After Roopesh, alleged chief of the Western Ghats Zonal Committee of CPI (Maoist), his wife Shyna, and three others were arrested this week, a former Naxal leader from Kerala remarked that the state had no Naxalites, only “Exalites” (ex-Naxalites). There is some truth in the witticism. Maoist activity in Kerala has been limited mostly to distributing leaflets and pasting posters in isolated adivasi hamlets. An active Maoist movement is absent, and is unlikely to emerge in the near future.
Maoism had its moment in Kerala in the late 1960s and 1970s. Naxalbari had a resonance in the state, which was home to a vibrant communist movement with a history of agrarian and working class mobilisation. Radicalised sections of the CPM, unhappy with the parliamentary path to political change, agreed with Charu Majumdar.
Internationally, the 1960s was a heady decade for radical rebellions. The first phase of Naxalism in Kerala drew in people who were associated with the communist parties and had a record of political activism. A thousand political lines and groups bloomed with action focussed on “annihilation of class enemies”. Police killed Varghese, arguably the only mass leader to emerge from the Naxalite movement, in a fake encounter, and arrested most of the leaders.
The second spurt came in the months before the Emergency, when a young K Venu rallied around various groups to form a party. But this too was short-lived, as the police arrested most of them.
The third phase was just after the Emergency, when the Naxalites resorted to mass action. Interventions like putting corrupt doctors on public trial and cultural activities under the banner of Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi helped them gain influence.
This was also the phase when many talented youth, writers, theatre activists were drawn to the movement. But internal dissensions and the inability to sustain political activism in an open and dialogic framework led to disintegration of the movement in the 1980s. Venu disbanded his party, and the politically active “Exalites” went on to re-invent themselves as public activists, championing causes that mainstream politics had ignored — gender, environment, etc.
Activists like Roopesh, shaped by the politics of the CPI (Maoist), recall the first-generation Naxalites in their rhetoric — apparently ignoring the radical changes Kerala has undergone since then. Social and economic oppression do exist, but the most oppressed groups, including the adivasis, have found agency — and are no longer waiting for political saviours to “educate” them or to fight their causes. Adivasis — favoured by the Naxalites in the 1960s and Maoists in this century — have, for instance, produced fine leaders such as C K Janu in Kerala, who express political concerns within a rights-based framework.
Numerous struggles, on issues from land to environment, dot Kerala’s political landscape. Blue collar employees ignored by trade unions, such as textile shop floor workers and nurses, electorally small segments like the landless, raise their voice within the democratic space. Their concerns are specific, demands precise, and their language is of rights. A vibrant media, especially the noisy TV channels, ensure that the political class is forced to confront the agitations. In a highly competitive electoral space, where narrow margins decide elections, no political party can afford to ignore any protest for long. The campuses prefer to organise and protest on social media, and have succeeded in making their concerns heard — the ‘Kiss of Love’ protest against social conservatism was an example. The presence of a vibrant civil society that keeps constant watch on the political mainstream — which is mostly responsive — is one reason why movements such as Anna Hazare’s fail to gain traction in Kerala.
The Maoist political thought and plan is a clear misfit in Kerala. Their revolutionary rhetoric and pretensions have no constituency. They have not initiated a single popular struggle in Kerala, nor can they join any. They do not even recognise that their political moment is past — or that it perhaps never existed. Their impact has been mostly negative, such as exposing unsuspecting and vulnerable sympathisers to police harassment. What is true, though, is that their fleeting appearances in the Western Ghats have forced the political mainstream to engage with issues like usury in adivasi hamlets and indiscriminate quarrying.
Most of the first-generation communists in Kerala cut their teeth in the social reform or freedom movement, and recognised the local context and their lineage early. They abandoned the adventurist line in the 1940s, opting for mass action and electoral democracy. That helped to build up a democratic revolution in Kerala over the decades, now reflected in the state’s development indices.
Kerala will surely debate the Maoist arrests in the coming days. A rainbow coalition of various anti-Maoist voices could emerge to voice the right of the arrested people to be treated as political prisoners and to get a fair trial, and to guard against police harassment of genuine citizen activists. But that is a kind of democratic morality that Maoists are unlikely to recognise or understand.