Poverty, violence and underdevelopment: tracing the history of India’s Naxalite conflict

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The Naxalites are present in large swathes of territory across rural central and eastern India, spanning an area which has become known as the ‘Red Corridor’ (Image Source: M Tracy Hunter, Wikipedia)

India’s Naxalite insurgency has been waged in remote central and eastern parts of the world’s second-most populous country for more than five decades, with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once describing it as India’s ‘’greatest internal security challenge’’. Since the late 1960’s the conflict has existed at varying levels of intensity, with the Naxalites periodically being fought back by the Indian military only to later re-emerge as a force to be reckoned with once again. As a product of poverty, inequality and underdevelopment in India’s inaccessible rural heartlands, the long-running insurgency has been particularly difficult for the security forces to tackle.

As an internal conflict, which receives little coverage in the international media, it is likely that few in the West will have heard of its existence. This article strives to fill this void and provide an overview of the Naxalite insurgency through investigating several key questions: how did it all begin? What have been the key developments and incidents over the last five decades? What are its core drivers? And lastly, what does the future hold for Naxalite-affected areas in central and eastern India?

The insurgency has its roots in the remote forests of West Bengal in 1967, when a left-wing Maoist group staged a violent uprising in the rural village of Naxalbari. This is where the term ‘Naxalite’ originates from, and has since been used to describe armed groups involved in the decades-long struggle against the State that followed. The original uprising was soon crushed by the security forces, however in later years the Maoists re-grouped and have since asserted control over vast swathes of rural land across central and eastern India, in an area which has become known as the ‘Red Corridor’, indicating territory in which the Naxalites are present.

The ‘Red Corridor’ stretches through multiple states including Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. Naxalite insurgents have been present at one-time-or-another in more than one-third of India’s 640 districts, whilst many thousands of people have died during the course of the conflict since the late 1960’s.

The Naxalites describe themselves as a left-wing Maoist movement, which has dedicated itself to fighting for the basic rights of indigenous tribespeople and the impoverished rural population, whom the Naxalites contend have been neglected by the central government for decades. In particular, they claim to represent local concerns over resource redistribution and land ownership. The Naxalites view India as a capitalist, semi-colonial and semi-feudal state, and ultimately seek to establish an agrarian-led ‘communist society’ by overthrowing India’s elected government through a protracted armed struggle.

In the later years of the 20th Century the insurgency was assumed to be in decline, and took the form of an under-the-radar low-intensity conflict. However, it gained significant traction in September 2004 when the Communist Party of India (Maoist) was founded. It was established following the merger of two of India’s most prominent far-left groups: the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (People’s War) and the Maoist Communist Centre of India. By 2011, the Naxalites had grown in strength and commanded around 20,000 fighters in rural areas, who has armed themselves through raiding police bases in remote locations. In 2013, the Indian Government estimated the total number of Naxalite fighters to be around 11,500, in addition to 38,000 fighters in the Jan People’s Militia armed with basic weapons such as bows and arrows. The Jan Militia are thought to provide support to the armed wing of the Naxalites – known as the CPI-Maoists People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) – and are known to have participated in attacks.

In 2009, the Indian Government launched its largest ever anti-Naxalite offensive, which involved 50,000 troops and thousands more police officers. The large-scale military offensive was known as Operation ‘Green Hunt’, and consisted of co-ordinated raids across the worst-affected states. The initiative was successful in eliminating prominent Maoist leaders and gaining control of rebel-held territory. As a result of the operation, the Naxalites were pushed deeper into their isolated jungle strongholds, yet have retained an ability to carry-out high-profile attacks and kidnappings. The Government has pledged to crack-down even harder unless the rebels renounce violence and enter peace talks; however, this appears to be an unlikely prospect.

In the period which followed the Government offensive, the number and severity of Maoist attacks increased, with the security forces representing the most frequent target. In April 2010, rebels ambushed paramilitary troops in a remote forested area of Chhattisgarh state, killing 76 soldiers in what was the worst-ever Maoist attack on state security forces. The Naxalites have also waged a sustained campaign of smaller-scale attacks, having regularly been involved in minor skirmishes with security forces and incidents across the affected states. The most commonly used tactics have included destroying infrastructure, blowing-up railway tracks and raiding police stations.

The most notorious Maoist attack of recent years came on 25 May 2013, when insurgents attacked a convoy of Indian National Congress leaders in the Darbha Valley in a remote area of Chhattisgarh state. The politicians had been returning from a rally, after which they were travelling through the region in a heavily-guarded convoy of up to 25 vehicles. As the convoy reached a deeply forested area, it was blocked by trees which had been deliberately felled by the Naxalites, who then triggered an IED before Maoist fighters hiding in the surrounding forest opened fire, killing 27 people. Among those killed were high-profile politicians including former state minister Mahendra Karma, Chhattisgarh Congress leader Nand Kumar Patel and senior Congress leader Vidya Charan Shukla.

