Vivekananda Nemana


Since the founding of communist parties the world over, some of the best and most sensitive members of the society have been joining the party and major developments especially setback result in some of them leaving but never with regret. In India, it happened after the great Telangana peasant struggle, after the setback in Naxalbari movement and disillusionment with the Maoist movement. It is perhaps the first time, journalist Nemana has undertaken to document the experience of the Indian Maoists.


The author, a journalist, is traveling through Andhra Pradesh, researching a book on the Maoist insurgency, its links to the mining industry and the effect on India’s tribal population. Regular dispatches will appear on India Ink.


The first thing that struck me about the former Maoists was how ordinary they looked. What was I expecting? Pirates, probably. Or somebody grizzled and battle-hardened: the Indian Clint Eastwood. But these five former insurgents, in their late 30s to mid-40s, looked a lot like the small-framed men you see in every Indian town, who smoke beedis by newsstands and possibly drive auto-rickshaws for a living.


Of course, their actual lives were anything but ordinary. Not long ago, before officially surrendering to the Indian government, these men were guerrilla warriors for the one of the longest-running revolutions in the world. They hid in the forests and had actually killed other (sometimes unarmed) human beings, and now they politely formed a semicircle around me with their broken bodies.


We met in the office of a local newspaper in a dusty little town in Andhra Pradesh. The newspaper’s editor, a former Maoist himself, arranged the interview.


Out of the five men, Thirupathi was the biggest in size, held the highest rebel rank, once had the largest reward on his head, and did most of the talking. (All the men asked not to be identified by their full names because of the sensitivity of the subject.) When he surrendered in 2004, he had been a Maoist for 14 years and had risen to the rank of district committee member, roughly the guerrilla equivalent to a major in the U.S. Army.


“But then I developed ulcers in my mouth,” he said. “We couldn’t get good food anymore. And there was my family, too. The cops terrorized my family, and they ransacked my family home.”


The other men said they surrendered for similar reasons.


Mr. Thirupathi and the rest may have abandoned their guns and party memberships, but they held onto their revolutionary worldview, and as the discussion heated up, the retired Maoists would revert to describing their former lives in the present tense. “They call us revolutionaries rakshashas (demons),” said Ramchandar, a lean, friendly man who said he surrendered in 2004 after the police jailed his father and brother. “But we’re the ones who fight for the oppressed. Think about Spartacus. Think about Jhansi Lakshmi, who as a woman single-handedly made the British shake with fear. Think about Shivaji’s fight against the Mughals. We are carrying on that guerrilla tradition.”


Mr. Thirupathi casually described how, in his guerrilla days, his troops killed not just “class enemies” like the landlords, but also tribals – the very people for whom Maoists claim to be fighting.


“We would enter a village and demand the landlord leave with his family, and give his land to the people under his oppression,” he said. “If he didn’t listen, we would threaten his family. If he still didn’t listen, then he had enough chances. We would wake him up in the middle of the night and kill him.”


He paused. “I never understood why some of the common people were such stooges of the landlord and his money. These were usually the ones that worked for him, his clerks and his goons. We would sit them down and say, ‘Look brother, it’s time for the revolution so join us.’ But they wouldn’t listen. So we killed them, too.”


“How did you kill them?” I asked.


“It varied. Sometimes we hanged them, other times we would behead them,” Mr. Thirupathi said.


We were all quiet for a bit, and Mr. Thirupathi looked down at his feet and flashed a fleeting smile.


“We hated killing the adivasis (tribals), but sometimes we had to do it,” he said. “Most adivasis support us, but some of them were antisocial and would report our movements to the police. When we heard that someone was a police informant, we would first warn them never to do it again. But sometimes these brothers lack common sense, and they keep going back to the cops. So we had to kill them. But we would only do it in front of a people’s court, so the village itself chooses justice.”


The men insisted they were certain that their victims were voluntarily giving the police information, but Maoist strongholds all over the country are notorious for vague “people’s court” executions of suspected police informants. Usually, the “warnings” involve the removal of a few limbs. Most villagers, moreover, are powerless to deny the police’s demands for information; even I could walk into a village and find out who’s been around, if I were persistent enough.


“We always feel bad for the killing, ”Mr. Thirupathi was quick to add, laying a hand over his heart. “The ache of taking away a human life will always be there. But sometimes the people’s war demands painful sacrifices to end the greater violence of oppression.”


Throughout this discussion, Mr. Ramchandar, the most amiable one of the bunch, held his head in his hands and said nothing. I imagine the things he did for the revolution must haunt him – and everybody else, but especially affectionate Mr. Ramchandar – in his uncomely life as an ostracized ex-guerrilla. Perhaps everything these men had said about the righteousness of the Maoist cause was directed, at least in part, toward themselves; maybe there is solace in thinking that, if they have lost everything in life, then it was lost in the pursuit of justice.


The retired Maoists repeatedly told me that after sacrificing everything for the sake of the people, the people now treated them like street dogs. Employers won’t hire them, and the police routinely brutalize them for information whenever Maoists strike in the area. They described how, for a long time after they surrendered, the police tortured them for information: beatings, electric shocks, beatings, limbs shackled to walls, followed by more beatings.


Suddenly they didn’t seem so much like violent revolutionaries anymore; they seemed more like old, weary souls who only crave the respect of the community to which they devoted a lifetime. They unloaded their grievances, with genuine frustration:


“Who’s greater, us or the police? Who gives up their family life for the people’s sake?”


“Only as Maoists will brothers and sisters willingly spend years apart, because only Maoists have given their lives to a cause as pure as the common man’s struggle.”


“We left our homes, our families, our every comfort to go live in the jungle, fighting for what the government should have provided all along. We fight for justice for the people and freedom from oppression, we see our friends die and our families suffer, we go hungry, and we get nothing but beatings!”


Meanwhile, Mr. Ramchandar said something strikingly revealing about the psychology of the young, poor Indian who signs up as a guerrilla for the people’s revolution.


“Do you think I ever wanted to pick up a gun?” he asked. “We just want the government to work for the sake of people, but how else can we remind it that we exist?”


I had been skeptical about the motives of people who joined the Maoist cadres, but found it hard to stay that way, for these men at least. Say what you will about the misguided Communist revolutionary in the age of globalization, but these former revolutionaries were honest about why they fought. From where I was sitting, Maoism – India’s gravest threat, according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – didn’t seem so grave anymore.


Vivekananda Nemana is on Twitter @vnemana and can be reached at


(July 20, 2012, New York Times)

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