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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 49, November 23, 2013

Factors of Maoist Movement among the Tribes of Central India

Monday 25 November 2013, by J.J. Roy Burman


The ambush of a convoy killing 28 people returning from a rally with great impunity by the Maoists in the heart of Bastar in the month of May 2013 goes to prove their control over and the support of the tribal people who are in overwhelming majority in the area.

This ambush and killing constituted part of a series of carefully planned guerrilla assaults on high-profile targets. The Maoists tried to murder the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh in 2003 and the Chief Minister of West Bengal in 2008. They killed 76 paramilitary personnel, beheaded a captured policeman and derailed a train killing 140 people in 2010. In 2012, the Maoists kidnapped a District Collector but released him alive. Earlier 24 policemen stationed at Silda in West Midnapore district of West Bengal too were killed apparently by the Maoists.

The Maoists are deeply entrenched in the tribal belt of central India. Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, in fact, declared that Naxalism (or Maoism) and Left-wing extremism pose the “greatest threat to our national security”, (The Hindu, October 22, 2010) P. Chidambaram, the former Union Home Minister, stated that Maoists, who operate in 31 per cent of India’s 626 districts, are capable of striking in 80 districts, and virtually dominate 36 of the districts. A large part of these fall in the tribal areas.

The Union Home Ministry accepted that 125 districts spread over nine States in central India and adjoining areas have come under the influence of Left radical groups, loosely called Naxalites. On June 22, 2009, the Government of India declared the Communist Party of India (Maoist) as a terrorist organisation and banned it. The Expert Group constituted by the Planning Commission to examine the development challenge in extremist affected areas declared that the epicentre of the upsurge is the region with concentration of the tribal population, hilly topography and undulating terrain.

When viewed from the situation at the ground level, many reasons have been floated about the involvement of the tribal people in the movement. Abject poverty, excessive exploitation of the people by the moneylenders, landlords and usurers, underdevelopment of the region and state exploitation are usually some of the factors ascribed by various scholars and agencies. Added to these, horrendous crimes and atrocities perpetrated by the state’s security forces are believed to have compelled the tribes to side with the Maoist cadres.

Kennedy and Purushotham (2012) claim that the Maoists have a larger goal of capturing state power through protracted guerrilla war. It is a veritable fact that though the Maoist movement enjoys popular support among the tribes, its leadership is in the hands of urban, middle-class non-tribal persons. There are only a few local leaders and that too in the middle echelons. Thus, the insurgency entails a transaction between macro and micro-level actors. Insurgents provide a disparate group of supporters with a unified organisational structure, while the supporters endow the insurgents with access to resources needed to the sustain the insurgency, such as food, shelter,

According to Sundar (2007), Padel (2009), the central Indian belt has witnessed tribal revolts for a long time even prior to independence during the British colonial period. The tribesmen or adivasis as they are popularly known, enjoyed a great deal of autonomy as outside interference was minimal, revenue extraction undeveloped and socio-economic differentiation limited. With the advent of British rule, the balance of power got radically altered in the tribal areas. The colonial government started extracting natural resources from the tribal areas and facilitated the entry of non-tribal moneylenders, traders and businessmen who in turn started exploiting the local people. They also rapidly increased the infrastructural power of the state in these areas, and this undermined the relative political autonomy hitherto enjoyed by many adivasi communities.

Apart from several other factors, the adivasis lost control over their lands and forests due to the introduction of individual land tenureship. Non-adivasi immigrants from the plains were able to take over land that adivasis had cultivated for generations because they had no patta or legal document indicating individual ownership. Those adivasis who had been granted patta often lost it through dealings with non-adivasi merchants and moneylenders. Deprived of means of subsistence and getting indebted, many adivasis were forced to work as wage labourers for non-adivasi landlords and contractors. In this way the adivasis were reduced from “free hillmen” to the “wretched position of landless labourers” and in many cases as bonded labourers or serfs. Such alienation generated a lot of anger amongst the tribes against the non-tribal usurers, landlords, forest contractors, forest guards and other state agents like the revenue officials. The Communists took advantage of the situation and mobilised the adivasis in the interior areas as in the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh in the 1940s. Many of the adivasis in the area took up weapons to wage armed struggle against the outside forces and the state.

The armed trajectory of the tribes gained momentum with an armed insurrection in 1967 at a village called Naxalbari in Darjeeling district of West Bengal. The migrant adivasi tea plantation labourers raised arms against the indigenous Rajbansi landowners in the name of class war. The Rajbansis were branded as landlords and their lands were being seized by the adivasi sharecroppers. No wonder the insurrection was suppressed in no time due to lack of support from the indigenous people. But the much romanticised movement gained considerable popularity among the urban middle-class Bengali gentry of West Bengal. The movement also became widely spread in the States of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and other parts of central India.

