India: The Trailhead

Hyderabad goes by the nickname “Cyberabad” for its thriving info-tech sector. Along with Bangalore, the two cities comprise the heart of India’s software empire thanks to high levels of education, job growth, and investment.

It seemed an unlikely place to start reporting on the murky Naxalite movement. But a veteran Indian journalist friend in Delhi insisted that to understand the roots of the insurgency, this is where I needed to go first.
At first glance, Hyderabad is a pretty laid back commercial city of more than five million. But, according to Srinivas Reddy, a leading newspaper editor and expert on the Maoist insurgency whom I met my first day there, the veneer of capitalism masks a history of leftist undertow in the state.

The Naxalite movement owes its name to the West Bengal town of Naxalbari where an uprising took place in 1967. Two years later, an extreme wing affiliated with the Communist Party of India (CPI) emerged in northern Andhra Pradesh to mobilize a peasant underclass dominated for centuries by wealthy landlords.

Reddy, and many other people I spoke with, agreed that in those days the movement had real support from low-caste laborers who had few rights (and torrid working conditions) under the existing feudal land system. Their activities, both legal and illegal, spread steadily through Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. Labor unions were organized to demand reforms. Meanwhile, abusive landlords were targeted for killings.

All along, two main groups vied for popular support: The People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Center (MCC). To seize the initiative both became more focused on cultivating support among the disadvantaged tribal communities in central India, of which there are some 65 million members. This rivalry lead to on-and-off clashes between the sides, until they decided to merge forces in 2004 under the CPI-Maoist banner.

There was an attempt at peace talks in Hyderabad in late 2005, but they soon broke down and the government re-imposed a ban on the CPI-Maoist party that represented the Naxalites.

During a walk in the downtown area, I happened upon what appeared to be a party office -- festooned with frayed red hammer and sicle flags. Nobody answered the door.

Over the years, Reddy said, the Andhra Pradesh government has gotten better at fighting the Naxalites. And counter-insurgency operations were accelerated when the talks fell through. The creation of a special forest commando unit called the Greyhounds, now well-versed in guerilla combat, has killed hundreds of fighters and pushed many more out of the state. A village informant network has yielded key arrests, and a few have disarmed as part of a state rehabilitation program or changed sides.

The result has been a marked decline in deaths from Naxalite-related violence over the years. However, Reddy stressed that the Naxalites could always bounce back in Andhra Pradesh unless land reforms are made that give the rural poor a guaranteed stake. And state services remain minimal, if not absent, in some areas.

“Their may be less landlords today,” he said. “But the feudal mentality is still here in many ways.”