Naxalism in India: History, Growth, Present & Future

While India's Naxal affected districts have gone down from 231 to 30, the aftermath of the Chhattisgarh attack on 3 April 2021 brings out the skeletons of the nation's fledgling anti-Naxal response

Naxalism in India: History, Growth, Present & Future

The number of Naxal affected districts in India stood at 200 in the early 2000s, the present figure has since gone down to 90 districts. This Marxist-Leninist-Maoist militancy has survived for a quarter century since its first appearance in Telangana in 1946 under the banner of the Telangana Movement and the infamous 1967 uprising in Naxalbari (West Bengal) from which the name ‘Naxalism’ was derived. Despite active counter insurgency operations being spearheaded from the highest levels of government, how has this major internal security threat continued to persist and claim the lives of countless troops? It is surprising that despite being the world’s largest democracy India's democratic policies have not yet been able to neutralise this armed revolution and threats to the nation’s security it poses.

Peeping Into The Red Corridor

A historical perspective of how India's revolutionary politics has progressed over 75 years indicates the causes for this phenomenon. Iniquitous land distribution, development deficit and resultant structural impacts are the chief causes for this red rebellion since the aforementioned 1946 born Telangana movement, which was eventually withdrawn in 1951 following the advice of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin sitting all the way back in Moscow. However, earlier the movement was weakened due to Acharya Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan Movement (Land Gift Movement).

From there the seeds of revolutionary politics were taken to West Bengal by radical communist leaders after party split in 1984, thus, starting the second phase of the movement called Communist Party of India (Marxist) as named by Election Commission of India (ECI), mobilised sharecropper peasants in the Siliguri subdivision of the Darjeeling district. As a replay of Telangana (1966) turmoil started as local landlords began forcibly collecting food grains in the area of three police stations-Naxalbari, Kharibari, and Phansidewa. This led to what China called ‘Spring Thunder’ in India.

However, contradictions within the movement led to another split in the party in 1969 as the CPI (Maoist) in power and CPI (M) in revolution. This gave birth to CPI (Marxist-Leninist). Land was the key element in the second phase of revolutionary politics which was eventually crushed in the state by the Congress government in 1972. It weakened considerably in West Bengal when the CPI (M) as a partner brought in land reforms.

The third phase began simultaneously in West Bengal, North East, Andhra Pradesh, and a repeat of Telangana and Naxalbari violence followed. During 1968-70, tribal peasants and guerilla squads went on an offensive against the landlord and even the police. Vempatapu Satyanarayana, effectively led the Girijan rebellion. Though killed in a police encounter in 1970, he had managed to mobilise the cadre of revolutionaries who consolidated during the 1980s and 1990s.

The fourth phase began with the founding of People's War Group (PWG) in 1980 which was lethal during the 1990s, which also saw the rise of several other groups in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh (the region that later became Chhattisgarh), Bihar and Odisha which indulged in fratricide.

The fifth phase began in 2004 when the major groups combined to form CPI (M), achieve a new high and create the Red Corridor from Pashupati (Nepal) to Tirupati (Tamil Nadu) including over 200 districts out of then 650 that were part of this Red Corridor. This confounded the government and kept the security forces and police busy.

Government Action & Present State

For a decade after the formation of CPI (M), the Union and State governments struggled to contain it with a security-centric approach. To deal with the Naxals, the Andhra Pradesh state government formed a commando force called the Greyhounds. This led to other affected states forming similar specialised police forces.

The union government went on to form the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (COBRA) as the cutting of the Central Reserve Police Force’s (CRPF) anti-Naxal efforts and the Government of India (GoI) further went on to begin a police modernisation scheme in which police forces were given commando training and funds for modern weapons and equipment. Under the Centre’s counter insurgency strategy, 532 companies of paramilitary forces have been deployed in the affected states.

During 2006, the government issued a security blueprint to tackle the Maoist threats in the country. The planning done during Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s Union Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was carried forward by PM Narendra Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led government. Significantly, development work was carried out by State governments with the Centre's assistance. The Forest Dweller's Act, 2006 addressed rights of the local tribal population in forested areas with new infrastructure and roads being constructed to connect remote areas, thus, bringing several remote areas near to urban facilities.

These centrally sponsored schemes resulted in new facilities like electrification and schools in tribal areas. The centre and state governments focused on preventing the tribal population from joining the rebels and also aimed to bring back rebels to the mainstream. These schemes worked as several rebels decided to surrender owing to health reasons and a sense of maturity which comes from age and experience.

