Q&A: The Maoists of India

The decades-old insurgency is a major internal threat facing the world’s largest democracy.

India Maoist Naxalite
The Maoists are a force across central India, forming the so-called red corridor [Source: SATP]

Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, said in 2006 that the Maoists were “the single biggest challenge” to internal security ever faced by India.

Who are they?

Known in India as the Naxalites or Naxals, the Maoists are considered to be left-wing extremists who broke away from mainstream communism on ideological issues like the decision by the main parties to join the electoral process.



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The movement advocates a class war waged by peasants against what they claim is a bourgeoisie state. They say they are inspired by the philosophy of Mao Zedong, the late Chinese communist leader.

Various groups of Naxalites have taken root in large parts of the country. They now operate in 195 of India’s 604 districts spread across 16 states. An Indian government assessment states that the Naxalite influence extends over nearly 92,000sq km or roughly a third of the country.

They are a sizeable force across the forests of central India, forming the so-called red corridor through Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, eastern Maharashtra, the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh and western Orissa.

When was the movement formed?

Its beginnings could be traced back to Naxalbari, a small village in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal state. On May 25, 1967, tribal and communist cadres fought back and forcefully wrested control of land from a local landlord who had earlier attacked a small tribal farmer.

The tribesmen’s struggle attracted media attention and the name of their obscure village came to be identified with the movement ever since.    

The movement’s influence soon spread through West Bengal and spilled into other states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

Who do the Naxalites represent?

The Naxalites claim to represent the most oppressed sections of the population. These groups include the aboriginal tribes living in the forests, the lower castes and landless labourers or peasants.

Critics of the movement, however, say that despite their professed ideology, the Naxalites today oppress people in the name of class war by extorting money from petty businessmen and small landowners. The rich landowners invariably buy protection.

The Naxalites have also been accused of perpetuating a vicious cycle by blocking development in order to continue to retain control over the very lives of the tribals and villagers they claim to represent.

What attracts the population to the movement?

The first adherents of the movement were intellectuals and students fresh out of universities. Disillusioned by a system that had failed to live up to their ideals, they preached revolution to the oppressed rural poor.

The government says around 10,000 armed cadre form the core of the Naxalites [AP]

Soon the tribals, peasants and other marginalised segments of Indian society became the mainstay of the movement.

An expert committee set up by the government to study the Naxalite problem blamed the social, political, economic and cultural discrimination faced by the poor as a key factor in drawing large number of discontented people towards the Maoists.

The committee also blamed the lack of empowerment of local communities in far-flung rural areas as the main reason for the spread of the Naxal movement.

Critics of the Maoists claim that today’s Naxalites get support through coercion and forcible induction of youth into their armed bands. They say the Naxals no longer act as representatives of the poor and tribals.

Whom do they target?

Ideologically, the Naxalites are against the current Indian state. They believe that Indians have yet to win freedom from hunger and deprivation, and that the rich classes — landlords, industrialists and traders — control the means of production by exploiting the poor.

They therefore target all representatives of the state like politicians, the police and forest contractors. At a more local level, the Naxalites target village political functionaries and landlords and often extract protection money from them.

Do India’s communist parties support the Naxalites?

No. As these parties take part in elections at various levels, the Naxalites consider mainstream communists as part of the system they are fighting against.

Is the movement a single entity?

The movement has had its share of divisions based on ideological and other differences that weakened it for some time.

However, in 2004, major Naxalite factions such as the Maoist Communist Centre of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), and the People’s War Group merged to form the Communist Party of India-Maoist.

The CPI-Maoist is now active in 156 districts of 13 states that include Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttaranchal and Kerala.

It is also making attempts to establish and expand its presence in other states including Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh.

What is the strength of the movement?

The Indian government estimates that there are around 10,000 armed cadre adept in guerrilla warfare and another 45,000 who support them.

What kind of weaponry do they have?

Initially, the Naxalites were not well-armed, but over the years the movement has built up an arsenal of modern weapons which include AK-series rifles looted from security forces. They are also now adept at making rocket launchers and frequently use gelatine sticks and improvised explosive devices.

How are they structured?

They have a well-developed organisational structure, with clear distinctions between political and military wings.

On the political side, the organisational hierarchy has a central committee at the top, with regional bureaus, zonal committees and district committees reporting to them.

The armed wings are also well-organised, with a central, state and zonal military commissions.

Where does the money come from?

With control over large parts of forests, the Naxalites extract protection money from the trade in timber and other forest produce.

The Naxalites split from India’s mainstream communist parties decades ago [EPA]

This is supplemented by cultivation and sale of marijuana.

Documents and CDs seized by the police in 2008 showed that the Naxalites had detailed and clearly laid-out budgets with estimations of income.

Similarly, documents and hard disks seized from a central committee member of the CPI-Maoist show that the group collected over Rs10bn ($200mn) in 2007 through illegal taxation and forced donations from traders, forest and public works contractors and even industrialists.

What steps has the government taken so far to fight the Naxalites?

There have been various initiatives over time to curb the movement. In the 1970s, social workers like Jai Prakash Narayan spearheaded the campaign to reduce their hold over the rural poor by instituting special development programmes supported by local administrations. However, security forces charged with fighting the Naxalites have negated some of the development works by their heavy handedness and insensitivity.

Today, each affected state has resorted to its own local means of combatting the Naxalites. But after identifying the Naxalites as the most serious threat to the Indian state, the central government has set up a a special 10,000-strong Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (Cobra) to fight them.

Under the command and control of the Central Reserve Police Force, Cobra personnel would be imparted special training in terrain and topography of their area of operation.

Headquartered in New Delhi, the national capital, the Cobra force will have battalions operating in every Naxal-affected state.

Source: Al Jazeera