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Left Wing Extremism in India
Evolving Strategies for Containment

Ajai Sahni*

[Published in CRPF Samachar, New Delhi, October 2006]


Left Wing Extremists, progressively united under the banner of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) see themselves as engaged in a classic Maoist ‘protracted war’ in India, whose eventual and unambiguous objective is the seizure of state power. This is a well-planned and calibrated attempt by an organized and ideologically motivated political grouping to wrest power through “the barrel of the gun”. The strategies of protracted war seek to harness all instruments, military, political, economic social and cultural, to the objectives of the war, and the Maoist campaign is a complex and severely underestimated mix of all these instrumentalities. The complexity and intractability of this conflict has been substantially compounded by conflicting and contradictory assessments emanating principally from official sources, and a persistent and misguided effort to underplay the risks and dangers of the Maoist threat in India.1

In his classic, On War, Clausewitz noted, “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and Commander have to make is to establish... the kind of war on which they are embarking: neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.”2 Regrettably, there is little evidence that India’s security establishment has even begun to make this ‘act of judgment’ or display the capacities to arrive at an accurate determination of the nature of the ‘protracted war’ in which the Maoists are engaged, and to which they remain unswervingly committed.

In the meantime, the Maoist threat appears to be overtaking all other insurgencies in the country on available objective parameters - geographical spread and number of fatalities. At least 165 districts in 14 States, out of a total of 602 districts in the country, were affected by various levels of Maoist mobilisation and violence by the end of year 2005. Terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) affects 12 districts, while the combined influence of the multiple insurgencies in India's Northeast afflicts, in various measures, 51 Districts. Over the past years, moreover, while fatalities in various other insurgencies have tended to decline consistently (with the exception of Manipur) fatalities as a result of the Maoist conflict have continuously augmented, and appear to be fast approaching levels of the high-intensity conflict in J&K.3

It is, within this context, necessary to decide how we are to assess the threat of the Maoist insurrection. Data relating to the numbers of districts affected has been repeatedly contested by the Government, even as the nomenclature shifts. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) report now speaks of just 76 'badly affected' Districts, excluding all information relating to other intensities of impact. The Home Minister has argued, further, that "Not all districts mentioned are affected. One affected village or hamlet does not mean that the entire district is affected."4 Thus, in addition to the fig leaf of 'badly affected', there is also the oft-repeated quibble over the fact that only 'parts of' these districts, and not the 'entire districts' are, in fact, affected. These 'parts' are then defined in terms of numbers of Police Stations affected. Thus the Ministry of Home Affairs Annual Report, 2005-06 claims that just 509 police stations in 11 States were affected by "Naxal violence" in 2005, underlining further that the "Total number of police stations in the country is 12,476". But this is specious at several levels: first, on the same argument, the entire jurisdiction of these Police Stations is not affected, only parts are under Naxalite influence and activity, and we would need, then, to perhaps further disaggregate to village or household level; moreover, the same arguments applied in the preceding year when the much larger numbers of districts were being enumerated as highly affected, moderately affected, marginally affected and targeted; the same argument, further, applied to earlier periods when the total number of 'affected' districts was much smaller. Crucially, the threat of the Naxalites is not limited to the areas of immediate violence, nor does this threat vanish if violence is not manifested at a particular location for a specific period of time. It is in the complex processes of political activity, mass mobilisation, arms training and military consolidation that the Maoist potential has to be estimated. While incidents of violence and fatalities would be crucial in any threat assessment, they cannot exhaust its entire content.

