The term Naxal derives from the name of the village Naxalbari in West Bengal, where the Naxalite peasant revolt took place in 1967. Naxalites are considered far-left communists, supportive of Maoism. Their origin can be traced to the split in 1967 of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) following the Naxalbari peasant uprising, leading to the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) two years later. Initially, the movement had its epicentre in West Bengal. In later years, it spread to less developed areas of rural southern and eastern India, such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana through the activities of underground groups like the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Some Naxalite groups have become legal organisations participating in parliamentary elections, such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Janashakti. As of February 2019, 90 districts across 11 states are affected by left-wing extremism.
The term Naxalites comes from Naxalbari, a small village in West Bengal, where a faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) led by Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal, and Jangal Santhal initiated an armed uprising in 1967. On 18 May 1967, the Siliguri Kishan Sabha, of which Jangal was the president, declared their support for the movement initiated by Kanu Sanyal, and their readiness to adopt armed struggle to redistribute land to the landless. The following week, a sharecropper near Naxalbari village was attacked by the landlord's men over a land dispute. On 24 May, when a police team arrived to arrest the peasant leaders, it was ambushed by a group of tribals led by Jangal Santhal, and a police inspector was killed in a hail of arrows. This event encouraged many Santhal tribals and other poor people to join the movement and to start attacking local landlords.
Mao Zedong provided ideological inspiration for the Naxalbari movement, advocating that Indian peasants and lower class tribals overthrow the government of the upper classes by force. A large number of urban elites were also attracted to the ideology, which spread through Charu Majumdar's writings, particularly the 'Historic Eight Documents' which formed the basis of Naxalite ideology. These documents were essays formed from the opinions of communist leaders and theorists such as Mao Zedong, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin. Using People's courts, similar to those established by Mao, Naxalites try opponents and execute with axes or knives, beat, or permanently exile them.
At the time, the leaders of this revolt were members of the CPI (M), which joined a coalition government in West Bengal just a few months back. However, this plan of action led to dispute within the party as Charu Majumdar believed the CPM was to support a doctrine based on revolution similar to that of the People's Republic of China. Leaders like land minister Hare Krishna Konar had been until recently "trumpeting revolutionary rhetoric, suggesting that militant confiscation of land was integral to the party's programme." However, now that they were in power, CPI (M) did not approve of the armed uprising, and all the leaders and a number of Calcutta sympathisers were expelled from the party. This disagreement within the party soon culminated with the Naxalbari Uprising on May 25 of the same year, and Majumdar led a group of dissidents to start a revolt in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari. The uprising occurred because an individual who was of tribal background (Adhivasi) was attacked by a group of people who acted on the orders of the local landlords, and this caused other Adhivasis in the area to retake their land, and after seventy-two days of revolt the CPI (M) coalition government suppressed this incident.
Subsequently, In November 1967, this group, led by Sushital Ray Chowdhury, organised the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR). Violent uprisings were organised in several parts of the country. On 22 April 1969 (Lenin's birthday), the AICCCR gave birth to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (CPI (ML)).
Practically all Naxalite groups trace their origin to the CPI (ML). A separate offshoot from the beginning was the Maoist Communist Centre, which evolved out of the Dakshin Desh group. The MCC later fused with the People's War Group to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). A third offshoot was that of the Andhra revolutionary communists, mainly represented by the UCCRI(ML), following the mass line legacy of T. Nagi Reddy, which broke with the AICCCR at an early stage.
The early 1970s saw the spread of Naxalism to almost every state in India, barring Western India. During the 1970s, the movement was fragmented into disputing factions. By 1980, it was estimated that around 30 Naxalite groups were active, with a combined membership of 30,000.
Around 1971 the Naxalites gained a strong presence among the radical sections of the student movement in Calcutta. Students left school to join the Naxalites. Majumdar, to entice more students into his organisation, declared that revolutionary warfare was to take place not only in the rural areas as before, but now everywhere and spontaneously. Thus Majumdar declared an "annihilation line", a dictum that Naxalites should assassinate individual "class enemies" (such as landlords, businessmen, university teachers, police officers, politicians of the right and left) and others.
