Hayden Cribbon, Alessandro Gagaridis, PACOM; Sophie Provins, William Tuckwell, Extremism
April 26, 2021
Flag of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) whose ideology inspires the Naxalites
The Naxalites are a group of Maoist-inspired insurgents that have been active in multiple states of central-eastern India for decades. Despite the Indian Government’s efforts to boost economic growth and fight the rebels, widespread poverty and economic inequality in rural zones continue to offer a favorable environment for the insurgents, who continue to carry out deadly attacks. The Indian central government and federal states need to adopt a multi-level holistic approach to improve the living conditions of locals, reduce inequality, and combat the Naxalites. Otherwise, they will continue to represent a security threat hampering economic development in affected areas, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty and violence.
Naxalites are a group of insurgents who believe in a far-left communist ideology, most commonly known as Maoism. The Naxalite group was formed in 1967 following a peasant revolt in Naxalbari, a village in West Bengal, India. The Naxalbari uprising was predominantly led by tribal leaders and communist leaders of Bengal. The group began to develop from this point but had limited success in establishing a communist government in India. In 2004, followers of the ideology formed the Communist Party of India, otherwise known as the CPI (Maoists), uniting over 40 fragmented groups which formed the Naxalite insurgency as it can be recognized today. The new group focuses more on widespread change and has access to far superior weapons that increase the threat it poses. It has moved away from its origins in West Bengal, having spread into more of the rural areas of central-eastern India such as Chhattisgarh.
India is a diverse country whose development policy is designed to integrate the country through infrastructure projects. Since the 1960s, India’s economic policies have prioritized growth and commercialism. This focus is due to India’s need to increase its prosperity so it could begin modernizing and developing the facilities required for its rapidly expanding population. However, these economic reforms were not without consequence, as India sacrificed control over its forests and natural resources to local and foreign corporations that have long exploited the absence of regulation and oversight. The economic liberalization of India, combined with a lack of governance, has contributed to the restriction of local access to traditional forest resources and their depletion, while mining and infrastructure operations have caused mass displacement of rural people. The size and diversity of India have made this process challenging, and it has been further undermined by corruption within the state and economic inequalities as a result of unbalanced development. The incorporation of tribes in eastern India into the Indian State deprived the tribes of the legal rights they had over tribal lands. As India industrialized, tribal lands have been used to mine for rare materials. The Naxalite movement is primarily a product of economic strife and a critique of Indian development policy. Rural India has developed at a slower pace than urban India, and the process has been destabilizing for tribal communities in the eastern parts of the country. The displacement from land is perceived as a method of enriching the Indian State and major corporations, as improvements in the quality of life for rural Indians have not been equal to those of elite classes. The Indian State also faces inherent challenges in governing parts of rural India, as the absence of state institutions and the size of territory controlled have created obstacles to effective government. The Naxalite movement attacks the Indian State in rural areas, where it is weaker and where tribes displaced by economic development depend on tribal government more so than that of the Indian State.
In addition to the inherent costs associated with the casualties that the conflict has caused, the activity of the Naxalites has had both direct and indirect economic effects in affected areas. These include running drug rackets, extorting predatory fees and levies from the population, damaging infrastructure and public services, attacking banks and ATMs, targeting schools, disrupting industrial and mining projects, and deforestation for obtaining farmland. All these activities deteriorate the economic and living conditions in these areas, discourage investments, and force the authorities into costly deployments of security forces. Even though precise estimations are difficult to make, the total cost has been calculated to reach at least rupees 200 billion (around USD 2.7 billion) per year. This has multi-faced effects. Besides causing a loss in available resources, the conflict also hampers development, thereby creating a vicious cycle as it perpetuates the conditions of poverty sustaining the insurgency. Similarly, it reinforces the economic inequality between the cities and the countryside, frustrating India’s rural development efforts and pushing people to relocate to the already congested urban areas or join the insurgents. The environmental cost should also not be neglected since deforestation causes the loss of biodiversity and results in carbon emissions that contribute to long-term global warming with its deleterious climate consequences. Lastly, the Naxalites’ involvement in trafficking contributes heavily to criminality in India and other countries with destabilizing effects. Therefore, economic policies meant to address the root causes of the Naxalite problem should take a comprehensive approach taking into account traditional and human security to break this self-alimenting cycle of poverty.
