The Naxalite Conflict in India: The Perils of Indifference
By Sushobhan Parida
The Naxalite armed group was once termed India’s greatest security challenge. But today, owing to various factors, including reduced insurgent activity and several controversial economic and immigration policies, the attention towards the conflict has reduced significantly among the Indian public. I argue, however, that continued indifference to this conflict equates to continued indifference towards the conditions that still contribute to the festering, but rather latent, conflict and serves to only prolong the difficulties faced by the people affected by it. This may have dire consequences not only for the continued conditions of abject poverty but also the resurgence of the Naxalites.
It is convenient to start by describing the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) members by labelling them ‘terrorists’. Most security establishments in India do this. In their defence, quite a few of the attacks carried out by this armed group, known colloquially as ‘the Naxalites’ or ‘the Maoists’, fit the description of guerrilla acts of ‘terror’. I claim, however, that treating this group like any other ‘terror’-group risks ignoring the much larger and systemic problems of ill-governance and the loss of state legitimacy in India’s hinterlands, making the achieving of ‘positive peace’  a very elusive prospect. Therefore, I suggest using the term ‘insurgent group’1 for the Naxalites in order to emphasize their main aim and organizational form: overthrowing the current government and system of governance in a revolutionary sense by the use of illegal (partially terror-like) force.
1. A brief history of the conflict
A broad understanding of the conditions and political situation in India prevailing prior to the formation of the armed movement is necessary to understand the origins and the motivations of the Naxalite struggle. At the turn of the 20th century, India (along with present-day Pakistan) was a British colony. As a result of being under British imperial rule for more than a century, the economy in India was largely dependent on the British trade and was heavily bent towards the primary sector consisting of agriculture or commercial crops (such as indigo and tobacco) and small, rural industries. Consequently, Indian society was still largely feudal in nature, with rich traders and royalty owning large tracts of land and employing large numbers of peasants to work on these lands. Since these landowners were critical to the British trade and economy, hardly any regulations were in place to ensure that the peasants had the provisions to lead a comfortable life. This led to the peasants gradually falling into abject poverty and bonded labour as a result of the massive debts they owed to these landlords.
The Telangana Armed Struggle (1946 to 1951), a precursor to the Naxalite movement, was fought by the peasants in the present-day southern state of Telangana against these feudal lords of the time (Sundarayya, 1973). Even after India gained independence from the British, although multiple laws were introduced to mitigate these problems, including the abolishment of bonded labour, the latter still persisted in rural India. This was mainly due to a lack of reporting, impediments by systemic red-tape and bureaucracy, and the failure of the justice system to hand out convictions .
The roots of the Naxalite movement are often pinpointed to a left-wing armed uprising that took place in 1967 in the village of Naxalbari (hence the name). Back then, the inaction of the state government of West Bengal in reforming land laws has sparked the uprising led by a radical faction of the then-largest communist party in India, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). This radical faction of the party that led the uprising subscribed to the ideas of Charu Mazumdar , who, inspired by the Maoist revolution in China, advocated an armed revolution arising from the farmers and the peasant class of the country, rather than from the working class. After the Naxalbari uprising, the radical faction split from its parent party CPI-M in order to form a separate party called the Communist Party of India- Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML).
After splitting from the CPI-M, which was a mainstream electoral party, the CPI-ML, now under the de facto leadership of Mazumdar, worked towards a revolution along the lines of the Maoist revolution in China. However, India was defeated in the previous Sino-Indian war in 1962, and public sentiment was highly anti-Chinese. Therefore, the CPI-ML movement found it hard to gain public support, and its propaganda clashed untimely against strong patriotic sentiments. Finally, a military operation by the central government in 1971 led to the crushing of this fledgling Naxalite movement. For about two decades, the movement failed to garner public support, though Mazumdar’s ideas still find wide appreciation and are debated among Marxist parties, youth organizations, as well as academic circles (EFSAS, 2019). His ideas are often contrasted with Stalinist and Leninist understandings of Marxism, and like Maoist ideals, are considered more radical, stressing class-annihilation by violent revolution, rather than the state-centric, electoral politics-aligned ideals that were professed by the former, more ‘moderate’ Marxist parties.
2. The Modern Maoists
The resurgence of the Naxalite movement happened only in the 1990s when the Indian government decided to open up and liberalize its economy. Several splinter Maoist organizations started dialogues with each other to revive the movement. This was in opposition to a set of new government economic policies favouring neo-liberal regulations that were threatening the livelihoods and living spaces of rural people.
In India, in an effort to bring in more foreign direct investment, on the one hand, there was an upsurge in mining licenses given to private corporations, while on the other, land acquisition procedures and environmental regulations were not given much attention. This had a detrimental effect on the indigenous as well as rural population living in the mineral-rich areas of the nation, who suddenly had their ancestral lands either forcibly acquired by a slew of mining-related commercial activities. These conditions proved to be a major turning point for Maoist movements to gather the support of the people in central and eastern India belonging to the scheduled tribes and the scheduled castes.
