Naxalism in India: How It Started and Why It Still Exists?

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The Naxalite movement first came in the spotlight in the late 1960s, when Naxalbari in West Bengal became famous for a violent land revolt. Since then, it is perceived as the biggest threat to the country’s law and order and a menace to India’s security.

The movement has established itself in the forest and hilly regions of 8 different states and over 150 districts are believed to be under its explicit influence. Additionally, around 200 districts (out of India’s total 640) are considered to be under indirect Naxal control.

Naxalite factions are most prominent in the country’s eastern states, along what has been infamously dubbed as the Red Corridor which includes the states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh. Naxalite violence today accounts for over 10,000 civilian casualties and has resulted in the displacement of over 12 million people since the 1980s.

The Village of Naxalbari

It was the spring of 1967 when a land dispute broke out in the small village of Naxalbari, Darjeeling in northern West Bengal. The economy here was regulated by tea plantations mainly ran by British-owned and Kolkata-based companies. There was a history of land scarcity and ensuing conflicts between the plantation workers, sharecroppers, and the oppressive landlords.

In 1967, the rural poor were mobilized against the deeply inequitable agrarian structure by a Krishak Samiti (peasants’ organization) owing allegiance to the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM). This Samiti, under a middle-class radical leader Kanu Sanyal, organized a series of demonstrations against landlords who had evicted tenants or hoarded grains for profit.

The protests turned militant, leading to skirmishes with the police. A constable was killed and police fired on the crowd in retaliation. The peasant leaders took arms and soon landlords and policemen were being beheaded and lootings were galore.

The uprising was sparked by the ruling coalition’s inability to implement effective land reforms. A left-wing power in the state – which had openly supported the armed revolution – made the peasants believe that they were at liberty to set right the feudal structures on their own.

Naxalbari quickly became an icon for the Indian revolutionaries. The village gave its name to the region and in time, to anyone who would use arms to fight the Indian state on behalf of the oppressed and the destitute. Soon ‘Naxalite’ or ‘Naxal’ became shorthand for ‘revolutionary’ and ‘Naxalism’ became a name for left-wing extremist movements held anywhere around India.

Naxal-Maoist Ideology

The CPM was a faction of the original Communist Party of India (CPI) and had decoupled from it to pursue an armed communist revolution instead of a democratic path then adopted by the CPI. Now when in power, the CPM found itself in a similar dilemma when it faced a communist uprising in its communist regime, and the party leaders stood divided on the course of action.

The CPM did the unprecedented and took the side of the law and came hard on the peasant organization and its leaders. Much to their chagrin, the movement had garnered enough momentum to preclude any easy suppression.

Like with the CPI, the younger leaders of CPM further separated from the party and formed the Communist Party of India- Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML). Despite the name, the party was much more inspired by Maoist ideology than Marxist or Leninist Doctrine.

The CPI-ML failed to gather much support due to its vague policies and its followers’ divided patriotism due to the recent Sino-Indian war of 1962. Furthermore, albeit West Bengal Government’s hostile stance, the movement didn’t flutter and only grew in momentum. Killings, lootings, and burning of police stations and public buildings only became rife in West Bengal.

When the state government failed to handle the ever-rising revolt, the Centre in 1971 commenced the ‘Operation Steeplechase’ and sent the Army and the CRPF to West Bengal. The 45-day operation began in June and ultimately crushed the Naxalite Movement.

 After 20 years of lingering, the insurgency resurfaced in the 1990s when the liberalization of the economy brought with it private and Multi-National Corporations and unfortunately, a surge in corruption and tribal exploitation as well.

The hitherto splintered Naxalite groups began dialogues and negotiations to recycle the original movement. This resulted in a merger of the two biggest groups – the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Center in 2004 – and came to be known as the Communist Party of India -Maoists (CPI-Maoists).

Unlike its parent parties, CPI-Maoists – which is now banned as a terrorist organization under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act – tenaciously holds on to protract people’s war and aims to bring on an armed, communist revolution as done by Mao Zedong in China in the 1930s and 40s.

