A Self-Perpetuated War—Maoism in India

By Aarti Aggarwal, Jindal Global Law School

India, as a country, confronts a number of challenges to its internal security. Of those, the threat posed by Naxalism—a Maoist insurrection active in the eastern half of the country for over four decades now—is the most concerning. Commonly known as “Naxalites” (hereinafter referred to as “Maoists”) after the district of Naxalbari in West Bengal, an Indian state where they staged an uprising in 1967, they are now almost a nationwide force.[1] In the past seven years, Naxalite activity has grown both in violence and reach, in a “Red Corridor” stretching from Nepal to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. They have killed, displaced, and aggrieved many people. In fact, by 2006, the problem was perceived to be so severe that India’s Prime Minister characterized the insurgency as the “greatest internal security threat ever faced by his country.”[2] These Naxalites are rebelling against the Indian state because they see India as a “backward, semi-colonial, and semi-feudal” state. Based on the philosophy of Marxism, their objective is to herald a revolution and seize political power under the leadership of the agrarian class.[3]

In its war against the Maoists, the Indian state usually gets to tell its side of the story. But official explanations do not always convey the reality on the ground and often attempt to obscure it with their own version of the truth. The state propagates the view that the Maoists have become the biggest adversaries of the idea of a “New India,” an India that will be free from internal disturbances and grievances of the populace. This interpretation is dominant because only one side (the state) has had the privilege to present its views, whereas the Maoists haven’t. This conflict starkly reveals the duplicity of both the state and the Maoists, with the poor adivasis caught in the middle, with no respite from this long, lingering war. (The indigenous people of India are commonly called adivasis (in Hindi) or tribals (in English). The Oxford dictionary defines “adivasi” as a member of any of the aboriginal tribal peoples living in India before the arrival of the Aryans in the second millennium BCE.)[4]

This paper attempts to unmask and reveal this “heartland of rebellion”—the Maoist movement in India—in a wider context. It will attempt to uncover the work done by the Maoists at the ground level and seek to expose how the state has failed in its attempt to pay heed to the demands and needs of the adivasis and the Maoists. It will also counter the state’s theory about the Maoists, arguing that the state has created this war against itself by failing as an institution—a war which it ironically calls its biggest “internal security threat.”

The term “Maoist” in the Indian context is used to refer to militant radical communist groups operating in Indiaworking to overthrow the government and the upper class. The insurgency has been most active in the Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.[5] Over the past few years, the governments of these states have signed hundreds of Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with corporates worth several billion U.S. dollars. These MoUs are large-scale social and environmental engineering infrastructure projects for power plants, dams, highways, and factories. For the MoUs to translate into real money, tribal people must be displaced,[6] thus making way for this perpetual war.

According to the Indian Intelligence Bureau, the strength of the Maoist cadres varies from 10,000 to 25,000, but their exact number is hard to establish. The report also cautions that their presence often gets exaggerated far beyond their genuine capacity.[7] Even more, a rebel force spread over some thirty districts of nine states of India seems like a thin force to be earmarked as the government’s single, biggest security threat.[8] Despite this, the Indian Prime Minister at the time, Dr. Manmohan Singh, pinned the blame on Maoists for slowing down economic activity in order to “sustain their ideology.”[9]

The state tries to tackle the issue of Maoists the same way that it handles the issues of the separatists. Its approach, therefore, is flawed because both the Maoists and the state are looking for something that is prima facie non-negotiable. For instance, insurgencies like the Bodoland movement in Assam or the Gorkhaland movement in West Bengal are separatist movements in that these groups demand self-governance in varying degrees, either within the Indian state or (if necessary) detached from it. These separatist struggles, however, fall into the penumbra of negotiability. Contrasting them with the Maoists will make it easier to understand what these Maoists really desire—the complete seizure of state power, which is unacceptable by the state. But when the state tries to tackle the issue of Maoists the same way that it handles the separatists, its approach is far from adequate since the wrong standard is used as a solution.[10]

Given this deadlock, one wonders if the Maoists are the only ones who believe in protracted war. Almost from the moment that India became a sovereign nation, it turned into a colonial power by annexing territory and waging war. It has never hesitated to use military interventions to address political problems—such as in the case of the Maoist uprising in its states of West Bengal, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh, and across the tribal areas of Central India. Tens of thousands have been killed behind the benign mask of democracy: Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, communists, Dalits, tribals, and—most of all—the poor, who dare to question instead of accepting the crumbs that are flung at them, are usually the subjects of such wars.[11] Thus, this war that the Maoists are waging was started by the Indian state in the first place.

