17 October, 2015

Revolution and the Maoists

“The duty of the revolutionary is to make the revolution. To push history, to catalyze, is the function of the revolutionary
-       Second Havana Declaration (1962)

If one had to do Janajudhha (People’s War) for a health centre, one might as well do it
-       As told to a journalist by an Old Man at Jangalmahal, West Bengal (India)

On 11 April 2015, a group of stealthily positioned 200 odd Maoist guerrillas ambushed a team of Special Task Force [STF] security personnel in the forests of Pidmal at Sukma. Chattisgrah. 7 STF jawans were martyred. Moving northwards of Sukma, the Maoists torched 18 heavy-duty vehicles on 12 April at Kanker. Same day, a Border Security Force [BSF] soldier was killed by the ultras. The very next day, at their core location – Dantewada, the communist guerrillas wiped out 5 jawans of Chattisgarh Armed Forces [CAF]. The Maoists even did not permit 300 odd Central Reserve Police Force [CRPF] and STF personnel to retrieve the bodies of the 7 STF jawans from the forest. Finally, local journalists were asked to help retrieve the bodies. The blood-game is on. Or maybe the revolution !

The battle-lines were drawn – since 1967 in its erstwhile avatar of Naxalism, and since 2004 in its new-found leotard of Maoism. The war, call it ‘the Bad War’ or the standard terminology of Civil War, took a breather since last week of May 2013, when Mahendra Karma, the architect of Salwa Judum and octogenarian leader of the Congress, V C Shukla lost their lives in an ambush at Darbhaghati, Chattisgarh. Security forces turned rather vigilant and targeted approach against the leadership of the Maoists worked with sharp precision. Nevertheless, the guerrillas continued their fluid dynamics – attempting to spread in Western Ghats, Kerala and if reports are to be relied upon, in the Barak Valley of Assam. The ultras have lamented, among other issues, the elimination and incarceration of their top leadership, lack of recruits, weaning away of cadres through the financially lucrative rehabilitation policy of the government.

Some fundamental lessons have been drawn from the Cuban revolution by the scholars, which inter alia, are:
-       Popular forces can win against the army
-       Insurrection can create the conditions of the revolution; rather than to wait for the objective conditions to develop; &
-       In under-developed America [read Latin America], the countryside is the basic area of armed fighting

While theorising the Cuban Revolution, Foran says that the combination of five factors led to the formation of revolutionary conditions in Cuba. These, according to Foran, were:

§  Social and economic grievances among diverse sectors of the population due to the country’s insertion into the capitalist world economy
§  Repressive, exclusionary and personalist state
§  Elaboration of effective and powerful political cultures of resistance
§  A revolutionary crisis produced due to an economic downturn
§  Loosening of external controls

However, debate continued whether the revolution in Cuba was pushed by the people from below or initiated by the vanguard foco through a lateral shove? Che Guevara was rather strict in believing as well as proclaiming that the vanguard foco was the primary cause for the revolution in Cuba. In fact, Guevara’s increasing theoretical rigidity was visible in the prologue he wrote to Van Nguyen Giap’s “People’s War, people’s Army”. There, he stated that in Vietnam, the liberation struggle began with a mobile guerrilla foco. Similar in rhetoric was the French philosopher Regis Debray. He seems to have refuted the Leninist position of a vanguard party when he opined:

“…………….the presence of a vanguard party is not an indispensable pre-condition for the launching of an armed struggle.”
[p. 53 “Castroism: The Long March in Latin America”]

Nevertheless, Debray was prudent enough to say that in order to improvise crisis situations, every country and every locality has its own special historical time, its own pace and its own speed of development. [Debray, p. 130, “Prison Writings, Time and Politics”]

Theorising Revolutions

Some 68 million human beings, according to the most careful estimates, perished in the 150 years between 1820 to 1970, due to human violence – murder, riot, war and revolutions. [Prosterman 1976, as quoted in Ekkart Zimmermann: Political Violence, Crises and Revolutions, 1983 Routledge]

One prominent sociologist has argued that our understanding of revolutions needs to be positively liberated from the ‘Panglossian metanarratives’ – like the grand theories of social change, viz. Marxist, Weberian and Durkheimian [Goodwin 1994]. The fact of the matter is theoretical over-generalisations to describe revolutions have remained a contentious issue. Moreover, in the post-modern era of theoretical analysis, there is an increasing incredulousness of meta-narratives.

