The Challenge of Naxalism to the Survival of Indian Democracy

Sumeet Thakur
Khyal Chand
Ramesh Kataria

Abstract Naxalism and guerilla warfare
Introduction Characteristics of Naxal regions
Peasants’ Uprisings leading to Naxalism Conclusion


The challenge which naxalism presents before Indian democracy cannot be solved by the voting and representative democracy. This is the question of substance of Indian democracy. The biggest flaw is to see this conflict through the prism of law and order problem. This is the issue of acceptance and accommodation of the diversity and respect for the alternative way of living.

1. Introduction

The history of the evolution of Naxalism in India is described by the likes of Sumanta Banerjee and Bela Bhatia in their works as fragmented and tortuous process which came to end with the merger of the two principal groups, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (CPI (M-L)) (People’s War) and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI) in 2004 with the formation of the Communist Party India (Maoist).(Bhatia,2005; Banerjee, 1980; Banerjee, 2009) To conclude that this process of evolution has come to an end is not correct because it would imply as if there would be no further fragmentations in future. It would, therefore, be more realistic to observe that the evolution of Naxalism is taking place through fragmentations and unifications. Naxalism, it cannot be lost sight of, has its immediate origin in the debates within the Indian communist movement of the 1960s as to what ‘correct’ strategic line should be pursued in order to establish communism in India..

1.1 First Phase of Naxalism

The movement took off in May 1967 and is named after a village in the far north of the West Bengal where a group of revolutionaries _who repudiated the approaches of the major communist parties as ‘reformist’_ launched an armed uprising of poor and landless peasants and drove out landlords. In many cases, however, action degenerated into indiscriminate violence following the injunction of Charu Mazumdar, who had emerged as the Movement’s leader, to undertake ‘annihilation of class enemies’. Scholars like Dilip Simeon (2010) have argued that the blatant use of violence has served the interests of the petty-bourgeois intellectual comrades who have led this movement, which gave them the license to instigate the murder of any person by declaring him as class enemy. This point is also brought forward by Aditya Nigam (2010), when he writes, “The adivasis cannot represent themselves; they must be represented, it would seem. They must be represented either by the agents of the state or by the revolutionaries and the voice of the revolutionary is almost always that of a Brahman/upper caste Ganapathy or Koteswara Rao or their intellectual spokes persons. So we have a Maoist-aligned intelligentsia vicariously playing out their revolutionary fantasies through the lives of adivasis while the people actually dying in the battle are almost all adivasis”. This clearly suggests that there is a need to empower the tribal population so that they can represent themselves and raise those issues, which have relevance in their lives rather following the directives of the Maoist leadership, which cherish their own ideological dreams. Naxalism in the early 1970s met with the violent retaliation from the state. Because of the suppression from the state the entire Naxalite movement started to disintegrate into different groups. The CPI (M L) decided to create mass fronts and ultimately participated in the parliamentary system. In 1972, Charu Mazumdar died in the police custody, which virtually brought an end to the first phase of this movement. Although, the Naxalism lost its intensity but survived as an ideology and movement, and it was provided fuel by the continuing denial of justice and human rights to the Dalits and tribals across the country.

1.2 Second Phase of Naxalism

In the 1980s, Naxalism entered the second phase as is explained by Sumanta Banerjee (1980, 2009) in his work “In the wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India”. According to him, a rethinking took place on the part of some survivors of the first phase who favored participation in the parliamentary politics and trade union activities. On the other side were those who stuck to the line of the armed struggle while simultaneously engaged in nurturing the mass mobilization through open fronts, set up for the purpose. CPI (M-L) and Party Unity in Bihar, and People’s War Group in Andhra Pradesh emerged with very strong foundations, and spread to other states like Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha.

