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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 12, March 13, 2010

Towards Understanding Naxalism

Friday 19 March 2010, by Sarabjit Kaur


One major challenge before the Indian state today is that of Naxalism, a movement which has a long history and which over a period of time has expanded its influence and violent activities. It is now spread over 14 States covering about 160 districts. (Misra, 2008, p. 63) According to various sources, it is believed that more than 6000 people have been killed in Naxal violence in the last 20 years. This really becomes a matter of concern and hence provokes one to identify the factors which are responsible for its widening base and the increase in its violent activities. In the literature, the factors that are normally identified with the emergence of this movement are political or economic in nature. The present study, however, without undermining the role of these factors, focuses on the psychological factors as vital in the emergence and increasing influence of this movement. But before that the present paper briefly discusses the history of the movement and then directs its efforts towards understanding the role of the psychological factors in the emergence of Naxa-lism. The paper hence consists of two sections, section one dealing with the brief history of Naxalism and section two dealing with the factors responsible for the growth of Naxalism.

Section I: Brief History of Naxalism

The Naxal movement is now more than forty years old. The movement started in 1967 in the form of a peasant uprising that occurred in the village of Naxalbari, located in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. The term “Naxalite”refers to “all forms of armed struggle that have taken up the cause of socio-economic development of the downtrodden rural masses”. (DeBlieck, 2006, p. 3) The fourth general elections, which were held in 1967, marked the beginning of the Naxal movement. The elections resulted in a stunning end to the hegemony of the Indian National Congress party over State governments and the surprising rise of a new party, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). The CPI-M had been created three years before these elections, when the Sino-Soviet conflict and internal disagreements led to its split from the long established Communist Party of India (CPI). The CPI-M took with it a large number of moderates and extreme Leftists who were critical of the apparent revisionist activities and pro-Soviet stance of the CPI. The extreme Leftists of the CPI-M and their belief in a Mao inspired revolution for India directed and fuelled the Naxalite movement of 1967-1972. (Ibid., p. 3) The movement was further given momentum by a middle-ranking member of the CPI-M, Charu Mazumdar. He was a firm believer in the role of violent revolution in achieving social justice. His dreams were fulfilled when in 1967, 150 members of a breakaway faction of the CPI-M led by Kanu Sanyal looted the granary of a landlord near Naxalbari and three sharecroppers were killed in police firing there. Over the following months the Naxalites were responsible for over 200 violent incidents that included assault, robbery and the stealing of armaments, earning the praise of the Chinese authorities and the condemnation of the CPI-M. (Ibid., p. 5)

These first incidents of Naxalite activity in Naxalbari were met with a stern reaction by the West Bengal authorities and were squashed by late 1967. The movement re-emerged in a larger form in the northern parts of Andra Pradesh in 1968 where guerrillas seized property, killed landlords and engaged in acts of terror. It was met with a swifter and heavy response and was quelled there by early 1970. A year earlier in 1969, the movement exploded again in West Bengal with the murder of landlords, redistri-bution of property and cancellation of peasants debts, but was stopped in early 1970 only to flare up and be violently extinguished once again that same year. In 1971 the Naxal move-ment started losing its momentum. That year some 50,000 CPI-ML members were in jail and in one incident some 150 members were massacred near Calcutta. In June 1972, security forces succeeded in capturing two of the movement’s pre-eminent leaders and in July arrested Mazumdar himself. His death in custody that month signalled the end of the Naxalite movement in West Bengal and by the end of 1972 it was described as one of the most peaceful State in India. (Ibid., p. 8)

Although the authorities in West Bengal were successful in suppressing the Naxalite insurgency in 1972, the movement proved to be the inspiration for other actors interested in achieving social justice through violence. The movement therefore captured the attention of the Central Government in the 21st century with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh describing it as the “single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country”. The successors of Mazumdar’s Maoist revolution have been most active in the States of Andra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. (Ibid., p. 10)

Section II: Factors Responsible for the Growth of Naxalism

The Naxalite revolt has grown in magnitude and strength for many reasons, political or economic in nature. Some of the political factors which can be identified are: the emergence of the movement coincided with the formation of the first United Front Government in West Bengal (1967) with the Communist Party of India-M as its main constituent, and received increasing official support, attention and press coverage. (Misra, December 2008, p. 63)

The external political factor was the influence of the Chinese Communist Party and Mao Zedong. The Naxalites were deeply influenced by the two. Their slogans were: China’s path is our path, China’s Chairman is our Chairman. This summarises their ideological inclinations up to at least 1971. Later the image of China in general and that of the Communist Party of China faded considerably and at present the various Naxalite groups hold different perceptions of China. Their commitment to Maoism, however, remains intact.

