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India’s Naxalite Movement: how did it begin, and will it ever end?

Amjed Jaaved discusses in detail how the Naxalite Movement in India is gaining pace. Despite the Indian police's efforts to contain the Naxals, the movement will soon become India's biggest challenge.

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Early April, there was a pitched battle between a Naxalite (or Maoist) group (called “rebels” by the Indian government) and government forces of over 1500 “jawan”, equipped with state-of-the-art weapons and helicopters at the Bijapur-Sukma border.

The Naxals armed with machine guns gunned down 22 members of the government forces and injured 31 others, excluding missing personnel.

Eight of the dead jawan were from the CRPF, seven from the elite Cobra (Commando Battalions for Resolute Action) while the others were part of the Bastariya Battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the District Reserve Guard (DRG). Two of the dead CRPF jawans were from Assam, where assembly polls are on.

The Naxalite decamped with forces’ weapons, uniforms and shoes. The government claims that they killed 10 Naxalites, but could produce only the corpse of a dead woman as a “rebel”. The government claims that that the Naxalites take along their dead and injured.

Read more: The Fractured Nation: Secession Movements and Insurgencies in India

Lapses

Media described the “counter-insurgency operation” as an “intelligence failure and poor leadership by the CRPF commanders and drew parallels with the February 2019 Pulwama massacre of 40 personnel in the run-up to the general election”.

Earlier in April 2017, the Naxal had killed 25 CRPF personnel near Burkapal in Sukma. The media blames the home minister and the government for being preoccupied with winning elections in some state assemblies through turncoats.

It is alleged that five teams totaling 2,000-plus security personnel had on Friday night launched a concerted operation in the Maoist-hit Bijapur and Sukma districts after learning that rebels led by the dreaded Madvi Hidma were hiding in the forest.

Read more: Maoist rebels kill five in India bus blast

A CRPF officer admitted the operation was launched from five places Tarrem, Usoor and Pamed in Bijapur, and Minpa and Narsapuram in Sukma. While a team was advancing through the forests near Jonaguda, around 500km from state capital Raipur, it was ambushed by some 250 Maoists on Saturday afternoon.

The officer further said the forces were scattered and trapped along a two-km stretch of forest. The patrolling team from Tarrem came under heavy fire, prompting some of them to move to what appeared a deserted village, where the Maoists lay in wait for them. The Maoists fled with the weapons, bullet-proof jackets, and the shoes of the dead troops.

Read more: Maoist rebels kill India lawmaker: police

Naxalite clout

The recent encounter belies the government’s claim that it has wiped out Naxalism from their stronghold Bastar. Bastar division of Chhattisgarh has a population of 23, 48,808 persons. It is spread over 40,000 square kilometers (Census 2011).

Bastar division has a security personnel-to-civilian-population ratio of 1:22 with the deployment of 58,772 central paramilitary force personnel and another 50,000 state armed-police personnel. Security forces occasionally conduct “search and destroy” operations in the area killing or arresting innocent people for “Naxal offense”.

The jails are overcrowded to the extent of three times the prison capacity, filled with Adivasis (tribals). The report of a High-Level Committee headed by Virginius Xaxa, submitted to the government in May 2014, highlighted this fact.

Read more: India handovers body of Pakistani prisoner, stoned to death

Even expression of sympathy with Naxals is now a heinous offense. In the Bhim Koregaon planted letters case, several intellectuals and rights activists including Navalakha were declared “traitors” by the government. They were even accused of having links with Kashmiri militants.

It was claimed that they were in communication with Ghulam Nabi Fai, a Kashmiri leader who has served two-year imprisonment in the USA for having illegally received funds from the inter-services intelligence of Pakistan.

Read more: India planning ‘judicial murder’ of Kashmiri human rights activist

Despite repression under draconian laws, the Naxalbari uprising has still been alive since May 1967. According to India’s home ministry “more than two-thirds of Maoist related violence is now restricted to only 10 districts of the country.”