Further, according to Goldstone, revolutions are the result of conjunction of three processes:
§  State-fiscal crisis
§  Elite alienation
§  Mass mobilisation

And the specific forces that generate these processes may be quite different from one society to the rest. Gurr and Goldstone emphasise that revolutionaries derive popular support not from some pristinely “social” or “economic” condition(s), but from experiences. The authors wrote that regimes that have been toppled by revolutionary forces “followed policies that intensified grievances and formed popular anger against the state.” Goldstone’s theory suggests that a period of tremor and the emergence of coercive regimes are likely outcomes of a revolution. Now, this expectation of Goldstone is quite contrary to what is expected of a revolution – prolonged period of peace along with stable, comparatively democratic regimes. More so, Jeff Goodwin writes that if states are less repressive and disruptive, popular grievances are more likely to remain disarticulated as well as diffusely targeted – even where great inequality and exploitation reign. Collective protest, including political violence, may be chronic in such contexts, but revolution is unlikely [read the success of the revolution and not just mere initiation]
“Insurgents attempt to restore liberties and privileges which are lost as the result of the government’s temporary lapse into despotism”, opines Hannah Arendt (1965). Interestingly in 1964, Rosenau defined ‘Structural Wars’ as goal of insurgents to introduce social and economic changes – a definition primarily associated with Communist revolutions. A plethora of scholarship is available on revolutions. For instance, Samuel Huntington (1962) has suggested a classification of revolutions into four categories:

§  Internal Wars / Mass Revolutions / Structural Wars
§  Revolutionary Coup [as by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey post World War I]
§  Reform Coup
§  Palace Revolutions

The conceptual construct of Revolutionary Gap is pertinent to mention in this connection. The gap between Expectations and Aspirations is termed the Revolutionary Gap and wider it is the longer and the more violent the revolution may be. However, considerable credit goes to Jack A Goldstone in building a fourth generation Theory of Revolutions. While Barrington Moore Jr. (1966), Jeffery Paige (1975), S. N. Eisentadt (1978), and Theda Skocpol (1994), among others, expounded upon the old Marxist class-conflict approach to construct the third generation Theory of Revolutions; Goldstone offers a comparatively more contemporary definition of Revolution:

a transformation of political institutions and for the justification for political authority, accompanied by formal or informal mass mobilisation and non-institutionalised actions that undermine existing authorities.”

To add, Foran (1997) has rightly argued that revolution is impossible without drawing on a “culture of rebellion” from widely remembered prior conflicts; viz. the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (in 1970s) drew their inspiration from the peasant leader named Sandino who fought against American domination at the beginning of the century, and the Zapatistas in Mexico derived their name from peasant leader Zapata of the Mexican revolution in 1910. And why to ignore the Maoist upsurge in the Adivasi heartland of India which connects itself with the innumerable micro and macro tribal insurrections during the colonial regime – be it Munda-Ulgulan, Sido / Kanho Santhal, the Bhils or so forth.

Furthermore, Tanter and Midlarsky hypothesize as under:

1.     A revolution is operationally defined by domestic violence and duration
2.     The higher the rate of increase of Gross National product per population, preceding the revolution and the sharper the reversal immediately prior to the revolution; the greater the duration and violence of the revolution
3.     The lower the level of educational attainment prior to the revolution, the greater the duration and violence of the revolution

The above hypotheses were tested across seventeen cases of successful revolutions from 1955 to 1960. The conclusions that emerged were that the hypotheses turned out to be validated in the case of Asian revolutions, whereas fell flat while analysing the Latin American types. Interestingly however, even after four generations of theorisations of Revolutions, the emotive definition posited by Lenin in the “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution” still holds much of its ground: 

Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other time are the masses of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order.”

“Why Indian Men Rebel?” was an interesting paper authored by K C Vadlamannati, published in Journal of Peace research (2011). He analysed the causes for armed rebellion in India’s North-East. Relative deprivation, persistent economic and political discrimination are often identified as the major causes for armed insurrection in that region. Quantitative analysis was carried out on data from 1970 to 2007. The paper zoomed in on certain hypotheses. In the first, it held out that ceteris paribus, the relative deprivation of a state / region compared to the rest of the country [India] is associated with the higher risk of armed conflict in North-East India. Further, in the third hypothesis, the author states that ceteris paribus, constant economic and political discrimination against ethnic groups increases the risk of armed conflicts by facilitating group cohesion and collective mobilisation.  The analysis for North-East becomes relevant for the Maoist heartland in Central India due to presence of tribals in those regions.

