Skip to main content

The "Gravest Threat" to Internal Security: India's Maoist Insurgency

Once a modest pro-peasant movement, India's Maoist (Naxalite) insurgency has now become what New Delhi describes as the nation's biggest internal security threat. Experts examine the insurgency's main drivers, identify its strategies, and consider the best ways to respond.

Date & Time

Jul. 15, 2010
3:30pm – 5:30pm ET


Once a modest pro-peasant movement, India's Maoist (Naxalite) insurgency has now become what New Delhi describes as the nation's biggest internal security threat. The campaign has spread to 20 of India's 29 states, and across more than a third of the country's 626 districts, most of them in the impoverished east. On July 15, the Asia Program, with assistance from the Environmental Change and Security Program, hosted an event that examined the insurgency's main drivers, identified its prime tactics and strategies, and considered the best ways to respond.

P.V. Ramana, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, discussed the motivations that draw people to the insurgency. Some people are aggrieved by the resource exploitations they witness in their villages. Others join the Maoist cause because of the "high-handedness" of Indian security forces. Still others do so because family members are already in the movement. Ramana underscored a "serious disconnect" at play: People have such varied reasons for joining the insurgency, yet top Maoist leaders are inspired by one sole motivation: capturing political power. He also highlighted the "increasing militarization" of the insurgency. Maoists have amassed an immense arsenal of weaponry, from "crude" tools to more sophisticated weapons such as rocket launchers and landmines. Their attacks increasingly target not only government security forces, but also national infrastructure (such as power lines and railways).

K. Srinivas Reddy, a Hyderabad-based deputy editor for The Hindu, offered a case study of the insurgency in his home state, Andhra Pradesh (AP), in southeastern India. He noted that New Delhi's response to the insurgency in AP is often cited as a success story. This response, according to Reddy, can be attributed to an "attitudinal change" within the security ranks. From the 1970s through the mid-1990s—a period of mass Maoist recruitment and escalating insurgent violence—New Delhi's counterinsurgency measures had been "panicky," haphazard, and reactive. The "turning point" came in 1996, when a new "unity of thought" emerged within the government that emphasized better training of security forces, stronger intelligence, and greater attention to economic development. Later in the 1990s, security forces further softened their strategies and tactics, emphasizing "problem-solving rather than hunting Naxals." As a result, in the early 2000s, popular support for Maoists in AP began to wane.

Nandini Sundar, a professor of sociology at Delhi University, focused on the human impact of the insurgency and of the government's response. Much of her presentation centered around Bastar, a sparsely populated, heavily forested, mineral-rich district of Chhattisgarh state—one of the hardest-hit areas of the insurgency. Maoist "entrenchment" is strong, she argued, because locals are treated so dreadfully by the government. "Very poor people are jailed" for committing minor forestry transgressions, she explained, while "powerful people" get away with large-scale offenses. Additionally, the police are deeply unpopular and "a source of repression." According to Sundar, they regularly rape women and extort money. She identified and condemned a raft of repressive government policies—from throwing locals off their land to commandeering schools—and insisted that such repression constitutes the prime reason for recruitment to the insurgency. "Injustice more than inequality" explains why people join the Maoists, she stated.

The panel was far from sanguine about the future. Ramana contended that immediate prospects for peace talks between the government and the Maoists are slim, and that civil society has been "quiet" and has offered little assistance. While he predicted that some sort of resolution could be reached in "7 to 10 years," Sundar countered that the harsh nature of New Delhi's response means that 7 to 10 years "could finish off" not just the Maoists, but also village populations. Compounding the challenge is what Sundar described as "official contempt" toward the culture of the adivasi, the tribal peoples of India whose homeland comprises the insurgency's epicenter. Dehumanizing, anti-adivasi language from the government, she argued, enables New Delhi to justify the waging of forceful counterinsurgency.

Several speakers, however, gave reasons for hope. Pointing to Maoist strategies in AP, Reddy suggested that the insurgency's poor policies could spell its demise. Maoists in this state chose to escalate violence, but their inability to spread their ideology along with this violence has cost them public support—particularly in urban areas. Sundar, meanwhile, noted that much good would come out of simply implementing long-dormant constitutional protections for the rural poor in Maoist-affected areas. This, she concluded, would reflect rights-based development, which is necessary for success, as opposed to development based on "hand-outs" by the elite, which is destined to fail.

Drafted by Michael Kugelman.


Hosted By

Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Thank you for your interest in this event. Please send any feedback or questions to our Events staff.