The Naxalite Insurgency in India
May 17, 2010
While many western observers would point to violent secessionism in Kashmir as the direst threat to Indian national security, the government of India has identified the Maoist-inspired as its most significant security challenge. A vast swath of India, from West Bengal in the northeast to Andhra Pradesh in the south, has come under the influence of the Naxalites — the “Red Taliban” as they have been called. In recent years the Indian government has stepped-up its counter-insurgency initiatives in an attempt to contain and rollback the movement’s influence. In fact, New Delhi has even redeployed security forces from Kashmir to central and eastern India in response to this development.
Who are the Naxalites?
Taking its name from the 1967 peasant revolt in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari, the Naxalite movement is a left-wing guerrilla force that is seeking to overthrow the Indian government. Since the time of the Naxalbari revolt the movement has taken on various forms and its support has fluctuated from one decade to the next. Its most recent manifestation is the result of a 2004 decision by two Maoist groupings, the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre, to join forces to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). This post-2004 incarnation of the Naxalite insurgency has been one of the most sustained — and perhaps the most lethal.
While India’s other communist parties participate in electoral politics, the CPI(M) follows Mao’s dictum that power flows from the barrel of a gun. The CPI(M) has declared, and government officials have acknowledged, that the Naxalites are conducting an insurgency in accordance with Mao’s “protracted people’s war” strategy . The Naxalites view Indian society through the lens of Mao’s theory of the developing world’s rural poor as a pivotal revolutionary force in the class struggle. They have sought to build support among the region’s lower castes, adivasis (tribal groups), and other sectors of the peasantry by establishing insurgent strongholds (“liberated zones”) in districts where government authority is weak. The Party’s cadres expand their influence outwards from these bases, and in doing so, they broaden their popular base through political mobilization. The targets of the Naxal class struggle are the region’s upper castes, “feudal” landlords, commercial interests, and the security forces.
India’s Maoist Redux
Naxalism presents a seeming paradox: the country with the second highest growth rates of the major economies finds itself in the throes of a largely agrarian rebellion inspired by an ideology that has lost its lustre in much of the world. In 2006 India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, pronounced Naxalism to be “the single biggest internal security challenge” India has ever faced .
Why have the Naxalites come to loom so large as a security challenge? First, a large area of the country has fallen under varying degrees of CPI(M) influence. According to one estimate, approximately 40% of India’s territory is under some form of Maoist influence . Just as the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) of Peru emerged in the poor, mostly indigenous city of Ayacucho and spread outward to other areas of the Andean sierra, so the Naxalite centre-of-gravity is an area of the country that comprises several of India’s most underdeveloped states — a “Red Corridor” that includes Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Orissa. Although establishing concrete numbers of supporters is a challenge, the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s intelligence service, estimates that CPI(M) armed cadres number about 20,000 . Tenuous government control, the destruction of public infrastructure, the sabotage of industrial interests, and ambushes of state security forces all pose a significant challenge to internal stability in areas of eastern and central India. A study published this month counted the Maoist insurgency as an obstacle in the way of India’s emergence as a world power .
In November 2009 the Indian government announced a plan to bolster the anti-Naxalite efforts of affected states with a national counter-insurgency strategy. The strategy, which the Indian prime minister characterized as an approach that will “walk on two legs,” combines a campaign to hold and clear Naxal strongholds with development projects to address what Singh acknowledged as “the sense of deprivation and alienation” in the region . Known unofficially as Operation “Green Hunt,” New Delhi forecasts that the campaign to re-assert government authority and win back the support of affected sectors of the population in the Red Corridor will take two years.
The spread of violence has spurred the growth of non-state anti-Naxal groupings. The most notable among them is the Salwa Judum in the state of Chhattisgarh. Like the Naxalites, these groups seek to recruit from the state’s tribal groups, leaving civilians caught between competing groups on the left and the right. State officials in Chhattisgarh have actively supported the use of the Salwa Judum to counter the Naxalites, an approach that is not without controversy and as a result has generated criticism from India’s Supreme Court and the central government in Delhi .
It is difficult to establish the degree and scope of external involvement in the Naxalite insurgency. Nepalese and Filipino Maoist outfits have long been suspected of providing rhetorical and material support to the CPI(M). Following central government claims of possible arms transfers from Nepal, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) publicly admitted to having ties with the CPI(M) but did not detail its involvement . Similarly, Indian and Filipino intelligence services allege that the Communist Party of the Philippines, a faction that is waging its own guerrilla war in that country, has established links with the Naxalites . New Delhi also contends that it has evidence that remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are providing training to CPI(M) cadres in India .
New Delhi confronts a major challenge in the Red Corridor. Working in conjunction with the governments of affected states, the central government faces the task of winning hearts and minds in geographically isolated and economically dislocated regions of the country. It must do so even as the Naxalites work to mobilize the masses, escalate their class war, and broaden the Maoist footprint on the subcontinent. While the chances of a Naxalite seizure of power appear remote, the insurgency will continue to hold back much-needed development. It remains to be seen how effective the current counter-insurgency strategy is at strengthening the writ of the state and extending development in the region.
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