The schism that gave rise to today’s Naxal movement began in the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal, in India’s extreme northeast. In May 1967, a group of armed Maoists attacked police in Naxalbari following a land dispute. Later that year, the Naxals formed their own governing bodies and emerged as a distinct movement.
Naxalbari and the surrounding area were fertile ground for rebellion. ‘They [the Naxals] did a lot of recruiting in an area with a large tribal population that was socially distinct from the Indian mainstream,’ Schaffer told The Diplomat. ‘India is socially diverse under any circumstance. Even in that large salad bowl, these guys were distinct. They’re not Hindu. It’s an area with a large, poor, rural population.’
From this base, the movement gradually expanded over the decades. Sporadic Naxal violence has claimed thousands of lives, particularly among police and the Interior Ministry commandos assigned to hunt Naxals. But recent attacks seem to indicate an escalation of the violence.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
‘The Naxal threat has been described by the Indian prime minister as the most serious security threat being faced by the nation,’ retired Indian army general Dhruv Katoch, an analyst at the Center for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, told The Diplomat. ‘The movement isn’t externally abetted and second, the movement is not a secessionist movement but aims at capturing power in Delhi much as Mao did in China in 1949.’
Today, Naxals are present in around 200 districts of India ‘in varying degrees of effectiveness,’ Katoch says. ‘Generally it’s confined to the tribal belts, especially those regions which are rich in mineral resources but are underdeveloped.’
Katoch emphasizes that last point. ‘In simple words, we can put the causative factors down to poor governance, which is being exploited by the Naxals to gather the support of the locals. The Naxal movement will die if governance issues are seriously addressed.’
Government Strategy—or Lack Thereof
In one state, better governance has worked in suppressing Naxal violence, Schaffer said. Andhra Pradesh, a state in eastern India, has successfully reformed its corrupt, once mostly-rural economy and, as a result, has reduced the local Naxal influence.
For years, Andhra Pradesh has enjoyed six percent growth rates in Gross Domestic Product, thanks in part to honest leadership and policies encouraging higher education and information technology. To its traditional foundation of agriculture, the state has added biotech firms and auto plants. As the economy and education levels have grown in the state, and with continued police action, Naxal power has waned.
‘There’s an argument made that Andhra Pradesh has had considerable success in regaining ground where the Naxalites [had] become very strong,’ Schaffer says. ‘They have essentially developed a template that can be adapted and replicated. This has given a lot of people hope.’
‘Having said that, it turns out that doing “lessons-learned” turns out to be a very difficult exercise,’ Schaffer adds. ‘The message you get is that each of these locations and organizations that has done counter-insurgency work has developed the same successful model on their own, and remarkably little has transferred from one place to another.’