Supporters of the Communist Party of India march in West Bengal.

Supporters of the Communist Party of India march in West Bengal.

The 20th century featured frequent communist upheavals of established governments, especially in Asia. Through the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks created the Soviet Union, the world’s first communist nation, from the ashes of the czarist autocracy and the Russian Provisional Government. From Russia, communist fervor spread to China, with Mao’s Communist Party of China establishing the People’s Republic of China as a communist state in 1949. Over the course of the century, violent revolutions and movements in many other Asian countries—including Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Afghanistan—played to the tune of the more famous communist insurgencies in Russia and China. These communist insurrections followed similar patterns—most involved an active agrarian population that sided with the communists, a corrupt or despotic incumbent government that lost favorability with the people, and various economic and social struggles in the aftermath of war or independence from colonial powers. Yet despite showing all the same indicators, the communist threat in India has been limited in scope and scale, defying the very pattern that has seemed to define Asian countries’ geopolitical experiences with communism.

India’s overall makeup since achieving independence from Great Britain in 1947 appeared to have all the makings of a country ready to turn communist—a hierarchical social organization scheme in the caste system, huge issues with agricultural productivity relative to the demands of an exploding population, slow economic growth due to heavy allocation of resources toward defense, poverty and economic inequality within the country, and a democratic but nearly authoritarian government under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s reign. Given these characteristics, why didn’t communism find a foothold, attract a revolutionary and possibly insurgent following, and ultimately reign supreme across the nation?

This question is partly misleading, as communism actually did gain some traction and a militant following in India. In May 1967, an uprising led by a group of peasant leaders with strong Maoist sentiments began in Naxalbari, West Bengal. The militant “Naxalite” movement that arose was built upon the communist ideological tenets in the Historic Eight Documents written by Charu Majumdar. Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal, another leader of the Naxalite cause, founded the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), breaking away from the less radical Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Naxalite and CPI (ML) movements spread rapidly throughout West Bengal—which already had a communist state government—in the late 1960s and across the rest of the country in the 1970s. Even to this day, a “Red Corridor” along much of the eastern seaboard of India demarcates areas of heavy Naxalite influence. Clearly, the Naxalite threat was never fully extinguished, and the communist dream has managed to live on in India well into the 21st century. To refine the previous question then, why did the communist threat fail to dominate Indian society the way it did in Russia, China, and several other Asian countries?

The Tyranny of the Bourgeois Order: The Role of Government Crackdown

Despite Majumdar’s effort to incite a revolutionary tide in the manner of Mao in interwar China, several roadblocks prevented a successful communist takeover of India. Most explicitly, more organized and stronger government crackdown helped contain the communist threat. Some of this was pure serendipity from the standpoint of the Indian government. The War of 1971 pitted India and the newly formed state of Bangladesh against the governments of West Pakistan and East Pakistan. The eastern front of the war featured Indian militarization along the India-East Pakistan border, leading to heavy troop presence in West Bengal. This played into the hands of Indira Gandhi, who used the opportune timing of the war and the previously designated “President’s rule” over West Bengal to order a counter-communist insurgency operation via both the army and police. Operation Steeplechase led to the death or incarceration of thousands of Naxalite sympathizers in West Bengal, dealing the movement a permanently crippling blow. Instead of attempting to win hearts and minds like previous Asian leaders, Indira Gandhi favored brute force in her response to communist insurgency.

A street vendor in Kolkata, West Bengal.

A street vendor in Kolkata, West Bengal.

In the aftermath of the Naxalite struggle in West Bengal, other communist insurgents across the country, and particularly in the Red Corridor, have typically been contained by local police. In more recent years, that containment effort has transitioned to a more aggressive extinguishment of the communist flame. To a large extent, this evolution is attributable to a greater awareness of the guerilla nature of Naxalite warfare and a shift among local police toward a more active, confrontational form of counter-insurgency.