2. Peasants’ Uprisings leading to Naxalism

In his work Agrarian Radicalism in South Asia, Bouton (1985, p.6) has noted that there is a sharp division of opinion among the scholars on the issue of peasants’ revolts and revolution in South Asia. At one extreme is Barrington Moore, who has argued that peasant revolts in India have been ineffective, with rare exceptions such as uprising in Telangana in 1948. At the other extreme is Kathleen Gough, who has compiled a list of 77 peasant revolts from the end of Moughul rule to the post-Independence period, to support her view that there is a vital revolutionary tradition in India, the basis of which has not been properly exploited by contemporary radical parties. (Bouton,1985; Gough, 1976; Desai, 1979) The most significant aspect of Gough’s long list is the support it provides for the Stokes (1978) argument that the most important peasant revolts have occurred among clan and caste communities. Eric Stokes strikes home the point that most of the Maoist led radical conflicts happened among the communities which were predominantly clan and caste based which provided the left radicals with an easy source for mobilization. Maoist cause was further helped by the marginalization of these clan and caste based communities within the Indian democratic setup which has failed over the years in providing these communities with the basic institutions for democratic participation (Stokes,1978) It is especially noteworthy that a largest proportion of revolts in Gough’s list, somewhere between a third and a half, were either exclusively tribal in origin or contained a significant tribal element. Another very large proportion occurred among specific castes groups and religious minorities. Thus, most of the peasant revolts under British rule occurred either among tribes, which were a small minority in the subcontinent as a whole, had suffered from severe discrimination and oppression, and are often outside the basic structure of Hindu agrarian village organization, or among ethnic or religious groups whose solidarity could not be explained satisfactorily in class terms alone and did not extend beyond the members of their own group. When one scrutinizes the post-independence period, the case for the existence of a tradition of peasant uprisings, which were primarily class struggles led by different communist parties and organizations.

Some of the most prominent peasant uprisings after the Independence are:- (I) Tebhaga movement in Bengal, in 1946-47, when sharecropping peasants, led by the Kisan Sabha (peasants’ front of Communist Party of India(CPI)) were fighting against the exploitative land revenue system and demanding reduction of landlord’s share to one-third.. (ii) Telangana rebellion, that began in 1946 by Andhra peasants, led by communist cadres, against the exploitative feudal lords and succeeded in releasing about 10,000 acres of land from their fold for redistribution among the landless peasants. . . , (iii) Naxalbari movement in 1967 led by Charu Majumdar, founder General Secretary of CPI (ML), for the protection of the interests of poor peasants in rural Bengal, (iv) Srikakulum movement in 1967, led by Vempatapu Satyanarayana, a school teacher, member of the central committee of Charu Majumdar led CPI(ML) where was raised the demand “land to the tiller’ and Andhra The present phase of Naxalism has started after emergency (1975-1977) when most insurgents were released from jail, and some of them tried to revive the armed struggle. In 1980, KondapalliSeetharamaiah, a veteran of Telengana rebellion founded the Peoples War Group (PWG) in Andhra Pradesh. PWG cadres operated in the densely forested border regions of Telengana and have the benefit of operating in the forested terrain. The Maoist Communist Centre led Naxalism in Bihar and in the forested areas of Bengal- Bihar border, which provided them rugged terrain and willing Adivasi supporters. In 2004 these two groups merged to form the CPI (Maoist). Baster in Chhattisgarh has become one of the strongest operating zone for them.

Paul Brass (1990, p.302) says that the two most impressive movements, Tebhaga and Telangana, occurred at the time of Independence and became enmeshed in the broader communal and nationalist trends, which initially gave added force to them, but ultimately doomed them. All, these movements were localized in nature, which spread in a particular linguistic zone. He has given four reasons, which have fuelled the Naxalite or Radical leftist movements in India and they are:

  1. Heavy involvement of the tribal populations, which has greater degree of cohesiveness and are vulnerable to exploitation by the stronger sections.

  2. Situations of dispossession or other kinds of exploitation of the peasants, sharecroppers and laborers by the big landlords and commercial farmers from outside of the local area, holding massive illegal farms.

  3. Locations of several incidents in border and forest areas outside the centers of traditional, settled village agriculture.

  4. A strong connection with unimplemented land reforms or outright violations of the land reforms laws.

3. Naxalism and guerilla warfare

The nature of the Naxalite warfare is unconventional in nature. Indian state will have to understand the nature of their warfare before charting any strategy to tackle this ever-increasing danger to national security. Even the nature of this movement over the years has witnessed continuous transformation. It started as a struggle of landless peasants against the repressive landed elites and repressive state, but now it has gained more strength in the natural resource rich regions of India, which are predominantly tribal majority regions. As regards the unconventional nature of Naxalite warfare, it may be mentioned that the nature of the revolutionary warfare is always very different from the conventional warfare. As David Galula (1964, pp 9-10) in his book Counter Insurgency Warfare illustrates that the insurgents usually adopt a long-term strategy, which will involve protracted warfare because the insurgents don’t have the wherewithal for the direct conflict. The creation of the significant power, which could help in knocking out the enemy, may take many years; therefore the insurgents favor the protracted and indirect guerrilla warfare. The ultimate aim of the guerrillas are of courseto capture the state power in order to transform completely the social-political structure and economic organization of the nation, and it is this motive which differentiates it from the civil war. This kind of war aims to subvert the very nature of existing structures of socio-economic relations and therefore it is also known as the subversive warfare. There is no frontline in such a war. The front is everywhere, and the guerrillas’ strike anywhere and everywhere.

