Maoist Insurgency in India: Emerging Vulnerabilities

By: Gp Capt Srinivas Ganapathiraju, IAF

The Maoist movement in India started in the late 1950s as a peasant uprising in the wake of an independence struggle in Naxalbari, a small village on the Indo-Nepal border, hence the name Naxalism. The Naxalites were a group of far-left radical communists who promoted Maoist political sentiment and ideology to fight exploitation by landlords in India's feudal postcolonial socioeconomic system. The Naxal movement was quashed by force, only to resurface as a Maoist insurgency with the broader objective of ushering in a democratic revolution directed against imperialism, feudalism, and collusive bureaucratic capitalism. From its beginnings as a peasant revolt in the mid-1970s in the state of West Bengal, within a span of two decades Maoism quickly spread across many states. At present, nearly 15 states are affected to varying degrees. The movement finds broad appeal among people suffering the ills of under-development, due to the fact that a people's democratic revolution designed to fight exploitation remains the selling point of Maoist ideology. Modern Maoism, patterned on Mao Zedong's successful peasant revolt in post–World War II China, believes that political change must come through armed agrarian revolution (i.e., a protracted "people's war") with the forcible seizure of power as its central and principal task. Peasant armies, according to this vision, will encircle cities from the countryside and thereby finally capture them. Hence, the countryside remains the center of gravity for the movement.

In the last two decades, most state governments have failed to understand the nuances of combating this Maoist type of insurgency and therefore have attempted piecemeal solutions that have brought partial and temporary results. Despite their success at quelling the secessionist movement in Punjab in the 1980s, officials have surprisingly developed practically no new strategic innovations for dealing with the Maoist insurgency in India. Governmentsponsored developmental policies and schemes have barely penetrated the disenchanted populations in the tribal belts of nearly 15 states.1 The progress made by security agencies up to 2011 has hardly been encouraging either, and the Maoist area of influence, called the "Red Corridor," is expanding into the northeastern states of India.2 This may be attributed to poorly organized security forces and governmental mechanisms that are ill-equipped to execute development programs and projects. In contrast, the Maoists have held sway over these rural areas because they are better organized and focused, and because they deliver instant results to the disenchanted population.

Recent developments, however, seem to indicate fissures that may lead to critical vulnerabilities within the Maoist uprising. These include a growing aversion to continued violence among the rural population and the morphing of the Maoist organization into a centralized, hierarchical structure that is increasingly becoming susceptible to caste, class, and gender biases among the cadres.

An insurgency's influence over the local population and reliance on an organizational structure that is tuned to networked guerilla tactics are its critical strengths. The dilution of popular support and an ill-suited organizational structure could, by the same token, prove to be an insurgency's critical vulnerabilities. India's Maoists are no different, and an analysis of certain recent developments seems to throw light on emerging vulnerabilities that could well spell the movement's doom.

Between 2004 and 2006, three major outfits—the Maoist Communist Centre, the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist), and the People's War Group—merged into a single group calling itself the Communist Party of India (Maoist), or CPI (M). Although it remains an insurgent organization with no political representation, since 2006 CPI (M) has consolidated as a centralized, hierarchical pan-Indian entity that is active in 15 Indian states and has its tentacles in the entire Red Corridor.3 This is apparent from the scale of coordinated attacks carried out since 2008.4 While one might argue that these attacks are an indication of the group's growing strength, the counter-view is that a centralized, hierarchical structure has never suited the kinds of operations undertaken by insurgents. The question then arises: Does this present an opportunity for the state to capitalize on a critical vulnerability of the Maoists? The answer is "yes." Being less responsive and less adaptable to changes in the environment, a centralized hierarchical outlaw organization may not be very resilient under pressure and faces the long-term risk of extinction.5

The major cause of the downfall of the Naxalbari movement, a forerunner to the Maoist insurgency, was the emergence of feuds among its leaders at the highest level in the organization.6 The split among the leadership was related to authority and how it percolated to the lower levels in the organizational structure. In other words, the split was over the choice of organizational structure: either a centralized hierarchy or a decentralized network. The major part of the Naxalbari movement morphed into a centralized organization and was weakened by the resulting ideological confusion among the cadres.7

Interestingly, the now-centralized CPI (M) has also seen fissures emerging within its cadres based on caste, gender, and religious biases. For example, in 2008 Maoists killed Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, a Hindu leader in the State of Orissa, and his four associates. This incident triggered communal riots in certain districts and caused a split in CPI (M) along religious lines, from which a new group of Hindu Maoists emerged.8 Furthermore, it has been well established that dalits (the weaker class in the caste system) and women are not adequately represented in the higher echelons of the Maoist organization, despite their being the main driving force for revolution at the grassroots level.9 In fact, the growth of Maoism in the state of Bihar is primarily attributed to the ability of the Maoists to exploit the caste-based divisions in Bihari society.10