"Revolutionary warfare", Mao Tse-Tung noted, "is never confined within the bounds of military action. Because its purpose is to destroy an existing society and its institutions and to replace them with a completely new structure, any revolutionary war is a unity of which the constituent parts, in varying importance, are military, political, economic, social and psychological."5 Within this broad objective of destruction and reconstruction, India's Maoists seek to create a network of local 'people's Governments' (Janathana Sarkar), and to gradually integrate these across wider areas, to replace what they perceive as the existing 'semi-feudal, semi-colonial' system. These Janathana Sarkars are to create the framework that will eventually overthrow the existing state structure, leading to the seizure of power and the establishment of 'people's Democracy', as against the existing 'comprador bourgeois democracy'. This objective is to be secured in a phased, well-planned progression, which involves the following processes:

  • The study and documentation of local issues, grievances, and social and political power distribution

  • Political mass mobilization around these grievances, and the organization of protests and cooperative activities often though front organizations to raise the political awareness of the people. This phase is further complemented by

    • social and economic activities and establishment of cooperatives

    • Cultural activities, 're-education' of support base and creation of 'revolutionary solidarity'.

    • Holding of 'Jan Adalats' and dispensation of 'justice'

  • gradual and systematic introduction to the Maoist ideology, and later by the identification and selection of cadre, their training and deployment in the 'people's war'.

The phase of violence, which is ordinarily the point at which the state takes cognizance of the problem, consequently, comes at the tail end of the process of mass mobilization, and at a stage where neutralizing the threat requires considerable, if not massive, use of force, and carries further risks of significant collateral damage and disruption both of the lives of large populations, and of the capacities of governance. Within this context it is useful to notice not merely the current expanse of visible Maoist mobilisation, but the extent of their current intentions and ambitions.

Significantly, the CPI-Maoist has established Regional Bureaus across a mass of nearly two-thirds of the country's territory (Map 1), and these regions are further sub-divided into state, special zonal and special area committee jurisdictions, where the processes of mobilisation have been defined and allocated to local leaders. This structure of organisation substantially reflects current Maoist plans, but does not exhaust their perspectives or ambitions. There is further evidence of preliminary activity for the extension of operations to new areas including Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and Meghalaya, beyond what is reflected in the scope of the regional, zonal and state committees. In 2004, moreover, the Maoists also articulated a new strategy to target urban centres in their "Urban Perspective Document", drawing up guidelines for "working in towns and cities", and for revival of mobilization targeting students and the urban unemployed. Two principal 'industrial belts' were also identified as targets for urban mobilisation: Bhilai-Ranchi-Dhanbad-Calcutta; and Mumbai-Pune-Surat-Ahmedabad.6

Map 1: Regional Bureaus of the CPI-Maoist


Regrettably, there is no foreseeable strategy or policy for complete neutralization of the Maoist threat in India. The continuous erosion of governance and administrative capacities; the degradation of grassroots politics and of cadre based political organisation; the enormous expanse and growth of inequalities and inequities, particularly, but not exclusively, in rural India; and a range of demographic factors create vast opportunities for Left Wing Extremist (LWE) mobilisation. Naxalism, in its early phases, is expanding principally into spaces that have essentially been vacated by governance. The restoration of the authority and functions of governance, including development, health, education and basic social and human security, is consequently imperative, and must constitute an integral part of any comprehensive approach to the Maoist doctrine and strategy of protracted war. It must, nevertheless, be recognized that this can only be done after the restoration of a modicum of law and order, and hitherto unavailable efficiency in the operation of the justice system. The essential axiom, here, is that you cannot develop what you do not control - and domination is, therefore, the first objective of any effective strategy to neutralize the Maoist onslaught.

Demographic trends auger a troubled future for India, and will progressively undermine the State's capacities to neutralize the recruitment base and operational freedom of the Naxalites. India's population is projected to grow from 1.03 billion in 2001 to 1.30 billion by 2020. The urban population will rise from 27.8 per cent to 40 per cent of the total over this period, but in absolute terms would actually almost double, from 285 million to 540 million. This, however, offers no relief whatsoever in rural India; though the rural population declines in percentage terms from 72.2 per cent to 60 per cent, it rises in absolute numbers from 742 million to 810 million. The current patterns and policies that promote narrow and focused development in a handful of priority sectors in the hi-tech arena will further widen urban and rural-urban disparities, aggravating social tensions. There appears, at this juncture, to be no envisaged set of economic policies that can create a life of dignity and adequate prosperity for a rural population of 810 million by 2020.

