Small Wars Journal

An Insurgency Overlooked: India and the Naxalites

The future economic success of the west depends to a considerable degree on its ability to establish firm ties with states around the Indian Ocean Rim. The two main actors that constitute the best hope for global growth are obviously India and China. Of the two, India is in many ways the better bet. The country’s ‘bottom-up’ economic model (enabling it to better withstand systemic shocks), its demographic composition and its democratic system provide it with a future outlook that is brighter than China’s. Also, it is impressive that, despite endemic corruption, poor infrastructure, and a currently weak and directionless Congress Party-dominated government, India’s economy maintains a growth rate of 6%. Moving into an era of multipolarity, the importance of enhancing ties with a rising power like India is of great strategic importance for the West. At the same time, though, India is facing internal security pressures, albeit largely unknown to many investors and policy makers. Large swaths of Indian territory are plagued by conflict between the state and the long-running Maoist insurgency group known as the Naxalites. If not dealt with effectively, the Naxalites might prove to be too much for New Delhi and turn out to be India’s Achilles heel imperiling its phenomenal global rise.

The current manifestation of Maoist-inspired violence in India can be traced back to the period immediately following the country’s independence in 1948. The term Naxal or Naxalite is derived from the Indian village of Naxalbari (West Bengal) where the movement has its roots. The stated goal of the Naxalites was, and remains to this day, to free the poor from the clutches of the landlords, to implement land reforms and destroy the oppressive feudal order in India. A central part their strategy to achieve this goal has been a guerrilla war against government forces in the underdeveloped rural and tribal regions of India. Although the nature of the movement makes it difficult to estimate the group’s size, recent estimates by The Research and Analysis Wing, the Indian intelligence service, have placed the numerical strength of the Naxalites at some 20,000 armed fighters, with access to about 6,500 firearms. These numbers would suggest that the Naxalites are almost twice as big as the FARC movement in Columbia, which numbered around 11,000 operatives in 2009. The Naxalites’ organizational structure includes an elaborate hierarchy with a Central Committee at the top, followed by Regional Bureaus, Zonal or State Committees, and District or Division Committees. Following a period of internal strife and fractional splits, in 2004 the a merger occurred to create an umbrella organizational structure for the Naxalite insurgency. This reunification was followed by an upswing in the level of violence.

Like all successful or enduring insurgent groups, the Naxalites follow a two-tiered strategy, using violence against their opponents as well as engaging in socio-economic initiatives to win the support of the population. With regard to the latter, it is important to note that the Naxalite insurgency puts much effort into addressing the grievances of the marginalised poor, who are disappointed in – or even hostile towards – the Indian government. For instance, Naxalite fighters have campaigned for women’s rights, have tried to improve the housing situation of those in need, have organised railway strikes, and have run irrigation projects to help farmers increase their harvests. The violent actions that make up the other second pillar of he Naxalite strategy are mostly aimed against the police, Indian government officials and transnational corporations. These attacks are intended to shield the population from capitalist influence. The Naxalites are quite successful in this regard, as the group has managed to take control of certain regions, especially in the Red Corridor, where state power has been eroded or has collapsed altogether.

Several factors account for the Naxalites’ ability to pull off tours de force of this kind. First, the manpower that the Indian insurgents brings to bear, gives them the organisational clout needed to wage a large-scale campaign. Second, although the Naxalites are geographically dispersed and not centrally led, the group shows a remarkable commitment to the overall strategy. Although the group’s operatives occasionally lash out at the local population, Naxalite actions generally fit the ambition to create Naxalite-controlled areas to encircle the cities and eventually take over the country. The third explanation of the insurgency’s sustainability is the fact that many Naxalite operatives are active in their native areas. From this, they derive knowledge of the terrain, crucial in irregular warfare, as well as familiarity with the local population and its plight, which makes it unlikely that they will be perceived as interlopers.

Another factor that makes it unlikely that the Naxalite insurgency will soon be a thing of the past is the inadequacy of the Indian government’s response. While it is clear that discrimination and poverty of the rural population provide the Naxalites with a support base and a pool of potential recruits, the government’s measures to alleviate the living conditions of the rural poor are generally half-hearted and poorly implemented. Rather, the government tries to quell the insurgency by taking a hard approach with a central role for law enforcement agencies. Thus far however, this hard line has not yielded the desired results. The number of police forces deployed against the Naxalites was recently increased to 76,000, but the insurgency is still alive and kicking. And even regardless of the effectiveness of the government line, it remains to be seen whether it is sustainable. India is one of the most underpoliced countries in the world, and there is little chance that the government will deploy the army, reluctant as it is to start a long and messy campaign and to take forces away from Jammu and Kashmir. It appears that the Naxalites are here to stay.

All too often, analyses of India are based on the assumption that its rise is inevitable and effortless. For a long time, the western view was that the rest of the world held little allure to the west, but now, the received wisdom on India at business and international relations conferences is an overcompensation of earlier neglect and underestimation. This overly sunny view is as misguided as the prior arrogance. What is needed is a sober analysis of India’s economy and internal security situation. The goal of this article has certainly not been to denigrate the future potential of India or to engage in fear mongering. Rather, we have tried to draw attention to an important actor on the Indian scene that until now has received only minimal international attention. Adding this dimension to current thinking about India will allow investors and policy makers to make informed decisions on when, how and where to invest their money in India. If India is serious about defeating the Naxalites, they will need to deal with the root causes of the group’s appeal in the Red Corridor, which will require addressing poverty, corruption and tribal inclusion issues. Only by doing so can India retain the domestic stability that is a prerequisite for its continued phenomenal rise.