The guerilla movement took off with the forcible harvesting of crops from the lands of rich landlords.
The Indian adivasi homelands have been troubled much before the advent of Naxalism or Maoism, as some prefer it. The Naxalite leadership, which is mostly non-adivasi, has however managed to superimpose its ideological orientation on the long-prevalent disaffection of tribal people. While the Maoists have managed to exploit the tribal unrest over their exploitation and the destruction of their traditional homelands, it would be wrong for the Indian State to tar the adivasi unrest as Naxalism.
When the troubles first erupted in the predominantly tribal village of Naxalbari and began spreading to other areas in West Bengal, a popular slogan then was “China’s Chairman is our Chairman”. It may not have fired the minds of rural masses, but it caught on in university campuses all over the country. Many students of Delhi’s elite St Stephen’s College even went underground to fight for the revolution. Arvind Narain Das ran for president of the college union on a Naxalite platform in 1968 and won. Several others later on became top civil servants. In recent days, Dr Rajiv Kumar has been appointed vice-chairman of the Niti Aayog. But they soon, like their compatriots from Kolkata’s elite Presidency College, discovered that “revolution was not a dinner party or even a seminar”.
If the Stephanians soon came back after discovering they didn’t have it in them to stay the hard course nor an appetite to spill blood, others, more often than not far less privileged, showed they had in them the “right stuff” and the reasons for taking recourse to armed action and the violent overthrow of the State. The Naxalbari uprising in West Bengal in 1967 inspired several young Communists in the remote hilly and forested district of Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh and they gradually turned to the politics of agrarian revolution.
The Srikakulam CPI sent Nagabhushan Patnaik and Chowdhury Tejeswara Rao to Calcutta in October 1968 to hold talks with Charu Mazumdar. On their return, the newly-formed Srikakulam district coordination committee convened a secret meeting where it was resolved that an armed struggle should be launched immediately. Guerilla squads were formed in the plains and hills of Srikakulam, with the objective of overthrowing the government and establishing a “people's democratic dictatorship led by the proletariat”.
The guerilla movement took off with the forcible harvesting of crops from the lands of rich landlords. On November 25, 1968 something more significant happened in the hill tracts of Parvatipuram. Around 250 tribal people armed with bows and arrows, and spears, led by legendary peasant organizer Vempatapu Sathyanarayana and Nagabhushan Patnaik, raided the house of a landlord and took possession of rice and other foodgrains he had hoarded. They also seized documents, promissory notes and other records that bound tribal peasants to the landlord, who was also a moneylender. Several such actions followed in Srikakulam and the movement gained much popularity. However, by the mid 1970s, under the cover of the Emergency, the Srikakulam movement was crushed, with over 300 activists killed in “encounters”. But the fires of revolution are apparently not so easily doused down.
The CPI (ML) only regrouped and spread to other parts of the then composite Andhra Pradesh where we have seen periodic recrudescence. The Naxalites made several dramatic strikes in the thickly-forested districts of Telangana like Adilabad, Karimnagar and Warangal during the Emergency. On November 7, a Naxalite squad led by Kondapalli Sitaramiah, later founder of the People’s War Group, and Muppalla Laxman Rao alias Ganapathy, now CPI(ML) general secretary, again attacked the home of Pitamber Rao, a wealthy and powerful Velama landlord with strong Congress connections, and killed his sons G.V. Subhash and Sampat Rao. (Subhash was my classmate at Nizam College in Hyderabad and captained the cricket, basketball and hockey teams).
The Tappalpur raid, despite the presence of a police picket in the village, captured the imagination of the educated youth and Communist cadres all over the state. Soon after the Naxalite leaders involved in the raid were able to form the “Coordination Committee” which was later rechristened as People’s War Group. The PWG merged with Bihar’s Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) to become CPI (Maoist) in October 2004. In 1978, the newly-formed Congress (I) swept the elections to the state Assembly, defeating the Janata Party led in the state by S. Jaipal Reddy and the ruling Congress faction led by the incumbent chief minister J, Vengala Rao.