Maoist Insurgency in Bihar-Jharkhand: Root Causes

Now, what was the raison d’etre for the outburst by the dailts of Bihar in the late 1960s? Bela Bhatia focuses on a few of them. First and foremost was lack of just wages to the village labourers; a perennial problem. Next contentious issue was the ownership of the village pond. It was unjustifiably usurped by the landlord(s) and since it was a source of fish, thus protein, the issue added to the hues of the dalit-villagers. Other significant factors were the lack of proper housing and presence of criminal gangs and freebooters, at times in collusion with the landlord(s). Last but the most important was the restoration of izzat (dignity or honour) of the dalit men and women amongst the village folk through the gun supplied by the Maoists.

Has there been any abatement in the violence in the Bihar-Jharkhand region with the erection of parliamentary structures over the last four decades? Has there been any emancipation of the common-folks after seeing a new tribal-based province and two backward caste-Chief Ministers on the trot? Have the basic problems which helped earn a Jagdish Mahato and Rameshwar Ahir of Bhojpur (killed respectively in 1972 and 1975) the epithets of Marx and Engels, been alleviated?

Bela Bhatia asserts that at the village level in Bihar, people had joined the Naxalite movement because of their instinctive approach against injustice. They hardly, according to Bhatia’s analysis, could be branded as ‘informed revolutionaries’. Those ideologically motivated folks, quite expectedly, were the leaders at the block level and upwards. For the hoi-polloi of Bihar’s grass-roots, an exposition to complex Marxist-Leninist-Maoist literature provided little amelioration. What, however, they demanded of the Naxalites were the basic rights. Once the movement could satiate the masses with a part of their demand, once Yadavs got entrenched in the political scene in Bihar, and with the formation of Jharkhand, Naxalite leaders had to seek other avenues to save their existence and ideology.

After all, a protracted guerrilla warfare to usher in a New Democratic Revolution [NDR] so as to supplant the incumbent bourgeoisie governmental structure needs years and loads of patience. Hence, time and again, the Maoist leaders need to pump in ‘political consciousness’ in the cadres through wanton acts of terror: be it against the official constabulary or upper caste/class elements or lumpen elements within the movement or even petty ‘informers’.

In West Bengal, as this author gathered from journalist Joydeep Dasgupta, that after Kishenji’s death in November 2011, the Maoists almost disappeared. However, the Central Reserve Police Forces [CRPF] were not withdrawn. Locals call the Maoists as “Bon Party” [Bon means Jungle in the Bengali language]. Dasgupta further informed that development works are on in the Janglamahal region [comprising the districts of Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore] and the locals have started relying on the local administration. Well, this author spoke with the local administration – and the information which was gleaned, was not surprising at all. The Maoists are trying to regroup in the Jangalmahal hills and they are infrequently seen in small reconnaissance squads.

Rationalising Guerrilla Warfare
Naturally it was only Mao who could have said: “Guerrilla hostilities is the University of War”

Mao had given a detailed Do’s and Dont’s for guerrillas. Guerrillas are lightly armed attack groups. They require simple equipments. The standard of arms and ammunition is based upon the nature of duties assigned. Since war equipments cannot be furnished immediately, they need to be acquired gradually. Telephone and radio equipments need to be obtained. At guerrilla bases, there must be high standard of medical equipment. Propaganda materials are very important too. Only volunteers are acceptable for service. It is a mistake to impress people into service. A soldier who habitually breaks regulations must be dismissed from the army. Vagabonds and vicious people must not be accepted for service. In the same vein, the Indian Maoists follow a similar and theoretically rather rigid formulation of initiating a novice into the guerrilla squad [see Uddipan Mukherjee,  “Patterns of Naxal Recruitment”, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, May 2014, Issue Brief 253]. Habit of taking opium / intoxicating drinks must be forbidden. And last but not the least; hierarchical organisation is very much necessary for revolutionary success.