The main motive of the guerrillas is not to inflict severe defeat on the enemy but it is to confuse, harass and frustrate the establishment. The guerrillas do not engage in conventional battle until the last stage of the war because they are too weak to engage in that. In the guerrilla warfare the violence at the physical level must play second fiddle to the psychological impact of war, which is more important. The main motive is to break the spirit of the enemy to fight. Inflicting defeat on the enemy one after another can attain this, and once the army loses its determination to fight it starts to act in desperation, which forces it to commit mistakes. These mistakes can be like harassing the local population, which can lead to further alienation from the local population without whose help it will be next to impossible to win the conflict. Mao believed that although the guerrilla warfare may at times seem militarily primitive and their weapons may not match up to the technological sophistication of the western world, politically, however, guerrilla warfare is “more sophisticated than nuclear war or atomic war or war as it was waged by conventional armies, navies and air forces”(Griffith, 1961, p.7).

3.1 Counter guerilla strategies

A successful response to the problem posed by guerrillas (naxalites in the current context) is neither simple to plan nor easy to carry out. Basically, the problem is a political one, and to attempt to understand it in purely in military terms is the most dangerous kind of over simplification. Guerillas are a symptom rather than a cause. Lasting success requires a viable political settlement, and even operational success over a period of time demands the proper political framework for effective action (Paret and Shy, 1962, pp.71-72; Theyer, 1963, pp.42-60) Therefore, the counter guerrilla or counterrevolutionary warfare thus must also rely upon the political and psychological effects of military actions. The first requirement is, of course, to impose military actions. The guerrillas/Naxalites need victories to maintain their moral, discipline and momentum. On the other hand their continual defeats are bound to have a serious impact. Moreover, the civilian population, witnessing these defeats, and being no longer sure that Naxalites may win, will tend to become less cooperative. The government can best inflict such defeats if the country is divided into various regions and in each region the counter-guerrilla forces act to flush the guerrillas/Naxalites out of the region. Once the area has been cleared and the local units of the Naxalites are uprooted, military must guard this recovered area with the help of militia and regular troops. The military must be highly professionally trained in the unconventional warfare and mobile enough to chase out the guerillas. The British in Malaya, for instance, used squads and platoons that lived in the jungles for months, gathering their own intelligence, ambushing enemy patrols, and cutting supply lines. At the same time, the British held out amnesties to guerrillas who surrendered and a number of guerrillas feeling beaten did accept the amnesties.

But no counter revolutionary war can be won by conventional military means alone; a purely military solution is an illusion. It is interesting to note in this connection that the successful guerrilla and counter guerrilla leaders of the past two decades have largely been nonmilitary men. In China, Mao Tse-tung, a student and librarian and subsequently a professionally trained revolutionary, defeated Chiang Kai-shek, a professionally trained soldier. In Indo-China, Ho Chi Minh, a socialist agitator, and General Giap, a French-trained history teacher, defeated four of France’s senior generals, including a marshal. Castro was a lawyer and Magsaysay, who led the counter guerrilla war in the Philippines, was an automotive mechanic who became a politician. In short, the orthodox military officer by and large has been unable to cope with the unorthodox nature of guerrilla warfare. A second requirement in anti-guerrilla warfare is to separate the guerrillas from the population. One technique by which this can be accomplished is to resettle the latter so-called strategic hamlets. Because people do not enjoy being uprooted from their homes and villages, they rarely go freely. The major task of entire anti-revolutionary warfare is fundamentally a political in nature. The success of the anti-revolutionary warfare lies in finding the politically best solution, which then must be backed by the military, and other coercive measures (Spanier, 1975, pp.170-195)

4. Characteristics of Naxal regions

Naxalite problem has affected Karantaka , Chhattisgarh , Odisha , Andhra Pradesh ,Maharashtra , Jharkhand ,Bihar ,Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, and in 2009 Naxalites were active across approximately 180 districts in ten states of India.(Handoo, 2008-09) .In August 2010 , after the first full year of implementation of the Integrated Action Plan (IAP), Karnataka was removed from Naxalite –affected states. In july 2011 the number of Naxalite –affected areas was reduced to 83 districts in nine states ( including 20 additional districts.).(Chhibber, .2011). The most of these new dsirticts are from Orissa , Chhattisgarh ,Bihar and Jharkhand where Naxalism enjoys a support base among the tribal populations, and further the area in which theNaxals are operating suits for the Guerrrila warfare. Naxal has appropriated the historical rebellions of Santhals, Kols and Mundas, which their ancestors had fought against the colonial state. Naxals have been successful in depicting and presenting the present Indian state as a colonial and capitalistic state entering their hitherto free lands for the acquisition of natural resources. To counter the challenge posed by Naxalism, the Indian state has adopted two- pronged approach of confrontation and development

It is found that districts where Naxalism has grown have some unique characteristics.

