New Delhi: It would have remained - and forgotten -- as another localised peasant-police clash had not the lanky Charu Mazumdar called it the start of a long awaited agrarian revolution, and promptly received the blessings of Mao, his ideological god. Thanks to China's decision to call the May 1967 incident in Naxalbari village in West Bengal a 'spring thunder' and a 'prairie fire', a brutal and violent Maoist movement soon engulfed India.
Mazumdar was a local firebrand leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) who felt the time had come to defy his party as it was steeped in electoral politics. Once the peasants in Naxalbari seeking control of land killed a police inspector with a hail of arrows, Mazumdar teamed up with like-minded comrades to split the CPI-M and set up the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist or CPI-ML as his call for a Maoist style revolution won numerous adherents across India.
The Naxalite movement - as it became known after the village Naxalbari - became the biggest pan-India armed challenge the Indian state had ever faced. In rapid strides, it spread to large parts of India, turning West Bengal in particular into a killing field. Mazumdar unleashed a policy of 'annihilation of class enemies', giving a carte blanche to his band of men and women to put to death anyone who crossed their path, both in rural and urban areas.
Indira Gandhi and her chief minister in West Bengal, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, hit back with a vengeance. By the time the Bangladesh liberation war broke out in 1971, security forces and Congress activists began hounding and killing Maoists at will. Dissension erupted in the CPI-ML. Even the Chinese Communists took objection to some of Mazumdar's writings. The man got arrested in July 1972 and soon died in police lock-up, marking the virtual end of a movement that had shaken the Indian state for five years.
By the time Gandhi imposed Emergency rule in 1975, the CPI-ML had split into numerous warring factions. A section of the Maoists decided to embrace parliamentary politics. But two of the biggest groups, the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the CPI-ML People's War, popularly known as People's War Group (PWG), remained committed to the idea of a Mao style armed revolution. After remaining at loggerheads for a long time, they merged in 2004, creating the present day CPI-Maoist.
The Maoist movement abated in the late 1970s and early 1980s, partly due to state repression and in part due to ideological infighting. Andhra Pradesh, once a bastion, was virtually stripped clean of Maoists by security forces. Kerala too suffered the same fate. Maoist ideology over time lost the appeal it once had for the young and educated middle class.
Amid the lull, PWG shifted its based to the Bastar region in present day Chhattisgarh, slowly building a powerful network among the impoverished tribals, in a terrain virtually impregnable. Many of those active in the region today are Maoists from Andhra Pradesh. The MCC remained a force in Bihar and Jharkhand region. Once the two teamed up, the state found them to be a formidable foe.
From the time when Mazumdar's death looked as if the Maoist movement had been buried for good, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has now been forced to describe it as the country's biggest internal security threat. Today, several hundreds - the precise number is not clear - of Maoists are active in several states, better armed than ever before, and going strong after marrying new military tactics.
The massacre in Chhattisgarh Saturday, when two senior leaders of the Congress were amongst the nearly 30 killed in a perfectly timed ambush, was the latest instance of this capability.
Will they ever win? I doubt it. But can they ever be vanquished? I doubt that too. The state-versus-Maoist war will rage for a long time.
(M.R. Narayan Swamy is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)