Guerrilla strategy must be based primarily on alertness, mobility and attack. It must be adjusted to the enemy situation, the terrain, the existing strength, the weather and the mindset of the local population. When guerrillas engage a relatively stronger army, they withdraw when it advances, harass it when it stops, strike it when it is weary, and pursues it when it withdraws: a very similar picture emerges in the Maoist heartlands of India when the CRPF are ambushed often during their Area Domination Exercises.
In a war of revolutionary character, guerrilla operations are a necessary part. These operations are, however, one aspect of the revolutionary struggle. Without a political goal, guerrilla warfare fails. Moreover, as Gusev in “Lessons of Civil War” opines:

Orthodox armies are the fundamental and principal power; guerrilla units are secondary to them and assist in the accomplishment of the mission assigned to the regular forces.”

It is a well established empirical fact that guerrilla operations correlated with those of regular / conventional forces will provide victory. Vietnam is a potent case in point. The insurrection in South Vietnam culminated in success only when the conventional forces pumped in from the North Vietnamese side. Guevara confessed that the guerrilla phase of war on its own cannot lead to victory. Basing upon such empirical and theoretical backdrop, it could be safely surmised that the series of ambushes unleashed time and again by the Maoists against India’s security forces would necessarily produce ripples in the law and order circuit and could also send shock waves in the media circles, marking the television debates with inflammatory speculations; but in no way would topple India’s democracy – either in circa 2050 CE or soon thereafter.

Things to be worried about

Partha Sarathi Roy writing at Sanhati, narrates how the Maoists rose to prominence in Jangalmahal. Systemic corruption by political parties cutting across all spectrum at the Panchayat level, was to blame, tells Roy. The Maoists appeared in the scene towards the end of 1990s and as they have been at other places like Chattisgarh, were successful in enhancing the price of the forest produce; i.e. the tendu leaves. In fact, leaders like Suchitra Mahato started evolving since then. Nilanjan Dutta reported in Times of India (8 November 2002) that basic requirements like health centre, water for irrigation and electricity was the demands by the people of Belpahari. Majority of the local populace are landless labourers and go to other districts to eke out a living.  Rest cut babui grass and weave ropes and baskets. Further corroboration to this effect comes from Chandan Sinha in his memoirs, ‘Kindling of an Insurrection: Notes from Junglemahals”. An Indian Administrative Service officer, he was the District Magistrate of West Midnapore in 2004. He refers to a meeting with then Chief Secretary of West Bengal where the latter expressed the concerns of the provincial government about left wing extremism in the forested areas of West Midnapore. In fact, as narrated by Sinha, the Chief Secretary had visited the area himself and opined that the fundamental causes behind the rise of extremism in the area was lack of development and basic amenities. One can safely add police atrocities, financial exploitation of the tribals and peasants through middlemen and moneylenders and muscle-flexing by the cadres of mainstream political parties.

Police interestingly had been unnecessarily brutal on the villagers in the process of nabbing the ultras. It was a clear case of wrong counterinsurgency policy – whereby instead of winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population, they were further alienated. One villager, Kartik Raidas of Chakdoba village was frozen enough:
No, I was not tortured, they just gave me electric shocks.”

Behula Kalindi, another villager, brought out the humane side of the police, as Nilanjan Dutta deftly reported.

I will never forget the Chhotbabu [junior officer]. After beating me, he gave me his own tiffin – packet of Muri and Telebhaja [puffed rice and oil-fried snacks rolled in batter; a delicacy in this region of India] – to eat.”

In the aftermath of the elimination of Kishenji in November 2011, there was a definite dip in the Maoist activities in West Bengal. So was it that the movement was awfully leader-centric and the political consciousness of the masses of Jangalmahal was just at the elementary level and hence the movement petered out? Political activist, intellectual and former professor of Physics of Presidency College and an erstwhile Naxal himself, Dr Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri, wrote a scathing review of the situation:
The military activity of the squads remained disjoint to the activity of the masses.”

He continued in his patent fashion of narrating rather abstruse topics with elan while sipping black tea [the author witnessed several such sessions in Dr Rai Chaudhuri’s Cosmology and Electrodynamics classes at the Masters level in Presidency College], as he analysed:

The major factor leading to the decline of the movement was the weakness / absence of leadership among the struggling people of the Bengal-Jharkhand-Odisha border. Moreover, there was a conspicuous absence of the working class in the fray and no effective worker-peasant alliance.”