However, the armed onslaught remained dormant for a long time due to the rejection of the strategy of class anhilation by a majority of the splinter Naxalite groups that surfaced in the meantime. The movement also became somewhat unpopular as the splinter groups attacked political rivals, who accounted for an estimated 37 per cent of the victims.

The adivasis, better known as Girijans in the Srikakulam area of Andhra Pradesh, took up the cudgels of the Naxalite movement from West Bengal and launched armed insurrection against the non-tribal landlords and moneylenders. By the end of 1969 the insurgents claimed control over nearly three hundred villages covering between seven hundred and eight hundred square miles. (Kennedy and Purushotham 2012) Owing to the fact that Srikakulam was a small though hilly and woody area—close to the plains of Telengana—it was easy for the state to resort to counterinsurgency actions. Villages were surrounded, often burned to the ground and inhabitants were moved away to newly constructed villages outside the forest. (Rangaswamy 1974) By the end of 1970 the movement had been defeated in Srikakulam, and moneylenders and traders returned to renew their activities. (Banerjee 2008)

In the 1970s the Naxalite movement was more or less dormant or busy consolidating. In the 1980s it surfaced again in Bihar — the region bordering West Bengal. In 1980 the major Naxalite group in Andhra Pradesh adopted the name of People’s War Group (PWG). The major group in Bihar, on the other hand, named itself as the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC). In 1980 the PWG started its movement in Bastar which was then a part of Madhya Pradesh and now a part of Chhatisgarh. Both the Andhra Pradesh and Bihar governments failed to take measures such as land reform to check dominance of the high-caste landowners in the plains. The Naxalite groups then surged forward to support the cause of the low-caste Hindu agricultural labourers and the adivasis. (Balagopal 2006; Bhatia 2006; Kunnath 2009, Kennedy and Purushotham 2012)

Since the 1990s the Naxalite groups steadily gained ground mainly in the predominantly adivasi areas of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha and later in West Bengal as well. These adivasi areas are mostly hilly and have a woody terrain—ideal for guerrilla warfare. The movement, however, became slightly demure in the States of Andhra Pradesh and Bihar where counterinsurgency measures of the state gained prominent success. Neverthe-less, apart from the state’s inability to project its power in the inaccessible terrain, the other socio-economic factors too aided the consolidation of the Maoist movement in these areas. These include loss of land to the immigrants from the plains, restricted access to the forests and forest produce, and the generally inequitable incorporation of the adivasis into wider systems of commerce, capital production, and revenue extraction. Perhaps more importantly, these processes significantly reduced the political autonomy of the adivasi community vis-a-vis the state. Similar conditions had led to a significant number of insurrections in the central tribal belt in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of these occurred in areas where the population now provides strong support for the insurgents. (Raghavaiah 1971) The examples include the Muria rebellion of 1876 and Bhumkal rebellion of 1910 in what is now southern Chhattisgarh (Sundar 2007), the Kalahandi rebellion of 1882 in eastern Odisha (Padel 2009), and the Kol uprising of 1831-32 and Santal insurrection of 1855 in what is now Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand. (Dukyer 1987) The CPI (Maoist) has attempted to claim this history by referring to these rebellions as the earlier steps in “the path of liberation” and portraying the “present generations (of adivasi insurgents) as their heirs”. (Kennedy and Purushotham 2012)

In 2004 the PWG and MCC merged together to form the CPI (Maoist) party. This party has flourished in the adivasi areas of central India and predominantly low-caste areas of Bihar. Of late it has infiltrated into the hilly and forest adivasi areas of West Bengal. Kennedy and Purushotham (ibid.) state that the Maoists gained confidence of the adivasis as they stood by their concerns of empowerment and command over resources. They advocated the formation of separate tribal states in central India and supported the opposition of the tribes against oppression and exploitative state structure. More specifically, they stood opposed to the Forest Department officials and helped the adivasis fetch better returns from the sale of minor forest produce. The also distributed land to the landless labourers.

