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The Indian & Chinese models and the Maoist surge in South Asia today

by Dayan Jayatilleka

South Asia has witnessed more significant anti-systemic ideological conflicts than most areas of the world outside of East Asia and Latin America. Sri Lanka was the site of two Southern upheavals, in 1971 and 1986-90, from within the majority ethnic community, led by the ultra-left xenophobic Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Bangladesh experienced the rather more romantic radical left led military mutiny of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) in the mid 1970s. While the most successful has been the Nepali Maoist struggle, which briefly assumed power in a narrative that is as yet unfolding, the most portentous, if only because of its location, is India’s Maoist insurgency which as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has recently noted, has a forty year history and has seen a contemporary resurgence.

The radical insurgency has been shocking because of its persistence or renewal, but more so because India is the new model for the global South, combining high growth with secular democracy and quasi federalism. It is regarded as a template for the politics of unity in diversity. According to theory, a radical revolutionary insurgency should not persist, still less expand in the face of high growth and democracy. As we shall examine later in this paper, the insurgency actually serves as an early warning sign of (social) systemic stress.

In Nepal, the situation is opaque, with a Maoist party that is paradoxically far more sophisticated than those of the politically infinitely more evolved India, is biding its time for a renewed surge which may be political, military or both. What happens in Nepal has strategic consequences far beyond its borders, most obviously in the ripple effects of example it holds for the Maoist insurgency in India.

The intra-state anti-systemic conflicts in the region, again most dramatically exemplified by the Sri Lankan far-left insurgencies of 1971 and the late 1980s, are in decline or dormant with the important exceptions of the complicated dynamics in Nepal and the recrudescent and proliferating Maoist insurgency in India.


Unlike the JVP and the LTTE of Sri Lanka, the Maoists of Nepal knew when to switch from armed struggle to negotiation, mass struggle and parliamentary politics. In short they were Leninists, had correctly calculated the conjuncture and changing correlation of forces, and mastered “all forms of struggle”. Had the JVP and LTTE possessed a leadership with this same political literacy, education, clarity and maturity, neither Wijeweera nor Prabhakaran would be ignominiously dead, with their leadership core, military cadre, and armed rebellions decimated.

Nepal today is reminiscent of Portugal in 1975-6, a situation of virtual dual power which could go either way. In Portugal the revolutionaries were divided and not themselves armed, but their allies in the armed forces were. In Nepal, the armed forces have few revolutionary sympathizers if any, but the revolutionary forces are themselves armed to some degree, despite the demilitarization. The advance of the radical left in Portugal was thwarted by the revived power of the Social democratic Left led by Mario Soares and the ambiguity of the pro-Moscow Communists led by Alvaro Cunhal. The revolutionary was itself a congeries of armed radical groupuscules or focus. In Nepal however, though the Left is divided there is a cohesive vanguard party with a national leader, Pushpakumar Dayal; there is no strong social democratic intermediary and one doubts whether the unarmed Left is able to play such a role. Above all, the relatively unchanged character of the land tenure systems provides purchase for the Maoists. At the moment the situation is characterized by what Antonio Gramsci called catastrophic equilibrium – an equilibrium of forces tending towards catastrophe.

The Maoists seem readier to take the initiative, and one given the seemingly zero sum nature of the issue in dispute, the character of the armed forces and control over them, it may be impossible to avoid another bout of armed or politico-military conflict in which Pushpakumar Dayal may return to his nom de guerre Comrade Prachanda ( comrade Violence). Compromise arrangements regarding the armed forces during transitions in Latin America, for instance Nicaragua when the Sandinistas were vacating the seats of power in 1990 should be urgently studied for possible solutions to this impending conflict at the heart of which is of course the question of whether the assumption of power by the Maoists has a teleological inevitability as they seem to believe, or not, and whether the only route will be that of elections and respect for the democratic institutional and state order. To gain acceptability and legitimacy though, that order, which has not yet crystallized, will have to be thoroughly negotiated and agreed upon by consensus, with neither side, the revolutionaries nor the Establishment politicians and classes, attempting a unilateral push forward or roll back, i.e. an insurrection or a putsch, using armed force. At the moment, the prospects for such a peaceful resolution are few and will remain so unless there is sustained South Asian engagement.


