Old rivalries have resurfaced as Naxals face poll challenges from within their ranks. The Jharkhand election could determine the future of Naxalism.
A dozen fidgety young men, talking incessantly on their mobiles, crowd around Shobha Pal, the wife of jailed Maoist leader Yugal Pal. Their worry is at odds with the natural serenity around, but there is reason for it. A horde of Maoist guerillas has come down from the hills of Kaimur and entered a jungle close to Rabda, the native village of Yugal Pal—a top Naxal leader expelled a month ago by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) because of his decision to contest Jharkhand’s Assembly election.
To Pal’s wife and friends, tracking the movements of armed Naxal squads is a crucial part of the election campaign for their jailed leader. “Yugal Pal’s election is being watched with deep anxiety by Maoists who fear a large-scale exodus from their ranks if he wins,” explains Shobha Pal, at a roadside dhaba 3 km from Rabda. The new entrant to electoral politics has plenty going for him. Precautions taken by his wife and friends, in addition to the goodwill he enjoys among tribals and other villagers, have lowered the threat of Maoist disruption. Yet, little can be left to chance in the jungles and hills of Palamu division, the nerve centre of Maoists in North India.
“I am really worried about my supporters and the general people of my constituency. Last night they blasted off my election office at Pandu (a block in the Vishrampur Assembly constituency). Two days back, they ransacked my election office at Nava (another block). They want to scare away my supporters. This is nothing but a reflection of their fascist mindset,” says Yugal Pal, also known as Madan Pal, lodged in Latehar jail.
Pal, who was till recently a senior member of the powerful Special Area Committee (SAC) of Jharkhand, Bihar and Northern Chhattisgarh, is one of the six former Maoist leaders who have jumped into the electoral fray in Jharkhand. He is contesting on a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) ticket from Vishrampur in Palamu district. Satish Kumar, a former member of what is called 3U-SAC (Uttari Bihar-Uttaranchal-Uttar Pradesh Special Area Committee), is the JMM candidate from Daltonganj, the district headquarters of Palamu. Polush Sarin and Masih Charan are the other two former Maoists contesting on JMM tickets—from Torpa and Khunti, respectively.
Besides JMM candidates, Keshwar Yadav alias Ranjan Yadav, a former area commander of the CPI (Maoist), is contesting from Paki on a Rashtriya Janata Dal ticket, while Kuldeep Ganju, a former zonal committee member of the underground outfit, is the All Jharkhand Student Union (AJSU) candidate from Simeria.
In Jharkhand, the CPI (Maoist) is at war with itself. This underground political outfit was the result of a merger of radical leftist splinter groups that trace their lineage to the Naxal breakaway formations of the late 1960s—the CPI-Marxist-Leninist (People’s War Group), the CPI-M-L (Party Unity) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC). Loosely clubbed together as Naxalites, they have eschewed electoral politics for decades, but of late, the lure of public office seems to have split Maoist opinion like never before. To the shock of purists, ‘parliamentary deviation’ is gaining force mostly in those pockets of Jharkhand—Kaimur Hills and forested regions of Palamu division—where they have been trying to establish a second ‘base area’ along the pattern of Dandakaranya. Of the six constituencies where former Maoists are in the fray, four—Vishrampur, Daltonganj, Paki and Simeria—are in the proposed Maoist ‘base area’. The other two, Khunti and Torpa, are in another Maoist-ridden area close to Ranchi.
At the centre of the turmoil lie old ideological differences between the MCC and Party Unity, worsened by the growing perception among former Party Unity members that control of the CPI (Maoist) has been usurped by those from the MCC, particularly in North India. Of the three Naxalite groups that came together, the People’s War Group and Party Unity merged in the late 1990s, while the MCC joined them only in 2004 to form the CPI (Maoist). Before their merger, the regions under Naxal influence in Jharkhand, Bihar, northern Chhattisgarh and eastern Uttar Pradesh were divided mainly between the MCC and Party Unity, while the People’s War had sway over southern and central Indian pockets.
“What we are looking at today is basically a resurfacing of differences between Party Unity and MCC,” discloses a senior Maoist leader on condition of anonymity, “Since the beginning, the former strived for a judicious mix between arms and mass mobilisation. In the Party Unity’s functioning, the Jan Adalat (people’s court, the notorious system of Maoist justice) formed the most significant decision-making body. Decisions used to be taken by villagers through Jan Adalats and the party organisation used to implement them. The MCC, on the other hand, had the tradition of using its organisation to enforce its decisions on villagers via Jan Adalats. It is this tradition of the MCC that has become the guiding principle of the CPI (Maoist) in North India today.”