Addressing the Maoist phenomenon through a security standpoint alone is also a delusionary path that the Indian government very often takes. It is important to identify the fuel that is adding to the Maoist fire and creating havoc in the deep forests of India. This fuel comes from the support that the Maoists gather from the local tribals living in and around their operative areas. For instance, the Maoists, on more than one occasion, have led agitations on behalf of the tribals against low prices that the tribals were being paid for tendu leaves (used for making cigarettes), and they even successfully negotiated a significant increase in the prices for tendu leaves. For the tribal community, such successful negotiations were big achievements. They saw the rebels as an important and powerful tool to extract what they felt was their legitimate right. These successful outcomes (and many others) cemented the relationship between the local tribal communities and the Maoists. This in fact is the modus operandi of the Maoists in breaking new ground and spreading their influence—by surveying areas so as to extract and incorporate necessary information into their activities to earn the trust and support of the locals.[12]

Success achieved through such activities brings the local community closer to the Maoists, strengthening their influence and reach in turn. Sustained agitations and fights for the local people help the Maoists consolidate their position in the area, allowing them to raise village-level militia. By the time the government responds, the Maoists are already deeply entrenched, having won the support of the local tribal community.[13] Historically, it was primarily the heavy-handedness of the forest department officials that the local tribal community despised.[14] There, too, the Maoists emerged as the true guardians of tribals, doing the job that the Indian state should have done. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the “high-handedness” of the local administration drove the tribal community into the hands of the Maoists. Where the Indian state failed, the Maoists emerged as a force that protected these tribal interests.

And to top it all, when the state unleashes force against these Maoists, it creates sympathy for the rebels among the locals because they are perceived to have been fighting for the locals’ cause. As a result, government-initiated campaigns like Operation Green Hunt (which attempted to counter the Maoist insurgency) are counter-productive. Firstly, such operations invite increased criticism against the government because its violent conduct in response to the Maoists raises concerns about human rights violations. Secondly, although India’s security forces are capable of militarily defeating the Maoists, they cannot rebuild the communities that will be devastated in the wake of a counter-insurgency campaign. The idea of launching such a campaign seems to be a half-baked one. Increased repression of the adivasis by the state, including the unleashing of the Salwa Judum (a government-initiated militia to counter the Maoist insurgency), contradicts the state’s apparent friendliness and concern for the adivasis.

The Maoists cannot ultimately win this war since victory demands a complete seizure of the power of the Indian state. However, in theory at least, the Maoists can pull the rug from below the Indian state by unilaterally giving up arms. Given their militancy and their acceptance by the locals, they can be a major force if they continue to fight against the state by building up a democratic struggle against the state, perhaps in a non-violent fashion. The writer-activist Dilip Simeon reiterated this very belief when he eloquently asked the Maoists to challenge the ruling class from within the democratic establishment rather than waging a war of violence. This indeed is a dream laced with plenty of hope, but it must be considered in the times to come.

The policies currently adopted by the government of India are the antithesis of what a state should prescribe for its own people. Instead of making the tribals partners in economic development, the state marginalizes them further. State governments are heedlessly signing away tribal land for mining projects. And instead of efficient recourse, the government is outsourcing law and order, as with the Salwa Judum campaign in Chhattisgarh, where the state has established a vigilante army that runs parallel administration in the region. Ironically, by arming civilians, the state has merely reproduced the methods of the other side that it so heavily appears to condemn. In this fashion, “the machismo of revolution is being answered by the machismo of a counter-revolution.”[15] Thus, there is a double tragedy at work in tribal India: first, that the state has treated its adivasi citizens with contempt and condescension, and second, that their presumed protectors, the Maoists, have been blockaded by this very state offering no solutions.

