Fighting India’s Maoists Means More Than Guns

India must deal with the Maoist insurgency in its heartland by addressing social and economic grievances, not just with security measures, says Indian political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.

April 23, 2010

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

More on:


Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Political Movements

The killing earlier this month (Hindu) of seventy-six government troops by Maoists in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh highlighted the threat from this growing insurgency and the debate over how best to counter it. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the threat posed by Naxalites, as the Maoists are locally known, the "single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country." Last year, Indian home minister P. Chidambaram noted Maoists held pockets of influence in twenty of India’s twenty-eight states and ordered a major offensive against them.

Politicians and others are divided on whether an armed offensive by the state is sufficient to solve the Naxalite problem. Mahesh Rangarajan, a leading Indian historian and political analyst, says the insurgency is not just a security issue. Social and economic dimensions also have to be addressed, he argues, for what has become a major "political challenge" for the Indian democracy. Rangarajan rules out talks between the state and the armed Maoists, but stresses that the state must address social justice for India’s disaffected tribal groups. Many of these groups have not benefited from India’s economic boom, and some have suffered from it, says Rangarajan.

Who are the Naxalites, and what do they want?

The Communist Party of India (Maoists), which was formed in 2004, came about as a result of a merger of two smaller groups. All such groups trace their background to a party which was founded in 1969 called the Communist Party India (Marxist-Leninist). It drew its inspiration from an armed uprising of a group of peasants and tribals led by a couple of Marxist leaders in 1967-68, in a village called Naxalbari in West Bengal. So the word Naxalite is often applied to such groups by their opponents, and by themselves. It’s a Marxist political party which believes that the only way to create a just society in India is by an armed revolutionary overthrow of the existing state system. This puts it at variance with the mainstream communist parties of India. India has several communist parties, [but] the Maoists reject those leftist groups, who they see as having sold out to the dominant classes in Indian society.

Do these Maoists themselves belong to the tribal society?

There has to be a distinction made between the CPI (Maoists) in terms of the leadership of the party--who are largely educated, middle class radicals--and their social base, political base, and their clout, which comes from forested districts that are largely inhabited by members of the scheduled tribes [lowest in the country’s stratified social order]. Scheduled tribes form about 8 percent of the population in India; 8 percent of one billion is a very large number of people. There are other marginal groups, most of whom are dependent on dry land agriculture and wage labor for a living.

We have had in India an insurgent tradition among a section of left-wing groups going back more than forty years. That tradition ebbs and flows. And we are living through a period of a relative flow.

These are backward areas; these are dispossessed people, they’re extremely marginal--their life expectancy, access to healthcare, education, level of entitlement--is far below the national average. And it is these districts, many of them forested, some rich with minerals, that have got caught up in the throes of rapid economic development that makes India such a powerhouse. And the displacement of people by dams, by mines, by forest reservations and nature reserves, is seen by some as creating more fertile ground for such extremism to stick. So they are in areas which have not benefited to a large extent from the huge economic transformation of India and could even be said that there are significant sections of population who have probably lost out.

There are a number of groups active in such areas; the bulk of them are peaceful. Maoists are part of the spectrum, but they’re on the extreme end of the spectrum. So their base is in precisely these areas, they also have a base in some plains areas where there are major disparities between [land-owners] and the landless, particularly in central and north Bihar, but that is one region where their base has somewhat declined in recent years because of better governance and delivery of services to the poor.

At the same time, tribal people that Maoists claim to champion have also suffered at the hands of Maoist violence. Do the Maoists have a following in the tribal areas where they operate?

Their sympathizers claim that they have substantial support. Prominent among them is the celebrated author Arundhati Roy and others. Their opponents would say that whatever base they have is due to coercion, and it is well-known that they have recruits from such communities; they maintain small armed cadres of what they call the People’s Liberation Army.

But despite having such support, in the last decade and a half in their period of growth in some parts of India, they have run regular protection rackets [extortion]; miners, foresters, operational school teachers, virtually everyone working in these areas has to give a part of their pay to such groups. The price for not paying enough is that they deal with you pretty severely, and it’s no surprise that a large number of the people who are killed by them are police constables, forest guards, lowly government officials, elected village council leaders. But no one would claim that the CPI is simply a criminal enterprise. It is a political organization. It has a political objective and it has some measure of sympathy or support, whether that is due to fear or because of ideological allegiance or simply desperation--there’s a big debate on that. We have had in India an insurgent tradition among a section of left-wing groups going back more than forty years. That tradition ebbs and flows. We are living through a period of a relative flow.

India’s home minister has called for an all-out war with the Maoists as well as offered negotiations if they give up arms. So some might say India does not have a clear policy on how the Indian state wants to deal with the Maoists.

The divide is too fundamental between groups who believe the means to justice is through an armed overthrow of the political system, and those who believe that however extreme your grievances, there is space within the political system to accommodate and address those grievances or injustices.

No, I don’t think that’s a fair observation. India has a long track record of dealing with insurgencies. There is a long record of insurgents coming back into the fold, giving up the guns, and accepting the constitution. There is also a record of insurgent groups having been battled down and simply put down. These are people who are armed, they do have a measure of support. This is a country which has the world’s third or fourth largest army, it has a very substantial armed presence, but in the last week we’ve had statements from the chief of army staff saying they’re willing to help train the police--so they don’t want to be involved in this. And [similarly] from the chief of air staff. They’re correct. You don’t have an army and an air force in a democracy to use them against your own people. And the kind of areas they’re in, you’re not fighting a regular army. If you were to deploy paramilitaries and armies on a mass scale, a lot of innocent people would probably get killed. There’s been a tradition of Maoist cadres when they have staged armed attacks, [soon after] they melt away and you won’t find a single cadre around, and if you do, they will blend into the local population.

So there is debate which is on. It’s a healthy sign in a democratic society to have a debate, particularly because nobody wants a situation where sections of Indian society who are weak, who are excluded by any stretch of civic benchmark that you might use, get victimized in the process. So when the union home minister says he is open to negotiation if they give up arms, he’s not under the illusion that they’ll give up arms; it’s a signal to say that the government is willing to take an extra step for peace, but I don’t think anyone seriously expects them to give up arms. They haven’t for forty years, there’s no reason for them now and they’ve never promised that.

Can talks be a solution?

I doubt it, because this is a group with a very clear political ideology and objectives. In the past when there have been talks, it has not led very far. The divide is too fundamental between groups who believe the means to justice is through an armed overthrow of the political system, and those who believe that however extreme your grievances, there is space within the political system to accommodate and address those grievances or injustices.

So, then what is the solution?

The challenge has to be seen not only as a security one but as a political one, and one of the reasons Maoism lost its appeal in the 1970s and 1980s is that some of these issues [their grievances] continued to be addressed by government. Now for perhaps the last fifteen to twenty years during India’s reform and liberalization, people took eyes off this dimension of the Indian reality. It needs to come back into focus.

So there are two dimensions to it. There is the security dimension which has to be addressed, but there’s also the social and economic dimension.

These are very important parts of India in economic terms, in terms of forests and mineral wealth, but they’re also important because this is a substantial section of Indian society. Maoism is in pockets of adivasi [tribal, literally meaning indigenous people] country. These maps that paint the whole thing red [communist], they are misleading. But it is a challenge for Indian democracy, which in the past has been able to deal with other sorts of divides--the religious divide, the caste divide, the divide between different regions of this vast country. So, it’s a security challenge, but it’s also a political challenge for the ruling alliance and for the political system as a whole.