Who are the Naxals - Politics and Rural India
Updated: Oct 31, 2022
In the summer of 1967, the events in a tiny village in the foothills of the Himalayas would spark a revolutionary flame that would engulf the country in heated guerilla warfare. 50 years on, the crimson fire of the Hammer and Sickle continues to burn on in large parts of the country. We know them by the name - “Naxal”.
Adivasi to Ammunition
April 1967, a prominent landlord in the Naxalbari village of West Bengal, Ishwar Tirkey, ousted the labourer Bighul Kissan from his land. Immediately, the CPI(M) organized hundreds of labourers, and laid siege to Tirkey’s farm, but were eventually arrested. A few days later, the landlord Nagendra Roy Choudhary, when faced with an unruly mob, took out his gun and fired it in the air. Nearly a thousand farmers seized his crops and summarily executed him in a People’s Court. The landowners sought police protection, and an uneasy calm settled over the village. Then, on 24th May, a farmer shot a police officer with an arrow, killing him. The final match was struck the next day, when eleven people - nine women and two children, were shot dead in the infamous police firing. The blood spilt on that day released a thunderclap of political activity, as extremist members of the CPI(M) announced that the time had come for the Proletariat to rise up, and the overthrow of the State stood next. The Naxalite Revolution had begun.
The events that occurred during that summer were not isolated occurrences, but were the culmination of decades of political strife, industrial unrest and radicalization. The aboriginal Adivasis had continually been displaced off their land and subject to exploitation and social atrocities, with their traditional ways of life being destroyed by encroachment. Most other backward-caste citizens subsisted as tenant farmers in the lands of powerful upper-caste landowners, and any hostility against this arrangement was met with reprisals in the way of various atrocities perpetrated by the landlords. Massacres and tactics of humiliation were common. In cities, their condition was deplorable as well, living as poorly paid labourers, with educated members facing discrimination and prejudice. Ignored by the State machinery, and exasperated with the ruling Congress and CPI(M) governments, they eventually chose to revolt against the State itself.
The movement which began in 1967 and carried on through the 70s, came to be known as “Phase I” of the revolt, and included several different sections of society – having as cadres the rural peasantry, urban workers, lower-class college students and the intelligentsia of West Bengal.
However, it is impossible to fully understand the causes, and the atmosphere of the time, without first gaining an understanding of the ideology that the revolutionaries espoused.
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – Karl Marx
Communism, in essence, is a philosophical and social doctrine that aims at the establishment of a “communistic” society advocating for the abolishment of private ownership, the joint-control of property and capital, the absence of social class, money or the state, a society where each contributes according to his ability and receives according to his needs. It theorized that all history was at its core, a class struggle, between a wealthy ruling class – the Bourgeoisie, who exploited the working class – the Proletariat, through the accumulation of profits produced by the workers. The overthrow of the bourgeoisie and its capitalist mechanisms, the “Proletarian Revolution”, was the inevitable, and final, struggle in history. It was first theorized by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 19th Century, which eventually came to fruition in the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Communist Party’s takeover of China in the 1940s. This is a simplified version of a complex theory, but will serve our purposes today.
It was the Chinese revolution that inspired the Indian Communists the most, and particularly the character of Mao Zedong, going so far as to proclaim him “Our Chairman” (hence the term “Maoist”). There was also a sense of historical inevitability, 1968 was the year of the Prague Spring, the Tet offensive by the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, the May uprising by students and workers in France, the waves of unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Black Power salute by US athletes at the Mexico Olympics, to many at the time it seemed the turning point had come, and history was decisively on the side of the People. After all, who would choose to fight against the currents of history?
Charu Majumdar, perhaps the single most popular communist revolutionary that India has produced, was the head of the Naxalbari movement, along with another - Kanu Sanyal. Charu saw this current situation as being ripe for the Revolution to be carried out in India. He published his famous Historic Eight Documents, calling for a protracted People’s War to seize control. It provided the ideological backbone of left-wing extremism and attracted many urban intellectuals to join the struggle. College students from the cities dropped out en masse and went to fight in the countryside, rural peasantry began seizing crops and exercising justice, and agitations started erupting across West Bengal and Bihar. At the height of the movement, traffic inspectors were being stabbed in the streets of Calcutta. The allure of action and of change, which resounds so strongly in the landscape of revolution, captured and then radicalized the hearts and minds of many young men and women.