The chief minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray of the Congress Party, instituted strong counter-measures against the Naxalites. The West Bengal police fought back to stop the Naxalites. The house of Somen Mitra, the Congress MLA of Sealdah, was allegedly turned into a torture chamber where Naxals were incarcerated illegally by police and the Congress cadres. CPI(M) cadres were also involved in clashes with the Naxals. After suffering losses and facing the public rejection of Majumdar's "annihilation line", the Naxalites alleged human rights violations by the West Bengal police, who responded that the state was effectively fighting a civil war and that democratic pleasantries had no place in a war, especially when the opponent did not fight within the norms of democracy and civility.
Large sections of the Naxal movement began to question Majumdar's leadership. In 1971 the CPI(ML) was split, as Satyanarayan Singh revolted against Majumdar's leadership. In 1972 Majumdar was arrested by the police and died in Alipore Jail presumably as a result of torture. His death accelerated the fragmentation of the movement.
In July 1971, Indira Gandhi took advantage of President's rule to mobilise the Indian Army against the Naxalites and launched a colossal combined army and police counter-insurgency operation, termed "Operation Steeplechase," killing hundreds of Naxalites and imprisoning more than 20,000 suspects and cadres, including senior leaders. The paramilitary forces and a brigade of para commandos also participated in Operation Steeplechase. The operation was choreographed in October 1969, and Lt. General J.F.R. Jacob was enjoined by Govind Narain, the Home Secretary of India, that "there should be no publicity and no records" and Jacob's request to receive the orders in writing was also denied by Sam Manekshaw.
As of April 2018, the areas where Naxalites are most visible are:
Between 2002 and 2006, over three thousand people had been killed in Naxalite-Government conflicts, and by 2009, the conflict had displaced 350,000 members of tribal groups from their ancestral lands.
In 2006 India's intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, estimated that 20,000 armed-cadre Naxalites were operating in addition to 50,000 regular cadres. Their growing influence prompted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to declare them to be the most serious internal threat to India's national security. Naxalites, and other anti-government militants, are often referred to as "ultras".
In February 2009, the Indian Central government announced a new nationwide initiative, to be called the "Integrated Action Plan" (IAP) for broad, co-ordinated operations aimed at dealing with the Naxalite problem in all affected states (namely Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal). Importantly, this plan included funding for grass-roots economic development projects in Naxalite-affected areas, as well as increased special police funding for better containment and reduction of Naxalite influence in these areas.
In 2009, Naxalites were active across approximately 180 districts in ten states of India. In August 2010, after the first full year of implementation of the national IAP program, Karnataka was removed from the list of Naxalite-affected states. In July 2011, the number of Naxalite-affected areas was reduced to 83 districts in nine states (including 20 additional districts). In December 2011, the national government reported that the number of Naxalite-related deaths and injuries nationwide had gone down by nearly 50% from 2010 levels. Maoist communist groups claimed responsibility for 123 deaths in 2013, which was nearly half of all deaths from terrorism in India. The movement is described as "terrorist" by the Indian authorities but it is however popular in the regions where it is present. According to a study of the newspaper The Times of India 58% of people surveyed in the state of Andhra Pradesh, had a positive perception of the guerrillas, 19% against them.
In a 2004 Indian Home Ministry estimate, their numbers were placed at that time at "9,300 hardcore underground cadre ... [holding] around 6,500 regular weapons beside a large number of unlicensed country-made arms". In 2006, according to Judith Vidal-Hall, "Figures (in that year) put the strength of the movement at 15,000, and claim the guerrillas control an estimated one fifth of India's forests, as well as being active in 160 of the country's 604 administrative districts." India's Research and Analysis Wing believed in 2006 that 20,000 Naxals were involved in the growing insurgency.
Despite the 2010 Chhattisgarh ambushes, the most recent central government campaign to contain and reduce the militant Naxalite presence appears to be having some success. States such as Madhya Pradesh have reported significant reduction in Naxalite activities as a result of their use of IAP funds for rural development within their states. The recent success in containing violence may be due to a combination of more state presence, but also due to the recent introduction of social security schemes, such as NREGA.