In an interview with the HPR, Brigadier Basant Kumar Ponwar, who helped set up the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College in the Naxalite-affected state of Chhattisgarh, explained how efforts like that of his institution have improved police forces’ counter-Naxalite capabilities. “Before training, the police had no idea of what to do [to eliminate the Naxalites]…

State police [trained at CTJWC] are doing a good job, they’ve not had many casualties, and many of them are getting bravery awards… They have got to relearn their fighting methodology, because they need to prepare for the method of fighting they will need against these Naxalite guerillas.”

Certainly, the confidence and specific fighting style introduced in settings such as the CTJWC are improving domestic counter-insurgency capabilities. Compared to a peak in violence in 2010, when 1,180 casualties (including 626 civilians) were suffered, the 186 casualties in 2017 represent the containment forces’ effectiveness. Though some may feel that the long march of the last half-century to combat communism has been ineffective, India’s containment and attrition of the movement have quelled any hope of a widespread revolution.

The Opiate of the Masses: The Proletariat’s Ideological Obstacles

In addition to government opposition via force, people’s own objections to communism may have played a pivotal role in leading India toward a different fate than Russia, China, or Vietnam. Surely, it is difficult to diagnose the apathy or antipathy people may have felt about the Naxalite movement with certainty, but a few possible explanations exist. For one, India differs tremendously from the other hotbeds of communist insurgency due to its long history of nonviolence in almost every aspect of life. Ranging from the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist ethic of ahimsa—broadly defined as “nonviolence toward all living things”—to satyagraha—a form of nonviolent civil disobedience preached and practiced by Mahatma Gandhi—nonviolence clearly carries a significance in Indian society unfamiliar to most other cultures. In particular, Gandhi’s advocacy and successful implementation of satyagraha two decades earlier might have had a tremendous impact in revealing to its very brainchild—the modern Indian state—the power of nonviolent movements, thereby turning people away from the insurgency of the Naxalites.

Other recent developments may have also played a role in heightening people’s doubts about communism. The former British raj left India with a strong western influence. To this day, India maintains many traces of western imperialism, ranging from education, to industrialization, to the widespread use of the English language. Another important area of British imperial influence was government, as India adopted a democracy framed in the model of the British parliamentary system. “India has a democratically elected government in place,” explained Gurjinder Pal Singh, Inspector General of the Chhattisgarh Police Department, in an interview with the HPR. “We have a constitution of our own. The [Indian] people were involved in the making of the Constitution. They deliberately selected a particular form of government.” Singh’s comments shed light on the role that western anti-communist ideology had in lightening communist appeal in India relative to other Asian nations (indeed, western influence was likely more respected in India after its peaceful parting from Britain than in Vietnam’s spiteful bloodshed against the French in the First Indochina War).

Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi during a trip to Disneyland, 1961.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi on a trip to Disneyland, 1961.

Another possibility for India’s antipathy towards communism is grounded in its pivotal role in the Non-Aligned Movement. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leading figure in the movement, which aimed to create a coalition of countries that sided with neither the American-led Western Bloc nor the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc. When his daughter Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of the country, she reemphasized the importance of the Non-Aligned Movement, bringing India back its forefront. India’s place as a socialist yet democratic state optimized its ability to inhabit the middle ground between the Western and Eastern Blocs. In the aftermath of colonialism, the rhetorical and political appeal of not being attached to either side may have resonated strongly with people, leaving Naxalite intentions as an impediment to India’s effort to carve out a unique and independent path for itself in international politics.