End of the First Phase
Despite the fervour that the movement started with, by the mid-1970s the Proletarian Revolution was all but over. The mainstream members of the CPI(M), who were a part of the ruling coalition in West Bengal, refused to support the movement, and instead viewed it with great alarm, and subsequently expelled those who supported the uprising. This led Charu Majumdar to form the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) Party in 1969, which eventually collapsed as the communist parties tore themselves apart due to differences in ideology and descended into deep sectarianism, splitting apart into 30 separate parties. The Naxalbari rebellion was a rebellion of peasants, against landlords and aimed for the equal redistribution of land, and that is all that it was truly capable of being. The CPI(M-L)’s attempt to stage an armed insurrection and bring into existence a communist Indian State lacked support among both the peasantry and leftist intellectuals. Many of them saw Charu Majumdar’s Maoist-style uprising as a wanton attempt to seize power, and failing to represent the true bulk of the peasant population. The movement, though not lacking in vision, suffered from a lack of a broad political base, and was brutally suppressed within West Bengal itself.
In 1971, Indira Gandhi took advantage of the Emergency to mobilize the Indian Army against the Naxalites and launched a colossal counter-insurgency operation, dubbed “Operation Steepchase”, killing hundreds of Naxalites and imprisoning more than 20,000 suspects and cadres, including senior leaders. On July 16, 1972, Charu Majumdar himself was arrested from his Calcutta hideout, and would later die in prison and would be remembered by some as a martyr. In reality, his death marked the end of the Naxalbari Revolution of the 70s. Kanu Sanyal, the other leader, after the death of his comrade, gave up violent methods and accepted Parliamentary practices as a form of revolutionary activity.
This uprising tarnished the image of communism forever within the country, making it synonymous with terrorist activity, furthering it from its vaunted ideals of social egalitarianism and the upliftment of the oppressed classes. Abroad too, the Sino-Soviet split created a rift in communist theory, with the USSR furthering itself from pure Marxist doctrine and China negotiating with the USA. In hindsight, we can say the first bells of the death throes of communism had already begun, however it was not the end of the Red Revolution within India. To many, this uprising would be remembered in grander terms, and would inspire a new generation of revolutionaries a few decades later.
“If the Naxalbari peasant struggle has any lesson for us, it is this: militant struggles must be carried on not for land, crops etc., but for the seizure of state power. It is precisely this that gives the Naxalbari struggle its uniqueness.” – Charu Majumdar
The second phase of the Naxalite rebellion lasted from 1973 to the early 1990s, and was marked by individual terrorist attacks, abductions and assassinations by many different, rather poorly coordinated groups. Most importantly, it saw the spread of Naxalism to almost every state in India, barring the Western states. By 1980, it was estimated that around 30 Naxalite groups were active, with a combined membership of 30,000, though remained mostly out of the public eye.
Ambush attacks on the police provoked strong state reaction. After they killed a police sub-inspector in Warangal, IPS officer KS Vyas raised a special task force called the Greyhounds, an elite anti-Naxalite commando unit that still exists today.
It was in 2004, however, that the true revival of the Naxalite movement emerged, beginning a new phase of the insurgency, and it is this phase of the movement that has captured the Indian imagination. The merging of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and 40 other armed factions into the singular Communist Party of India (Maoist) in 2004 turned the tide in favour of the insurgents. Proclaiming to “free India from the clutches of feudalism and imperialism”, the revolution began afresh with new vigour. But it was different this time around, the movement was more localized, less ideologically-driven, far from the revolutionary Maoism of Charu Majumdar and the tides of history. The new revolutionaries aimed at community-building in tribal districts, redistribution of land, and infrastructural development such as building roads, dams and schools. Rather than the overthrow of the State, they seek to present themselves as an alternative to the government.
The Third Phase movement would engulf the entire country. At its peak, they controlled over 200 districts, prompting then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in April 2006 to call the Maoist movement “the single biggest internal-security challenge ever faced by our country.” Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Telangana, Maharashtra and Karnataka were overrun, building the famous “Red Corridor”, with the Naxalites expanding their control over the natural resource-richdrug trade areas, such as coal, iron and timber.
Organized crime is rampant among the Naxalite groups. They collect taxes and extort money to fund weapons production, with an estimated $18.4 billion collected annually, from government offices, contractors, businessmen, and industrialists. The drug-trade remains extremely profitable, with around 40% of their funding coming from the distribution of marijuana and opium. Assassinations, threats, blackmail and robbery remain common. They acted with a lethality that had been unprecedented in Indian history, neither in Kashmir nor in the Northeast had any group exercised so much control over such a large area, though it may be understandable when we understand the centuries of injustice they had to face. Naxalite atrocities towards those who sympathized with the police gained national notoriety. But simultaneously, accusations of systematic local police brutality and local and human rights abuses against innocent civilians grew more vocal throughout the affected zones.
In 2007 Naxalite and Maoist violence reached an apex where it would remain through till 2010, and the great crimson spectre would only fade away in the subsequent decade. Today, the Naxal Movement still exists, but it is no longer the security threat it was back in 2007. Economic prosperity, rising developmental standards and large-scale infrastructural projects has moved many of the Adivasi youth away from revolution, and instead towards seeking democratic remedies. Greater funding of our security forces provided them with the resources to be able to launch bolder counter-insurgency operations, and by the latter end of the decade, they had successfully reclaimed vast portions of territory. To much of the peasantry, social and political upliftment now seem like a realistic goal, and many choose to use their energy for productive purposes (as much is available to them), while any real change in the system seems like a far-off dream. Even in our collective imagination, the ideas and ideology of Naxalism fade away. Many organisations have still taken a romantic view of left-wing extremism, but they ignore the facts on the ground. The revolution is over, and the State has won.