Rai Chaudhuri believes that without vibrant political leadership, the struggles of peasants will fizzle out. Rai Chaudhuri might be stressing more on ‘internal’ leadership than ‘external’ foco actors to foment a rebellion, but the fact of the matter remains that:

1.     Internal leaders from amongst the tribal / dalit / peasant groups would actually provide credible strength to the framework of rebellion in the hinterlands and sustain the larger ‘revolution’
2.     However, mere guerrilla tactics would not be a potent weapon to dislodge the firmly entrenched centralised bureaucracy.
3.     The Maoists do not seem to be in a position to win the favour of the Indian Armed Forces, nor are they formidable enough to erect their own conventional army. The strategic defence and stalemate stages of guerrilla warfare have extended too long in the sub-continent so as to create any substantial fears in the minds of the establishment.
4.     The Maoists, with their dogma of Socialist-Communist principles, hardly possess the wherewithal to penetrate into India’s burgeoning cities. They may still wean away certain disgruntled elements as well as romantic intellectuals, yet the level of participation of the urban folks is likely to remain dismal.
5.     Certain core territorial pockets may remain as guerrilla hideouts and bases and would continue to snatch away the succour of the administration, yet apart from intermittent and sporadic jitters, the Maoist movement is unlikely to pose any challenge to the six decades old Parliamentary democracy.

The bugle of Revolution was sounded in 1967 and thereafter many a times in several different locations within the Indian sub-continent, but the efficacy of the ‘strategy and tactics of the revolution’ was always under the scanner. The success of the revolution would require dictatorial-esque repression from the state and utterly lackadaisical attitude of the authorities in implementing development and security architecture in the geographical interior – a folly which the state hardly can afford and is a rather unthinkable scenario. There undoubtedly exists a ‘culture of rebellions’ in India’s interior, but the Revolutionary Gap is not wide enough to provide a material success to the revolutionaries in the foreseeable future.

About the author:
Dr Uddipan Mukherjee is in IOFS [Administration], under Ministry of Defence, Govt. of India, and serves in the rank [equivalent] of Deputy Director. He has been published widely in book-chapters, think-tanks, journo-magazines and websites; and referred to in theses, books and papers. He is pursuing analytical research on the Maoist movement in India since 2009. Views expressed, if any, are personal.

22 May, 2015

Maoists in Western Ghats: Propaganda or Substance?

[Roopesh (left) & Shyna (right), Courtesy: Google]

Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies

Article #4877, 21 May 2015



On 04th May 2015, in a bakery at a village near Coimbatore, Roopesh and his wife Shyna were arrested in a joint operation by the police of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The two have allegedly led Maoists in Kerala for years and are key strategists for the left-wing extremists.

It is germane to mention that the Maoists are attempting to push into northern Kerala for some time now. In November - December 2014, number of incidents at Palakkad and Wayanad districts indicated Maoist presence.

The latest issue (January-March 2015) of People’s March is out in public domain. Among many diverse revolutionary topics touched upon in the Maoist mouthpiece, the fundamental to be focused upon is the Politico-Military Campaign (PMC) in the Western Ghats. The essay shoots thus:

                       “Overcoming innumerable obstacles and snatching initiative, PLGA fighters and urban action team combatants led by the Western Ghats Special Zonal Committee (WGSZC) of the CPI (Maoist) have opened up a new warfront in the State of Keralam.”

The matter goes ahead further:

Some of these actions were done in broad day light through bold and rapid moves in urban centres, stunning the enemy and enthusing the people..”

The Maoists claim that “these actions were carried out as part of a PMC carried out over a three month period, from November 2014 till January 2015”. Moreover, the ultras believe this ‘success’ to be a “qualitative turn” in their revolutionary war. They admit that a similar initiative undertaken a decade earlier had been muted in the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala by the security forces.

In fact, an abysmal failure on the part of the ultras pushed them to form the Western Ghat Special Zonal Committee [WGSZC] to propel forward. The document tells that the Maoists had started to systematically infiltrate the tri-junction of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu & Kerala from May 2012 itself from their base at Malnad. Since February 2013, when the presence of the Maoists was exposed to the security forces, according to the narrative, the extremists developed contacts with the adivasi masses, practically and simultaneously propagated revolutionary politics and the necessity of armed struggle. The PLGA cadres also studied the socioeconomic conditions of the region. In parallel, the Maoists fought in the plane of propaganda against their ex-comrades, whom they with derision term “exalites”- who had dismissed the Maoist expansion in Kerala.