A landmark event in this resurgent Naxalite movement happened in 2004 when the People’s War Group (the armed wing of the CPI-ML) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) (another prominent Maoist group that had emerged in the 1970s) merged to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). This event was significant since this unification would lead to more coordinated military, propaganda, and governance strategies employed by the Naxalites2 in the future, rather than the splintered and uncoordinated efforts made since the resurgence in the 1990s. Consequently, the Naxalite movement probably reached its peak level of activity after this unification. The CPI-Maoist party produced a document called the ‘Strategy and Tactics of the Indian Revolution’, which laid out the goals that the Naxalites wanted to achieve and defined the path through which they could be achieved. The period of 2005 to 2010 recorded the highest number of combined deaths (civilian, armed forces, and Naxalite) and the highest number of insurgent incidents, including guerrilla attacks on Indian police forces, destruction of property and infrastructure projects as well as kidnapping extortion. In 2006, Indian’s then-Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, called the movement the “single biggest internal security challenge” that India has faced . The Maoists essentially adopted guerrilla warfare as their preferred form of combat since this helped them take advantage of the thickly forested regions in Central and Eastern India. They carried out attacks on police garrisons, construction sites and torched vehicles and machinery. Extortion of upper-class people such as landlords and government officials was common and was to be a primary source of funding. Apart from this, their cadres also organized (and often forced) worker strikes and demonstrations against government policies and laws. These consisted of both peaceful as well as violent protests, often with severe responses from the police.
Figure 1: Year-wise Naxalite-related Incidents and Deaths
South Asian Terrorism Portal 
3. Decline in attention
As can be seen in Figure 1, the number of Naxalite-related incidents started declining after 2010, which was accompanied by a decline in Maoist-related deaths. Moreover, the number of districts classified as affected by Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) has also decreased from 76 in 2013 to 58 in 2017 . However, the reason(s) explaining this reduction may be various. This is mainly due to the lack of legitimate primary sources of data to the Naxalites, as most information in this regard comes from the state. The state attributes this reduction for mainly two reasons: better organization and coordination among the security forces and the effectiveness of the development initiatives in the areas worst affected by violence. The former, especially, is difficult to substantiate considering the various instances of number-fudging by the government, which includes the killing of civilians by Indian armed forces in order to show a higher number of Naxalite deaths . With regards to the latter, the NREG-Scheme, an initiative by the central government to enhance rural employment, is credited with changing public opinion in favour of the state and causing an erosion of support for the Naxalites . Together, these two approaches are called the Winning Hearts and Minds (WHAM) strategy and are (at least, in theory) a powerful tool for governments across the ideological spectrum in not only helping erode local support to armed groups but also in projecting a positive image of themselves. An additional hypothesis to explain the declining support for the Naxalites is the fact that there have been higher incidences of civilian executions by the Naxalites for their refusal to provide them with shelter and protection.
Since early 2020, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major factor in the operations of the Naxalite armed group. It was a significant impediment on their supply lines of food, medicines, and significantly, weapons and uniforms. The village-level markets from which they used to purchase supplies and food were closed during the lockdown, resulting in the armed group relying on the extortion of the local populace for food and medical care. The lockdown induced by the pandemic also had a significant impact on the funding for the group since the halting of economic activities led to a dearth of extortion money .
Due to this continuous decline in activity since the start of the decade and culminating in the pandemic lockdown, the Naxalites continuously dropped in the attention of the Indian public. This decline in attention was further aided by a slew of policies by the current Government. These included: demonetizing Indian currency denominations (invalidation of several currency notes overnight), leading to a huge shortage of cash in the Indian economy; overhauling the Indian tax system by introducing the ‘Goods and Services Tax’ that forced almost all businesses in India to make systemic changes; and controversial immigration laws that, in 2019, served to become the major political narrative in the country. Moreover, the onset of COVID-19 pulled the attention even further away from the Naxalites since it brought about unprecedented problems in the day-to-day lives of people, cutting across class and geography. Subsequent border issues with neighbouring countries and a recession in the economy caused by the pandemic also diverted the attention of the state away from the armed group.
However, this does not imply that the Naxalites were themselves out of action. There are multiple reports of them finding alternate sources of funding . There have also been reports of them holding various village level meetings and shoring up their strengths by upscaling their recruitment. The massive reflux of jobless migrant workers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and who had to return to their villages provides a useful recruiting ground and a potential source of funding for the Naxalites . Although the frequency of actual incidents has been lower, there have been reports of continued activity of torching vehicles, laying mines, and other disruptive activities. There also have been reports of the movement of large numbers of Naxal troops from one area to another, suggesting that planning behind Naxalite operations have not ground to a halt.