Hence the Naxalbari movement became the symbol of armed peasant uprising and of Maoism in India and evolved as a new political movement deriving its name from it. This movement has been further given momentum by the insensitive nature of the political system. It is anti-tribal and non-responsive to the needs of the tribals. The tribals, more than any other oppressed category, have got nothing out of the Indian state before and after globalisation. The Indian state has always taken the land alienation of tribals for granted as one of the consequences of ‘progress’ that must be put up with. Owing to a skewed pattern of land distribution, tribals and Dalits are at the receiving end of the land owning castes.

Besides the political factors, economic factors have also acted as a catalyst in giving momentum to the movement. Economically, the problem of poverty and economic inequality can be identified as vital in accelerating the pace of movement. The absolute numbers of the poor have fallen over the decades; the statistics being averages do not capture the intensity of distress in certain pockets despite the high growth in recent years. To be poor is one thing and to seem condemned to one’s fate quite another. Rising incomes in the post-reform India have created a rapidly growing aspirational class but these have also contributed to an army of socio-economic orphans who have been rejected by all mainstream political parties. In addition, a contractor-politician nexus controls the wealth of the forests and pushes tribals to the margins. A repressive state apparatus, represented by the police and the black laws they use to their advantage, helps keep this exploitative system going.

The situation has further worsened by the opening up of the Indian economy to trade and investment; the entry of the mining companies in Orissa and Chhattisgarh poses a threat to the livelihoods of tribals and their way of life. Thus economic exploitation of the tribals, a problem that is unattended by the political system, creates a fertile soul for the Naxals to play an important role.

The study of various factors thus indicate that Naxalism is the outcome of not just one factor but a number of various factors. One can really have a proper grip of the problem by focusing on the psychology of the individuals who are a part of the movement. The psychological factors synthesise well the above mentioned factors—political and economic—and facilitate a clear understanding of the roots of the movement.

These factors focus on “… the explanation of attitudes and behaviour in terms of the mental processes of individual”. (Taylor, 1984, p. 52) They lay emphasis on two ideas—a) cognitions and b) the idea of transformation of frustration into aggression. By cognitions is meant the emergence of difference between perceptions or expectations of the past or future situations of individuals. This kind of situation emerges when the individual develops a feeling that the rewards he is getting are inadequate compared to his educational or ethnic investment or status. They may have some hope in the future but it may so happen that in the future they do not receive any benefits from growth and further their situation can be worsened by a sudden change. All these make them feel that their present situation is worse than the past. The tension can be further aggravated when they see that relevant reference groups make disproportionate gains in the future than their own group. All these provide the ground for the rise of psychological tension which erupts in the form of protest activities and thus enables people to establish a link between the real world and their expectations.

According to the second idea, aggression is the product of frustration. In situations where the level of aggression is low, men express it through minor ways by, say, attacking the scapegoat or by sublimation into socially modified behaviour whereas in situations where the level of frustration is high, the level of aggression will also be high for men would find the cost less compared to the relief that they would get by attacking the primary cause of frustration.

The above mentioned ideas are really useful in understanding the problem of Naxalism. The indigenous tribal population of the Naxal affected States has been deprived of their lands. They have been uprooted from their traditional source of livelihood. This problem has further increased with the impact of globalisation. Several multi-national companies have started making inroads in the tribal areas owing to their resource-richness. These resources are exploited and the benefits accrued thus are not passed on to the tribals. The tribals are well aware of this. It is because of this that they are not interested in any developmental activity as it facilitates the further exploitation of their areas. This awareness generates frustration which is released in various forms of violence. They destroy roads and even attack people engaged in those companies. The state and various functionaries of the state also become the targets of their attacks. On October 6, 2009, an abducted Jharkhand Police Inspector was brutally beheaded. Two days later in Gadchiroli, 18 police personnel were killed. (Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, October 10, 2009, p. 33) Though the Naxals say that they will not target civilians, yet in 2007 460 civilians have been killed and this has increased to 586 in 2009. (Ghosh, February 23, 2010, p. 1)