Naxalism was born out of the grievances experienced by those affected and marginalized by the “new India” and has since relied on the country’s inability to efficiently reduce the inequities created during the reforms. It is too simple to stipulate that poverty alone has driven the rise and continuation of Naxalism, as India was swept by poverty well before the reforms. It is instead the issues attached to the increased commercialization and rising affluence that has compounded economic inequality and inequality of opportunity. Despite the increased economic prosperity, there was still minimal opportunity to change the fortunes and class individuals inherit. Through either direct or indirect experience of this inequity, a large segment of the population began to feel demoralized and betrayed. This is why Naxalism has not spread in the more urbanized Northern parts of India, as these regions profited from increased economic activity. Instead, this sentiment has been felt disproportionately in rural parts of India where access to natural resources can be the difference between life and death. Therefore, it is rural people who are left with a feeling of dislocation and abandonment from the rest of India, whose government and economic development have not had the ability and/or desire to address. The vacuum created by government inaction and economic alienation has been fulfilled by the Maoists. This is why the Maoist ideology was attractive to so many in India’s less developed regions, as in theory, it provides equilibrium for everyone regardless of their lineage or geography. With such clear divisions of wealth in India and with the majority of the population in rural areas struggling to survive, Maoists had a captive audience of millions that were desperate for change. While the injustice of India’s economic development initially attracted many to the cause, it is the poverty of its followers that contributes to the severity of the movement. Many are without hope for a better life and face persecution if they surrender or are caught. This sense of hopelessness and entrapment is where the movement gains its true source of resilience and intensity.
In recent years the central government has taken a more proactive role in coordinating development policies between regions and in subsidizing state police forces. This has resulted in trends of decreased terrorist activity between 2016 and 2020. Although this effort has produced some positive effects, a lack of cooperation between state police forces remains a problem, with various responses continuing to produce inconsistent results. The government strategy is partially responsible for this, as the various federal states fund state police forces but do not provide the mechanisms, nor the encouragement, necessary to cooperate across state boundaries. These problems are also replicated within the Indian intelligence sector, which has frequently been criticized for poor cooperation and delivery of intelligence. Therefore, while coordinated responses produce results, cooperation across the security sector remains an area for improvement.
The Indian police response to the Naxalites is disjointed and lacks overall coherence. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is the leading institution in India’s response- they are a specialist counterinsurgency police force recruited nationally but deployed to individual states and placed under their operational command. There are disparities between states in response to the insurgency; the lack of centralized command structures produces divergent responses. The CRPF does not have a developed counterinsurgency doctrine, although their approach can be interpreted as “enemy centric,” meaning they treat insurgents as combatants and focus on killing them. This is supported by the use of a search and destroy campaign in Operation Green Hunt. The use of enemy-centric tactics has been more successful in some states than others; for instance, the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has seen some success reducing insurgent numbers and activity. Andhra Pradesh achieved this by blurring the lines of command further. Andhra Pradesh also raised a specialized unit called The Greyhounds to fight the Naxalites; unlike the CRPF, they are raised locally. This blurred the lines of command by operating alongside the CRPF battalions in counterinsurgency operations. Normally, the CRPF would operate as the primary counterinsurgency force in a state; but the Greyhounds took this role although, unlike the CRPF, they did not have operational control. Evidence suggests they have been successful, as the economic performance of Andhra Pradesh improved during their deployment. This success is limited, however; it has not been developed into a centralized strategy, and its accomplishments have not been replicated in other states.