Yugal Pal, who was a founding member of Party Unity, is leading the ongoing revolt against MCC domination of the CPI (Maoist). “Party Unity believed in keeping the mass movement in front and backing it by arms. It is the MCC’s tradition of singular emphasis on arms that has severed our ties with the masses. In Party Unity days, we used to debate how to improve our practice of mixing arms with mass struggle. But after unification with the MCC, there was no scope for any discussion. Still, I wrote to party leaders asking them to take steps to stop cadres from losing interest in our movement. Instead, they branded me a right-wing revisionist. If the Maoists in Nepal can change, why can’t we?” he asks.
The revolt crystallised first in the form of former Maoist commander Kameshwar Baitha’s election to the Lok Sabha on a JMM ticket in May this year. “Now, no one can stop this debate on the necessity of integrating the parliamentary forum with the people’s struggle,” says Baitha, who is in jail at Garhwa, an adjacent district of Palamu. Baitha also blasts the Union Government for not allowing him to speak in Parliament by denying him bail, not even for sessions of the House. “The Government says it wants to bring Naxalites into the mainstream, but is not allowing me to attend Parliament,” he complains, “My voice, which represents more than 13 lakh people, is being gagged by the Government and the Judiciary.”
Besides Baitha, Keshwar Yadav, the RJD candidate from Paki, had also contested the May Lok Sabha election from Chatra, but failed to win the seat despite polling an impressive number. Yugal Pal, Satish Kumar and others had lent them their support, but the party reacted angrily, issuing them ‘show cause’ notices and using Jan Adalats in Palamu and Chatra to extract apologies from sundry cadres for defying the party boycott of the polls. So appalled were the former MCC leaders that one of them (who Open had contacted soon after the Lok Sabha polls) simply stonewalled questions on this score. “No, there is no such debate in our party,” he told Open then, “There is no point in discussing the issue at all. Our fight is to break the legitimacy of Parliament. Only the primacy of this fight in our tactical-strategic position can make the revolutionary instincts of our party and cadre sharper.”
But it was the debate that was to turn sharper. So much so that the rumblings in Maoist ranks soon began to escape the dense cover of Jharkhand’s jungles—despite the party clamping down on dissent. Indirect participation in elections, argued the dissenters, would not only help the party in “upstaging the system from the inside out” but also let them mobilise masses and thereby sustain the armed struggle in the face of hardening police repression. Instead of settling the issue through debate, the party went into expulsion mode, the last batch of ten of its cadres (which included Yugal Pal and Satish Kumar) being kicked out on 2 November for taking ‘a keen interest in the Assembly elections’.
The rebels went ahead to announce the formation of the Jharkhand Vikas Party—a party of CPI (Maoist) outcasts. On 6 November, these leaders held a massive rally at Daltonganj and declared a merger with Shibu Soren’s JMM in his presence.
The story, however, does not end there. Maoist leaders know that if the rebels win elections, a floodgate would open for more and more of their cadres to enter electoral politics. Their defeat, therefore, is crucial to Maoist plans. Any physical assault on rebel leaders, Maoists are aware, might boomerang badly on them (popular and even internal support would be a casualty), so they have turned up their call for an election boycott. Scaring away rebel supporters has not been easy, given the heavy deployment of security forces, but Maoists have their own ways to do it.
Stern Maoist glares have not broken the resolve of the rebels, by the sound of their statements. “We need to take the struggle of the masses to a higher level,” says Yugal Pal, “We have successfully fought against feudal oppression. Its scope needs to be widened now by using the legislative forum and launching a war against capitalist and imperialist aggression.” Adds his comrade-in-arms Satish Kumar: “Election boycotts did achieve much for the masses in the past. But times have changed. A new form of class struggle has to be started in which parliamentary institutions have a major role.”
That the JMM is their best option is not a surprise, given that their core constituency of support—Jharkhand’s tribal masses—overlaps with that of Shibu Soren’s party. “The JMM is the party of this soil and the indigenous people. Guruji started his movement through class struggle, so did we,” says Kameshwar Baitha.
Satish Kumar uses the Marxist dictum in his election meetings too. “They call us Maoists, who kill. Who are afraid of Maoists? Exploiters. What is wrong in that?” he asks, addressing a small gathering of tribals at Dulsulma village in Satbarwa block of Daltonganj. He then adds: “The JMM is a party of the poor. This time, it is a fight of the poor against the rich. Vote for JMM.”
The campaigns of former Maoists in other constituencies bear a similar tone. The CPI (Maoist) knows that the electoral success or failure of so-called ‘deviants’ could determine their own strength in the months and years ahead.
For decades on end, India’s Maoists have tried attaining power through the barrel of a gun. Many of them suspect it doesn’t work. They await confirmation of a better way ahead. A shift from bullet to ballot has begun.