The degree of frustration and deprivation is so strong among the people that it has facilitated the rising influence of Maoists across the country. According to the Home Ministry’s own figures, overall Maoist influence has spread from 56 districts in 2001 to 223 districts in 2009. (Rama-krishnan, November 2009, p. 6)

Due to Maoist activists in Jharkhand, more areas are coming under their influence. These include north Bengal, the plains of Bihar, the central districts of Orissa, east Chhattisgarh and regions in Maharastra and Haryana. These are coming under a fresh wave of industrialisation through special economic zones (SEZs). Retailers affected by multinational retail companies, people displaced or affected by SEZs, and unorganised workers are special targets for recruitment in Maharastra and Haryana. Besides the rural areas where the poor people provide a strong base for the Maoists, even in the semi-urban centres like Yamunanagar in Haryana where there are number of industries and wine mills, they have started establishing their stronghold. (Ramakrishnan, November 2009, p. 8)

To counter the increasing influence of Left-wing extremists, the government has decided to adopt stern measures like the deployment of the CRPF and its Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) in the Naxal dominated areas (Mehra, October 2009, p. 13) though the deployment of the Army and Indian Air Force has been denied by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But such steps have the Naxals. This is well reflected in their recent attacks in West Midnapore district were 24 men of West Bengals Eastern Frontier Rifles were massacred. (Ghosh, February 2010, p. 1)

From the above account one can say that economic deprivation has certainly left an impact on the minds of the poor. This is reflected in the intensity of the Naxal movement. This deprivation then provides a fertile ground for the growth of a feeling of frustration. This frustration is released in various forms of political conflicts. The outbreaks of these conflicts become a matter of real concern for both the governments of the Centre and States.

To combat the Naxal movement undertaking oppressive steps by the government is, however, not a remedy to the problem. The governments at the Centre and in States should direct their efforts towards finding a long term solution to the problem. For this, they have to take such measures which will solve the problem of economic deprivation and in turn will prevent the rise of frustration amongst the indigenous population of various States affected by the problem of Naxalism. This will have a long lasting impact and a sense of satisfaction and contentment will prevail. It therefore becomes pertinent for the governments—Central and State —to seriously undertake developmental activities whose benefits actually reach the poor, local masses. While formulating such developmental plans the local people should be taken into confidence. The participatory developmental activities will generate a sense of satisfaction among the tribals. This feeling of contentment will prevent the emergence of frustration and hence the growth of any kind of conflict. This certainly is not an easy task. The process indeed is a long drawn one.

At the same time taking over the tribals’ land and forests for handing these over to the corporates and MNCs for ‘development’ will have serious implications as such ’development’ projects will completely bypass and even negate the tribals’ development agenda.

The onus certainly falls on the government, particularly the Central Government, to show if it has the political will and the administrative acumen to carry out socio-developmental activities that will leave the local masses psychologically contented. This indeed will go long way in providing some solution to the Naxal problem.


Deblieck, Sean (2006), ‘Why Mao? Maoist Insurgies in India and Nepal’, Peace Conflict and Development, Issue July 9.

Ghosh, Debdutta (2010), ’Bengal cops fight unequal battle’, Hindustan Times, February 23.

Mehra, A.K. (2009), ‘A Nowhere Approach to India’s Nowhere Revolution’, Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, no.. 46, October 31.

Misra, J.K. (2008), ‘Naxal Violence: Theoretical and Growth Perspectives’, The Indian Police Journal, Vol.LV, no.4 Oct-Dec, 2008

Ramakrishnan, Venkitesh (2009), ‘Taking on Maoists’, Frontline, November 6.

Taylor, Stan (1984), Social Science and Revolutions (London, The Macmillan Press Limited)

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, ‘Human Rights Groups Condemn Maoist Violence in Jharkhand and Maharashtra’, Mainstream, Vol XLVII, no. 44, October 17, 2009.

The author is an Associate Professor (Political Science), University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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