Naxalism has persisted in India because the state-building project has been both the hardest and most alienating for the tribes of rural areas. Many modern terrorist movements attack the state where it is strongest; the Naxalite movement is successful because it does the opposite. The birth of India displaced tribal people from their homelands, which were difficult to reach due to their jungle terrain and also lacked effective state institutions. They presented the ideal conditions for an insurgency. The project of modern India alienates these groups, as the Indian State and economy grew, so did inequality. Where the Naxalites feed off discontent with modern Indian development, the institutions combating the insurgency have historically struggled to eliminate the movement. The absence of state institutions is a continued problem with state counterinsurgency forces in rural areas; who, until recently, was unable to deliver continuous success. The Indian national security apparatus prevents reform and collaboration. Institutional doctrines prevent a dialogue between agencies and attempts at reform have frequently been shelved. The combination of economic grievances, rural geography, and poor national security cooperation provided ideal conditions for the insurgency to continually bounce back from near defeat. The insurgents themselves have shown innovation; the merger of two major communist groups helped revive the movement in 2004. Overall, the Naxalites' persistence is primarily a product of favorable conditions.
Due to their Maoist ideology, the Naxalites have repeatedly been accused of being proxies used by China to destabilize and weaken India. In 2010, a former officer of India’s military intelligence service described Naxalism as a five decades-long proxy conflict masterminded and actively supported by China with arms. Around the same period, prominent government officials and experts expressed similar views, even though then Home Minister P. Chidambaram voiced doubts about China’s direct support to Naxalites despite them illicitly obtaining Chinese-made weaponry. The reliability and neutrality of these statements are uncertain, as they came mainly from government-affiliated officials who likely have a political agenda. Moreover, they offered little concrete evidence, as their argument was mainly based on the Naxalites’ ideology and their use of Chinese firearms, which does not prove per se that China supplied or trained the Naxalites. Recent and reliable open-source indications that the Naxalites are China’s proxies are almost nonexistent. As such, the effective existence of a China-Naxalites nexus remains unproven. More recent sources downplay the role of any “foreign hand” in the Naxalite insurgency, labeling India's Maoism as “probably the only China product entirely made in India.” However, past declarations by government officials about the Naxalites being a China-backed armed group are still significant as they indicate how the insurgency is perceived and/or politically depicted by at least a part of India’s decision-makers. This has two main implications. First, it may show how the insurgency is instrumentally exploited for political purposes, i.e. framing China as a threat to India’s national security and/or diverting the attention away from the real socio-economic causes of the rebellion. The latter aspect is important as it would result in misguided and ineffective counter-insurgency policies. Second, this kind of discourse is likely to foment anti-China sentiments among Indians. In a period of rising nationalistic sentiments in the country, this will contribute to the deterioration of Sino-Indian relations and possibly lead to attacks against Chinese assets and individuals.
The insurgency has declined since its peak in 2010, however, it is resilient and will likely continue to pose a challenge to India for years to come. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, deaths from the Maoist insurgency totaled 239 in 2020, down from 302 in 2019. However, the decrease in terrorist activity in 2020 is partially a product of the Indian response to COVID-19 as restrictions placed pressure on supply chains and reduced the availability of targets. This does reflect the long-term trends in the Naxalite insurgency. There have been consistent declines in insurgent activity since 2010 with the movement being increasingly confined to the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Maharashtra. The decline in the Naxal movement is also partially a consequence of more successful development policies which have targeted tribal groups with development programs; these results have not been uniform but over time they have begun to sway local populations. Some states have also adopted effective surrender and rehabilitation policies, notably, Madhya Pradesh saw around 3,000 Naxal insurgents surrender in 2016. While these pressures are significant the movement will be difficult to eliminate; it operates where the state is weakest, in difficult to reach rural countryside whose jungle terrain makes kinetic counterinsurgency operations predictably challenging. While the movement is comparatively weak, it retains the ability to challenge Indian development policy and will likely continue to do so.