However, media reports reflect Maoists are well entrenched in at least 68 districts. The movement could not be quelled despite tall claims by Indian authorities over the past 53 years. Indian home ministry has a whole division dedicated to dealing with the movement.

A few words about the origin, aim, funding, advantages, and disadvantages of the movement are in order.

The Naxalite ideology

Charu Mazumdar is given credit for making the Naxalite movement (“left-wing extremism”) a practical reality. He started the movement as a “revolutionary opposition” in 1965.  The world came to know of the movement in 1967 when the Beijing Radio reported “peasants’ armed struggle” at Naxalbari (Siliguri division of West Bengal).

In July 1972, the police arrested Charu Mazumdar. They later tortured him to death on the night of July 27-28.

The Naxalite ideology has great appeal for marginalized strata (particularly Dalit and Adivasis) of India’s caste-ridden society. The Naxalites aim, as contained in their Central Committee’s resolution (1980) is: ‘Homogenous contiguous forested area around Bastar Division (since divided into Bastar, Dantewada and Kanker Districts of Chhatisgarh) and adjoining areas of Adilabad, Karimnagar, Khammam, East Godavari Districts of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrapur and Garchehiroli district of Maharastra, Balaghat districts of Madhya Pradesh, Malkagiri and Koraput districts of Orissa would comprise the area of Dandakarnaya which would be liberated and used as a base for spreading peoples democratic revolution.’

Read more: Op-ed: Persecution of the dalit community (down-trodden) in India

The Naxalites want to carve out an independent zone extending from Nepal through Bihar and then to the Dandakarnaya region extending up to Tamil Nadu to give them access to the Bay of Bengal as well as the Indian Ocean.

Several pro-Naxalite revolutionary bodies (People’s War, the Maoist Communist Centre, and the Communist Party of Nepal) merged their differences (October 15, 2004) to achieve their sea-access aim.

Influence and roots

The Naxalbari revolt began in the villages under three Police Stations including Phansidewa, Naxalbari, and Khoribari of Darjeeling district in West Bengal. These areas covered about 274 km with a population of nearly 1.5 lakhs. More than 30% were the labor population, mostly ‘adhiars’ (the share-croppers) varying from 60.1% in Naxalbari to 50.01% in the Khoribari area.

The ‘adhiars’, tribes like Rajabansis, Oraons, Mundas, and Santhals, were exploited like bonded laborers by their Jotedars (landowners) who owned tea gardens. The Naxalite revolutionaries supported by CPI (M. L) were violently active in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala between 1967-72.

Read more: Oppression of minorities in India

They later moved to Madhya Pradesh,  Bihar, and Orissa. Comrade Asim Chatterjee organized the movement in Orissa in 1971 in the Mayurbhanja district. With his arrest on 3, November 1972, the movement lost momentum. The movement was shifted to South-Orissa districts, including Koraput, Gunupur, Malkangiri, and Ganjam.

Prominent Naxalite leaders of Orissa included Purusottan Palai, Jagannath Misra, Nagbhusan Pattnaik, DBM Palluik, P.C. Gomongo, G. Suryanarayana, Dinabandhu Samal, and others. During 1973-83, following the death of founder Charu Mazumdar, the Naxalite activities were at low ebb.

The Naxalite violence has resurged in the South-Orissa districts as manifested in murders, bank dacoity, kidnapping of officials, attacks on police stations, and looting the arms and ammunition.

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The tremendous appeal of the Naxalite movement is due to the popularity of their agenda for the common man; land distribution and development of the agricultural sector, ridding World Bank’s influence, social justice to the Dalits, and creation of Telangana state, development of coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema region, and eradication of corruption.

The movement is growing more and more popular. It has already engulfed 13 Indian states and is spreading to other states. Chief ministers of India’s 13 states, at their coordination conference, admitted their incapacity to meet the Naxalite menace. They appealed to the center to raise a joint task force to meet the Naxalite insurgency.