At the height of the insurgency in 2009 it was reported that 586 civilians were killed during the year, along with 217 insurgents and 317 members of the security forces. Whilst the insurgency appears to have decreased in intensity since then, there were still 300 fatalities attributed to the conflict in 2016, according to the IISS Armed Conflict Database. The security situation has improved in several of the worst-affected states, however the Naxalites still retain presence in the most remote areas and still have the capability to launch attacks against the security forces.

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A 2009 operation by the Indian military pushed back the Maoists into remote jungle areas; however they have continued to launch attacks against security forces (Source: Mannat Sharma, Agencia Brasil)

The Naxalites have sought over the decades to build a wide base of popular support in rural areas, through pledging to address socio-economic problems such as governance failure and caste-based discrimination, whilst opposing land acquisition. The Naxalites have established their bases in impoverished communities in mountainous and forested parts of southern, central and eastern India. These areas are home to around 84 million indigenous Adivasi people, many of whom lead a traditional lifestyle as subsistence farmers, trapped in extreme poverty and living with a lack of basic services. These factors have been essential to the continuation of the Maoist cause, and the lack of basic amenities such as healthcare, education and clean drinking water have provided the Naxalites with an aggrieved community from which to recruit fighters and enjoy wide support.

The worst-affected states also happen to be the location of large quantities of India’s valuable natural resources, such as coal, iron and copper. However, few benefits from this resource wealth accrue directly to local people, and many rural residents do not share the Indian Government’s vision of top-down capitalist economic growth. These issues have created widespread resentment, and have contributed towards feelings of exclusion and marginalization amongst a large proportion of the impoverished rural population. Many citizens living in areas of Naxalite influence lack the education necessary to pursue alternative opportunities, and have seen little benefit from India’s rapid economic development.

In the last few years however, there have been encouraging signs of change and hope in the ‘Red Corridor’. The Government appears to be paying increasing attention to the affected areas, and has pursued a two-pronged strategy for change based upon the defeat of the rebels and the initiation of development projects. The strategy has been implemented one small step at a time: as rebels are pushed back from an area, construction companies move in under armed guard to begin laying down roads. The approach seems to have been effective, with one local official telling news agency Al-Jazeera: ‘‘we have found that wherever we have built roads, Naxal presence has diminished.’’

The provision of hard infrastructure may pave the way for the construction of hospitals and schools, and will likely result in greater economic development whilst allowing previously-isolated communities to feel more integrated. As a result, support for the Naxalites may begin to falter. However, concerns have been raised that a recent resurgence in mining by large corporations in areas now considered ‘safe’ from the Naxalite threat, could stoke renewed resentment amongst the local population and cause support for the Maoists to increase once again.

Amidst the long and continuing struggle between the Naxalites and the Indian state, the impact on civilians living in the zone of conflict has often been forgotten. For six decades, they have been victims of violence and counter-violence, and have seen little positive change in their living conditions. Both the government and the Maoists have been accused of committing violence and using tactics of intimidation.

Many tribal people have waited more than 50 years to be compensated for land which they were forced to hand over to the Government soon after India’s independence from British control. Displacement has also continued in order to make way for resource-based projects, from which local people receive few tangible benefits. Villagers have experienced intimidation from corporations’ private security personnel and also from state security forces. Voices of dissent against the government are often silenced, and there have been numerous reports of torture and abuse at the hands of the police, suffered by local people accused of supporting the Maoist cause.

The Maoists themselves – despite claiming to stand up for the rights of indigenous people – have also been known to react violently towards people suspected of not supporting their agenda. The majority of civilians reported to have been tortured or killed by the Naxalites have often been branded as police informers. Civilians therefore have to live with the dual fear of being persecuted by both sides; they are effectively trapped in the middle of an intractable conflict which appears no closer to a resolution than at any time in the past.

The future remains uncertain for the people living in areas affected by the Naxalite conflict. If recent improvements to the situation in some states are to be taken advantage of, it needs to be ensured that the ‘‘resource curse’’ – which has long plagued under-developed areas (not just in India, but across many of the world’s developing states) – does not materialize in light of renewed resource extraction by large corporations. The development concerns of local people must be addressed in order to undermine support for the rebels in the long-term, and to ensure that India’s rural population begins to experience the benefits of India’s remarkable economic growth.

Past evidence suggests that the adoption of purely militaristic strategies has been largely ineffective in combatting the insurgency. Moving forward, a more diverse and multi-layered approach to the problem is needed. This approach must recognize the complexities of the conflict and do more to address its underlying causes through determined and sustained initiatives, rather than simply eradicating the symptoms through military offensives. Greater dialogue is needed between all stakeholders, along with greater recognition of the rights of people living in poor rural communities. If lasting socio-economic progress can be achieved and livelihoods can be improved, then one of the world’s longest-running conflicts –  which has for decades halted progress and development across large swathes of rural India – could finally be brought to an end.

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