The Indira wave saw the induction of Dr M. Channa Reddy as chief minister. The new CM held out an olive branch to Naxalites, and initiated talks, but soon it was clear the Naxals’ only intention was to use the ceasefire to regroup and reorganise. The lull allowed them to expand their cells at Osmania and Andhra Universities. Many idealistic youth joined the movement, and unlike the upper class lads from St Stephen’s and Presidency, these young people stayed the course and many even lost their lives. The intelligence wing of the Andhra police also reported the setting up of bases in towns like Davangere in Karnataka and Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu.
The Naxalites had greater success in the tribal areas of the neighboring states, where the depredations of outsiders, whether forest and excise contractors or government officials, had resulted in widespread discontent among tribal people. The cruel exploitation of adivasis and eviction of large numbers from their traditional homelands without compensation even by the state- owned NMDC and other companies added grist to the mill. The PWG’s support base welled. Medical students from Andhra Medical College, Guntur, and engineering students from the Regional Engineering College at Warangal now joined the Osmania University recruits. Like all such revolutionary movements, the cachet that went with being a revolutionary began to also attract lumpen elements, the type that would have otherwise joined the Youth Congress or youth wings of other major parties. Since then the Naxalites have gone from strength to strength.
Even mainstream political parties have found it expedient to seek Naxalite support from time to time for narrow political advantage, by pandering to them and offering them concessions on coming to power. It is also believed that often support was purchased with cash. Several companies with large investments in forest-based industries also began to pay for protection. Companies often do this and we have evidence of how even one of India’s largest business houses was paying off Ulfa terrorists in Assam. Extortion is commonplace now in Naxal areas.
In the run-up to the 1983 Andhra Assembly elections, actor N.T. Rama, leading his recently-formed Telugu Desam, dramatically declared himself an ally of Naxalites. He even campaigned using the theme that they were “true patriots, who have been misunderstood by the ruling classes”.
Ahead of the 2004 elections, the Andhra Congress, headed by Y.S. Rajashekhar Reddy, pledged to hold discussions with rebels if its candidates were elected. The party’s pledge was a tacit agreement that while talks or negotiations were ongoing, the officials would halt counter-insurgency operations, thereby providing a recovery period for insurgents. The rebels effectively used the suspension of counter-insurgency operations and resulting ceasefire to recruit and consolidate their position by moving openly among the people. The ceasefire lasted just six months, till December 16 that year.
Soon after the Andhra police resumed operations with renewed vigour against them, and many prominent Naxalite leaders were killed in “encounters”. The relentless pressure forced most Andhra Naxal cadres to migrate to Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Orissa. It is in the dense jungles here that the Telangana Maoists found favorable new battlegrounds and the long suffering tribals willing, if not shelter, to look away. A majority of top Maoist leaders, who steer this war against India from the jungles of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand, hails from Telangana. CRPF jawans report that during encounters they mostly hear orders in Telugu.
The RSS-BJP leadership has focused its attention on Jawaharlal Nehru University which it presumes is the nursery of Naxalites in the country. They couldn’t be more wrong. The real nursery of Naxalites is Karimnagar district in Telangana. Karimnagar is one of the more backward districts but is dominated by rich and powerful Velama landlords. The CM, Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhara Rao, is a Velama. Ironically, so is Naxal supremo Muppalla Lakshmana Rao, alias Ganapathy
Capt. James Forsyth (1838-71), one of the early chroniclers of the adivasis in his book The Highlands of Central India, translates one of the often sung Pardhan songs of the Gonds. The words still have relevance: “And the Gods were greatly troubled/ in their heavenly courts and councils/ Sat no Gods of Gonds among them./ Gods of other nations sat there/ Eighteen threshing-floors of Brahmins/ Sixteen scores of Telinganas/ But no Gods of Gonds appeared there/ From the Glens of Seven Mountains/ From the twelve hills of the valleys.” Telangana was never far for them.