According to Maoist sympathisers, the Indian Constitution "ratified colonial policy and made the state custodian of tribal homelands", turning tribal populations into squatters on their own land and denied them their traditional rights to forest produce. These Naxalite conflicts began in the late 1960s with the prolonged failure of the Indian government to implement constitutional reforms to provide for limited tribal autonomy with respect to natural resources on their lands, e.g. pharmaceutical and mining, as well as pass 'land ceiling laws', limiting the land to be possessed by landlords and distribution of excess land to landless farmers and labourers. In Scheduled Tribes [ST] areas, disputes related to illegal alienation of ST land to non-tribal people, still common, gave rise to the Naxalite movement.
Tribal communities are likely to participate in Naxalism to push back against structural violence by the state, including land theft for purposes of mineral extraction. Impoverished areas with no electricity, running water, or healthcare provided by the state may accept social services from Naxalite groups, and give their support to the Naxal cause in return. Some argue that the state's absence allowed for Naxalites to become the legitimate authority in these areas by performing state-like functions, including enacting policies of redistribution and building infrastructure for irrigation. Healthcare initiatives such as malaria vaccination drives and medical units in areas without doctors or hospitals have also been documented. Although Naxalite groups engage in coercion to grow membership, the Adivasi experience of poverty, when contrasted with the state's economic growth, can create an appeal for Naxal ideology and incentivize tribal communities to join Naxal movements out of "moral solidarity".
In terms of recruitment, the Naxalites focus heavily on the idea of a revolutionary personality, and in the early years of the movement, Charu Majumdar expressed how this type of persona is necessary for maintaining and establishing loyalty among the Naxalites. According to Majumdar, he believed the essential characteristics of a recruit must be selflessness and the ability to self-sacrifice, and in order to produce such a specific personality, the organization began to recruit students and youth. In addition to entrenching loyalty and a revolutionary personality within these new insurgents, Naxalites chose the youth due to other factors. The organization selected the youth because these students represented the educated section of Indian society, and the Naxalites felt it necessary to include educated insurgents because these recruits would then be crucial in the duty of spreading the communist teachings of Mao Zedong. In order to expand their base, the movement relied on these students to spread communist philosophy to the uneducated rural and working class communities. Majumdar believed it necessary to recruit students and youth who were able to integrate themselves with the peasantry and working classes, and by living and working in similar conditions to these lower-class communities, the recruits are able to carry the communist teachings of Mao Zedong to villages and urban centers.
The financial base of the Naxalites is diverse because the organization finances itself from a series of sources. The mining industry is known to be a profitable financial source for the Naxalites, as they tend to tax about 3% of the profits from each mining company that operates in the areas under Naxal control. In order to continue mining operations, these firms also pay the Naxalites for "protection" services which allows miners to work without having to worry about Naxalite attacks. The organization also funds itself through the drug trade, where it cultivates drugs in areas of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Bihar. Drugs such as marijuana and opium are distributed throughout the country by middlemen who work on behalf of the Naxalites. The drug trade is extremely profitable for the movement, as about 40% of Naxal funding comes through the cultivation and distribution of opium.
The second turning point came in the wake of the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence which India supported with armed troops. With large contingents of Indian Army troops amassed in the West Bengal border with what was then East Pakistan, the Government of Indira Gandhi used the opening provided by President's Rule to divert sections of the army to assist the police in decisive counter-insurgency drives across Naxal-impacted areas. "Operation Steeplechase," a police and army joint anti-Naxalite undertaking, was launched in July-August 1971. By the end of "Operation Steeplechase" over 20,000 suspected Naxalites were imprisoned and including senior leaders and cadre, and hundreds had been killed in police encounters. It was a massive counter-insurgency undertaking by any standards.
Meanwhile, the Congress government led by Indira Gandhi decided to send in the army and tackle the problem militarily. A combined operation called Operation Steeplechase was launched jointly by military, paramilitary and state police forces in West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.
In Kolkata, Lt General J.F.R. Jacob of the Indian Army's Eastern Command received two very important visitors in his office in October 1969. One was the army chief General Sam Manekshaw and the other was the home secretary Govind Narain. Jacob was told of the Centre's plan to send in the army to break the Naxal. More than 40 years later, Jacob would recall how he had asked for more troops, some of which he got along with a brigade of para commandos. When he asked his boss to give him something in writing, Manekshaw declined, saying, 'Nothing in writing.' while secretary Narain added that there should be no publicity and no records.
In India today there are many Maoist parties and organisations that either predate the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or emerged from factions when the CPI-ML split after the death of Charu Majumdar.