Read more: India’s forgotten Maoist insurgency in the red corridor

It is the Naxalites in several states who dictate who will contest (and win) elections. ‘Out of 40 districts of Bihar, about 32 are Naxal affected’ (“150 companies of para-military to be deployed”, Indian Express, September 16, 2005).

According to a report in The Times of India, ‘The Intelligence Bureau has presented a grim picture of Bihar in its report to the home affairs ministry, marking 32 districts as quite sensitive in view of Naxalite presence.’

The second most powerful peasant movement

Naxalbari is the second most powerful peasant movement in India. The first one, the Telangana Rebellion (1947-51), was launched in the feudal state of Andhra Pradesh against the former Nizam of Hyderabad.

The movement was an outpouring of resentment against the Reddies and Karmas Brahimina traders and moneylenders. They reduced cultivators, tenants-at-will to sharecroppers, or landless laborers.

Like the Naxalbari movement, the Telangana peasant struggle was not an overnight exploit. There was a simmering cauldron of resentment for four decades. Who spearheaded? It was led by a revolution by communists of the Communist Party of India.

Read more: How did the farmers’ protests turn into an oppressed peoples’ Movement in India

The CPI in its second conference in March 1948 undertook to wage a guerrilla war. The movement happened to be crushed. Yet it left a permanent footprint.

Later on, the movement had to suffer a lot, but in its outcome, the party split in ideology into those believing in the traditional electoral system and others committed to armed fighting.

Why the Naxalbaris Peasant Struggle (1967) failed

It was a violent peasant agitation launched in March-April 1967 in a place called Naxalbaris, in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. It gave rise to the Naxalite Armed struggle. Naxalbari is a police sub-station in Darjeeling.

The Naxalite leaders like Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal, Punjab Rao, Kumar Kishan, Jail Singh, Vinod Mitra, and others had played a key role in this Naxalbari movement.

The immediate demands were a reasonable distribution of Benami lands, nationalization of forests, and end of exploitation by the moneylenders. The long terms objectives were to change the socio-economic structure of the society by the annihilation of big farmers, landlords, and jagirdars.

Read more: India’s farmer protest: Victory or death?

The common man could not be sufficiently indoctrinated in Marxism to become self-less. He will continue to hanker after narrow selfish political interests. The divided leaders relied more on violence than on indoctrination.

Despite its shortcomings, the movement remains a powerful social movement, and is an evolutionary movement of peasants and labor-class people, in India in the post-independence years.

Naxalite groups were violently active in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala between 1967 and 1972. Thereafter, their activities got shifted to Bihar and Madhya Pradesh also.

Read more: Is there any glimmer of hope for the Dalit in India?

People’s War groups

A teacher, Kondapath Satyanarayan, started the Peoples War Group (PWG) in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh in 1979. It later spread to the districts of Azelabad  Khammam, Warangal, East Godavari, and Visakhapatnam in Andhra  Pradesh.

Since April 1996, the Naxalites have organized People’s War Groups which are operating in the southern districts of Orissa thus paralyzing the government.

The PWG is very active in Malkangiri and Raygada Districts. In Malkangiri Dist., 58.36% of the total population of five lakhs are tribals.

Read more: Op-ed: Will Indian government be able to scuttle the farmers’ protest?

According to India’s Ministry of Home Affairs’ reply in the Lok Sabha, the Naxals have links with Maoist groups operating in the Philippines, Turkey, and Europe. Minister of State Home Kiren Rijiju told the Lok Sabha that the CPI (Maoist) is “a member of the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations of South Asia.”

In a written reply, Rijiju said “The so-called ‘People’s War’ being waged by the CPI (Maoist) against the Indian state has also drawn support from several Maoist fringe Organisations located in Germany, France, Turkey, Italy, etc.”

Inputs indicate that some senior cadres of the Communist Party of Philippines imparted training to the cadres of CPI  (Maoist) in 2005 and 2011, the home-ministry reply said.

