Naxalism: A Short Introduction to India’s Scariest Security Challenge

Prime Minister Mahoman Singh has called them “the single biggest security challenge ever faced by our country”. Fourteen Indian states are struggling to battle the insurgency waged by their 20,000 fighters. Over the last three years some 2,600 people have died by their hands.

These are the Naxalites, the source of India’s scariest security challenge.

Naxalism. It is a topic few in the West are aware of. The international media lends little attention to India’s Maoist insurgents, choosing instead to focus its attention on the more dramatic attacks of groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba. It is hard to blame them: writing about Islamic terrorism has become too easy. There is no need to perform substantive reporting or analysis on the cause of events; pundits simply need to boil down Muslim gunmen and bombers to the level of caricature and the news has been written. Naxalism, in contrast, does not lend itself to such easy stereotypes. Not surprisingly, most media outlets have been conspicuously quiet about the movement.

This silence is not sustainable. Indeed, last month an attack staged by the Naxalites was so spectacular that even the New York Times could not ignore it. On the eighth of October 200 Naxalites ambushed a large contingent of Maharashtri police commandos, killing 17 of them in a gunfight staged in broad daylight. As the Indian government begins a major nation-wide paramilitary offensive against the Naxalites, the ambush on the eighth shall surely be but the first of many battles. I suspect that as this conflict enlarges in scope and drags through time the word “Naxalite” shall lose its alien sound. The day will come when Beltway analysts will pronounce the fate of Chhattisgarh in the same steady voice as they prophesize of Xinjiang; soon the pundit class will talk as freely of the Naxalites as they do the P.K.K.

However, this is all in the future — the post below is for those of you who want a head start.


The term “Naxalite” is derived from Naxalbari, the name of the West-Bengal town where India’s Maoist movement began. During the late 1960s the Communist Party of India was sharply divided on how to bring about India’s communist revolution. The party broke into two camps: those in favor of a attaining power by election, whereby the party would have the influence to provide momentum for a great urban uprising, and those in favor of utilizing the country’s vast peasant class to bring about a government-toppling armed insurrection. In 1967 Charu Mazumdar, a member of this second camp, grew tired with the Communist Party’s dithering and debates and set out to begin the revolution himself. The Naxalbari revolts were the result of his efforts.

Mazumdar called his new movement the “All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries”, but most Indians  knew the group by their place of origin, and began to call all Maoist-style guerrillas “Naxalites.”  The movement was supported by two very different groups: leftist college students (mostly from Kolkotta), and the poor delits and adivasis who had just survived the worst famine India had suffered in a century by the skin of their teeth. A steady flow of aid from China further strengthened the movement, allowing it to spread beyond the Naxalbari region itself, taking root in Andrah Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand. 

From this point on events turned against the Naxalites. Chinese aid was cut off in the early 70s when the Chinese Comunist Party ended their long standing policy of funding Asian Maoist groups. A brutal counterterror campaign by Bengali police decimated the ranks of the Naxilite faithful. To top things off, Mazumdar himself was captured by state police, and he stayed in their custody until his death in 1972.

Absent a steady source of funding, a base of operations, and a leader, the Naxalite movement fell apart. What had been one organization splintered into 30, divided and prone to factional infighting, Mazumdar’s mass movement was forced to the precipice of Indian society. Only in rural areas far removed from government power did Naxalism retain a vestige of popular support.

This state of affairs was the status quo well into the 1990s. By this time Naxalism had been reduced to irrelevancy, prompting national and state governments to focus on more pressing problems. Given breathing space the Naxalites were able to to rebound and then expand. By 2004 the two largest Naxalite factions joined together to form a new organization, the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist). The creation of CPI-Maoist was a watershed event, ending the era of interfactional  violence among the Naxalbari and paving the way for a Naxalite resurgence.


Naxalism thrives in the regions of India devoid of state control and subject to endemic poverty. Naxalites are often welcomed with open arms in such circumstances;  those leading lives of toil in India’s isolated jungle villages eagerly grasp opportunities to escape the system of oppression and impoverishment that dominates rural India. Once welcomed in, CPI-Maoists construct a shadow-state, complete with taxes, regulations, and courts, all ostensibly for the betterment of disenfranchised delit peasants and tribal groups.

Yet for these oppressed groups seeking recourse by way of Naxalite is inevitably a Faustian bargain. When it becomes clear that a Naxal shadow state has supplanted the authority of state government police forces are sent to drive the Naxalites out. In the violence that follows it is the delits and tribals who suffer most.

That Naxalite groups find continued support in rural areas despite the ills that accompany their presence marks another aspect of the regions Naxalites favor: the absence of an educated citizenry. The states with a significant Naxal presence all have literacy rates below the national average; the gap in literacy found between Bihar (54%) and Kerala (91% ) mirrors the extant of Naxalite control in the two states.

