Little Red Forest Book
The Maoists guerrillas of India are back in the news after a lull of almost half a year. The skirmishing never actually stopped – an Indian Air Force helicopter took bullet fire during the third week of last month, putting one soldier in hospital.
The recent ambush that saw over a dozen Central Reserve Police Force personnel killed was, in military terms, not much of an indicator of where the struggle between government and the guerrillas was going.
Government forces seeing a spike in casualties is nowadays often evidence of that the paramilitary forces are on the offensive, moving deeper and deeper into the forests of east central India that serve as the main hideaways of the Maoists. The casualties may increase, but they are actually evidence of New Delhi asserting its authority.
Who is winning the war? Let us first consider some trends in the Maoist movement in India.
One, the overall casualty rates resulting from Maoist problems has fallen dramatically since violence peaked a few years ago. The peak of violence – in recent times – was 2010 and 2009. The home ministry’s figures indicate that the total number of deaths – civilian, military and guerrilla caused by leftwing extremism – reached 1128 and 1117. Those years were also the only ones when Maoist “incidents” touched over 2220 for the only these two years. Today the annual figures for both indices is about half that.
Two, the nature of the Maoist struggle has changed. The leadership is no longer the middle class intellectuals who gave these movements such an idealistic and romantic image in the 1960s and 1970s. An image that continues to survive among some armchair leftists in India’s urban centres to this day. Today, most of the leaders are of tribal origin, disinterested in ideology and, as a recent Open magazine cover article showed, ignorant of Fidel Castro or Mao himself. But this has also meant that while the movements, as their several Maoist groups who are semi-autonomous in nature, are still representative of tribal marginalization they have become more brutal in their actions, often killing other tribals and sexual exploiting women.
Three, while this is harder to pin down, after visiting Chhattisgarh and the Bastar area, I would argue the government forces are slowly but surely gaining the upper hand against the Maoists. In Raipur, officials talk of bringing the whole red problem to a close in a few years. This certainly exaggerates – Jharkhand must cease to be as dysfunctional as it is today for even a chance of that happening.
But the figures are telling. Despite the great publicity given to large scale ambushes by the Maoists, the numbers show that security forces have seen their losses plummet. Between 2007 and 2010, the government always lost over 200 men, the peak being 2009 with 317 dead. Since then, the figure have halved. In 2013 the losses were only 115. Maoist figures are harder to judge: the organization takes away its dead after fighting and so official figures are just estimates.
But the recent statement celebrating “a decade of struggle” by the Communist Party of India (Marxism-Leninism) was notable for its figure of 2500 deaths in its ranks because of fighting – substantially more than the 1800 that the home ministry gives for the 2003-2013 period. This would indicate a rebellion that has been much harder hit than people realize.
Finally, there is evidence that the economic prosperity and social development is slowly eating away at the sense of deprivation that led to the rise of Maoism in the first place. In a number of states, like Telangana and Andhra, the Maoists have been left hanging by a nail. Chhattisgarh has been a steady economic success story, especially given the very low socio-economic indicators that it began with. Poverty remains, but the sense of hopelessness that led many tribals to turn to the gun may be receding.
The Little Red Book is hardly over, but one gets a sense that rather than the last word on anything it may be heading to be a chapter that may soon be closed.