Over 7000 rebels from active cadres surrendered in various states and an equal number of Maoists were captured by security forces. Over the years, the young and educated population have started to distance themselves from the old revolutionary ideology. The movement is presently facing significant financial constraints and an aging leadership with seven of nineteen members of their central committee being over 60 years and ailing.

Madvi Hidma: A Grave Challenge

The NIA has placed a Rs 7 Lakh bounty on the Chhattisgarh attack mastermind, Madvi Hidma's head; File Photo

While GoI was supposedly resting on its laurels of having incarcerated 16 prominent activists, intellectuals, social workers, lawyers’ cultural artists, dubbing them as ‘Urban Naxals’ around three years ago in the Bhima Koregaon case, the real Naxals killed 22 and injured 31 CRPF personnel in Chhattisgarh on 3 April 2021.

Despite the elimination of their leaders and masterminds (Cherukuri Rajkumar, and Mallojula K Rao during 2010-11) and the organisational crises facing them since their biggest setback in Ramgude (Andhra-Odisha border) by Telangana’s Greyhounds (anti-Naxal special police force) who wiped out 30 of their cadre and entire leadership of at least 20, the Naxal leadership seems to have substantially rebuilt itself in Chhattisgarh under Madvi Hidma, a guerilla estimated to be in his late 40s to early 50s. He has been seen as a master strategist responsible for several deadly attacks on security forces that killed Congress leader VC Shukla.

For the past 15 years, although the security forces have been able to contain the Maoist spread and reduce the earlier 200 Naxal dominant districts to just 90 their operations have not always been smooth and flawless, and many times resulted in big casualties. 6 April 2010 saw 74 CRPF personnel, and two Chhattisgarh Policemen killed in a Naxal ambush, the single biggest massacre. 2017 also saw various incidents that killed 72 CRPF men killed by Naxals.

However, despite the carnage we have not seen or heard of any internal inquiry or introspection within strategies adopted. This has been happening many times as these disastrous operations are planned by frequently transferred IPS officers who are inexperienced in anti-Naxal operations. There have also been complaints that senior officers have been changing plans drawn up by their junior officers who are far more experienced and conversant with the Maoist insurgency as they have better ground knowledge, operational experience and are generally far more aware of the realities in which the Maoists operate in.

Maoists Affected Districts: National Policy & Action Plan

As per Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the Maoists affected Districts at the peak of the insurgency was 231. However, over the years with combined efforts of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), state police forces and various government initiatives and schemes this figure has since been brought down to just 30 affected districts. Two maps clearly indicate earlier affected districts of 231 and present affected areas of 30 districts of these areas known as the Red Corridor.

Addressing LWE: National Policy & Action Plan

‘Police' and ‘Public Order' being State subjects, sees the primary responsibility of meeting the challenge of the Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) lying with the State Governments. However, the Central Government monitors the situation closely, supplements and coordinates the efforts of the State Governments. A National Policy and Action Plan to address the LWE problem has been put in place that envisages a multi-pronged strategy involving security related measures, developmental interventions, ensuring rights and entitlements of local communities etc.

On the security front, the Central Government assists the LWE affected State Governments by providing CAPF battalions, training, funds for modernization of state police forces, equipment and arms, sharing of intelligence etc. On the development side, the Central Government has taken various measures including construction of roads, strengthening of communications network, installation of mobile towers, improving network of banks, post offices, health, and education facilities in the LWE areas through concerned Ministries.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) published figures on 5 February 2019 as part of a Press Information Bureau (PIB) release on Naxal affected districts which highlighted 90 districts in 11 States as being the most affected by LWE.

The State-wise Breakdown (2019)

Affected States Number of Affected Districts
Andhra Pradesh 6
Bihar 16
Chhattisgarh 14
Jharkhand 19
Kerala 3
Madhya Pradesh 2
Maharashtra 3
Odisha 15
Telangana 8
Uttar Pradesh 3
West Bengal 1
Map of Naxal affected areas for representational purposes only

“The steadfast implementation of National Policy and Action Plan has resulted in considerable improvement in LWE scenario over the years in the LWE affected states as reflected by decline in number of LWE incidents and shrinkage in geographical spread of LWE influence,” this was stated by the Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Gangaram Ahir in a written reply to question in the Lok Sabha. Latest Home Ministry Figures are reflective of the minister's statement. Going by figures published on 23 March 2021, only seven States and 30 districts which collectively make up the 'Red Corridor' are the epicenter of Naxal activity.

