“People’s Movements” vis-a-vis the Maoist Rebellion in India: The Case of Himanshu Kumar

Nisha Mehta

Amidst the current gruesome war of the state power in India against a section of its own poorest people rebelling under the leadership of the Communist Party of India (CPI) (Maoist), the recent episodes of persecution of Himanshu Kumar (HK hereafter), the avowedly Gandhian activist running Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA), by the Governments of Chhattisgarh and India are poignant as well as curious. The incidents of persecution are too well-known: how his ashram was shut down and bulldozed, how one of his main co-worker, Kopa Kunjam has been arrested, and finally how his attempts at a padayatra and jan-sunwai (people’s hearing) were blocked. (A summary of these can be found in the collection at Sanhati; there are videos too where we find HK himself summarizing these episodes (Video 1, Video 2).

One of the salutary features of these episodes is that HK himself seems to have been changing his political views gradually. So, below we summarize some lessons that appear to stand out from these episodes: especially regarding the understandings of revolutionary Marxism in India on the correct path of emancipating the poor in the country vis-a-vis the understandings of the specific issue-based “people’s movements”. This seems quite important as one perennial complaint against the CPI (Maoist), from Nandigram to Lalgarh, is that they have been regularly `hijacking’ spontaneous people’s movements geared toward some immediate goals to convert these into components of the broader struggle for seizure of political power by the working class and the poor. Below we try to understand whether these incidents with HK provide some justification for the perception and the corresponding revolutionary strategies of CPI (Maoist).

To put succinctly, these episodes seem to raise the questions whether any serious attempt to emancipate the deprived people in India has to, perforce, develop into an explicit class-war against the state and whether sufficient democratic space is currently present in our country for sustaining a serious movement in this regard while remaining within the existing structure of legal polity.

A. What is the nature of the state:

One of the very first lessons of Marxist understanding is that “the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of “order”, which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes” (Lenin: The State and Revolution). The further elaboration by Lenin is very well-known but still worth-remembering:

“In the opinion of the petty-bourgeois politicians, however, order means the reconciliation of classes, and not the oppression of one class by another; to alleviate the conflict means reconciling classes and not depriving the oppressed classes of definite means and methods of struggle to overthrow the oppressors. … the “Kautskyite” distortion of Marxism is far more subtle. “Theoretically”, it is not denied that the state is an organ of class rule, or that class antagonisms are irreconcilable. But what is overlooked or glossed over is this: if the state is the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, if it is a power standing above society and “alienating itself more and more from it”, it is clear that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class and which is the embodiment of this “alienation”.”

Obviously, CPI (Maoist), following this understanding, specified the class character of the Indian state (rightly or wrongly) and the battle led by them in Chhattisgarh is directed against what they perceive to be the constituents of this state power.

HK avowedly perceived state in a different way. He seems to have understood the Indian government and its constitution to be quite sacrosanct. He repeatedly claimed that his aim was to assist government’s own work in perfectly legal ways (he has elaborated on this in his speech available as a four-part video in as well as in his interview). But it seems that when his apparently tame efforts at some seemingly harmless issue-based movements (like rehabilitating the villagers driven away by Salwa Judum) came into conflict with the class interests of what CPI (Maoist) would call the monopolistic capital and their ally of comprador bureaucratic bourgeoisie, the Indian state did not hesitate to brush aside HK, his reconciliatory moralistic rhetorics notwithstanding. This raises the question once again: whether it is possible to continue a serious ‘people’s movement’ on any issue of fundamental importance without making it culminate into a war against the existing state.

B. To mobilize on the basis of what identities:

A person can, and often does, have several identities: nation, colour, class, religion, gender etc. From a Marxist standpoint, class is the most important identity among these. This perception is rooted in the Marxist conception of materialistic foundation of historical development. Thus, from Marxist point of view, one basic political task of the revolutionary left is to organize the oppressed people mainly along class lines.