Read more: India’s greatest internal threat: Naxalites kill BJP leader, police officers

The Naxal’s source of income

The Naxals receive funds from a host of sources. They made Rs 2,000 crore in 2009. In 2010, the then Home Secretary GK Pillai estimated Naxals’ annual income at Rs 1,400 crore while the Intelligence Bureau’s estimates put a roughly similar figure at Rs 1,500.

The Naxal revenue comes also from ‘levy’ (extortion) which is collected from contractors who win the bid for development works in areas dominated by insurgents. Individuals Forest produce contractors Mining companies, transporters, large- and small-scale industries in the regions, growing poppy or ganja, illegal mining.

A total of 1,61,040 mines were found in Naxal-dominated areas spread across Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha in 2010. Besides, they thrive on extortion by kidnapping government functionaries.

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The Naxalite intention to capture political power was not well-received by the Indian voters. Its association with CPI (M.L.) did not have mass appeal. However, its recent appeal to intellectuals of India has been welcomed throughout India.

China has failed to supply arms to them surreptitiously. China is itself worried about the infiltration and exfiltration of Tibetans from the Nepalese porous border, besides the Quad threat.

What advantages do the Naxals have?

Naxals are better informed with the topography of the forest land and the hills than the Indian security forces. Naxals have sophisticated weapons.

These weapons are either smuggled through the porous international borders with Nepal, Myanmar, and Bangladesh or snatched from the armed forces including police during targeted raids by the Naxals groups.

Read more: Why is BJP storing weapons in Southern India?

Naxals collect small old guns from the local population. They snatch and loot arms from local police outposts. They bribe security forces to buy their firearms. They have now established small foundries to manufacture their own arms.

Naxals effectively put up children and women as human shields against an advancing team of security forces. Even in the case of the latest Sukma attack, the security forces had advanced knowledge of Naxal’s presence in the area. But, the Naxals obstructed the attack through a human shield in the form of local tribal people.

In the absence of metaled roads, the security forces can’t do hot pursuit. Slow work is on progress on-road connectivity between Jagargunda and Dornapal in Sukma’s, with Bijapur in the west and with Dantewada’s Kirandul in the north. The Naxals attacks often disrupt Under-construction roads.

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Repression

Crimes committed by government forces—rape, murder, fake encounter, custodial torture, and loot—are seldom recorded or investigated. The National Human Rights Commission found 16 major cases of rape by the forces in six months, from October 2015 to March 2016. Now even women are fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Naxalites.

The state government claims that the Maoists are on the verge of defeat. In February 2016, the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh Raman Singh said that 95 percent of Bastar is “safe”; that Maoist activity is confined to “maybe … a small ward” and, he assured the reporters, they [Naxalite] would “very soon” be part of history.

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The government pays only lip service to ameliorate a lot of the poor tribals. As such, they draw solace in the ideology of CPI(ML) [Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist)]. The party views India as a “semi-feudal” and “semi-colonial” social formation that can be emancipated only through an anti-feudal and anti-colonial struggle.

One of the most formidable challenges the agrarian movements led by them have faced is the question of caste. The human rights abuses have turned local people against the government.

Read more: Caste discrimination taints corporate India

The government forces act like “a blind man groping in the dark”. Besides intelligence failure, poor leadership has compounded the incompetence. The government has no mechanism to fix accountability for the gross intelligence failures as was the case in the Pulwama case and the alleged Chinese intrusion in Ladakh.

Sans supplies farms and ammo from China, the Naxals’ fifty-year struggle has not become as powerful as it could. Still, the movement is supported by the tribals of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, central Bihar, Gadchiroli (Maharashtra), Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, and certain small pockets in the cow belt.

Read more: Isolated Indian tribe kill American intruder

Naxalite are India’s Achilles’ heel

At the time of Partition, it was predicted that India and Pakistan would break up into ‘congeries of states’. The basis of this prediction was the inability of the new ‘dominions’ to deal with myriad centrifugal forces gnawing into the body politic.