Map of Naxal affected areas for representational purposes only

The State & District-wise Breakdown (2021)

**Affected Districts ** **Affected States **
Visakhapatnam Andhra Pradesh
Aurangabad Bihar
Gaya Bihar
Jamui Bihar
Lakhisarai Bihar
Bijapur Chhattisgarh
Sukma Chhattisgarh
Bastar Chhattisgarh
Dantewada Chhattisgarh
Kanker Chhattisgarh
Narayanpur Chhattisgarh
Rajnandangaon Chhattisgarh
Kondagaon Chhattisgarh
Giridih Jharkhand
Gumla Jharkhand
Khunti Jharkhand
Latehar Jharkhand
Lohardaga Jharkhand
Simdega Jharkhand
Bokaro Jharkhand
Chatra Jharkhand
Ranchi Jharkhand
Garhwa Jharkhand
Hazaribagh Jharkhand
Palamu Jharkhand
West Singhbhum Jharkhand
Gadchiroli Maharashtra
Koraput Odisha
Malkangiri Odisha
Bhadradri-Kothagudem Telangana

Why Anti-Maoist Ops Fail

Several analyses have been written on Naxalism, its causes and recommendations for overcoming it. Poor governance and lack of development are attributed to be the main causes for this LWE including the current Maoist movement in central India. The tribal claim that they are being pushed out of their traditional habitat and rich mineral resources are being exploited by industrialists who are becoming richer while driving them to abject poverty. Since the tribal lack basic skills for any other employment they are pushed into socio-economic backward sections of society.

Realising the serious security threat that LWE posed to the country in 2006 the then PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh had called for a comprehensive strategy to overcome the challenge by using security forces to bring down the level of violence coupled with developmental activities and negotiated settlements. To enable talks with tribal leaders for settlements of their grievances there was a vital need to bring down the level of violence that LWE generated. To achieve that a large number of CAPF were inducted in the affected areas. However, for the past 15 years the security forces failed to ensure sustained peace in these areas to enable talks or sustained developmental activities.

Intelligence Failure

Besides ineffective leadership the lack of actionable intelligence available to troops on the ground have been one of the core reasons for the failure of security forces to deal with Maoist forces on the ground, especially the tactical failures during combing operations against the Maoists. The CAPF operating in Maoists affected areas are severely handicapped due to lack of communication with the local people as they do not know their local language, culture, and traditions.

Consequently, their presence in the Maoist affected areas is treated with suspicion and fear. This prevents the CAPF from gaining credible and actionable intelligence. The surrendered Maoists too do not divulge much and are mentally closer to local police. Collectively all these drawbacks do not provide reliable information about planning and movement of Maoists leading to loss of lives among the security forces, especially of CRPF personnel.

IPS-Led CRPF Leadership

IPS officers holding the CRPF's apex appointments have been a long contended issue with grave consequences; File Photo

The recent Maoist ambush on 3 April 2021 in Chhattisgarh on CRPF and police personnel should compel the concerned CRPF leadership to seriously review their training ethos and leadership especially at higher echelons. It has repeatedly been proven that the top CRPF leadership manned by the Indian Police Service (IPS) cadre has been utterly incompetent in guiding and enhancing the operational efficiency of CRPF primarily responsible for internal security including dealing with LWE of Maoist insurgency.

Such repeated setbacks in the past to the CRPF led security forces clearly indicate the inability of the IPS leadership to lead these security forces from the front leading to such failures that frustrate and demoralize the rank and file that operate on ground and directly confront the Maoists forces. Hence, it is no surprise that a large number of CRPF personnel prematurely resign from service or proceed on voluntary retirement.

A quote from a statement made by Minister of state of Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai in the Rajya Sabha in this context only proves the point, “The morale of these forces is low is apparent from the fact that almost 47,000 personnel of these forces have either resigned or gone on voluntary retirement during the five-year period from 2016-20.”

What worsens the situation is that the IPS leadership is both ill-trained and inadequately equipped for such swift and furious operations against Naxals. Sadly, at the higher supervisory levels the IPS leadership is not familiar with actual ground conditions resulting in formulating unrealistic plans and consequent operational setbacks and loss of lives.

However, having been directly deputed at the higher positions in the hierarchy a few lPS officers do take the pains to understand the intricate issues of capability and limitations of own forces in such operations against an unseen and highly mobile enemy that rarely gets into direct confrontation with security forces and disappears after contact or merges with the masses.

