India: Financial Times (UK) Counting Heads of Maoist Supporters

Maoist rebels find support among India’s elite

By Amy Kazmin in Hyderabad

Nearly 200 activists, intellectuals and professionals met recently on a hot night in Hyderabad to celebrate a new translation of the prison writings of Varavara Rao, an unabashed ideologue for the Maoist rebels threatening the security of swaths of the interior.

The Maoists in the country’s impoverished tribal belt have stepped up their campaign, generating outrage in the political establishment.

Varavara Rao, Revolutionary Poet

Yet the Hyderabad audience was enthralled as Mr Rao, a retired college lecturer, spoke of his eight years in prison and read passages from his book. The fêting of a man cited by Maoist leaders as an inspiration for their struggle highlights the sympathy the insurgency enjoys among urban intellectuals and students.

For them the rebels articulate legitimate grievances of India’s most marginalised citizens even if they don’t support their violent tactics.

As P. Chidambaram, India’s interior minister, steps up his offensive against the guerrillas, he is waging an intensifying battle against the rebels’ urban support base.

New Delhi warned this month that intellectuals and academics disseminating “Maoist propaganda” could face up to 10 years imprisonment, a threat denounced by human rights groups as stifling debate.

“Let us have no illusion about what they want,” Mr Chidambaram said of the rebels during a parliamentary debate. “Their goal is the seizure of political power. Their method is armed revolutionary struggle.”

As New Delhi has poured paramilitary forces into Maoist-dominated territory over the past year, media-savvy rebel leaders have given numerous interviews, insisting that their struggle is a “just war” on behalf of those trampled by India’s drive for economic growth – mainly impoverished tribal people, whose land is coveted by companies eager to tap mineral wealth.

The rebel message is echoed by supporters such as Mr Rao. “Don’t go by our means, go by our cause,” said Mr Rao, who represented the Maoists in shortlived talks with authorities in 2004. “It is not just a question of violence or counter-violence. It’s a question of justice.

“Thousands and thousands of acres, the whole forest, are being given to big companies and multinationals.”

His support echoes the backing that Maoist and radical peasant movements received from intellectuals in Peru, Mexico, Nepal and elsewhere. The Indian guerrillas’ most prominent sympathisers include Arundhati Roy, the author, who called the rebels “people who live with their dreams, while the rest of the world lives with its nightmares” in a lyrical travelogue.

“I’m surrounded by these strange, beautiful children with their curious arsenal,” she wrote. “They’re all Maoists for sure . . . Are they all going to die? . . . What for? To turn all of this into a mine?”

However, Mr Chidambaram insists that the rebels must renounce violence as a precursor to talks.

The government depicts the rebels as brutalising the tribal people whose interests they claim to protect and cites their destruction of schools and roads. Mr Chidambaram has repeatedly demanded that “those who have, erroneously, extended intellectual and material support” to the Maoists condemn their violence.

“The fight is on in the field and the propaganda war is being fought in the front pages,” said K. Srinivas Reddy, a Hyderabad-based journalist for The Hindu who has observed the Maoist movement for decades.

The propaganda war is not going well for the government. In public, many urban Indians, including former police and Congress party politicians, have said the movement reflects profound socio-economic problems.

The New Indian Express called on Mr Chidambaram to drop his insistence that the rebels abandon violence as a precursor to talks.

N. Venugopal, a member of the Revolutionary Writers’ Association, predicted that clamour for the government to open talks will grow, fuelled by guilt over rising inequities.

“The middle class is realising it is a logical consequence of government inaction,” he said of the insurgency. “If the government had done development, things would not have happened like this. To get away from their guilty feeling, [the middle class] are saying ‘come in for talks’.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.

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