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Why has Maoist violence subsided in India?

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
January 5, 2023

Incidents of Maoist violence and deaths in India have dropped drastically in the last decade, pointing to waning rebel influence.

Indian Maoist leader and member of the outlawed Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-M) Satwaji, also known by his alias Sudhakar (L), and his wife Aruna (R) take part in a press conference following their surrender to police in Hyderabad on February 13, 2019.
Indian Maoist leader Sudhakar and his wife Aruna surrendered to police in Hyderabad in 2019.Image: NOAH SEELAM/AFP

Incidents of Maoist violence in India dropped by 77% between 2009 and 2021 — while left-wing extremism incidents decreased from 2,258 to 509 in the same period, according to home ministry data.

Moreover, there have been fewer deaths of civilians and security forces, down by almost 85%, from an all-time high of 1,005 in 2010 to 147 in 2021.

Diminishing influence of rebels

Except for a minor spike in violence for three years (2019-22) in the central state of Chhattisgarh, the epicentre of Maoist violence, it appears to be petering out elsewhere. The geographical spread of the violence has also reduced to 46 districts today — compared to 96 districts in 2010, according to home ministry figures.

"Our policy envisages a multi-pronged strategy involving security-related measures, development interventions, and ensuring rights and entitlements of local communities. Steadfast implementation of this policy has resulted in a consistent decline in violence in affected areas," Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai told Parliament last month.

Often referred to as India's biggest internal security challenge, the Maoist insurgency, which started in the 1960s, has claimed over 12,000 lives, according to estimates from security agencies and NGOs.

Maoist rebels, not numbering more than 15,000, have been waging their war against the Indian state for over a decade and their presence was once felt in nearly a third of India's 640 districts. The number of districts in India has since increased to 766, as documented in the 2011 census.

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'Destroyed several generations'

"A large number of people have lost their lives to the violence which has destroyed several generations," Bhupesh Tiwari, who runs the NGO 'Saathi' in Bastar, the Maoist stronghold in Chhattisgarh, told DW. "The Maoist insurgency has lost its appeal and people want to get on with their lives."

India's Maoists, often called Naxalites, have managed to draw support from disgruntled citizens, especially tribals, who believe they have been exploited and have not benefited from the fruits of economic growth.

They claim they are fighting for the indigenous communities who, they stress, are routinely exploited by private corporations and the political class.

Shubhranshu Choudhary, the convener of The New Peace Process, an initiative for peace in Maoism-hit central India, also believes that the threat posed by Maoists has been reduced and it would be an opportune time to start a dialogue for a complete closure. Choudhary remains cautious, though.

"Root causes of the problem have not been addressed much, but central India is at a stage where peace can be negotiated like Nepal or Colombia," according to Choudhary, who has been working with tribals in Chhattisgarh for decades. "But if it is not handled well, it can also degenerate into a gang war which will be more difficult for common people."

Security experts have also suggested that the once-formidable insurgency appears weakened and dispirited as the group is experiencing deep cracks within. Many of the guerrilla outfit's leaders, with several platoons across seven states, have either died or surrendered over the years.

Maoist rebels
The Maoist insurgency, which started in the 1960s, has claimed over 12,000 lives, according to estimates.Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Quraishi

Development and police action

Home ministry officials point out that at least 15 of the 24 members in the Maoists' central committee and politburo are over 60 years of age and the recent COVID pandemic, coupled with vector-borne diseases in the jungles had weakened their command structure.

Besides this, its cadres and mid-level leaders are increasingly deserting the movement. States affected by left-wing extremism have put in place a policy that unites police action with economic development that has breached several Maoist strongholds, entrapping or wooing the guerrilla fighters into submission.

"There is a crisis of recruitment," Ajai Sahni, a counter-terrorism expert and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, told DW. "Moreover, the command and control structure of the Maoists has debilitated given that their influence has dipped considerably over the years and they do not have a coherent strategy."

"There has been a fair share of success in terms of affecting the Maoists' basic capabilities and capacities. Developmental work in inhospitable terrains have also helped," added Sahni.

The security forces have succeeded in capturing more than 8,000 active cadres in the last four years, while an equal number of Maoists have surrendered before authorities.

Former police chief still wary

R K Vij, a former director general of the police who used to handle anti-Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh, also pointed out that violence has come down in the last decade.

"The Maoists in their reports have admitted that fresh recruitment has dried, the size of military formations reduced, and they are short of ammunition. On the other hand, the security forces have moved forward, established new camps and improved their training and intelligence network," Vij told DW.

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However, a cautious tone remains, and to claim the demise of the Maoists would seem premature. Despite facing an increasingly hostile environment, the Maoists continue to make efforts to stage a comeback, constantly evolving new strategies and looking for new fighting equipment.

"They are still capable of carrying out serious attacks, have opened up a new front in the form of a new guerrilla zone involving the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh," said Vij. "Therefore, the security forces still need to be on alert and move forward in the areas of security vacuum."

Given that security forces are spreading deeper into Maoist strongholds and the insurgency across the country has been successfully overwhelmed with strong action by both central and state police forces on the ground, it will be interesting to see how the rebels sustain themselves.

Moreover, a lack of ideological clarity within the Maoist ranks and with few members of the motivated old leadership still in command have also proved to be catalysts for their fading.

"It is clear that the Maoist insurgency has decreased significantly with the death or capture of many of its key leaders and ability of the Indian state to expand its security apparatus," Suhas Chakma, director of the Rights and Risks Analysis Group, an independent think tank, told DW.

Edited by: John Silk

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11