The area of India where support for the Naxalism runs highest has been called “the red corridor”, a long stretch of territory reaching from southern tip of Andhra Pradesh to the eastern regions of West Bengal. The intensity of Naxalite insurgency varies across this stretch; in most places Naxalites rule unopposed only in remote pockets and patches of the region’s countryside.

In the past opposition from the rural population of Eastern India has kept Naxalism from growing past these remote pockets. The response to CPI-Maoists’s expansion was violent; many rural landowners would not tolerate a Naxalite shadow state and founded anti-Maoist militias in an attempt at armed resistance. The pattern was set by the Salwa Judum, a grass roots resistance movement in Chhattisgarh that was co-opted by the state government soon after its founding. Eager to find a quick fix to the Naxalite problem, the government of Chhattisgarh paid members of the Salwa Judum as “Special Police Officers” and ordered them to clear the jungle of Naxalite influence. The battles that followed this command resulted in thousands of internal refugees across the state. The heavy handed tactics of the Salwa Judum and their government patrons alienated many of the state’s rural poor, and early this year the last vestiges of the movement disappeared.

The same cannot be said for the Naxalites. Every bit of lost legitimacy for the Indian government was a gain for the Naxalite’s shadow state; by the end of this summer the Naxalites had enough popular authority to  set up road blocks on national highways and frisk employees of the Chhattisgarh government.

The surge in Naxalite power is not limited to Chhattisgarh. Multiple states, some outside the red corridor, have seen a troubling growth in Naxalite related violence. Part of the reason the October 8th ambush made headlines is because it did not occur in Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, or Orissa, the four states traditionally subject to Naxal violence.

The scope this violence has ensured action on the part of India’s central government. Last month the Central Reserve Police Force reported that it had lost six times the number of men to Naxalites this year than it has to all other groups in all other combat zones, including Kashmir.  This month the CRPF announced that it was launching a nation-wide operation to counter the Naxal threat. Titled “Operation Green Hunt”, the campaign is expected to last two years.

We will see. As this blog has noted in the past, counterinsurgency campaigns  do not operate on a small time scale. This is but the beginning of another long war.


Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist)
South Asian Terrorism Portal. 2008.

An invaluable resource for those concerned with Indian security issues, the South Asian Terrorism Portalt has in depth intelligence reports on most of India’s terrorist organizations. This particular report provides a summary of CPI-Maoist’s history, ideology, structure, and current activities. This is easily the best summary of CPI-Maoist that I have seen online.

Communist Party of India (Maoist): Documents, Statements, and Interviews of Leaders
Banned Thought. Last updated November 13 2009.

A collection of CPI-Moist documents and propaganda materials. As the title of the site indicates, all of these materials have been censored in India.

Charu Mazumdar: Reference Archive. 2003.

A collection of Charu Mazumdar’s manifestos.

India’s Forgotten War

An exhaustive aggregator and analyzer on all news items related to Naxalism.

Revolution in South Asia

A comprehensive blog that covers Maoist movements across South and Southeastern Asia… from the perspective of the Maoists.

Naxalite Rage

Shlok Vaidya’s blog on India’s security environment, guerrilla warfare, and “the far-flung implications” of a globally connected Naxalite insurgency.


Volume 31. October 2009.

Pragati released a special edition devoted to Naxalism and how the Indian government how to best over come it. 

While the entire volume is top-notch, I recommend Raj Cherubal’s “Hope is the Antidote to Naxalism“, Ankur Kumar’s “Money and Friends“, and Sushant K Singh & Nitin Pai’s “Winning the Counterinsurgency Endgame” for those pressed for time.

A Spectre Haunting India

The Economist. 17 August 2006.

A good introduction to the conditions in which Naxalism arises.

Naxal Movement in India: A Profile.
Kujur, Rajat. Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 2008.

An in depth history of the Naxal movement, with an emphasis on the movement post-Mazumdar.

On War Footing.
Datta, Sakait. Outlook India. 13 October 2009.

A short but detailed overview of what Operation Green Hunt will look like.

Operation Green Hunt launched. But where are the Naxals?
The Times of India. 7 November 2009.

The Times points out the prime difficulty in waging war against the Naxalites.

India: Draconian Response to Naxalite Violence.
Human Rights Watch. 6 April 2006.

Being Neutral is our Biggest Crime: Government, Vigilante, and Naxalite Abuses in India’s Chhattisgarh State
Human Rights Watch. 14 June 2008.

Dangerous Duty: Children and the Chhattisgarh Conflict
Human Rights Watch. 5 September 2008.

Human Rights Watch has recorded a plethora of human rights violations surrounding this conflict. I do not expect things to get better any time soon.

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