MAY 12, 2009
Ex-Maoist’s Bid for a Parliamentary Seat Reflects Strains in the Nation’s Longstanding Left-Wing Insurgency
By PETER WONACOTT
For nearly two decades as a Communist revolutionary, Keshwar “Ranjan” Yadav did his part to overthrow the Indian government.
He led peasants in battles over land. He ordered “feudal” landlords shot. And with his fellow Maoists, he boycotted India’s elections because they were seen as an extension of a corrupt state.
But stuff happens and people change, says the 45-year-old Mr. Yadav. Today, the former guerrilla fighter is an aspiring politician who has left the Maoist fold. He has campaigned for a seat in India’s national parliament from a jail cell in the restive state of Jharkhand, where he faces charges of kidnapping, extortion and murder.
Maoist Rebels Face Change
See key dates over four decades of Maoist rebel insurgency in India.
He and at least one other jailed ex-Maoist, in the neighboring state of Bihar, will learn the outcome of their contests Saturday, when the government announces results of India’s month-long elections. Win or lose, the positive receptions from voters have rippled through the revolution; other Maoists are now eyeing runs in local elections, according to those familiar with the movement.
“Violence isn’t a solution,” said Mr. Yadav, who sat unshackled in the jail warden’s office for a recent interview. “I’ve come into the mainstream to live peacefully.”
Mr. Yadav’s political odyssey reflects changes afoot in India’s long-running left-wing insurgency. Security analysts see new splits and strains, as Maoist rebel groups grapple with how to respond to stepped-up police pressure and fresh inducements to surrender. Battle-weary elements, analysts say, have begun to wonder whether the world’s largest democracy might have a place for them.
“A lot of the Maoists are saying ‘enough is enough — we should try to work with the system,'” says Rajat Kumar Kujur, a scholar on Maoist issues at G.M. College in Orissa state. “They are tired of the violence, most of them.”
How this plays out could determine the future of India’s most lasting terrorist threat. Although Islamic militants have carried out bursts of terrorism in recent years, the Maoists have sustained an insurgency, combining Marxist ideology and military might to challenge and sometimes supplant local governments. Thousands of foot soldiers, belonging to various left-wing groups, are active in about 12 Indian states. Tens of thousands have died in four decades of clashes.
Keshwar “Ranjan” Yadav
In the short term, infighting could unleash more violence. India’s elections have provided a national spotlight for the hardest core of Maoists.
On the first day of national voting last month, shooting and bombings carried out by Maoist groups killed at least 17 people. The next week, rebels carried out smaller attacks, leaving one dead in Bihar. On Wednesday, eleven people — including seven police and paramilitary — were killed in Chhattisgarh state during an ambush timed to disrupt the latest round of voting. On Sunday, Maoists killed 13 policemen and one civilian in an attack in the same state. No rebels have been captured in these attacks.
Still, police and government officials have claimed success weakening Maoists across a belt of poor states in eastern India known as the “red corridor.” State governments have begun combining counterinsurgency teams to hunt Maoists while offering cash, jobs and protection to those willing to lay down arms.
“If you are locked in a room with a mean cat, it will scratch your eyes out if you try to kill it,” says P.V. Ramana, a researcher on Maoist issues at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a think tank in New Delhi. “If you open a window, it will jump out rather than fight.”
In other parts of the world, dramatic events have driven Maoists into the mainstream. China’s Mao Zedong dispersed his radical Red Guards to the countryside in order to stabilize the country during the Cultural Revolution; many returned as entrepreneurs during the subsequent period of economic opening.
In Nepal, the Maoists emerged from a 10-year civil war to help topple the country’s monarchy and came into power last year through parliamentary elections. (The Maoist prime minister resigned earlier this month over a spat with the country’s president).
Maoism took root in India following a 1967 peasant uprising in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari. The rebels were called Naxalites, a name that’s stuck. Yet many armed underground groups have also labeled themselves Maoists, after the Chinese leader who promoted rural revolution to topple a government.
Mr. Yadav, the jailed parliamentary candidate, said he joined the Maoists in 1988 to thwart landlords and their militias from seizing peasant lands. They chased off landlords and marked territorial gains by planting red flags in open fields. Those who didn’t flee were often killed, said Mr. Yadav, ticking off the names of three landlords he ordered executed. In jungle hideouts, he taught the ideology behind their struggle using Mao’s Little Red Book — though he’s hard pressed today to recall any of its aphorisms.
As the movement gained sway, Mr. Yadav rose in the hierarchy of the underground Communist groups. They collected revenue by demanding bribes from contractors who paved roads through vast expanses of the country the rebels ruled in lieu of the government. Police proved reluctant to challenge them because Maoists blew up their vehicles and seized their weapons. Most recently, under the banner of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), Mr. Yadav mobilized opposition to big industrial projects that sought to displace the poor.
Mr. Yadav’s revolution ended in 2006, after police caught up with him during a visit to his brother-in-law’s house in Jharkhand’s capital of Ranchi.
Suspected communist rebels blew up a railroad station and burned half a dozen trucks on a highway in eastern India last month before the second phase of monthlong elections.
Today, the man of slight build and thinning hair, who wears a teal-colored kurta, bears little resemblance to a hard-bitten revolutionary. Mr. Yadav said he experienced in jail a personal and political transformation. From the teachings of an Indian self-help guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Mr. Yadav said he learned breathing techniques to release stress and stabilize his emotions — and embrace the possibilities of peaceful politics. Since India’s slow-moving courts have yet to convict him of a crime, Mr. Yadav is legally free to run for parliament from jail.
Another former Maoist, Kameshwar Baitha, is again running for a parliamentary seat in Jharkhand from a jail in Bihar. He narrowly lost in the earlier parliamentary election. The twin bids have encouraged other Maoists to explore political opportunities, according to Krishna Baitha, who spoke on his brother’s behalf.
After switching to the mainstream Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, Mr. Yadav has won surprisingly broad backing. Leftists, lower-caste poor as well as followers of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar have campaigned for Mr. Yadav while he’s locked up, according to Brijesh Bahadur Singh, a local judge in Latehar who met with Mr. Yadav in jail.
Mr. Yadav hasn’t won over many Maoist cellmates, however. “I don’t believe in parliamentary democracy! It’s no solution for the poor and marginalized,” shouts Madan Paul, a 51-year old Maoist, from behind a barred window at the Latehar jail.
In another sign of their stand against the state, Maoists have provoked fierce clashes with police in Latehar. The violence has not only disrupted elections but stirred anger against the Indian government.
After Maoists ambushed a paramilitary bus last month, for example, five villagers were found dead. Authorities claim they were killed in crossfire, but relatives of the villagers filed a police report saying that paramilitary troops chased them from the village and executed them. They were later found hanging from a cedar tree. Afterward, Maoists called a three-day strike in sympathy.
The Jharkhand government has countered by opening an investigation into the villagers’ deaths. Two months ago, it began offering rehabilitation programs that included employment if Maoists gave themselves up, but have had no takers so far, according to J.B. Tubid, home secretary of Jharkhand.
“It’s the fight between our two ideologies,” he says. “We are trying to persuade them that the democratic system is the best way to sort out grievances.”
Mr. Yadav warns the Maoists won’t relinquish the soul of the movement so easily. As a political defector, Mr. Yadav says, he may fall victim to his former colleagues and be “killed anytime, anywhere.”
— Vibhuti Agarwal in New Delhi contributed to this article.
Write to Peter Wonacott at email@example.com
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A13