The Maoists got further support because of the state’s repression as it killed a number of innocent adivasis and those who were suspected as insurgents. In 2005 the Chhattisgarh State formed a counterinsurgency body called the Salwa Judum. In fact, even an adivasi leader, named Mahendra Karma, was instrumental in its formation. Through the Salwa Judum hundreds of adivasi villages were razed and destroyed, and the people displaced. They were relocated in roadside settlements. Reports from a BBC correspondent suggest that the number of displaced adivasis has reached 100,000, and that destruction of villages and forced relocation of their population has become a routine practice by the Salwa Judum and security forces carried out with beatings, killings and rape. It is even said that villagers refusing to join the Salwa Judum were punished with seven lashes and a fine of Rs 700. In 2009 the Supreme Court indicted the Salwa Judum and banned it.

Lack of development and extreme state of poverty are believed to be the major factors behind the adivasis’ more towards Left-wing extremism. The Expert Group of the Planning Commission also pointed to the development policies and institutions of implementation as the core factor of disillusionment of the adivasis with the state.

Padel and Das (2006) view that dispossession of their lands and resources by the state and multinational companies is an important factor for the adivasis’ alienation and the growth of their resistance. This situation is also linked to the spread of Naxalism and Maoist influence. The corrupt practices of the state, politicians and multinational companies have greatly annoyed the adivasis. They further state that adivasis not only desire better development facilities but they also wish to be in charge of the processes of development. Archana Prasad (2010) too opines that the Maoist movement gained footing as they were seen as representing the genuine interests of the adivasis. They were characterised as the only major stumbling block to the neo-liberal policies which were going to sell off land and natural resources to the corporate sector.

Prasad states that the state had been involving the private sector in the name of community participation or else strengthening its own control. In the Joint Forestry Management programme, for instance, though the FD avowed to withdraw its involvement in favour of the community, in reality it led to the extension of the state’s power rather than giving real decision-making powers to the local community. This effectively meant the privatisation of forest resources with industries becoming a third party. A prominent example of this was seen in Andhra Pradesh where the Indian Tobacco Company gave contracts to the tribal people to grow tobacco in Schedule V areas at cheap rates. By doing this they controlled the production process without interfering in the ownership patterns. In Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh markets were opened up to multinational and Indian business firms in non-timber forest produce through the removal of transit duties. Highways were modernised in Bastar to facilitate the access of industrial traders to the main markets, but the condition of public transport and village mohalla roads were ignored, thus denying access to markets for the tribal forest produce collectors. This meant that these collectors were dependent on small and medium traders to buy their produce and this in turn provided vital links to industrial houses in local markets.

Prasad (ibid., p. 13) is critical of the Maoists for promoting primordial ties among the adivasis rather than functioning on class lines. They support the adivasis to adopt regional politics and fight for their rights as indigenous peoples. “This in itself creates a tension within ‘Maoist’ formation which identifies its basic goal as one of furthering ‘class struggle’, but instead ends up encouraging primordial identities for its short term gains.”

B.K. Roy Burman (2009) considers systematic dispossession of the tribal people from their land resources which they have been holding for generations to be the most important factor which has pushed them to political extremism in central India. Here he is referring to dispossession which is very different from development related displacement. Conceptually at least, project related displacement is not dispossession. Displacement is the ‘unwanted outcome of a particular form of development’ and the government accepts the right of the displaced persons to be compensated. It is a different matter that compensation may not be adequate, or only notional. As against involuntary displacement, there are evidences to show that in the predominantly tribal areas the people have been deliberately dispossessed of their lands and resources in a meticulously planned manner. A study carried out in Odisha by the Study Group of the Planning Commission on Land Holding Systems in Tribal Areas found that during the land survey and settlement operation carried out in the 1950s and continuing in the 1980s in some areas of Koraput district, hardly one per cent land in actual possession of the tribal communities was recorded in their favour. This may have been possible for the government avoiding measurement of the land beyond the 10 per cent slope. The government declared it as Village Forest. Such land was recorded as state land in a single entry. Massive dispossession of the tribal people from their life support resource base had taken place because of the government’s policy of treating tribal possessions beyond the 10 per cent slope in the hills since time immemorial, as encroachment.

Some government sources attributed this to the deliberately adopted policy to stop shifting cultivation which was considered to be detri-mental to the environment. But the government had no study to substantiate the adverse effects of shifting cultivation. It is found that in realty the tribals rarely practice shifting cultivation beyond the 45 per cent slope.

B.K. Roy Burman also confirms that ignoring the community land holding system and offering individual ownership right to the tribals have led to land alienation and dispossession. He indicates as well that dispossession of land has taken place through the neo-feudalisation process. “The neo-feudalisation process was started by the colonial rulers. Faced with resistance against encroachment in tribal areas, in strategically located places they adopted a policy of co-opting local warlords as subsidiary allies by declaring them as owners of lands under their political-military control. But due to underdevelopment of communication and administrative infrastructure the policy could be implemented only in some areas. In other areas these remained paper laws. In the post-independence period rather than renegotiating the paper laws, these were treated as the framework of administration. In such areas the tribal people felt that they were being dispossessed of their rights in independent India.