As regards today’s India, it is an unnatural and artificial union of heterogeneous segments. North India looks down upon south Indians as ‘Dravidians’, while south India (Hyderabad, Chennai, Mysore, and Kerala) hates the superiority complex of north India (Uttar Pradesh) being ‘Aryans’.

East Punjab has nothing in common with west Bengal, while Gujarat and Central Province are not on good terms. Bihar has its own unique way of thinking and a dialect separate from other parts of India. Seven northeastern Indian states and New Delhi are at daggers drawn, and there are more than 10 separatist movements in India.

Read more: Separatist movements sprouting: India losing its grip?

To add fuel to the fire, India is a divided society from within due to its caste system where Dalits, with a population of about 350 million or about 25 percent of the Indian population, are considered fourth-class citizens of India.

The ethnic and religious divides have further eroded the so-called unity of India. RSS extremism and the Hindutva ideology have overwhelmed the liberals and saner elements of Indian society.

Minorities, like Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians, who are about 20pc of the Indian population, are already under severe threat and are struggling for their existence, while religious intolerance is rampant owing to strong-arm tactics of right-wing extremists who are out to subjugate the minorities.

Read more: Why did India stop 600 Sikhs pilgrims from travelling to Pakistan?

Notwithstanding the above, poverty is another factor that India has been trying to cover up with slogans, such as ‘shining India’. In fact, it is a country where almost 40 percent population does not get two square meals a day or have enough clothing to cover their bodies or to have basic facilities, like toilets.

Cracks in Indian society are already visible due to overpopulation and poverty as well as the caste system and the persecution of minorities.

In the post-independence period, India was fortunate to have visionary leaders. They tactfully muzzled insurgencies in East Punjab and the eastern states besides the Dravidian and Naxal Bari movements.

At the same time, the Indian Union bowed to insurgents’ demands for the creation of new states. And, insurgency leaders became chief ministers! India forgot yesteryear when they used to burn to ashes copies of the Indian constitution and uproot rail tracks. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland, and East Punjab merged into the Union and India stayed united because of its resilience; Pakistan disintegrated.

Read more: The Pendulum swings on Pakistan relations with India

India is an artificial union maintained at gunpoint during the pre-Partition and post-Partition periods. India has never been one country except during Ashoka, and that too was artificial, for the semblance of unity disappeared soon after them.

Even at the time of independence in 1947, India was distinctly divided into two parts; one was British India and the other was a large group of 565 princely states scattered across the land. The princely states were merged into India at gunpoint or through coercion.

Read more: Kashmir: the death nail of ‘Incredible India’?

Naxalite’s continued attacks

The Naxalite movement would become the biggest headache for the Centre in the next few years. After short lulls, Maoists continue to attack Indian security forces. Most attacks take place in Chhattisgarh. Besides the above encounter, earlier, on April 6, 2010, 76 CRPF jawans were killed in a Naxals attack in Dantewada, Chhatisgarh.

The Naxal attack almost wiped out CRPF’s 82nd Battalion. On April 26, 2017, 25 Central Reserve Police Force jawans were killed in an ambush by Naxal forces in Sukma, Chhattisgarh.

In June 2019, two Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed in Naxals attack in Chhattisgarh. The gunbattle took place near Keshkutul village under the Bhairamgarh police station area when a joint team of the CRPF’s 199th battalion and local police was out on an area domination operation.

Read more: India police steer clear of the forbidden island after missionary killing

Realizing their ineffectiveness against the Naxalites, India’s Central Reserve Police Force has ‘withdrawn around 1450 officers and men from over 200 battalions’, trained them in technical and signals intelligence, to set up  ‘CRPF’s own intelligence wing to minimize casualties and dependence on the state machinery.’

Hardly a day passes without a Naxalite attack on government’s forces or installations, attacks on convoys, banks, railway stations, kidnapping of informers, and assassination of anti-Naxalite figures.

