While Kashmir and al-Qaeda-linked terrorism garner front-page play around the world, India's own internal terrorism problem tends to be off the radar of most American news outlets—or, at best, warranting a postage-stamp-sized wire story (NYT) buried at the bottom of an inside page. Yet terrorism-related deaths in the contested territory of Jammu and Kashmir dropped threefold since 2002, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal report. Violence related to Maoist extremism in India, however, defies New Delhi’s counterterrorism efforts. In April 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the leftist insurgency “the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country.” A new Backgrounder on terrorism in India explores the Maoist insurgency.
Maoist extremists, known as Naxalites for the West Bengali village of Naxalbari where they held their first revolt in 1967, emerged as a renewed militant force in 2004 when various factions aligned in a loose coalition. Bolstered by advances of Maoists in Nepal, the Naxalites are increasingly active in a swath of territory called the “red corridor” running across thirteen states in central and south India.
A report by the New Delhi-based Asian Center for Human Rights documenting the Naxalite rise from the “periphery to mainstream” (PDF) in 2006 estimates the insurgency has as many as ten thousand recruits. Chhattisgarh, an impoverished state where the extremists take refuge in deep forests and reportedly set up local councils that collect taxes from the population, experienced the highest rate of Naxalite-related violence last year. Nearly four hundred people died in clashes between Maoist forces and a controversial paramilitary group called Salwa Judum caused the forcible displacement of more than 43,700 people. The Guardian reports that New Delhi backs the militia Salwa Judum in a struggle over Chhattisgarh’s mineral-rich soil.
The Naxalites’ growing power also stems from the failure of India’s economic boom to trickle-down to the rural, impoverished areas where the Maoists make inroads. A special report by the Economist faults the Indian state with leaving the Naxalite problem to local policing and failing to come up with a consistent national policy. The article says the insurgency attacks India “where it is weakest: in delivering basic government services to those who need them most.” The New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies echoes this sentiment in a report on the leftists that outlines rampant underdevelopment (PDF) in troubled Chhattisgarh: Fewer than half the state’s children enroll in primary school, 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, and more than two-thirds of households have no electricity.
The Maoists profess to defend the rights of the impoverished, but their war on the Indian state involves extortion, forcible recruitment, and attacks using homemade bombs and light arms, according to Human Rights Watch. Although the insurgency remains rural in nature, the South Asia Terrorism Portal reports the Naxalites are setting their sights on Indian cities, with plans to recruit students and the “urban unemployed.”