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Understanding India’s Maoist insurgency

The Maoist insurgency began in the 1960s and is one of India’s biggest internal security issues. These rebels fight against the neglect of tribal people and the rural poor, aiming to eventually establish communist rule using force. Over the last couple of years, they have seized control over certain parts of the country, and the armed forces follow a strategy of severe crackdown in these areas.

India’s Maoist movement began in the 1960s from a village called Naxalbari in the state of West Bengal, and is thus popularly called the Naxalite movement.

At their peak in 2006, the movement was so strong that it urged then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to term it the ‘single biggest internal-security challenge ever faced by our country’.

However, incidents of Naxalism have reduced by 77% between 2009 and 2021. Additionally, deaths of civilians and security personnel have also fallen by 85%, from 1,005 in 2010 to 147 in 2021.

Even so, this does not dismiss the fact that the Naxalite movement still finds appeal among marginalised sections of society and remains the face of left wing extremism in India. So, let’s look at the history of this movement and the current state of affairs.

How did the movement start?

The Naxalite movement is actually a continuation of the Tebhaga movement which took place during 1946-47 in West Bengal. At the time, landless labourers were forced to give up half of their harvest to landlords as a sort of tax.

For this reason, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) began organising landless labourers during the latter half of the 1930s to protest against this exploitation- even before the Tebhaga movement officially began.

Charu Majumdar, who was to later become the father of India’s Maoist movement, was made a member of CPI (M)’s district Jalpaiguri district committee in 1942.

Then in 1943, the Great Famine of Bengal occurred and Majumdar along with other leaders urged the labourers in Jalpaiguri to come together to attack the granaries of landlords, seize the grains, and distribute them.

These acts of rebellion against the upper class sowed the seeds of the Naxalbari movement that took place in 1967.

That year, when a tribal individual named Bimal Kissan was provided with a judicial order to plough his land but was thrashed by landlords who did not agree to pay him his legal share for the crops he farmed, the tribal population of the village began protesting against the landlords; and things escalated when Charu Majumdar began to lead them.

Majumdar, alongside other leaders, came up with an annihilation campaign which involved killing anyone whom they had disagreements with or were a danger to the movement; this usually involved landlords, businessmen, civil servants and police officers.

Regardless, soon after the Naxalbari revolt, similar uprisings began occurring within months in states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra.

In fact, this entire stretch of land under the control of Naxals is known as the ‘Red Corridor’; it comprises some of the least developed and poorest regions of India with a high number of tribal people.

Home-made weapons and bombs, arms stolen from the police, and abandoned arms from the aftermath of the Indo-Pak war of 1971 in Bangladesh were utilised by the Naxalite forces and that is how they sustained their movement.

Between 1967 and 1972 in West Bengal, about 2,000 extrajudicial killings of people took place on the allegation of being Naxals. This number is approximately 5,000 across the country.

Ashoke Mukhopadhyay, author of the book Charu Majumdar: The Dreamer Rebel said in an interview to the Print, ‘The towns of Barasat and Cossipore, certain localities in Kolkata such as Beleghata, Tollygunge and Behala besides prisons like Alipore and Dum Dum jails, virtually became killing fields’.

Furthermore, many Nasals simply disappeared. In fact, Saroj Dutta, Majumdar’s comrade-in-arms went missing before he was discovered beheaded in Kolkata in the year 1971.

Then in 1972, Majumdar was kept in police custody for ten days in the Lal Bazaar lock-up, infamous for brutal torture of detainees. During his time here, Majumdar wasn’t allowed to be visited by any family members, a doctor or even a lawyer. He died at 4 am on 28th July 1972 while in detention.

Even so, the revolution persisted.

In an interview to PTI, Abhijit Majumdar, son of Charu Majumdar, said, ‘we are now focusing on protecting constitutional democracy first as we feel that is more important today in the fight against fascism, nexus between remnant feudal and big business as also combat misrule by different shades of governments’.

On a more political note, an outlawed Naxal faction called Communist Party of India (Maoist) has agreed to enter peace talks with the government of Chhattisgarh.

At the same time, they demand that the government withdraw the ban on them as well as the frontal organisations, give them the ability to work without restrictions, cease air strikes, remove security presence from Naxal areas, and let imprisoned leaders go.

But the Home Minister of Chhattisgarh Tamradwaj Sahu replied by saying that peace talks with the Maoists would only be held without any conditions on the table.

Since Naxalism generally resonates with the marginalised populace of India, the government has been able to identify financial insecurity as a motive to join the Maoist movement and has established a skill scheme to address it.

So one could only hope that by addressing financial inclusion, the state would be successful in curbing left wing extremism in India.

Moreover, peace talks have been long overdue but with such difficult conditions placed by the Naxals and the Chhattisgarh government taking a strong stance on unconditional talks, only time will tell if the state and the rebels can reach common ground.