Some recent incidents include blowing of police posts and forest department’s towers, killing of four policemen to loot the sum of Rs 12 lac (railwaymen’s salary), hacking 16 policemen to death, slaying of Bandwan CPI-M leader Rabindra Nath Kar and his wife, and killing of Madhya Pradesh Transport Minister Lakhiram Kaware (Congress).

According to IndiaTV News dated August 30, 2018, police are of the view that the Naxalbaris are trying to establish links with Kashmiri freedom fighters. The police intercepted eight letters that revealed links between activists charged in the Bhima Koregaon case, Naxals, and Kashmiri freedom fighters. The accused were charged with procuring weapons and arming the rebels through international routes.

Read more: Indian man spying on Sikhs and Kashmiris charged in Germany

Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Maharashtra are among the states affected by the Maoist violence. “Maoists are confined to Sukma in Chhattisgarh, Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, Malakangiri in Odisha, and Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh,” said the second official.

In addition, security agencies have flagged increased Maoist activity in the tri-junction of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. In particular, the Centre is keen that communist rebels do not gain any foothold in the southern states. “The home ministry in consultation with the states has opted for pre-emptive police action in these areas”.

Read more: The truth behind Indian media’s anti-Chinese hybrid war claims

In Naxalite-influenced rural areas, there is no trace of India’s judicial system.  There, the Naxalite organizations act ‘virtually like policemen, arresting, meeting out “justice” and in some cases even executing the guilty.’

With the merger of pro-Naxalite revolutionary bodies, the Naxalites are the sole arbiters of justice in rural areas.

Who is to blame for the Naxalite insurgency?

The term “Naxalite” is rooted in Naxalbari village (West Bengal) where Kanhu Sanyal presented the concept of “forcible protest against the social order relating to the holding of property and sharing of social benefits”.

They started the Naxal movement on March 3, 9167 at Naxalbari village, near the Siliguri sub-division in West Bengal. It is 30 to 50 miles from Sikkim. Tibet and Bhutan in Nepal in the West and from Bangladesh in the east. To him, the purpose of the protest was “organizing peasants to bring about land reform through radical means including violence”.

Naxalite movement in India is viewed as an internal security problem. However, the populist appeal of the movement’s ideology reflects that it could soon assume international dimensions if China supports it.

Read more: With China menacing India’s northern borders, India looks for military allies.

India’s Lieutenant General KM Seth laments, ‘Unfortunately, the threat to internal security from Naxalites has acquired dangerous proportions and can no longer be wished away. They are also developing links with Turkish and Philippino terrorist organizations…We have suffered and bled patiently and have taken huge human casualties, which could exceed 13,000, uniformed personnel and 53,000 civilians during the last 25 years…’

He further stated, “as of today, their overall strength could be put to approximately 20, 000 undergrounds, 50,000 overground, and more than a lakh in frontal organizations. Their armory is reported to comprise approximately 900 AK-47 rifles, 200 light machine guns, 100 grenade firing rifles, 2-inch mortars, thousands of .303 rifles, self-loading rifles, and .12-bore guns with a huge quantity of explosives at their disposal.”

Read more: India Seeks Indigenous Weapons to Counter Pak-China Defense Cooperation

India may blame Pakistan for the freedom movement (‘insurgency’ or ‘militancy’) in occupied Kashmir. But, who shall India blame for the Naxalite insurgency in Andhra Pradesh and other Indian states? This is a movement against economic deprivation and brutality of the state or central government’s law-enforcing agencies.

Indian media has now begun to report that the counter-insurgency forces are fearful of grappling with the Naxalite. In Guntur (Andhra Pradesh), the Naxalite announced a cash reward of five lac rupees per policeman. IG (Guntur Range) Rajwant Singh admitted, ‘My men are removing the posters and convincing the villagers to inform them about the activities of Naxalites’.

Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been writing freelance for over five decades. He has served the federal and provincial governments of Pakistan for 39 years. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies and magazines at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka et. al.). He is the author of eight e-books including The Myth of Accession. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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