How Naxalism started in India
History of Communism in India
To understand the origins of Naxalism and the political mechanisms behind it, we must understand the history of Communism and Communist parties in India. The Communist Party of India (CPI) was founded on December 26, 1925. The Great October Socialist Revolution inspired the founders of the CPI. In 1963, the CPI had split into two factions with the newer one being called the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM. This split was due to the increasing differences in the CPI leadership especially during and after the Sino-Indian War. There were leftist and rightist blocs in the CPI. The rightist bloc looked up to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and as a result, had forsworn armed revolution, because the Soviets wanted good relations with the Indian government. The leftist wing followed the Communist Party of China. They saw the Indian state as run by an alliance between the landlords and the bourgeoisie and regarded India’s parliamentary democracy as mostly a sham: to be used when it suited, and to be discarded when it didn’t.
The CPM joined the West Bengal government in 1967 which led to some members like Charu Majumdar accusing them of ‘betraying the revolution’. In 1967, events in the small village of Naxalbari in West Bengal lit the fire of the armed revolution that is referred to as Naxalism today. The landlords had exploited the peasants in Naxalbari for centuries. On March 25, 1967, a tenant farmer was beaten up and looted by a landlord for tilling the land he was illegally evicted from. CPM’s Kanu Sanyal, an associate of Charu Mazumdar, mobilised the peasants and other tribals against the landlords who had evicted tenants or hoarded grain. The protests became militant, leading to the death of a sub-inspector and nine tribals. The protestors took to arms and landlords were beheaded. To the surprise of the protestors, the CPM took the side of the law enforcement. One thousand five hundred policemen were deployed in Naxalbari. Kanu Sanyal and other leaders were jailed while the other rebels fled to the jungles. News about these events spread all over the country and the word Naxalite, derived from Naxalbari, came to refer to anyone who would use arms to fight the Indian state on behalf of the oppressed and disinherited, especially the tribals. In Andhra, another group of Naxalites had been preparing for action. In 1948, 2,500 villages in the south were organised into ‘communes’ as part of a peasant movement which came to be known as Telangana Struggle. Youngsters were being trained in the use of arms. In Srikakulam, houses of landlords and moneylenders were raided and their records burnt. It is interesting to note that at this point in time, the leaders of Communist China approved of the Naxalites. In June 1967, Radio Peking announced that the Naxalite movement “is the front paw of the revolutionary armed struggle launched by the Indian people under the guidance of Mao Tse-tung’s teachings…. people of India, China and the rest of the World hail the emergence of this revolutionary armed struggle.” Thus Naxalism can be defined as the armed struggle against the Indian state led by the ideologies of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Since the CPM was part of the West Bengal Government (in alliance with the Bangla Congress) which had taken police action against the Naxalites, those in the CPM who supported the Naxalites felt betrayed by the leadership. They formed the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (CPI(ML)), the first formal organization for the Naxalites, in 1969. Charu Mazumdar, the General Secretary of the CPI(ML) urged the elimination of landlords, who were deemed as ‘class enemies’, as well as of CPM cadres, who were ‘right deviationists’.
West Bengal, especially Kolkata (then, Calcutta) faced a series of violent attacks in the 1970s. The Naxalites hoped to cause unrest by random attacks on police officers and government officials. After Mazumdar’s death in custody in 1972, there were several splits in the CPI(ML). By 1982 there were three critical organisations which had split from the CPI(ML) – the People’s War Group (PWG), Party Unity (PU) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC). The PWG yielded influence in the tribal areas of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. The PU functioned mainly in Bihar while the MCC operated in Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. By 2004, these three parties merged to become what they are now, the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
Factors responsible for the rise and spread of Naxalism
The Naxalites today have a significant presence in the states of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Bihar, and West Bengal, and a marginal presence in Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. To understand the rise of Naxalism, we must understand why locals and tribals in these areas support the Naxalite movement. The main point of contention between the tribals and the Indian state has always been the ownership of land. Most of the areas controlled by the Naxalites are rich in natural resources like bauxite, iron ore or even flowing water. As a result, these areas are in demand by corporations who wish to build mining centres, dams, etc. They, therefore, approach the Indian or state government to buy this land, often for large sums of money. In these situations, the government has tried to displace the locals and take the property, with or without providing compensation. To solve these problems, the government started land reforms. Implementation of land reforms has been very slow in Naxalite areas. Landlords have frequently moved the court to delay implementation.
They have connived with politicians and bureaucrats, making the process slow and cumbersome. Even when their land was not taken, the tribal people were still economically exploited. In Gadchiroli in 1981, the locals were paid three paise for a bundle of fifty leaves. Compared to this, the contractors to whom these leaves sold would earn profits of 1 to 6 million rupees per season. Lack of government attention to these issues led to the Naxalites organising these locals, leading a strike and increasing the prices to 1 rupee per bundle. Such acts of land grabbing and economic exploitation led to resentment against the government and support for the Naxalites. The tribal people were also frequently harassed by the Forest Department.
Forest officials would often prevent people from ploughing their fields, grazing their cattle, collecting firewood, plucking leaves, picking fruit etc. People would be beaten, arrested, humiliated and have their crops destroyed. All this was done on the premise that the tribals were illegal people engaged in illegal activity. Tribal women were also sexually exploited by these officials. These acts built up anger against the government. Salwa Judum (Purification Hunt), a militia led by the now deceased Congress MLA Mahendra Karma, was responsible for rapes, killings, burning down villages and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their home. The fact that governments had directly or indirectly sponsored this group drove tribals straight into the arms of the Naxalites who portrayed themselves as the protectors of the tribals against such groups. The existence of such groups allowed the Naxalites to use violence unabashedly themselves, without facing any criticism from the tribals. Their violent methods were perceived as self-defence by the tribals. The effects of India’s rapid economic growth have not percolated to the poor and tribal areas. The wealth disparity, along with government negligence in implementation, and exploitation by big businesses, has led to several unemployed youths. Since governments have left the administration of these areas unattended, the Naxalites have stepped in to fill the power vacuum. They have collected money from people in these areas, which has been used to recruit several youngsters into their militia who are provided with a monthly salary, uniforms and arms. In such neglected areas, the Naxalites have assumed the role of the state by establishing an elaborate structure of Janata Sarkars. These Janata Sarkars have different departments (akin to ministries) dealing with agriculture, trade, defence, education etc.
Furthermore, the terrain, topography and lack of infrastructure in these areas are very suitable for the Naxalites and their guerrilla tactics. Several attempts have also been made to ‘Hinduize’ the tribal people. As part of the Hindutva campaign to ‘bring tribals back to the Hindu fold’, their culture was denigrated, self-hatred was induced, and the caste system was introduced. The villages and people were given Hindu names. Those who did not come forward to join the Hindu fold were declared ‘Katwas’ (untouchables), who later became the natural constituency for the Naxalites. Given these socio-economic conditions, it is easy to see why Naxalites are popular among the rural poor and indigenous tribes, and why the Adivasis view the guerrillas as their ‘saviours’. The tribals feel that they do not have any political power to voice their grievances legitimately, and therefore the alternative of violent groups seems attractive. B