The issue of resolving India’s growing Maoist insurgency brings us to a cluster of crucial problems and debates, not least is a comparison of the Indian and Chinese development miracles, their respective futures, the prospects of each to function as a model, and the potential global role of each of these emergent Asian powers. Those who bet on India hold that the Indian political system, its combination of multiparty democracy and quasi federalism provides greater long term sustainability and a guarantee of success for the Indian model, while China’s regulated, regimented or closed political system constitutes an Achilles’ heel in terms of the management of contradictions. The contrary view holds that it is precisely China’s political system that permits the management of social and political contradictions in a manner that contains fissiparous tendencies and makes for long term stability while India’s multiple contradictions could smolder and ignite into Naipaul’s ‘million mutinies’.

While the jury will remain out for quite some time on this debate, the reactivation and rapid proliferation of India’s Maoist insurgency does shed light on the weak link of India’s development. That weak link or the weakest of those links is not in Kashmir or the Northeast, but in the Indian socioeconomic formation itself. Asymmetric warfare in India follows the fault-lines and fissures of India’s asymmetric development. Those fault-lines are social or socioeconomic and stem from the problem of the extremely uneven development of India’s capitalism.

60 years after the founding of the Peoples Republic, it is possible to discern the most important continuities between the Maoist and post Maoist periods. This is not only the obvious one of the continuing rule of the Communist party, but a deeper, less apparent one. I refer to the fact that the massive radical agrarian revolution of Mao has laid the foundation for successful industrialization – some might say capitalist development – of China. This is perhaps the longer term strength of the Chinese model, just as its non-revolutionary, even counter-revolutionary variant has been a key to the South East Asian success stories of South Korea and Taiwan. India by contrast, has experienced a development miracle while not having resolved the agrarian question, the question of archaic systems of land tenure; the question of the persistence of a class of large landowners who engage in coercive social control; and the related question of caste oppression or the peculiar combination of class and caste.

If one were to use the schema of the bourgeois democratic revolution, be it in its Marxian version or that of Barrington Moore, it is possible to conclude that both India and China have fulfilled the tasks of national unification, though that is not without its challenges at their peripheries. However, while India has set up a democratic republic in the political sphere, which is one of the tasks and targets of the so-called bourgeois revolutions, it has not completed its agrarian or rural accompaniment. China on the other hand has, though it has obviously eschewed the setting up of a bourgeois democratic republic. Thus India has completed the political but not the social aspect of the classic bourgeois democratic revolution while it is arguably the other way round in the case of China. India’s capitalist development more closely approximates the path of Tsarist Russia or the Prussian path, rather than the American path, if one may use the typology pioneered by the young Lenin in his The Development of Capitalism in Russia. It is India’s advanced political system that has prevented a system-wide crisis resulting from this socioeconomic unevenness. However, that political system has been unable to prevent the persistence and progress of the Maoist rural insurgency.

A scenario of the countrywide or even state wide seizure of power by the Indian Maoists is wildly improbable. India is heavily industrial and modern while the insurgency is not. The maximum it may be able to achieve is the combination of a rural spread with urban guerrilla attacks such during the Naxalite insurgency of the late 1960s and early 1970s or the Peruvian Shining Path guerrilla experience. The very existence of a strong electoral democratic system and a trade unionist Left, the CPI-M and the CPI, guarantee the failure of the Maoist insurgency in terms of its ultimate objective. However, the problems that it feeds off, namely rural backwardness and caste oppression, coupled with the radical insurgency that these fuel, and the escalating costs of counter-insurgency could have a cumulative and growing drag effect on the Indian economic miracle. Given the vastness of the Indian population, that drag effect could cause system-wide dissonance if it slows down India’s growth over time.

The prospects for conflict resolution in India depend on the readiness of its political class to engage in sweeping agrarian reforms which would in turn mean a realignment of socio political forces in the countryside. Already where the BJP is strong, the landlord classes feel freer to engage in violence against the poorer peasantry and subaltern castes, which in turn triggers a response from the Maoists. The challenge is before the Congress as to whether it can spearhead a thoroughgoing reform and modernization of India’s rural social and ideological relations. The hope and the irony is that India already has the ideas and concepts necessary for the task, Amartya Sen being only the best known to argue for the necessity and feasibility of combining growth, equity and democracy.

[Excerpted from the paper on Prospects for Conflict Resolutions in South Asia presented by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka at the 5th International Conference on South Asia organized by the Institute for South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore.]


In Srilanka, JVP uprising was brought under controlled by murdering over 20,000 Sinhala youths.
LTTE was brought by murdering over 30,000 Tamil civilians and many LTTE cadres + all villages wiped out.
I do not think Nepali government (Military) wanted to murder their own citizens as we do.

Posted by: aratai | November 23, 2009 12:55 PM


The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ...We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ...In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

Posted by: galn.eagle | November 24, 2009 04:20 AM

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