There is, furthermore, an insufficient understanding within the national, state and security establishment of the details of Maoist strategy and tactics, and the imperatives of the character of response. It is useful to note, within this context, that the Union Government has failed at the planning and strategic level itself. The deficiencies of perspective and design are visible in the fact that no comprehensive strategy has yet been articulated to deal with the Maoist challenge; coordination and ntelligence sharing between States at the operational levels poor; while the Security Forces have, at great cost in lives, made dramatic gains from time to time, there have been continuous reversals at the tactical level, usually as a result of repeated political miscalculations and the refusal to provide the necessary mandate to the Forces operating against the Maoists.

Great faith has repeatedly been placed on 'developmental initiatives' in Maoist-affected regions to neutralize recruitment base of and sympathy towards the Maoists. There has been a regular reiteration, at the highest levels of the national Government, of the need for 'speedy land reforms' and 'streamlining the delivery mechanisms for implementation of various developmental and poverty alleviation schemes. These exhortations, however, neglect fundamental realities of the ground in areas of conflict, where the delivery mechanisms and administrative machinery of the state cowers under the shadow of violence, with Government officials often paying extortion sums and 'revolutionary taxes' to the Maoist. The much-vaunted 'land reforms', moreover, can have little impact in regions where a red flag on a piece of land conclusively alters its title. And funds flowing in for various developmental schemes in Maoist afflicted areas have no channels for productive utilization in the rural hinterland, where the civil administration has vanished and only the para-military column dares to venture.

One of the consistent feature across all the major Maoist-affected States is that they have extraordinarily poor policing capacities. As against a national average of 123 police personnel per 100,000 population, and some peaceful States with rations as high as 760/100,000 (Mizoram) and 602/100,000 (Sikkim), Bihar has just 56, Jharkhand - 74, Chhattisgarh and Orissa - 92, and even Andhra Pradesh, just 99 per 100,000 population. Worse, there is ample evidence that large proportions of the Central allocation for police modernization and upgradation remain unspent or are being diverted or mis-spent. At the local level, the lack of proper arms and equipment have hampered the police's ability to tackle the Naxalites. For instance, in Bihar, sections of the Police continue to use the antiquated World War I vintage bolt-action .303 rifles and other obsolete equipment, as compared to the foreign made guns and sophisticated Chinese-made communication equipment that are used by Maoists.

Political mischief and collusion have also been essential elements in the survival and growth of the Naxalite/Maoist movement. Political parties have often flirted with the Maoists for electoral gains and in doing so have provided adequate space and time for the Maoists to expand their areas of operation and to consolidate their influence.7

The problem cannot, moreover, be dealt with by mere tinkering - which appears to the principal pattern of response at the national level, as well as in most States. The Group of Minister's Report of February 2001 clearly noted that constitutional, legal and structural infirmities had "eroded the Union Government's authority to deal effectively with any threat to the nation's security", and called for "appropriate restructuring of the MHA". The GoM Report also underlined the need for "a federal agency to deal with grave offences, which have inter-state and notion-wide ramifications" as it becomes "increasingly difficult for the State Governments to handle such crimes entirely on their own".8 After the UPA Government came to power, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh repeatedly emphasized the enormity of the crisis and, in June 2004, promised a "comprehensive approach" which would "create greater synergy between our intelligence agencies, closer coordination between internal security structures".9 Regrettably, little of this promise has since been fulfilled.

As the problem of Maoist mobilisation and violence extends and integrates itself across State boundaries, a surprising establishment delusion continues to persist - that the existing legal and legislative framework has sufficient power, flexibility and scope to tackle the emerging complexities of response. A great measure of faith is, in this context, placed on the capacity of the Constitution's Article 355 to empower the Centre to generate the adequate and permanent mechanisms for a coordinated counter-terrorism offensive already spanning as many as 14 Indian States. Law and order, however, remains firmly a State subject in the Constitutional scheme, and the history of coordination between States has been abysmal. Article 355 may give the Centre overriding powers to "protect the States… against internal disturbances". But this is an emergency power that suffers from all the documented infirmities of Article 356, and will probably prove more effective in its abuse than in its use. Crucially, it cannot constitute the legislative basis of a permanent institutional mechanisms required for a protracted war against the Maoists, including the establishment of central agencies with standing powers to act across State boundaries over extended periods of time, with or without the assent of (potentially politically hostile) State governments. It is clear that little thinking has gone into the framework of legal and constitutional changes that will be needed to effectively tackle a coordinated insurgency that already afflicts over a fourth of the country.