Some Indian politicians, including two Union ministers, have claimed that there is a connection between the farmer protests and the Naxalites and that the protests are supported by Pakistan and China. This is unlikely to be accurate, as the farmer protests are more likely to be associated with the new measures that have been implemented in India. These measures leave them far more exposed to the will of the consumer and increase the risks that they will not be paid. However, it is likely to have the unintended consequences of leading to farmers seeking support from the Naxalites. The politicization of the farmer protests and linking it to the insurgency indicates that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the goals of the two separate groups and their ideologies.
The Naxalite movement may seek funding and training from Pakistan and China and will also continue to resist coercive responses by the Indian State. This movement is resilient and has survived for decades despite numerous seemingly existential threats. It can thrive on an “underdog” mentality due to its guerilla capabilities. Therefore, the Counterterrorism Group (CTG) assesses that increasing military efforts against the group is unlikely to end them, and risks them having a key recruitment tool for future generations. The increasingly capable response by the Indian Government may force the movement to turn to China or Pakistan for support. Both countries have long-standing geopolitical rivalries with India and consistently seek to undermine it; while obtaining consistent supplies of weapons, finances and fighters would help the Naxalite movement resist improvements in the Indian response. Reliable support from China would allow the movement to conduct more attacks and replenish its declining manpower, while increased financial support would lead to lower rates of desertion if members were paid better.
The Indian response to the continued Naxalite threat should incorporate better police and development policies together. Centralized police responses could replicate successful operations across state boundaries and address structural weaknesses within the CRPF across all states. The Central Reserve Police could be massively scaled up in terms of numbers. The utility of combining small low-intensity operations with large battalion-size clearing operations has been effective in Kashmir and could be replicated here to create a more poignant threat to the Naxalites; even though the Maoist insurgency will unlikely receive as much attention as Kashmir. Centralized operational control would also provide a better method for delivering intelligence, the success of surrender and rehabilitation policies has produced useful sources of intelligence as insurgents switch sides. Replicating these successes more widely would also be a valuable addition to the response. Improved development policy should do more to address economic inequality produced by industrialization. This should include policies that improve the quality of life for farmers (investment to lower production of costs of food, removing barriers to trade to improve the sale of produce) but also to provide economic safety nets as people transition to non-agricultural jobs (manufacturing, services). The process of industrialization in India is producing economic inequalities, and the recent farming protests highlight the importance of managing the change effectively.
While improvements in counterinsurgency policy remain a viable option, it is unlikely that existing policy will eliminate the threat; since it is resilient and challenges the government where it is most difficult for an effective response. The Indian Government should acknowledge this and instead of pursuing a strategy of annihilation that is likely to last for many more decades and cost more lives, CTG believes that they should instead opt for opening a dialogue to reach a compromise that ends the conflict immediately and peacefully. This is likely to lead to a future peace with current believers of the ideology and members of the group, which is essential for the security of the nation. The government should concede that the problem is grounded in history and therefore appreciate that it can be resolved only by following the principles of compromise and collaboration accompanied by economic policies designed to promote prosperity and inclusivity. Such a concession would not be a sign of weakness but rather a sign of progress that would help consolidate the legitimacy of the “new India.”
The Counterterrorism Group is continuing to monitor the situation in India, and how the impact of the sudden rise in coronavirus cases will affect the Naxalite movement. CTG’s Pacific Command (PACOM) is focusing specifically on the region to identify the risks of attacks before they are carried out. CTG’s Extremism is monitoring the impact of the ideology and how it is spreading throughout the nation and the repercussions that it is likely to have globally. Both teams are collaborating to ensure that the wider public is aware of the situation, and coming up with new ways that could end the threat posed by the Naxalite community. CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crime, and Hazards (WATCH) Officers provide 24/7 monitoring of global attacks and therefore are continuing to detect the threat posed by the Naxalites in India, and Threat Hunters monitor the likelihood of an attack being carried out. Please contact us for further assistance.
________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
 “India - Vypin Island - communist party flag” by Mike Finn licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
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