Working Tactics

The CPI-Maoists and its armed wing, the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) are now the biggest insurgent group in India. These along with other smaller Naxal factions, root their rowdiness around Guerrilla Warfare along with other well-sought military and political tactics.

Their political strategy involves exploiting class inequalities in the Indian countryside to their advantage. Unequal income distribution, socio-demographic disparity, poverty, and deprivation are issues that plague the underdeveloped areas of the country. Hence, the Maoists draw on these to mobilize socially and economically marginalized populations, such as the Adivasis.

Their military strategy also revolves around the civilian masses. The Maoists use dense forests and hilly territories, where the State cannot reach (and thus can’t apply its rule of law) and utilize the terrain in their favor. They work in small, decentralized units to avoid any full-blown, conventional warfare and to distract the state’s forces from their bigger plans.

These units rely on extensive intelligence gleaned by scouting, spying, and bribing to bring in effect their small and bliss ambushes. Aside from these attacks, Maoists have also conducted prison-break operations and hostage-taking in exchange for the release of their prisoners.

Their deadliest ambuscades are focussed on police and state authorities to preclude them from taking any step against them and also terrify them from joining these forces.

Funding and Associations

These organizations are mainly funded by membership fees and contributions. A large part of their funds also come from extortion and confiscation of wealth and income of those who don’t support them in the name of ‘revolutionary taxes’. In some areas, Naxalites have developed their extensive tax-systems in exchange for ‘protection’.

Recently they have also turned towards organized crime to fill their coffers and have stepped in sales of heroin, opium, and cannabis. Recently – much to the chagrin of the Indian state – these  Naxal groups have formed associations with organizations like Pakistan’s ISI and LeT, Nepal’s Maoists, and Sri Lanka’s LTTE.

Reports have also emerged of possible Naxal connections between other Indian insurgencies like Nagas and Kashmiri rebels sharing a common goal of dethroning the state.

Government’s Response

States’ response to the Maoist insurgency has evolved over the years, influenced by the intensity of the threat and political decisions at the centre and state. In a rare show of cooperation, both the governments have provided concerted policies, efforts, and resources to suppress the insurgents.

Initially, the state governments had adopted an integrated method of retaking the Maoist land, securing it, and finally developing relations with the public. Over the years this has been buttressed with other development-based programs and schemes like the NREGA providing 100-day necessary employment to rural households.

 While these met with early success, their poor implementation and corruption at ground level have sometimes resulted in a surge of reprimand executions and intimidation of civilians. Other than that, the Adivasi civilians have long faced the scourge of infrastructure development in their areas which has led to their mass displacement and diminution of their occupational natural resources.

The CPI-Maoists on the other hand, have placed themselves as the torchbearers for workers, rural poor, and the lower middle classes who suffered tremendously and silently in the name of economic reforms. These arbitrary decisions and ignorance have often marred the other trust-building measures carried by the authorities and have only pushed the civilians towards the Naxals.

The Solution

On the rare occasions when a solution has seemed possible the police and paramilitary organizations’ approach to the problem has exposed the weakness within state governments. Various states, from time to time, have banned Maoist outfits, without developing any consistent policy to deal with such elements which have only led to more unrest.

Maoists’ gross human rights violations have remained conspicuous over the years. But one can also not disregard the episodic reports of Government authorities’ harassment of tribals which has helped the Maoists immensely.

Although some recent reports have shown varied diminution in the Naxal-ruled areas, the Maoists remain a formidable force and a security threat.

They are powerful and effective in some areas in India because of the unresolved contradictions and issues in our society. They have proved effective more often than not because of their ideology that inspires youth apart from having an organizational structure and armed groups.

To find a lasting solution, sole focus on security-related schemes is not enough. Proper enforcement of land laws, utilization of the funds provided to the government to the maximum, and a holistic approach to the situation will be required from both government and its security forces.

Written by - Rudransh Khurana 

Edited by - Arnav Mehra

Naxalism in India: How It Started and Why It Still Exists? Naxalism in India: How It Started and Why It Still Exists? Reviewed by Arnav Mehra on June 24, 2020 Rating: 5

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