NEW DELHI – (Published in May 2005) An indigenous Maoist movement known as the Naxalites has doubled its strength in two years, spreading over an area embracing roughly a quarter of India’s population and posing a growing threat to democracy and stability.
The group’s influence had expanded from nine states and 55 districts in 2003 to 13 states and an estimated 170 districts by February 2005, according to the South Asia Intelligence Review, published by an anti-terrorism think tank headed by a former top security official. Members account for many of the 518 fatalities linked by the Home Affairs Ministry to left-wing extremism in 2004.
The Naxalites’ growth in strength has coincided with the rise of a Maoist movement in Nepal that controls much of that nation’s countryside and threatens to topple the government of King Gyanendra.
Members of the two movements met four years ago in Calcutta, where they created their vision of a Maoist-controlled “compact revolutionary zone” to extend from southern India to northern Nepal.
The Home Affairs Ministry has confirmed reports of Naxalites offering training and medical care to the Nepalese Maoists and budgeted an additional $124 million in fiscal 2004 to 2005 to seal India’s borders with Nepal and neighboring Bhutan.
The movement began as an armed uprising by peasants in the small district of Naxalbari in West Bengal in 1967.
In an interview with The Washington Times, former Naxalite emissary Varavara Rao, who resigned in late March, said Naxalbari initially “was a village, a small pocket. From 1978 to now, it has spread to 13 states. It is expanding despite the oppression of various governments.”
The Naxalites’ heartland lies in Andhra Pradesh, the state that includes Hyderabad, one of India’s glittering, high-tech hubs. Unemployment, caste oppression and poverty in the state’s rural villages offer fertile ground for turning young people into left-wing extremists.
“The presence of government is so nominal that whoever comes in with a gun and a little bit of money can dominate these areas,” said Ajai Sahni, editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review. “They are people that have been effectively abandoned by modernity.”
The Naxalites step into the vacuum, offering rudimentary social services and providing followers with food, housing and pocket money.
Some cadres are taught to read and write as well as handle arms, so that, in the absence of any government-sanctioned administration, the Naxalites become both the executioners of “class enemies” and the providers of water.
Naxalites traditionally have targeted local police officers and villager leaders and have been accused of beheadings and other gruesome killings of voters who supported opposition candidates.
They also have gone after bigger targets: In 2003, Naxalites tried to assassinate Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, leaving him with serious injuries.
The group raises money mostly through extortion, while getting food and shelter from sympathetic villages. Recently, retired intelligence director K.P. Singh estimated that the group raises $30 million to $40 million a year.
Indian authorities have focused more attention on fighting terrorist groups in Kashmir – which they say are financed and organized in Pakistan – while treating the Naxalites as a problem for state police officials.
But with their growing power – estimated at 10,000 cadres and many more supporters – the Naxalites substantially outnumber the Kashmir extremists and many experts see them as a significant threat to India’s democracy.
Attempted negotiations with the Naxalites have failed repeatedly, and Mr. Rao acknowledged that the Maoists “never entertained any illusions that the peace talks would succeed, but they wanted to explore the option.”
The Naxalites offered no concessions, simply demanding 3 acres of land for every poor family, and the talks broke down amid violence and mutual recriminations.
Now the federal government is turning to a multi-pronged strategy of police action, development programs and dialogue and is setting up a special task force to facilitate cooperation among state security forces.
By Erica Lee Nelson