As per their suo-moto admission, the region of concentration of the Maoists in Kerala is inhabited by fifty odd adivasi tribes engaged in agriculture and herding. The Maoists, quite expectedly, have chosen their area of expansion having large concentration of agricultural and plantation workers – spanning both adivasis and dalits.

Historically, the Maoists attempt to gain strength and credence from the proud history of fierce resistance to British colonialism by the Kurichya adivasis during the late 18th and early 19th century in the Wayanad area. Wayanad was also one of the main areas of revolutionary struggles in Kerala during the armed peasant rebellion of Naxalbari.

Finally, the essay zooms out by saying that this particular campaign at the tri-junction and consequent foray into Kerala defies the tall claims of the Indian state that the Maoist movement is confined in the Central and Eastern spheres of India only.

Now, the pertinent issue is what could be gleaned out of the analysis of the narrative?

First, this ought to be construed as a major propaganda construct by the Maoists than reality. Though it is a matter of fact that reports confirmed Maoist presence at the Tri-junction of the three Indian provinces, however just a mere presence does not mean establishment of a guerrilla base. The presence is qualitative; no quantitative factors have been posited by the guerrilla group.

Second, the Maoists are still using the term PLGA – which categorically proves that they are still far off from the third and decisive phase of guerrilla warfare – that is, the Strategic Offense phase with the People’s Liberation Army being ready for a conventional war.

Third, the claims of attracting the youth and the urban folk must be taken less seriously. The fact remains that certain issues related to the urban proletariat and the students may allow the Maoists to creep in and generate a wave of sympathy amongst the urban youth and intellectuals; the Maoist movement is hundreds of miles away from gaining a considerable foothold in the growing urban network in India.

Nonetheless, a stream of aid from the city bases – howsoever fledgling, is a cause of worry for the security and intelligence forces of the Indian state. Also the fact that educated, yet disgruntled individuals like the law graduate Roopesh taking to left-wing extremism implies that cities and towns would continue to provide shelters and logistics to the ultras.

Fourth, such an attempted expansion towards the southern part of the sub-continent indicates that the Maoists are trying hard to break the stranglehold of the counter-insurgency operations unleashed by the security forces since the last four to five years. Moreover, by diversifying their bases, the Maoists are keeping their ‘Plan B option’ open. If indeed they are forced to evacuate their primary stronghold of Abujhmaad, they can re-settle in the new guerrilla base.

Nevertheless, it could be safely admitted that a serious attempt has been made by the Maoists to intrude the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. They are targeting the adivasi and dalit masses who live in marginal conditions. Militarily too, they are studying the geography of the region to create vantage points in order to ambush the police forces. Political propaganda is on. It would however, be prudent for the police forces and the law and order authorities to take their positions. It is however heartening to find that joint operations by the police forces of the four southern states are in swing – well compounded by intelligence inputs.

- Dr Uddipan Mukherjee, IOFS (ADMINISTRATION) [OFB, Min of Defence]

Views expressed are author’s own


20 March, 2015

Boko Haram: the Heart of Darkness

[slightly edited version] published in 

Geopolitics, Vol V, Issue X, March 2015, pp 68 - 71

Abstract: As Nigeria gears up for the Presidential elections, the incumbent Jonathan government faces more than a challenge in the form of the grotesque terrorism-cum-insurgency of Boko Haram. The Islamist group acts as a serious destabilising force in the region around Lake Chad. The world can hardly afford to ignore the notoriety of these African fanatics who have links with Al Qaeda and the ISIS. If Charlie Hebdo incident was significant, then Boko Haram surely is. 


In the first week of the new year, on 7th January, the office of the French weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, located at Paris, faced the brunt of the assault rifles. There were 11 casualties and 11 others were injured. A couple of men shouted "Allahu Akbar" while firing the shots. The gunmen identified themselves as belonging to Al-Qaeda's wing in Yemen. And on the same day, over 4000 km away, the terrorists of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams [ISIS] attempted to occupy the Syrian city of Kobani, and the essay of the torchbearers of terror was in its 115th day. 7 members of ISIS were confirmed killed in that foray.

The reaction of the French government to the Charlie Hebdo incident was understandably strong. January 8 was declared a day of national mourning. The whole world decried the dastardly act and the global media followed up with extraordinary alacrity. The French foreign minister Laurent Fabius termed the act of the Qaeda terrorists as plain and simple “barbarity”. And at a far distance away, the war with the ISIS was thoroughly being covered by the media across the world.