Again, as a classic and unequivocal illustration of this point, Lenin’s writing in the context of Jewish workers in Russia can be put forward:

“The great slogan “Workers of all countries, unite!”, which was proclaimed for the first time more than half a century ago, has now become more than the slogan of just the Social-Democratic parties of the different countries. This slogan is being increasingly embodied both in the unification of the tactics of international Social-Democracy and in the building of organisational unity among the proletarians of the various nationalities…

The Bund’s mistake is a result of its basically untenable nationalist views; the result of its groundless claim to be the sole, monopolistic representative of the Jewish proletariat, from which the federalist principle of organisation necessarily derives; the result of its Long-standing policy of keeping aloof and separate from the Party. We are convinced that this mistake must be rectified and that it will be rectified as the movement continues togrow. We consider ourselves ideologically at one with the Jewish Social-Democratic proletariat. After the Second Congress our Central Committee pursued a non-nationalist policy; it took pains that such committees should be set up (Polesye, North-Western) as would unite all the local workers, Jewish as well as non-Jewish, into a single whole”. (To the Jewish Workers)

HK seems initially to have perceived the adivasis of Chhattisgarh having a pristine identity of their own. He still invokes this idea:

“There are three types of poor – (i) those who survive on your riches – the balloonseller, the domestic servant, construction workers; (ii) those who feel they are unworthy of being rich; they feel they are low caste, uneducated; they can never be rich; and (iii) those like the adivasis who were living happily in the forests till you invaded their land to make yourself richer.” (Economic and Political Weekly, Nov 21, 2009, p.12)

However, the CPI (Maoist) would characterize current phase of the struggle in backward Chhattisgarh in class terms. International monopolistic capital and their ally of comprador bureaucratic bourgeoisie are grabbing the means of production and this specific method of accumulating capital is determined by the pre-capitalist production relations existing in Chhattisgarh: non-anonymous hegemony of a dominant class that imposes unfreedom on productive activities (including surplus appropriation) of the broad masses of people (see also, Tugge: “Two Paths of Development”, People’s March, December 2007).

The curious thing is that HK himself is coming round to a similar perception! (see his speech). He is explicitly going beyond any tribal identity: he is now talking about the 20% of people in India expropriating the remaining 80% and using the coercive state apparatus to hold the expropriated in check. So, from this, the question again arises whether any serious `people’s movement’ in India can do without a conscious scaffolding of class-based mobilization.

C. How meaningful are the existing Indian democratic institutions:

It is quite well-known that CPI (Maoist) considers the existing structure of democratic institutions in India as a sham which is quite in conformity with their goal of bringing about the New Democratic Revolution, ostensibly to usher in true `people’s democracy’. From such an understanding emerges their strategy of boycotting parliamentary elections, one component of the democratic institutions. This strategy has been disputed a lot and earned them a good deal of criticisms.

In contrast, HK tried to use these existing democratic institutions, MPs, ministers, judiciary… so far as possible for his efforts. His mode of movement was also entirely what is understood to be democratic mass movement. But he attained almost no palpable success. Finally he has had to leave Chhattisgarh convinced that the existing democratic institutions there are merely a sham.

Again, this makes us remember that Lenin is quoted famously by all the parliamentary left parties in India in justifying their primary attachment to electioneering:

“it has been proved that, far from causing harm to the revolutionary proletariat, participation in a bourgeois-democratic parliament, even a few weeks before – the victory of a Soviet republic and even after such a victory, actually helps that proletariat to prove to the backward masses why such parliaments deserve to be done away with; it facilitates their successful dissolution, and helps to make bourgeois parliamentarianism “politically obsolete”.” (Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder).

Perhaps the unsuccessful but sincere efforts of HK serve the same purpose–participating in these institutions to the fullest possible extent to expose their limitations. These experiences of HK, curiously, seem to prove the point claimed by CPI (Maoist)! I hope I am wrong. This should also make the `people’s movements’ in India trying to work within the present set-up to improve this set up from within think more about the fruitfulness of their efforts.


  1. This article raises some key issues, but fails to really engage with them because of the example chosen. Himanshu Kumar ran a consciously Gandhian NGO concerned primarily with service activities. His organisation neither attempted to organise people into issue based struggles nor to build a mass based political formation. His statements, including those quoted here, would be criticised by many such organisations in any case. As such it is unclear how the author is treating him as a representative of “people’s movements”. There is certainly a need for a debate and self-criticism on the part of people’s movements and democratic mass organisations vis a vis their understanding of the state, Indian society and the Indian polity. But we do not facilitate that debate through what is essentially a ‘straw man’ argument – equating all non-Maoist “progressives” into one category.

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