Naxalism in Popular Culture
It would be wrong to say that Naxalism has faded away completely from the Indian imagination. From its beginnings in 1967, it has inspired numerous writers, artists and directors to interpret the revolt in broader themes of social justice, as well as harsh criticism from some other circles.
Beginning all the way in the 40s and 50s with socialist-styled films like Do Bigha Zameen and Dharti ke Lal, many directors sought to use the film medium for tackling serious topics rather than simple entertainment. Films like Roti, Kapada, Makaan and Party introduced class-struggle and socalist ideas to the larger audience through the use of satire. In the modern era, films like Akrosh and Newton sought to understand the Naxalite problem in greater depth, trying to examine the issue in complex and varied terms. Also Malayalam films like Amma Ariyan by Director John Abraham which won Special jury prize at the 1988 National awards was kind of a propaganda in support of Cpim and Naxalism.
In the literary field, Marxist intellectualism was strongest in West Bengal and Kerala. Activists like Mahasweta Devi and her son Nabarun Bhattacharya in West Bengal led a scholastic revolution in favour of the oppressed communities, while in Kerala thinkers like K. Damodaran translated Russian communist theory into Malayalam. Others like M. Sukumaran, who won the Kerala Sahitya Academy Award and Kendra Sahitya Academy Award, wrote several novels to spread communism to the masses, but were often at odds with the mainstream ideology propagated by the CPI.
On the other hand, condemnation of the Maoists was widespread as well. The most popular in the modern era being Vivek Agnihotri’s film Buddha in a Traffic Jam and the book Urban Naxals on its making. It popularized the term ‘Urban Naxal’ that is used as a derogatory term towards leftist intellectuals who are seen as spreading leftist propaganda among the youth, and thus working to destabilize India from within. Though this term should not be mentioned seriously in any academic sense, they are indicative of the mainstream atmosphere towards this movement. It has played an immense role in furthering the erroneous idea that the Naxals are a single, foreign-funded, conspiratorial organization active in all levels of society, that is trying to threaten India’s stability through the use of social media and thorough indoctrination in universities. This is quite similar to the Red Scare that happened in the USA during the early years of the Cold War (also called McCarthyism), in which both the American people and the government were obsessively preoccupied with the notion that foreign communist agents were infiltrating and subverting US society, due to which hundreds of people were precipitously prosecuted and arrested.
What does the Movement mean for India?
The root cause of the Naxalite movement is, and always has been, a struggle against perceived injustice. It is an explosion of anger and frustration from some of the most deprived people on this planet, towards brutal oppression that is continuous, unrelenting and severe. Lacking infrastructure, schooling and even basic rights, the great oppressed masses, the Adivasis and the Dalits, became disillusioned with what they considered the empty promises of the Indian State, and with the Indian State itself.
The socio-political deprivation of these classes is immense, and the ideology that the Naxals espouse is attractive. Burdened on one hand by an uncaring administration, and on the other by big businesses, it is easy for us to see why this is the case. When people are systematically marginalized, and deprived of a political voice, many choose violence over democratic remedies. The younger generation has little access to modern education or schooling, while their traditional lifestyle of forest produce is not accorded a legitimate status within the country.
Within the Indian imagination, the image of the Naxal is split – to most, they are little more than terrorists, criminal syndicates working to keep poor regions underdeveloped and carrying on a struggle that ultimately has no point. To others, the Naxals represent a long history of resentment against a chauvinistic Indian Democracy that cares little for the people that it supposedly represents.
The Naxal problem is a question that delves deep into the very heart of Indian identity, and serves as a proxy to many other social issues plaguing India. Can a country composed of so many different people and ethnicities, ever hope to satisfy them all? Is it inevitable that we must overrule the wishes of the few in order to secure a future for the nation’s development? Could you be anti-national towards a nation you feel you are no part of in the first place? Can the excesses of our security forces be brushed away as unavoidable actions in wartime? Is it sometimes a necessity to take up arms and resort to violence to make your voice heard in a republic?
These questions are inevitable in a country as vast as ours, and to think about them is to create a new ground reality. Our nation stands on the brink, it faces drastic change, radicalization and polarisation, and it is us the people who decide which direction it must go.
BA LLB, First year
Batch of 2026, RMLNLU
I am a First Year Law Student who is enthusiastic about history, philosophy and geopolitics. The world is one big inter-connected machine, and I like to study it in an unbiased and comprehensive manner.