Nonetheless, a place went virtually unnoticed. Geographically located at extreme north-east of Nigeria, a town called Baga – in the province of Borno, the town is less than 200 km away from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno.  The town is close to Lake Chad. Between 3 January and 7 January 2015, a series of mass killings were committed in that fateful town by the ‘truly barbaric’ Boko Haram. Amnesty International reported close to 2000 dead. “Hundreds of bodies – too many to count – remain strewn in the bush in Nigeria from the Islamist extremist attack”, wrote the Guardian.

However, kudos to Simon Allison as he articulated the massacre perpetrated by the African Islamist terror group through a touching title : “I am Charlie, but I am Baga too………..”. Even he was a bit late, as it was already 5 days past the gory saga. He could very well be exonerated when one reads more into his article. The nearest journalists are situated hundreds of kilometres away from Baga. Information that reaches them is naturally delayed. But that definitely does not acquit the entire media of not focusing more on the carnage by Boko Haram. Is this the Africa-Europe divide with the latter receiving the attention which the elite is supposed to?

Interestingly, turning towards the militancy in question, this bloodbath happened just over a month before the national elections in Nigeria where current President Goodluck Jonathan will be running against Buhari, a candidate from the north. STRATFOR’s vice president for Africa analysis Mark Schroeder, tells clearly that the Jonathan government has really not emphasized a very strong or very efficient response to Boko Haram insurgency. It is southern Nigeria that possesses most of the oil and gas and has the commercial capital Lagos. “And so the absence of an efficient response to Boko Haram by the Jonathan administration will continue if Jonathan were to be re-elected”, surmises Schroeder. On the other ‘firm’ hand, Muhammadu Buhari is a northerner Nigerian, a former general, and it would be expected that if he is elected as president of Nigeria, he could turn out to be the much required nemesis for Boko Haram. The January attacks by Boko Haram on the Nigerian military base near Baga and the concomitant mass murders could be seen in that context. 

And further credence is lent to such theorisation when it is coupled that the worsening insecurity in the northern parts of Nigeria would mean that few international observers would likely get clearance to oversee voting in an area that is traditionally been supporting anti-incumbency. Moreover, around 1.5 million people have been displaced by the violence, many of whom will not be able to vote in the polls under Nigeria’s current electoral laws. All of these suit Boko Haram insurgents the most. To the contrary, the ultras have orchestrated bomb attack on Abuja in 2014 which shows that they are eager to push into core Nigeria and such events ought to perturb even the Jonathan government.

The Rise and ‘Another’ Rise of Boko Haram

It was in the 1990s, as the International Crisis Group [ICG] writes, that the Boko Haram grew out of a group of radical Islamist youth who worshipped at the Al-Haji Muhammadu Ndimi Mosque in Maiduguri. Its leader Mohammed Yusuf, began as a preacher and leader in the youth wing, Shababul Islam (Islamic Youth Vanguard), of Ahl-Sunnah - a Salafi group. Yusuf was a charismatic and popular Quranic scholar who spoke widely throughout north Nigeria. His literal interpretation of the Quran led him to forbid aspects of Western education he considered in contradiction to the holy book - such as the big bang theory of the universe, and elements of chemistry and geography. However, as the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations [CFR] opines, the Boko Haram was formally created in 2002 in Maiduguri, by Mohammed Yusuf. The sect’s core beliefs are strict adherence to the Quran and the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), and their interpretation as sanctioned by Ibn Taymiyyah - the preferred scholar of Mohammed Yusuf. Functionally, the group aims to establish a fully Islamic state in Nigeria, including the implementation of criminal sharia courts across the country. Importantly, it has concrete links with al-Qaeda and to an extent ISIS.

The official name of the Boko Haram group is actually Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means "People of the Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad Group". But the Hausa-speaking residents of Maiduguri, named it Boko Haram, tells BBC News. And the name translates from the local Hausa language to mean "Western education is a sin" – in fact, not very antagonistic to its actions and goals. Hardcore members of the group detest such a nomenclature though.
Yusuf didn't have complete control of the group, and after his alleged extra-judicial execution by the Nigerian police sometime in July 2009, his followers splintered into five to six factions. In fact, 2009-10 was the period of the second rise of the group, and in a far more deadly trajectory. Originally directed mainly at security forces and government officials, the insurgency-cum-terrorism has expanded to include attacks on Christians, Muslim clerics critical against their acts, suspected collaborators, UN agencies, and importantly schools. It has turned more into terrorism, targeting the innocent students at state secular schools and even health workers involved in polio vaccination campaigns. Boko Haram was arguably at its apex in early 2013, when it took control of large areas of Borno province. The military build-up of the Joint Task Force of the Nigerian government, the subsequent military offensive and use of vigilante groups have hurt the movement, but not quite impeded its rise. Boko Haram reportedly has resorted to forced conscription and recruiting of criminals and thugs in order to expand its base.