The course of action that seems most plausible in this abysmal situation of war and unrest is a rehabilitation policy with full transparency about the means and ends that it seeks to accomplish for these people who are rebelling. If the rebels surrender, then the government needs to come up with policies that generate trust in civil society, to demonstrate that the negotiations endorsed by the government are meaningful and not just empty promises. This might take the shape of a sensitively conceived and sincerely implemented plan to make the adivasis and Maoists true partners in the development process: by returning to them the title over the lands that they cultivated, allowing them the right to manage forests sustainably, and by giving them a solid stake in industrial or mining projects that are executed at the cost of their homes. The Maoists, in return, might endorse a compact with democracy or they may just continue their revolt. Nobody knows what the outcome will be, but it is worth a shot in the given situation of unending unrest.[16]

As of the status quo, the Indian state has failed to deal with the Maoists effectively. And this failure is symptomatic of the state’s constant problematic treatment of the adivasis. As a result, the government that was supposedly formed to address the inconveniences of these adivasis fails to keep up its promises, causing the adivasis to rely on Maoist methods for redress. For a democracy like India, wherein citizens vest the power of decision making in the government for their interests, the state’s failure is profoundly problematic. People such as the adivasis are now finding more merit in legitimizing a rebel force than in using the democratic process to address their needs. When this very process of democracy gets eroded, there can be no means to organize and unite a society that comprises of a plethora of needs, making way for perpetual anarchy and chaos. This, in turn, threatens the very possibility of people with varied desires co-existing, since everybody would rather rely upon a rebel force aligned with their personal interests than find an equally representative way for each interest within a democratic government.

Thus, what is envisaged by the state as a “grave threat” is actually a self-perpetuated threat. What the Maoists are really doing at the ground level for the tribals is commendable, not only because they are fighting for these tribals but because their efforts show that the so-called threat to internal security is nothing but the result of the state’s inaction and its incompetence in tackling issues; in reality, the Maoists are the ones tackling those issues.

As Arundhati Roy rightly explains in Walking with the Comrades, “when there are aspirations, people realize the futility of violence and see reason to participate in the growth process and become part of the mainstream to fulfill those aspirations.”[17] These Maoists have aspirations and so do the adivasis. What the state needs to do is to channel their aspirations and wants into democratic means of participation so that these demands can be worked out without rebellion and violence. The state can do this only by fostering an inclusive form of governance that reaffirms to these tribals and Maoists that they matter.

Therefore, a reconciliation of extremism with electoral democracy seems urgent and necessary in a country like India where the very aspirations and hopes of the adivasis are being sidelined in the face of a never-ending conflict with those who make promises in the name of their welfare. It is utopian to say, given the status quo, that in the long run the Maoists might make their peace with the Republic of India, and that India may come to treat its adivasi citizens with dignity and honour. Ironically, this insurgency is only a display of the anguish that had been bottled up in these rebels for far too long due to the state’s failure to treat them democratically in the first place.



[1] “India’s Naxalites: A spectre haunting India,” The Economist, August 17, 2006, accessed August 2, 2017, http://www.economist.com/node/7799247.

[2] Keith J. Harnetiaux, “The Resurgence of Naxalism: How Great a Threat to India?” (Master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2008).

[3]Kamal Kumar, “Analysis: India’s Maoist challenge,” Al Jazeera, August 24, 2013, accessed August 3, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/08/2013812124328669128.html.

[4] Oxford Dictionaries, online, s.v. “Adivasi,” accessed August 11, 2017, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/adivasi.

[5] Saboor Zaman, “Naxalism—A Drag on India’s quest for Great Power Status” (paper was developed by the author while attending the Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies at the Australian Defence College in 2011).

[6] Shrey Verma, Far Reaching Consequences of the Naxalite Problem in India, Santa Clara: Rakshak Foundation, July 2011, http://www.rakshakfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/White-Paper-on-Naxalite-Movement-in-India.pdf.

[7] Gautam Navlakha, Days and Nights in the heartland of Rebellion, (UK: Penguin Books, 2012), 15.

[8] Id at 15-16.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Nirmalangshu Mukherji, “Quest for Peace,” in The Maoists In India: Tribals Under Siege (Amaryllis Books, 2013), Chapter 6.

[11] Lisa de Haan, “India at war with itself”, (Master’s thesis, Utrecht University, August 12, 2011).

[12] Arun Shourie, Where Will All This Take Us, (Rupa & Co., September 1, 2008), 56.

[13] Harnetiaux, supra note 2.

[14] Mukherji, supra note 10.

[15] Ramachandra Guha, “Adivasis, Naxalites and Indian Democracy”, Economic and Political Weekly 42 (2007), accessed February 2014, http://www.epw.in/journal/2007/32/special-articles/adivasis-naxalites-and-indian-democracy.html.

[16] Harnetiaux, supra note 2.

[17] Arundhati Roy, “Walking With the Comrades”, Outlook India, 29th March 2010, https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/walking-with-the-comrades/264738.

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