4. Effects: The perils of indifference
Over the last decade, not much has changed with regard to the economic conditions of the rural and indigenous people. Countless landless labourers and peasants have been suffering from poverty, as they are unable to get out of the big loans they take from local moneylenders at very high rates of interest. Due to these vast loans, even the debtor’s children and further generations have been unable to get out of these financial troubles, leading to a vicious cycle of debt. Continued limitless mining has led to large-scale pollution of the land and water resources around these mining areas, making them uninhabitable for the people who are already facing displacement through the unfair land acquisition by mining corporations. These problems have just added on to the fact that these indigenous people, who live in remote forested areas of the country, are already largely ignored by the Indian state. This is due to the remoteness of their living as well as the low significance their votes hold, given their small and scattered population. In general, these people have always been considered ‘backward’ and ‘uncultured’, and they have been mostly excluded from the urban and upper class.
Successive governments have not had much success regarding any long-term conflict transformation with the Naxalites, either. Despite the professed development approach under the ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’ strategy, the state clearly shows a preference towards kinetic military responses3. These operations tend to be short-term, and there is an absence of long-term, sustainable strategies on how to deal with the armed group, as has been the case ever since the outbreak of the conflict .
To conclude, let me draw your attention to three main takeaways from this article.
First, these less-than-optimal conditions are perfect recruitment grounds for armed insurgencies such as the Naxalites that tap into the resentment felt by the people to raise anger towards the state and use their vision of a more equal, just society to motivate the people towards armed revolution. Apart from the recruits who are forcefully integrated into the armed group, all others join the Naxalites because of these existential conditions. Whether it be due to the declining levels of Naxalite activity or a strategic decision, indifference by the government and the citizens towards the conflict is tantamount to indifference towards the plight of these.
Second, there is no doubt that the Naxalites are a ‘terror’-based insurgent group. Their stated objectives are the overthrow of the existing Indian state through an armed revolution in order to establish a new form of government as well as an overhaul of the Indian society. Considering how the conflict has progressed over the years and the political and ideological positions held by the Naxalites, it is clear that the differences between the ideology of the Naxalites and that of the Indian state are in no way reconcilable. It is difficult to envision a FARC-style peace agreement between the two parties, for instance. However, what I want to emphasize is that this armed group is distinct from other insurgent groups in that it has risen out of political struggles actually faced by large masses of people over time, not from religious beliefs or the political ambitions of an individual or a small group of people. Therefore, I reiterate that the problems that have led to the conflict are still very much persistent and there for the state to solve, and they risk getting hidden away in the militaristic counterinsurgency policies of the state.
Finally, several potential benefits could follow from paying more attention to this conflict, especially international attention. The Indian state (regardless of the political party in power) has been historically averse to international observers and organizations involved in conflict management. However, if more global attention was garnered, there would be a chance to put the spotlight on the systemic problems that people are facing in these regions, and therefore attracting more aid and better projects instead of the rather opaque processes that are present now. A transparent, international, development-oriented approach can also force local and grassroots governments to be more accountable, and their requirements are made more evident to the international community. Lastly, it is hoped that such measures will also wear away support from the Naxalites, thus making it easier to at least approach the end of this decades-long conflict.
1 It is difficult to categorize an armed group such as the Naxalites in scientific terms. On the one hand, they do engage in acts of terror such as planting explosives, kidnapping, ambushes, etc. in order to attain a social goal. This is in line with many definitions of terrorism including the one used by the Indian state as well as most OECD-countries. On the other hand, a few definitions of terrorism include an element of illegal force being acted upon civilians and the Naxalites do not often engage in violence against normal people, although it does happen from time to time. Their main targets are state infrastructure and military personnel.
2 The term ‘Naxalites’ continued to be used in media and public discourse to refer to the united CPI-Maoist group after unification.
3 Kinetic military operations are essentially those that are based on lethal force, such as raids, ambushes, bombings, air raids, etc. This is used in contrast against ‘soft’ strategies such as diplomacy, sanctions and electronic-based strategies such as cyber warfare (Martti & Henselmann, 2020)
EFSAS. (2019). A historical introduction to Naxalism in India. Retrieved March 31, 2021, from www.efsas.org/publications/study-papers/an-introduction-to-naxalism-in-india/.
Sundarayya, P. (1973). Telangana people’s armed struggle, 1946-1951. Part one: Historical setting. Social Scientist, 1(7), 3–19. doi.org/10.2307/3516269.
Lehto, Martti; Henselmann, Gerhard (2020). “Non-Kinetic Warfare : The New Game Changer in the Battle Space.” In: B. K. Payne, & H. Wu (Eds.), ICCWS 2020: Proceedings of the 15th International Conference on Cyber Warfare and Security,
About the author
Sushobhan Parida, hailing from India, is a Doctoral Candidate and Research Assistant at the University of Leipzig, Germany. His research focuses on the micro dynamics of recruitment to armed groups. He recently completed his Master’s in Public Policy from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt. Contact: sushobhan.parida[at]uni-leipzig.de