One of Yusuf’s unruly lieutenants was Abubakar Shekau. Presently, he supposedly holds the reins of the most lethal and deadly faction of the original Boko Haram. Interestingly, Nigeria's military claimed to have killed Shekau at least three times, yet videos of the leader threatening his enemies, congratulating his jihadi comrades in Iraq and Syria, and declaring an Islamic state continue to emerge. And as CFR argues in its backgrounder to the group, Nigerian officials and many experts are convinced that Shekau has become a brand adopted by leaders of different factions of Boko Haram, and that the men in the videos are actually look-alikes. Nevertheless, Boko Haram aka Shekau has repeatedly ruled out talks with the government, despite claims by some purported sect members that these were ongoing. Members who proposed dialogue were killed on ‘Shekau’s orders’, silencing other pro-dialogue individuals.

Nigerian soldiers in Goniri, Yobe state. Photo: 16 March 2015

Can the Violence be Curbed?

Boko Haram cannot be neatly characterized as an insurgency or terrorist organization, posts CFR, and quite correctly so. Though Boko Haram qualifies as an insurgency as per the rigors of the definition of the term set by political scientist Bard E. O’Neill : “Insurgency may be defined as a struggle between a nonruling group and the ruling authorities in which the former consciously uses ……………………….violence to destroy the ruling group and its legitimacy.” Moreover, the origins of Boko Haram are rooted in grievances over poor governance and sharp inequality in the Nigerian society. And as Nigeria analyst Chris Ngwodo writes, “……..the emergence of Boko Haram signifies the maturation of long-festering extremist impulses that run deep in the social reality of northern Nigeria”. It’s also a fact that terrorism is a form of warfare through which the violent aspect of insurgency is manifested. However, one cardinal principle which separates insurgency from terrorism is that insurgents do not intend to harm innocent civilians at large, not at least deliberately. And that’s where Boko Haram appears more terror-like, from rebellion towards apocalypse. Out of 2000 odd killed during their attack on Baga, most were hapless children and women. And not to speak of the 250 plus schoolgirls kidnapped by the group at Chibok in North-eastern Nigeria in April 2014. Over 13,000 people have been reportedly killed in the five-year-long mayhem.

Analysts are sceptical about Nigeria’s current military strategy for defeating Boko Horam. Corruption inside the Nigerian army, unpaid wages, and mutinies among troops has all facilitated Boko Haram’s rise, specifically since 2009-10. However of late, African Union [AU] leaders have agreed to send 7,500 troops to fight the Boko Haram as the international community, including the US and Iran, have agreed to cooperate. The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon also supported the deployment of AU troops to fight Boko Haram, which is increasing its attacks in the backdrop of the ensuing general election in Nigeria on 14 February.

Again on 25 January 2015, Boko Haram launched a major offensive on Maiduguri and two other towns. The attack, which left more than 200 combatants dead, was repulsed by the Nigerian military, but it shook the security apparatus of the government and further gave a nightmare to the people of Borno. Moreover, Boko Haram dancing in the northern parts of Nigeria means that its neighbours hardly can sleep peacefully. It has created regional security instability around the Lake Chad region, affecting Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Of late, on 29 January, three soldiers and 123 Boko Haram militants were killed when the Islamist group attacked a Chadian army contingent in northern Cameroon.

Whether it is through conventional Nigerian military, along with the aid of international forces or through the ground level vigilante self-defence militias, or fundamentally through proper governance, the comprehensive defeat of Boko Haram is an imperative. Another epicentre of violence and butchery, more so in the name of Islam, needs to be trammelled. Ignoring the movement is not only ethically unjustified, but ill-advised for the world community. The time is ripe when Baga and Maiduguri have to be equated in the same security plane with Kobani and yes, Paris.

Dr Uddipan Mukherjee is an IOFS [ADMIN] Officer. Views expressed are personal.