The utilization of available forces and resources has also not been reconciled with any comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy or plan, as such a strategy or plan does not, currently, exist. To the extent that this is the case, the Naxalites are in substantial control of the initiative and are in a position to set the agenda of the conflict in the State and in its enveloping environment. The situation is compounded further by the fact that the availability of intelligence on the ground is insufficient for focused, intelligence-led operations, and systems of sharing intelligence remain bureaucratic and sub-optimal. Basic geographical, topographic and demographic information is, moreover, not available for significant areas, particularly the increasingly important Central Guerrilla Zone in the Dandakaranya region, specifically including the Abujhmadh area.

Facilities available to personnel of the Police and CPMFs operating in the State, especially in rural and remote areas, are very poor and often insufficient even to effectively secure their own protection, particularly in terms of living quarters, sequestering and fortification of camps and Police posts/stations, and access to various resources within such camps and posts. Basic equipment, transportation, communications and available technologies require generational upgrades. Force augmentation and modernisation is an urgent imperative across wide parameters.

Within the broader context of the absence of a comprehensive strategy or plan for counter-insurgency is the lack of a strategy of information, perception and media management, and a coherent strategy for the exploitation of public opinion and resentment against the Maoists. The present strategy of management of popular resentment has been undermined by haste, internal inconsistencies, politicisation, and excess publicity.


It is evident, from the preceding assessment of capacities, that urgent initiatives are required to create adequate capacities to generate and execute a sustained and effective war against the Maoists. A piecemeal approach cannot work. Each of the Maoist Guerrilla Base Areas has its own independent capacities and military, political and administrative structures. The degradation of any one area will not affect capacities in other areas, or significantly undermine overall capacities. Any 'squeeze' on a particular area would, moreover, tend to result in a escalation of violence in other regions, and, to the extent that such a 'squeeze' is effective, in the tactical withdrawal of the Maoist leadership and forces from such an area. A coordinated strategy of bringing the Maoists under pressure in all areas of activity, compounded with a strategy of containment to ensure that they are not able to 'leak' or 'overflow' into other areas, is consequently necessary.

The counter-insurgency campaign against the Maoists must be conceptualised as a 'protracted war' intended to systematically degrade the strengths and exploit the vulnerabilities of the Naxalite military and political apparatus. If effective operations are to be designed within this context, officers of the State Police establishments and para-military forces must develop a full and detailed understanding of the ideological and operational bases of Maoist mass mobilisation and the strategic underpinnings of their military operations and tactics in order to tailor counter-insurgency practices to secure maximal impact.

The state must establish complete dominance over its entire jurisdiction. There can be no areas of 'non-governance', no 'neglected hinterlands', no safe havens for subversives, insurgents and terrorists, and no 'natural' recruitment pool for the Naxalites to exploit. This requires, as a first stage of response, the creation of a number of strongly held bases, strategically located to dominate the total currently non-policed areas which are available to the Naxalites for training and rest. Such bases would have to be of sufficient strength - at least two-company bases, of which at least four platoons are available for operations round-the-clock. The provisioning of some of these bases may initially have to be done by air-drops, and suitable capacities must be established to this end.

