Red Corridor or Red Belt? Naxal Resurgence in India

Bidyut Chakrabarty | 21 Mar 2020

Naxalism, a euphemism for the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutionary movement in India, drawing the nomenclature from an unheard of village, Naxalbari in West Bengal that became the epicentre of tribal-peasant revolt in the spring of 1967, has witnessed a resurgence since the early 1990s. Naxalism typifies a particular kind of militant and violent armed struggle by the peasants, tribals and dalits, led by a leadership drawing doctrinal support from Marxism-Leninism and strategic inspiration from Mao. The contemporary Maoists draw heavily upon the iniquitous land tenure system and exploitation of the peasantry by landlords in framing their ideological aims. The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs has openly acknowledged that thirteen states and 170 districts (out of 604) are affected by this movement, now cast as the most serious threat to India's national security.

Until the Maoists in Nepal became a part of the government, there was talk of Maoist elements in India and Nepal establishing a "red-corridor" from Pashupati in Nepal to Tirupati in South India, a claim the Nepali Maoists vehemently deny. Nonetheless, Indian policymakers recognise that a "red belt" runs within the subcontinent, from the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border with Nepal in the north, through West Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Though it gave a name to the Maoist movement in India, the Naxalbari movement of the late 1960s was crushed within five years in West Bengal. Attempts to reinvigorate the movement in Bihar and other neighbouring states did not take off. Though the movement remained splintered and factionalised even within Andhra Pradesh, it has since not only galvanized the girijans (tribals) there, but spread to other states too. The 1990s witnessed a renaissance of the movement, with Naxals acquiring weapons and picking up skills in guerilla warfare. They have managed to put the police and para-military forces under considerable pressure, while achieving some degree of unity to their cause.

Two consecutive attacks by the Maoists on Indian jails in 2004/5 to release their colleagues and the more recent massacre of security personnel in Chattisgarh on 16 March 2020 illustrate the magnitude of what is officially characterised as "red terror". Even the government-sponsored resistance campaign – Salva Judam – has been reduced to para-military combat, with little capital spent one of its most fundamental purpose - to address genuine socio-economic grievances in the affected districts and states.

Despite violent state repression and persistent internal contradictions over time, Naxalism has since spread and consolidated in the tribal belts and underdeveloped-underprivileged areas especially from Andhra Pradesh and extending to Nepal through Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal and Bihar. Here the Maoists impose taxes, mete out quick (often ruthlessly brutal) justice and run administrative bureaucracies, schools and health services. Having lost their mass character and because their activities are rather secretive, the agenda of the Maoists differs in the various states where they operate.

The Maoists draw their sustenance from existing inequities. Due to the existence of problems relating to land, in the absence of land reforms; the small farmers, landless labourers and the tribals continue to suffer. Though apparently and avowedly carrying out "people's struggle", democratic function has never been their concern. This is clearly evidenced in the "kangaroo justice" meted out to dissenters from within, suspected police informers, and to those who refuse to accept their regime.

Successive Indian governments have not been equipped to deal with the Naxalites, both ideologically and programmatically. In spite of Naxalism being framed as a law and order problem, the lack of sufficiently trained personnel and an appropriate strategic outlook to deal with the problem has stymied India's policy options. Available accounts suggest that complicity of state administrations (both civil as well as police elements) with the rural rich, have given the Maoists a reason to continue with their campaign. The police are accused of killing "extremists" in cold blood during fake encounters, although this is always denied. Torture and custodial deaths have often elicited criticism and agitation by the Indian human rights lobby. More damaging for security forces has been the accusation of the victimisation of innocent civilians to elicit information on the Maoists.

Lately, Naxalism has invited attention from the highest quarters. A Monitoring Committee of the affected states, headed by the Union Home Secretary has been created with the Home Minister personally coordinating the efforts. A special combat school to train the police has been set up in Chhatisgarh under an Army Brigadier. More battalions of para military forces have been created and more battalions are being deployed to fight the Naxals. Even the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has declared the Naxal "challenge" as the most serious internal security threat to the country.

The police approach to the "Naxalite" problem exposes weakness within state governments, nay the Indian state, to this socio-economic problem. Naxal forces seek to compel the state – which is guided primarily by its responsibility to govern rather than transform – to adopt policies and enact legislations that, left to itself, it is not inclined to pursue. Various state governments have from time to time banned Maoist outfits, without developing any consistent policy to deal with such elements. These bans, along with preventive detention or anti-terror laws that allow the police to come down heavily on such groups, have very often boomeranged and created a political constituency for the Naxals.

Very recently, Manmohan Singh posited that the Naxalite problem had a strong socio-economic dimension that was at the very heart of the issue. In fact, he made a distinction between the hardcore revolutionary, who had to be dealt with severely, and the foot-soldier, who ought to be weaned off from the path of violence through socio-economic packages. The statement suggested a significant shift in dealing with the "red menace", by constituting it as a socio-economic issue rather than a law and order problem. Delhi and the various state governments would probably be better served by the Prime Minister's wisdom, even as the multiple dimensions to the problem continue to challenge the Indian bureaucracy.


Bidyut Chakrabarthy is the Dean of Social Science at the University of Delhi, India.

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