Furthermore, what is worse is the unwillingness to take responsibility for failures and learn from past mistakes. The incident analysis that is done are mostly exercises to cover up the failures. These are basically to satisfy the guilt of concerned leadership and project a facade of concern for families of martyred personnel with recommendations of gallantry medals and compensation.

Lack of Coordination Amongst Forces

There is a lack of coordination amongst CAPF (especially, the CRPF and the local/state police) deployed in Naxal affected areas. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that while the state police forces are legally employed to maintain law and order the CRPF is responsible to contain the Maoist threat. Ironically, the dominant narrative sees Maoist violence as a law-and-order problem with the roles of state police and CRPF becoming asymmetric. The past decade has seen the CAPF, (especially in Chhattisgarh), lose far more lives than the local police forces.

A lack of rapport amongst these forces is only reflected by the lack of intelligence sharing about Maoist activities. Adding on to that, joint operations and assisting the CAPFs in familiarisation with the local population, their nature, language, and habits is also critically lacking. Sadly, these issues such as the lack of rapport and coordination never get discussed in an open forum or task force constituted to review and revisit the present security operations against Maoist threat.

No Counter Naxal Ops

Despite serious setbacks in the last decade against the Naxal forces there have never been any well-coordinated counter Naxal operations launched by the security forces to even recover looted weapons and ammunition. With over 25 specialised Battalions located in Sukma Dantewada Bijapur triangle, it is surprising that these much-required counter Naxal operations are never undertaken. This leaves the security forces clearly on the back foot in spite of their overwhelming strength compared to the Naxal forces.

CRPF Organisational Issues

Some of the important issues at organisational and structural levels within respective CAPF (particularly CRPF personnel) can be attributed for high casualties suffered in anti-Maoist Operations. The issues relate to recruitment, promotion, and leadership. Most personnel recruited into the CRPF are constables who take years to be promoted and retire at a low rank. The leadership of the CRPF force is mainly officers drawn from the IPS with short tenures leading to lack of continuity or experience. This has led to a huge gap between the leadership and personnel of CRPF.

These issues when raised with successive governments have received only lip service and assurances of reforms. This has led to overall low morale of CRPF personnel fighting the Maoist ultras. The CRPF invariably need local police assistance for any operation against the Maoists, thus, diluting their independence. Surprisingly, the IPS leadership of CRPF is hardly held accountable or responsible for the failed operations and loss of lives. Collectively, all these factors have resulted in the low morale of these security forces operating in combat zones.

Need for Effective Leadership on Ground

During the last decade, the high rate of casualties suffered by the security forces, especially CRPF personnel during encounters with Maoists forces clearly point towards a serious lack of leadership on the ground. No officer was killed during these operations. Where were the Commandants, Superintendent, Deputy Superintendents and Deputy Inspector Generals?

Obviously, the security personnel are being led in the field by Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) level officers. Clearly, there is an imperative need for visible officer leadership on the ground. Like the Indian Army (fighting Insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and the North East), the CRPF leadership too must introduce a culture for their officers to ‘lead from the front’.

Responsibility & Accountability

Even after a decade of hard combat against the dreaded Maoists, the state and central security forces, particularly in Chhattisgarh (the key theatre and present hotbed of anti-Maoist operations) continue to suffer heavy casualties at the hands of Maoist forces. In the 2010 Dantewada ambush, 76 CRPF personnel were killed. MHA constituted a task force headed by E N Ramamohan, a former Border Security Force (BSF) Chief, to investigate the causes for the high casualties among security forces.

However, nothing concrete emerged out of this investigation and the country, especially Chhattisgarh, has continued to experience Maoists attacks resulting in high casualties. The causes or reasons for such tragic episodes are not difficult to find. It is evident that there is neither any systemic learning from the frequent breaches in standard operating procedures (SOP) nor institutional accountability with pin-pointing of responsibility for such major incidents.

Other than the Dantewada (2010) incident, no head of security forces including State Police have faced probe or accountability questions. No politician has paid any price for serious failures in combating the ultras. The time has come for introducing a culture of responsibility and accountability for the security forces, police, intelligence set up, bureaucracy and politicians.

The Way Forward

It is beyond doubt that the IPS officers lack the skill set and wherewithal to lead these (CAPF) forces. Some thinkers suggest that the IPS bosses be replaced by experienced army officers. Can army officers adapt to the ethos of CRPF, and the peculiarities of such operations including local supportive population and state police set up?

