virtually restricted to tri-junction regions of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. As a result, in April this year, the Union Home Ministry took a significant decision to remove 44 districts  from the list of LWE. A combination of measures, including building roads in interior areas, greater surveillance, frequent combing operations and greater troop movements into LWE districts, have resulted in delivering massive blows to ultras. This year itself, as many as 140 Maoists have been neutralised by the security forces, while several thousands have surrendered in last four years.   Comparative statistics of Naxal violence (2005-2018)
Years Civilians Security Force Personnel LWE/ CPI-Maoists Total
2005 281 150 286 717
2006 266 128 343 737
2007 240 218 192 650
2008 220 214 214 648
2009 391 312 294 997
2010 626 277 277 1180
2011 275 128 199 602
2012 146 104 117 367
2013 159 111 151 421
2014 128 87 99 314
2015 93 57 101 251
2016 120 66 244 430
2017 109 74 150 333
2018 80 57 179 316
Total* 3137 1983 2846 7966
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal, Data till 9 September, 2018. Thus, at a time when the Maoist ideology is losing its appeal worldwide (signified by recent  Colombia peace process) and security forces enjoy an overwhelming lead over LWE leadership and cadre (see the Table), should the state need to hound a handful of activists in the name of urban Naxals? Such hasty and ill-conceived action of the state would help perpetuate the myth of their spread and relevance. As a noted observer of the movement observed, “an underground insurgent needs a mythical aura. An insurgency is as much a reality as it is the product of myths that society weaves around the insurgent”. It is time the Indian state stay away from raising the ghost of an almost dying ideology and should not waste opportunity to root out this five-decade-long insurgency.
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Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo

Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors ...

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