Yet skeptics of the power of these ideological concerns may point out the rigid caste system as an obvious reason for the popularity of a communist revolution. Of course, for supporters of communist insurgency, the notion of a more egalitarian, classless society was a major impetus for change, as it was in Russia and China. However, in an Indian society defined for thousands of years by the caste system, relatively few bought into the communist message in that regard. This inconsistency can be explained by the ties social inequality had to religion. Compared to societies less directly influenced by religion like China and Vietnam, breaking trust in India’s religious social order, which had been dominant for thousands of years, was much harder. What’s more, India’s religious nature was quite unique in comparison to Asian countries that experienced successful communist revolutions—India was secular but deeply religious nonetheless. Meanwhile, China and Vietnam have huge irreligious or religiously unaffiliated populations, and Russia, at the time of the Russian Revolution, had considerable secular or irreligious populations. The inherently religious nature of daily life for almost all Indians likely contributed to an incompatibility of Indian society and communist appeals.

A Cog in the Machine: Leadership Fiascos in Red

Perhaps most critically, leadership failures among the Naxalites and CPI (ML) ranks proved impossible to overcome. Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh—albeit not necessarily paragons of administrative leadership over a country—were great rhetoricians and revolutionary leaders who facilitated the ascendancy of communism through their abilities to persuade and attract converts to the communist cause and to manage revolutionary efforts intelligently and effectively. Mao, for instance, defeated the Guomindang despite scarcer resources precisely because he did a far superior job wooing the people of China to the communist cause, employed a better military strategy, and focused on controlling the rural areas of China rather than cities. Through his efforts, Mao essentially allowed the Guomindang to wear itself down against the Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).

In direct contrast, communist leadership in India was severely lacking. Majumdar in particular idolized Mao’s vision and tactics, but he failed to replicate the successful nature of Mao’s revolution. His military leadership was inadequate, as Operation Steeplechase and aggressive efforts by the West Bengal police led to the death, capture, and torture of thousands of Naxalite sympathizers. In addition, Majumdar proved far too extreme for the likes of the CPI (ML), as he had actively advocated an “annihilation line,” ordering his followers to assassinate members of the bourgeoisie—landlords, capitalists, police officers, academia, and non-communist politicians. He began to face challenges to his leadership in the early 1970s, and by 1971, he had been ousted from the CPI (ML).

After Majumdar’s arrest and death in 1972, the radical communist movement declined as a result of extreme sectarianism. Pro-Majumdar members of the CPI (ML) formed their own party, which later split into a variety of factions. Anti-Majumdar portions of the CPI (ML) experienced similar fates. In the 45 years following Majumdar’s death, a number of variant parties claiming the title Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) have emerged, most of which condemn the type of insurgency promoted by Majumdar and engage in democratic elections across India.

Meanwhile, one of the few groups that continues to practice Majumdar’s model of communist revolution and assassination is the pro-Majumdar faction of the CPI (ML) that was led by Mahadev Mukherjee in the aftermath of Majumdar’s death. This party, along with sectarian insurgent groups, constitutes the modern embodiment of the Naxalites, working in disorganized underground networks to promote violent and nonviolent civil disobedience and a communist revolution centered on land redistribution. “The leadership is in trouble, a lot of surrenders have taken place, and recruitment has gone down,” said Ponwar. “Meanwhile, development is going on at a good speed in remote areas. A number of states, like West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, have eradicated more or less the Naxal movement in their areas.”

The Naxalites appear to be doomed, not only as a result of modern India’s impassive obstacles to violent communist insurgency, but also because of their own debacles. A pattern of poor leadership and sectarianism has created the far-flung and ragtag groups of rebels, whose numbers continue to wilt away to this day. “Communism is a dying philosophy in India,” Singh explained. “[Communist insurgency] is concentrated only in very small patches, which are very intractable, but only a handful of people support them. So it’s natural that they will not be able to succeed now—the people have rejected them outright.” Whether the Indian example represents a model for governments combatting communist insurgencies, a guide of what not to do for communist groups, or simply an exposition of the elements of post-colonial India that defeated communism, it certainly marks a watershed moment in the history of communist revolution and an oft-overlooked but critical chapter in the history of communism in Asia.


Image source: Flikr/Al Jazeera English // Flikr/Aleksandr Zukov // Wikimedia/UCLA Library

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