The Red Elephants- a look at India's communist guerilla group

Helen Sellers

PhD Candidate at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

Communism is not an issue which has the same urgency as it did during the Cold War, however in many countries there are still highly active communist insurgencies. One of these is the Communist Party of India- Maoist (CPI-M) or, as it is referred to more commonly, the Naxalite movement. This group was radicalised in 1967 but has continued its campaign against the Indian State to the present.

The term Naxalite was coined after an incident that occurred in 1967 when the Communist Party of India became radicalised. In the village of Naxalbari, in northern West Bengal, a landless labourer was killed by his landlord. The newly branded Naxalites claimed to be supporting those who did not have the means to support themselves.

The original movement splintered into multiple factions based on the communist theory which supported their particular ideologies. The factions do not have a peaceful co-existence as evidenced by the death, caused by the Maoists, of members of the Communist Party of India-Marxist when they were celebrating a return to what they considered their traditional stronghold.

Nominally, the Naxalites are motivated by the wealth gap and its negative impacts on society. Additionally the caste system in India has been a concern voiced by the CPI-M as it forces social classes on the population. This system is highly entrenched in Indian society with the Indian Supreme Court making a ruling in 2007 that individuals were unable to change their castes after a student modified their caste on application forms for university admission. While this may be the case and is directly in line which the communist ideology, cadres within the CPI-M have expressed concerns that the caste system is being replicated within the organisation.

Militarily the CPI-M has demonstrated use of both rifles and improvised explosive devices. These weapons are either made by the insurgents, taken from police stations or, it has been alleged, acquired from China via other Indian insurgencies. The tactics used by the group are based on the writings of Mao Tse Tung. They regularly attack members of the security services which was a matter that divided the Communist Party of India in the early days of the parties. The primary operating area for the CPI-M is known as the Red Corridor.

The recruiting for the Naxalites comes from four main groups within the population; the Adivasi people (who are tribal peoples who are often considered the indigenous people of India, though they are a heterogeneous collection of people), the poor peasantry, landless labourers and academia. This is due to the experiences and beliefs of these population groups however there is also support for the Naxalites in other areas of the wider population. Membership is not restricted to men and families have grown within the CPI-M but the children of these couples are raised by the party rather than their parents. Recruits come from both rural and urban communities though it has been noted that those with urban origins have a harder time integrating themselves into the organisation, which primarily operates within a rural context.

As noted above there have been comments that China is supporting the Naxalites through the supply of weapons and joint training camps between the CPI-M and the PLA have also been reported. It has been asserted that the Nepalese Maoists have also been involved in training the Naxalites but this claim however is denied by the Nepalese. The CPI-M is known to have links with other Maoists organisations within South Asia, as evidenced through its involvement with the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations of South Asia. It also has links to other organisations such as the PKK and the LTTE when they were active.

Successive Indian central governments have attempted to counter the threat which is posed by the Naxalites. A combination of economic rehabilitation programs and strengthening of state police capabilities have been used by both the current Indian central government and its predecessors. The measures have been successful in reducing the number of incidents of Naxal violence and deaths which have occurred due to these influences in overall terms between 2010 and 2015. However it is interesting to note that while there is an overall reduction in the incidents and deaths there are some states which experienced an increase in Naxal violence in 2015. An increase in incidents has not always created an increase in deaths; this has been evidenced by the statistics from the state of Chhattisgarh where the number of incidents rose to 466 from 238 while the number of deaths fell from 112 to 97. The Red Corridor, mentioned above, is also reducing in size due to the reduction in the number of incidents overall.

Economic programs have also been delivered to assist the people who the Naxalites claim to support; this is to weaken the Maoists position within these community groups. The Indian central government has taken these approaches in line with best practices within the counterinsurgency context.

As noted above there is less urgency attached to communist insurgencies globally. In the case of India the CPI-M is the most recent iteration of an insurgency which has been active since 1967. The government policies have been somewhat effective in reducing the number of incidents nationwide but there are still areas where there has been an increase in the number of incidents. As such it is possible to suggest that while there is currently a lull in activities on the part of the Naxalites it is unlikely to be the end of their campaign against the Indian state in its current form.

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