In the medium term, however, such bases should be conceived of not only in the context of security and policing, but as administrative bases which carry forward the integrated tasks of security management, administration and development. The current debate - to develop and then secure, or to secure and then develop - is futile and misdirected. Both these tasks need to be undertaken together, though a modicum of security and stability is a necessary condition for administrative efficacy and developmental works. Moreover, the State's developmental focus must not be exhausted by areas of present violence - this allows the Naxalites to dominate the State's agenda again. There are vast areas of the country and in affected States which are not afflicted by Naxalite activities and violence, and where developmental activities can even now be efficiently executed. By improving administration, bringing in necessary reforms, and efficiently delivering public services, including improvements in rural health, education, sanitation, water supply, and a range of developmental programmes in such areas, the State denies the Naxalites a ready base for further expansion. Successes in such areas can simultaneously be extended, under security cover, to areas of some Naxalite violence, to systematically and gradually roll back the 'red carpet' that has come to cover large parts of the State.

A comprehensive plan for the operationalisation of the police forces in the country needs to be prepared. Such a plan must include a phased and sectoral long-term projection of capacities required to confront the Maoist threat, and must comprehend, among others:

  • Manpower requirements and profiles.

  • Infrastructure requirements

  • Weapons, transport, protection and equipment

  • Communications

  • Technological upgradation and technical force multipliers

  • Police reorganisation

  • Expansion and deepening of intelligence structures and capacities

  • Capacities for Specialized Training

  • Adequate capacities, including helicopters, for emergency deployment of troops, emergency relief and medical evacuation.

  • Laboratories and workshops to develop, assess and produce appropriate technologies.

  • A permanent structure of media, information and perception management targeting both the regional and national media.

India's country's counter-insurgency strategy for the Maoists must be a comprehensive design intended to utilize all agencies and capacities of the state - including security, administrative, developmental, economic and public instrumentalities - to secure the neutralization of the Naxalite threat within the context and concept of a protracted war. Such a strategy would need to neutralize both the military capacities of the insurgents as well as their 'mass base' and political outreach into the population, particularly, though not exclusively, in rural and remote areas. To this end, security and administration must extend to the remotest villages and settlements to engage with the villagers, settle grievances, provide relief, and create a vested interest among the entire population in the State and in its structures of administration.



Dr. Ajai Sahni is Founding Member & Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management at Delhi; Executive Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution; Executive Director, South Asia Terrorism Portal (; Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review; and Founding Member and Associate Director of the Urban Futures Initiative. He has written extensively on conflict, politics and development in South Asia; has jointly edited (with K.P.S. Gill) Terror & Containment: Perspectives on India’s Internal Security; and The Global Threat of Terror: Ideological, Material and Political Linkages. He received a Ph.D. from Delhi University for his thesis on Democracy, Dissent and the Right to Information. He has worked in the print and electronic media, and research.

  1. See, Ajai Sahni, “Maoists: The Truth Won’t Go Away”, South Asia Intelligence Review, Volume 4, No. 38, April 3, 2006,
  2. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 88.

  3. See, Ajai Sahni, “Maoists: The Truth Won’t Go Away”, op. cit; Saji Cherian, “Maoism: Expansive Vision”, South Asia Intelligence Review, Volume 5, No. 8, September 4, 2006,; Ajai Sahni, “‘Misunderestimating’ the Maoists”, South Asia Intelligence Review, Volume 4, No. 34, March 06, 2006,; “Datasheets”, South Asia Terrorism Portal, A high-intensity conflict is defined as a conflict with more than 1,000 fatalities in a year.

  4. “Maoist problem could be solved by dialogue, not with bullets, says Union Home Minister”, The Hindu, December 8, 2005.
  5. Mao Tse-tung on Guerrilla Warfare. Translation and Introduction by Brigadier General Samuel B. Griffith, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962, p. 7.
  6. Document: Urban Perspective: Our Work in Urban Areas, CPI-Maoist, 2004.
  7. See, for instance, Ajai Sahni, “Naxalism: The Retreat of Civil Governance”, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution, Volume 5, May 2000, New Delhi: ICM-Bulwark Books, pp. 79-103.
  8. Report of the Group of Ministers on National Security, “Internal Security”, Chapter IV, Government of India,
  9. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, “Address to the Nation”, June 25, 2004, New Delhi,





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