The CRPF is a specialised force raised for internal security duties which include fighting against all types of LWE, especially Maoist led Naxalisim. They have a large, experienced cadre of their own that must be given charge of the higher reins of their leadership as they are fully conversant and familiar with the ground level functioning, ethos, and operational philosophy. The key to success possibly lies in selecting the right and appropriate CRPF leadership from and within the CRPF itself and imparting counter terrorism and jungle warfare training to the concerned or affected security forces comprising both CRPF and local police for combined operations against the Maoist Naxals.

The Counter Terrorism & Jungle Warfare (CTJW) College

The Counter Terrorism & Jungle Warfare (CTJW) College housed in Kanker, Chhattisgarh is an institute which trains commandos for counter Naxal ops. The CTJW needs to be optimally used for training all concerned security personnel of CRPF and state police. The concerned leadership at all levels that have been dealing with this grave threat must be made more accountable and responsible for the outcome of operations led or supervised by them. The leadership directly dealing with the anti-Naxal operations must enhance their knowledge of Maoist Naxals and the nature of their operations.

Indian Army personnel or veterans with vast experience in combating insurgency and terrorism could be selectively roped in and utilised in training the internal security forces including their ground operating junior leadership. The higher level CRPF/IPS leadership would surely benefit from short training and familiarisation capsule courses conducted at establishments like the CTJW.

Here with hard training and motivation policemen are turned into warriors and counter-guerrillas ready to take on the Maoists on their own turf and terms, in the affected districts and fields of operation. CTJW trained commandos have sustained significantly lower casualty rates. Apparently, the training imparted here is reflected through the high performance of their products.

An Insider’s View with Brigadier BK Ponwar (Retd.)

Brig. Ponwar (Retd), with the NYPD's SRG unit members; Album 

The raising, growth and development of this training establishment has an interesting history and is narrated by Brigadier BK Ponwar and highly decorated veteran who was the Commandant of the Indian Army's  Counter Insurgency Jungle Warfare (CIJW) School, Vairengte, Mizoram during 2003-2005. Upon superannuation from the Indian Army in 2005, he was tasked to raise the CTJW College at Kanker in Chhattisgarh.

Brig. Ponwar raised this unique college from scratch and has been training commandos in the art of counter terrorism and jungle warfare for the past 16 years (2005-2021) and  produced 36000 commandos from all over the country including the National Security Guard (NSG), State Police forces (especially Chhattisgargh Police), CAPF including CRPF, Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) and the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).

Many commandos trained here have won many police medals of bravery especially by Chhattisgarh Police personnel. So far, not a single commando trained at CTJW has been killed. Clearly, this college has far to go in training the commandos in this fight against left-wing extremism in the country and particularly in Chhattisgarh. A highly decorated 1971 Indo-Pak War veteran and a counter-insurgency specialist who presently serves as the Director of the training institute and was the man responsible for raising it, the following is an excerpt from an exclusive interview he had with Mission Victory India (MVI):

“When I reached Kanker at the request of the Government to set up a Counter Naxal Training College, the Local SP John Longkumer, a Naga from Mokokchung, informed me that only 25% or so people in the police and the administration were happy on my arrival, the balance was not happy. He became my friend since I was in Nagaland and he was an Additional Superintendent in Mhow in his earlier service. He is now The DGP of Nagaland by side-stepping.

“It is not about how strong the Naxalites are, it is about how strong or weak the response mechanism is. The CRPF has had a long journey in their combat training including leadership, combined small team operations, and physical toughness. They are the premier force for internal security tasks and should be able to carry out operations independently. Delhi-based intelligence agencies are not going to provide you with information about who is sitting in a village in Takleguda, the troops on the ground should know that. There were 2000 security forces personnel closing in from five directions. When one column came under fire, the other columns should have closed in to surround and engage the Naxalites. A tactical headquarters should have been established in the combat zone to coordinate the five columns’ movements and modify tasks as the situation changed.

“There was no HQ close by as a coordinating agency. Clearly, the higher directions of operations were lacking. Furthermore, leaving their dead and wounded behind was a poor show. They should have established an incidental command post at Takleguda and continued there for the next ten days. Resupply capability is existing. Why did they leave, extricate, or break away from the battlefield?”

Author’s Note: This article has been drafted with several relevant extracts from the Force Magazine, May 2021 issues cover story ‘Befriend the Forest’ and an article headlined ‘Naxalism Confounds the India State’ published in the Geopolitics, May 2021 issue. The intention behind this piece is to spread knowledge and awareness of this critical and grave national challenge of LWE which remains unresolved/unsettled and trigger an objective debate.

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