Fifty years ago, on May 25, a large group of bargadars or sharecroppers, landless labourers, adivasis, mostly Santhals, conducted daring raids on greedy jotedars or landlords and their granaries in a village called Naxalbari in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. The police opened fire at the hostile mob, killing ten of them, including three children. This incident gave birth to an armed movement across the country, which continue to trouble some parts of the country even now.

The leading light of this armed struggle, which was called the Naxalbari movement, was ultra-left leader Charu Majumdar and his close associates Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal, who planned and mobilised bargadars, mostly adivasis, for months before the outbreak of Naxalbari uprising on May 25, 1967. Charu Majumdar and his associates belonged to the radical stream of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which was inspired more by Mao Tse Tung’s idea of peasant rebellion than Marx-Lenin’s vision of class war. The Chinese Communist Party Revolution under Chairman Mao, which achieved a sensational victory over the nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Shek through an armed peasant rebellion in 1949, had left a deep impact on Communist leaders likes Majumdars and Sanyals. Inspired by Mao’s success, Charu Majumdar for instance published his famous Eight Documents in 1965, arguing that the CPI-M should endorse the Mao’s strategy of armed rebellion against the Indian state.

Of course, their radical and extremist ideological positioning led to a split in the CPI-M, leading to formation of a radical left party named the CPI-Marxist-Leninist or CPI (M-L) in 1969. The moot point here is that the Naxalbari uprising was inspired by Mao’s ideology and strategy. The extreme level of land inequity, grinding poverty and exploitation of bargadars by jotedars made mobilisation of the agricultural workers for the uprising easier.

After taking aback by the sudden daring attacks of armed agricultural workers in the sleepy, unknown village of Naxalbari in North Bengal, the State managed to suppress the rebellion with heavy police action in 72 days. However, the revolutionary flame spread to wide swathes of the country, including to southern States of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, setting the path for next cycles of uprisings. Naxalbari inspired hundreds of urban revolutionaries and ideologues to leave lucrative careers and education and work among peasants and labourers and spread the armed movement.

Charu Majumdar’s arrest in July 1972 and his subsequent death in police custody in the same month, however, prompted many analysts to pen obituaries for the Naxalite movement. But their belief was short lived. In a matter of a decade, the offspring of Naxalbari appeared in other States – Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. The early1980s saw the revival of the movement in its most violent form when firebrand Kondapalli Seetharamaiah formed the People’s War Group (PWG) in Andhra Pradesh. When the Andhra police through strong police action decimated the PWG in the late 1990s, once again many analysts pulled the curtain down on this armed movement.

However, the left-wing insurgency revived again in the early 2000s by spreading into the Central India, particularly the mountainous Dandakaranya region linking the States of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. The strategic merger of the Communist Party of India (Maoist-Leninist), PWG, Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI) and 40 other armed factions to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in 2004 boosted the activities of the insurgents. At one point, the CPI (Maoist) dominated in more than 220 districts of India (in varying measures) out of the total of 640 districts then, prompting then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to call them “the greatest internal security threat to India” in 2006. During their peak years in 2010-11, the Maoists brought massive casualties among security forces (see Tables 1&2). In 2010, the most brutal attack by armed Maoists in Latehar (Chhattisgarh) claimed the lives of 76 CRPF jawans. This ghastly incident became the turning point in the state’s response to Maoist threats. It led to visible coordination in joint counter-insurgency planning and operations by the Centre and the affected States, helping to corner the rebels to some districts of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha. In the last few years, the combined efforts have helped to eliminate many top leaders of the Maoists, including several Central Committee members. Over 7000 rebels have surrendered and an equal number have been arrested in the Naxal-affected respective States.

Yet, one cannot write them off. Maoists continue to retain considerable firepower in their strongholds. The recent Sukma attack, which took lives of 25 CRPF jawans, is a clear reminder of their disruptive strengths and ability to surprise the state and its forces.

Table 1: Comparative Statistics of Naxal Violence (2005-2017)

YearsCiviliansSecurity Force PersonnelLWE/ CPI-MaoistsTotal
2017 (up to 15th April )593445138
Source: Ministry of Home Affairs, GoI, 2016-17 and SATP, 2017.

Insurgency and the Indian state
It is now 50 years since the birth of the Naxalbari movement. Yet, the Indian state and its institutions are still grappling with the armed insurgency, which continues to attract believers, despite the woodened ideology of Mao. Why? Let us not forget, unlike the previous cycles of insurgency that were swiftly put down by strong police action, this time around, governments and its appointed institutions have been careful to address the missing development dimension. For all these decades, the common narrative has been that poor living conditions, extreme poverty, backwardness and “the absence of state” have contributed to the sustenance of left-wing insurgency in the country.

There have been dozens of influential studies and reports, including one by the then Planning Commission, pointing out the missing development components in the spread of the Maoist ideology. Along with substantial resources channeled through flagship central welfare schemes such as the MGNREGA (rural jobs scheme), and the NHRM, the Centre has allocated a humongous sum of money to these districts under various specialised schemes. To cite one example, under the Planning Commission led Integrated Action Plan, each affected district got a huge sum of money (25-30 crores annually) to address its development needs, including basic infrastructure, healthcare, and education among others. This apart, the affected States have their own socio-economic schemes too to address the special needs of the Naxal affected districts. Despite all these, there appears to be no visible improvement on the ground? Why many adivasis or tribals are still under the spell of Maoists leaders (largely non-adivasis) and their utopian idea of People’s War or protracted guerilla war?

The official two-pronged (security and development) counter-insurgency approach, which has done well to restrict the Maoists’ spread and visibly reduce their disruptive strengths, is not good enough to end the threats forever. This calls for a serious review of the current strategy. The fact of the matter is that the Left-wing insurgency in its current cycle is not just about poverty and underdevelopment as the two-pronged approach visualizes. It is also about “injustice”, “dispossession” of disempowered adivasis. Unlike the previous cycles, the Maoist phenomenon is largely confined to India’s Fifth Schedule areas with overwhelming adivasi population. That is so because the adivasis, the foot soldiers of the movement, have been “dispossessed” from their land and the right over forest. The clearest evidence of this is that out of 60 million population displaced since 1951 (documented by Walter Fernedes), a vast portions of them are adivasis and mostly belong to the regions currently under the sway of Maoists.

These indicators should persuade States to initiate fundamental reforms in governance in the tribal dominated districts. The service delivery institutions (including police, revenue, judiciary) and apex governance institutions in Fifth Schedule areas not only should have enough representation from adivasis but also need to be adequately sensitised to adivasi customs, language and way of life. What adivasis in the heartlands require is not just more development funds and infrastructure, but also a sensible governance system that not only should address their long grievances and deep sense of injustice but it should also make them genuine “stakeholders” in the process of development as well. Such a transformation would address the “root-cause” issues that the Maoist leaders use to their advantage to mobilise adivasis to take up arms, and also change their perceptions about the state and its governance institutions.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).



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