international analysis and commentary

The Naxalite insurgency in India: no end in sight


In spite of being one of the largest insurgent groups in the world in one of the most important upcoming countries in the world, the Naxalites for much of their existence failed to grab the attention of the western world. This changed with the kidnapping of two Italians in the Indian region of Orissa in mid-March. They were kidnapped while hiking in one of India’s Naxalite-controlled areas, according to a Naxalite spokesman, because they were taking pictures of bathing women. Regardless of the validity of such allegations, the Naxalites’ demands in return for which they were willing to let the two Italians go – freeing of imprisoned members and an end to the government’s counterinsurgency operations – suggest that there is more at stake for the group than only the privacy of the women involved. Who are the Naxalites, and what is the status of their fight against the Indian government?

India has a long history of Maoist-inspired violence, and the Naxalite insurgency goes back to 1967, when a group of radicals left the Communist Party of India to start a guerrilla campaign against the Indian government. Their basis was the West-Bengal town Naxalbari, after which the group named itself. Like many other groups on the far left, the Naxalites fell apart as a result of disagreements over strategy and ideology. Unlike many other groups on the far left, however, they managed to undo this fragmentation later on. The Naxalite insurgency in its current form is the result of the reunification of various Maoist guerrilla forces, which took place in 2004. This merger has reinvigorated the movement and led to an intensification of their activities, violent as well as non-violent.

The ultimate goal of the Naxalites is the overthrow of both the capitalist and the feudal order in India and the establishment of a classless society. More prosaically, they claim that their fight is intended to alleviate the plight of the rural poor, the destitute workers and the unemployed, many of whom are part of India’s lower castes. The strategy that the Naxalite insurgents follow to achieve these political goals is taken straight out of Mao Tse-tung’s On Guerrilla Warfare. The plan is to establish base areas in the countryside to encircle the cities and eventually take over the country. With regard to the first phase of this strategy, the movement can claim considerable success, as the Indian government considers some 25% of Indian territory, mostly in the eastern part of the country, to be under Naxalite control. These zones, together called the Red Corridor, are practically run by the Naxalites and are no-go areas for the government. It is probably in one of these zones that the Italian hikers were kidnapped.

An operation that destabilizes India on this scale requires considerable manpower, and that is one of the most impressive features of the Naxalite insurgency. The Research and Analysis Wing, India’s intelligence service, puts the number of Naxalite fighters at some 20,000. To give some perspective, this would mean that the Naxalites are almost twice as big as the Colombian FARC (a communist guerrilla force), which numbered around 11,000 fighters in 2009. What also helps the insurgency is that many Naxalites are fighting in areas where they are from, which means that they are familiar with the often densely forested and mountainous terrain. Also, they are in touch with the locals and their difficulties, which is crucial for any insurgent campaign.

Naxalite violence is primarily aimed against the Indian police and business. Much of this violence serves the purpose of either expanding the Naxalite base areas or of shielding an area from government or business influence. A special focus of the group’s violent campaign is infrastructure. The Naxalites blow up roads and railways to keep companies from entering the Red Corridor. Plans for the construction of a car factory and a seven billion dollar steel plant in West-Bengal have been put on hold as a result of Naxalite violence and sabotage.

However, at least as important as its violent activities are the group’s non-violent activities. To win the support of the population, the Naxalites are engaged in efforts to improve the housing situation of the poor, carry out irrigation projects for local farmers, campaign for the introduction of a minimum wage and make a stand for the rights of women and poor peasants. This latter part of the Naxalite agenda goes a long way toward explaining the group’s longevity. With the Indian government unwilling to address poverty and discrimination in rural areas, many turn to the Naxalites for protection and improvement of their lives. Also, the hard line that India is currently taking against the Naxalites has not yielded many promising results and is difficult to keep up. India is one of the most underpoliced countries in the world, and with some 76,000 police officers assigned to the fight against the Naxalites, there is not much that the police can do beyond what it is already doing. The army could provide more muscle, but it is unlikely that it will be called in. The government fears a long and messy campaign and it hesitant to move forces away from Jammu and Kashmir.

With the root causes of the insurgency left unaddressed and a hard line that is going nowhere, it is unlikely that India will soon be freed from what, according to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is the most serious internal threat to India’s security.