One of the Maoists' strengths has been a narrative that is based on an ideology separate from caste, gender, and religious biases.11 The Maoists have so far called for a people's war against class biases, without distinguishing among the other existing segregations in Indian society. Because being downtrodden was the singular binding force, Maoist ideology found automatic appeal among almost all sections of Indian society, with very little coaxing or effort needed from the Maoist leadership to fill the cadres. The above-mentioned incidents, however, seem to indicate that the appeal of the Maoist narrative is waning with local leaders who are trying to mobilize on the basis of existing caste and religious divisions in the society.12 There is thus an opportunity for the state to "drive the wedge" and apply counter-propaganda to weaken the Maoist organization and dilute its popular support.

A key factor in maintaining the relevance of an insurgency amidst a population is the management of violence.13 Popular support for the insurgents' cause will be lost when the population is subjected to acts of extreme violence perpetrated directly by the insurgents, or when people are caught in the crossfire between insurgency and counterinsurgency. In the state of Chhattisgarh, for example, a recent development has been the formation of "Salwa Judum," an anti-Maoist outfit made up of victims of Maoist high-handedness. Salwa Judum, under state sponsorship, has been resorting to violence against Maoists with a fair degree of impunity. This is forcing the Maoists to respond with more violence. The second-order effect of this development is that innocent people are being caught in the crossfire and are increasingly critical of the continual violence.14 This organized vigilantism, despite being undemocratic and tricky to control, was backed by the state under pressure from higher echelons in an attempt to show quick results at the local level. Meanwhile, recognizing the fact that the state was promoting extrajudicial violence as a way to manipulate the population, India's highest-level judiciary ruled against it. The undemocratic ways of the state government attracted adverse comments, and Salwa Judum was dismantled, albeit after its effects were already being felt. Notwithstanding the poor choice of strategies, the aftereffect of deploying Salwa Judum gives the state an opportunity to present alternatives to the people of Chhattisgarh based on economic and social development, in contrast to violence.

The kinds of opportunities available to the state, as discussed above, call for a paradigm shift in the strategy to counter the Maoist menace. Following are some key aspects of this shift:

  1. Avoid large-scale kinetic actions against lower-cadre Maoist operatives and instead target the higher leadership in the centralized hierarchy. Well-trained Army Special Forces could be used to conduct these surgical, small-footprint strikes. Cease any overt state support to violent vigilante outfits like Salwa Judum. Meanwhile, lower-cadre operatives must be lured into surrendering their weapons and cooperating through state-sponsored schemes like Bihar's "Shikaria Model."15
  2. Embark on a large-scale, mass media–driven propaganda campaign that highlights the caste, class, gender, and religious biases of the Maoists to tarnish their narrative and create feuds within the organization.16 These rifts can also be exploited for intelligence gathering and infiltration into the organization.
  3. Drawing on the experience of the British in Malaya, create manageable pockets of secure zones in the Red Corridor to receive focused development aid. These pockets can then be projected as models and expanded outwards in an incremental and iterative manner. The strategy of "clear, hold, and develop" has been adopted in spurts in the past by many state governments, but never as a sustained effort.
  4. Because the Red Corridor spans 15 states, achieving coherence in plans and efficiency in resource management requires a centralized approach from the Indian government. Individual state governments, if left to themselves, are likely to be driven by local politics and to treat the Maoist menace as a local law and order problem.
  5. Considering that CPI (M) projects itself as the central organization for the insurgency, attempts need to be made to bring its leadership into mainstream politics.

Maoist ideology has lost its relevance internationally, even in China, and is unlikely to survive in a vibrant democracy like India in the long run.17 Large-scale media activism, greater penetration of mass media, and increasing levels of awareness and education are helping to deepen democratic norms in the country and are influencing political will. In the case of the Maoists, New Delhi's political will to act is on the cusp of being swayed towards a multipronged campaign. Under these circumstances, the insurgency's vulnerabilities discussed above present that much-needed breakthrough opportunity for the final push to action. This vital political will is nevertheless unlikely to reach decisive proportions due to the following constraints:

  1. Vote-bank politics are likely to prevent state governments from letting the central government handle the issue. After all, the Maoist insurgency is still considered a law and order problem, which unfortunately is under state jurisdiction.
  2. Even the central government is reluctant to deploy SOF (military or paramilitary) from fear of a political backlash due to likely civilian casualties.
  3. In a society where caste continues to play a major role in binding groups of people together, action against a particular group of Maoists can easily be distorted by the opposition in the parliament to insinuate government bias and drive away popular support. Such possibilities are major impediments to bolstering political will and decision-making, especially when coalition governments are the order of the day.
  4. Large-scale official corruption and collusive bureaucratic capitalism are the major impediments to the implementation of the Malaya model.