Primitivisation of the adivasis has been another instrument of tribal land alienation. As early as 1784 the German philosopher, Herder, observed that by stigmatising people as primitives, invasion and conquest of lands across the oceans were legitimised. The tribes in India have been no exception to this process.


The tribes in central India have witnessed movements for a long time—even during the British colonial period. Right from the beginning their movements were against the intrusion of alien forces and people. For quite some time in the colonial period the tribes were militarily subdued and intrusion of non-tribals was encouraged. The tribes suffered all these quietly for long except for brief durations. The situation did not change much even in the post-colonial period. In fact with better communication system the exploitation got multiplied. In course of time the tribes or adivasis also realised more about their rights and started resisting. They also wanted to be a party to the political processes linked to development. They became all the more restive as the government adopted the neo-liberal policies and encouraged the entry of the multinational companies to exploit the resources. As the adivasis suffered due to oppression and exploitation, the Leftist parties, particularly the Maoists, moved into the fray and supported the adivasi cause. The Maoists were not content with passive resistance; they adopted violent methods with the intension of seizing state power. The adivasis got all the more attracted to this as they shared the history and tradition of armed revolts. The movement further positively responded to their motto of the right to self-determination. The adivasis are no longer eneamoured by the government sops like the provisions of Vth Schedule and PESA. They are seeking autonomy and state power.

The right to self-determination is so deeply entrenched into the psyche of the tribals that they cannot remain at peace until their demand for territorial consolidation is met. The tribes in Jharkhand had demanded tribal areas in the adjoining Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal to be a part of the Jharkhand State. But instead Jharkhand State was carved out of Bihar. Presently the Maoists are mainly active in the areas which were a part of the Jharkhand region that was demanded by the locals. Parts of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh too have been now added to the area. The call for a Gondwana State is also being raised in parts of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Were these regions brought under a unified territory the tribes would have gained numerical majority and not be under the mercy of the majority non-tribal people as currently seen in the Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh States.

Apart from everything, it must be conceded that tribal movements by themselves most of the time have been violent. Whether it be the Birsa movement or be the Santal Hul, they were by and large violent and the tribals had freely taken recourse to the use of bows, arrows, axes and spears. In the North-East too most of the tribal movements involve the use of armaments and even sophisticated weapons. In the central and western parts of the country where non-tribal leaders or intermediaries have led non-violent movements, their goals have not been achieved. The case of the Narmada Bachao Andolan is a striking illustration on this score. The movement is led in an arbitrary manner and the names of tribal leaders do not figure prominently anywhere. The movement started with the slogan that the dam of the Sardar Sarovar project will not be allowed to be built; but that dam is today three hundred feet high. It is well forgotten that during British reign the fearsome Bhil chiefs compelled the high-ranked agents to come and sign treaties in the tortuous ravines close to the river valley. The fate of the Tultule project in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, on the other hand, was doomed due to the armed onslaught of the local tribesmen not very long ago.


Banerjee, S., 2008, Indias Simmering Revolution: The Naxalite Uprising, New Delhi: Zed Books.

Duyker, E., 1987, Tribal Guerrillas: The Santals of West Bengal and the Naxalite Movement, New Delhi: OUP.

Kennedy, J. and Purushotham, S., 2012, “Beyond Naxalbari: A Comparative Analysis of Maoist Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Independent India” in Comparative Studies in Society and History; 54

Padel, F. and Das, S., 2006, “Anthropology of A Genocide: Tribal Movement in Central India Against Over-Industrialisation” in SAAG.

Padel, F., 2009, Sacrificing People: Invasions of a Tribal Landscape, New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

Prasad, A., 2010, “The Political Economy of ‘Maoist Violence’ in Chhattisgarh” in Social Scientist, Vol. 38, No. 3/4

Raghavaiah, V., 1971 “Tribal Revolts”, Nellore: Andhra Rashtra Adimjati Sevak Sangh.

Rangaswamy, A., 1974, “Making a Village: An Experiment” in EPW, 8, 46.

Roy Burman, B.K., 2009, “What has Driven the Tribals of Central India to Political Extremism?” in Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 44, October 17.

Sundar, N., 2007, Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar, 1854-2006 Oxford: OUP.

The author belongs to the Faculty of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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