  1. High share of ST/SC population

  2. Low literacy rate

  3. High infant mortality

  4. Low level of urbanization

  5. High forest cover

  6. High share of agricultural labor

  7. Low per capita income

  8. Low per capita food grain production

  9. Low level road density

  10. Store house of minerals

  11. High share of rural households without specified asset and banks accounts.


5. Conclusion

The major task of anti revolutionary warfare is fundamentally a political one. Naxalites are only the barometer of discontent and there is the need to address the causes, which are the real reason for the rising discontent among the tribals’ in India who are the main strength of Naxalites movement. The reason for this discontent lies in the nature of the developmental model being followed by the Indian state, which gives priority to the exploitation of natural resources over the genuine empowerment of the tribal population inhabiting these mineral resources rich regions. This is clearly illustrated by the failure of majority of states in implementing the provision of the PESA Act, 1996 in majority of schedule areas wherein lies the mineral wealth of the rapidly industrializing India. It is the failure of Indian democracy that it has not been able to provide democratic institutional forums in the shape of empowered and autonomous Panchayati Raj Institutions, which could have provided protection to the interest of these marginalized sections. These regions are suffering from the wealth curse because corrupt politician, bureaucrats and companies siphon off the amount of wealth generated from these regions. Even the so-called revolutionaries also participate in this loot for different reasons like for the purchase of weapons and for amassing personal fortunes. In some of the regions there has been covert nexus of politicians, companies and Naxalite in perpetuating this exploitative nature of economic development. The native population is helpless because they have been totally bypassed in such kind of model of development, and it is they who suffer most of the negative externalities of this kind of growth model. This situation is made worse because of the low socio-economic position of the native people. Tribal population belonging to these regions has one of the worst developmental indices and this makes them unable to fight for their rights according to the modern political methods, it creates opportunities for the mediator like Naxalites, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats to misrepresent their grievances according to their own selfish interests. Creation of empowered local governing bodies spread of education and by making the current mineral exploitation policy more inclusive by sharing profits with tribal population may help in the eradication of this curse at the superficial level but at the heart of this problem is the model of development. Even the creation of so- called empowered panchyats is not going to bring genuine empowerment. Empowerment does not happen in vacuum. It needs legitimization of the empowered authority, which can only come from knowledge, because knowledge is the source of power. It is becoming impossible to attain the legitimization of the knowledge and authority of the tribal people because the agenda of development has been appropriated by the capitalistic –materialistic conception of development. This kind of appropriation of tribal resources for the fulfillment of wants of the mainstream society has happened throughout the long history of Indian sub-continent. Emergence of Mauryain, Guptas, Delhi Sultans and Mughul empires are historical example of this process. Modern Indian democratic republic of India is also following the footsteps of these empires. But the nature of exploitation is different on two counts: one, the current size of Indian non- tribal society is very humongous which will require huge piles of natural resources to fulfill its wants, and second, after the adoption policy of economic liberalization, the exploitation capacity and appetite for natural resources have really increased. The core issue is not of compensation to the tribals or their subsequent rehabilitation, rather it is the existence of two different civilizations and worldviews. So-called modern view is based on exploitation of natural resources and their subsequent appropriation being based on purchasing power rather than on needs. The other worldview emphasizes on striking a balance with the nature by living in consonance with it. The problem is that modern consumption based civilization can calculate the mineral wealth of these forests but it fails to understand the existence of the tribal civilization and its method of evaluation of wealth. Entire project of modernization with its instrumental reasoning does not accept any alternative form of knowledge. So, what is required is a communicative dialogue between the two civilizations. In order to make this happen what is needed is empowering these communities to determine the course of their own future. This empowerment requires acceptance of their alternative local knowledge for the use of the resources and subsequent power of autonomy to determine their own fate. It is essential for any agreement claiming to be democratic to fulfill these twin goals in order to establish long-term peace in these regions.


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1. Assistant Professor , Govt. Degree College, Drang at Narla , Mandi , Himachal Pradesh
2. UGC Senior Research Fellow, Department of Geography, HPU, Shimla
3. Assistant Professor , Govt. Degree College, Drang at Narla , Mandi , Himachal Pradesh.