Notwithstanding the above issues, in India a trigger event like the Mumbai terrorist attack of 26 November 2008 can easily kick off the kind of public outcry needed to focus political will and force the decision-making that are key to countering the Maoist insurgency in the long run. Another disaster may be what it takes for the Indian government to finally do something about the chronic insurgent violence in the Indian countryside.

About the Author(s): Gp Capt Srinivas Ganapathiraju, IAF, is chief operations officer of a premier Indian Air Force base.


1. Bidyut Chakrabarty and Rajat Kumar Kujur, Maoism in India: Reincarnation of Ultra-Left Wing Extremism in the Twenty- First Century (New York: Routledge, 2010), 4.

2. Ajai Sahni, "The Maoists: Dance of the Tarantula," South Asia Terrorism Portal, 5 March 2012: sair/Archives/sair10/10_35.htm#assessment1

3. Chakrabarty and Kujur, Maoism in India, 195.

4. A few examples: On 29 June 2008, Maoists attacked a boat on Balimela reservoir in Orissa that carried four anti-Maoist police officials and 60 Greyhound commandos, killing 38 troops. On 16 July 2008, 21 policemen died when a police van was blown up in a landmine blast in the Malkangiri district of Orissa. On 13 April 2009, 10 paramilitary troops were killed when Maoists attacked a bauxite mine in the Koraput district of eastern Orissa. On 15 February 2010, in Silda, in the West Midnapore district of West Bengal, 24 personnel of the Eastern Frontier Rifles died when Maoists attacked their camp. On 4 April 2010, Maoists triggered a landmine blast in the Koraput district of Orrisa that killed 11 security personnel of the elite anti-Naxal Special Operations Group. The list goes on. For more, see the Times of India archive: india/28309767_1_maoists-ambush-bastar-saranda

5. David Tucker, "Terrorism, Networks, and Strategy: Why the Conventional Wisdom is Wrong," Homeland Security Affairs 4, no. 2 (June 2008): 6:

6. The major contributor to the failure of the Naxalite movement in the late 1960s was its overall organizational weakness. It was a highly centralized organization (with decentralized operations) under Charu Mazumdar's charismatic leadership. Ideological differences and powerful egos led to the splintering and the final demise of the movement in the early 1970s. For more, see Chakrabarty and Kujur, Maoism in India, 58; and Keith J. Harnetiaux, "The Resurgence of Naxalism: How Great a Threat to India?" (master's thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, June 2008), 34: handle/10945/4132

7. Chakrabarty and Kujur, Maoism in India, 59.

8. Ibid., 13.

9. Ibid., 197.

10. Ibid., 169.

11. Gordon H. McCormick, "People's War," in Encyclopedia of Conflicts since World War II, ed. James Ciment (Armonk, New York: Sharpe Reference, 1999), 23–24.

12. The Maoists have suffered tremendously as a result of their strategic overreach by extending their "people's war" into areas where conditions are far from favorable. The regionally oriented objectives of the people are failing to align with the larger national-level objectives of the Maoists. For more on this, see Sahni, "The Maoists: Dance of the Tarantula."

13. The organization for a people's war means building a grassroots, village-based alternative to the state. The chief measure of performance is not the scope or intensity of one's military actions, but the scope, depth, and vitality of the organizational forms. For more, see McCormick, "People's War."

14. Chakrabarty and Kujur, Maoism in India, 196.

15. In Shikaria village in Jehanabad (Bihar), a region that witnessed large-scale Naxal violence in the 1970s and 1980s, a revolutionary movement for change was launched. The Nitish Kumar government, instead of using repressive mechanisms to curb the movement, handed over development funds to the local Maoists and their supporters. They were directed to identify the area's priorities and undertake the needed development projects themselves. The Naxalites, who used to collect protection levies from local bigwigs, were now getting funds directly from the government, and their close relatives became contractors. During the last seven years, the region has not witnessed any Naxalite action.

16. As this article was being written, the government of India roped in All India Radio (AIR) to air specially produced audio clips in different local dialects, with themes that counter Maoist propaganda. For more, see Vishwa Mohan, "Government Goes AIR-Borne, Uses Radio Jingles to Take on Maoists," The Times of India, 26 October 2012: http:// india/34748788_1_jingles-maoists-naxal-heartland

17. In a media interview, Mao Zedong's grandson suggested that the ideas of Mao were being misused by groups such as the Indian Maoists, who were invoking his image to wage violence against the state. In Mao Xinyu's opinion, Mao's ideas of "people's war" and violent struggle were less applicable in the postcolonial world. For more, see Ananth Krishnan, "India's Maoists Are Misusing Mao's Name," The Hindu, 11 March 2012: http://www.

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