A far-left guerrilla insurgency has exploited the grievances of marginalised tribes to wage a 50-year long battle against the state.
On April 9, just two days before start of parliamentary elections in India, suspected far-left guerrillas killed a legislator from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) along with his four guards in the eastern Chhattisgarh province.
The roadside bomb attack on Bheema Mandavi, the state legislator, was carried out by Naxalite rebels who have waged a decades-old insurgency against the Indian state.
Between 2010 and now, more than 4,400 people, including civilians, have been killed in the conflict that affects several states from central to northeastern India.
Also known as the Maoists, the Naxalites seek to overthrow the government in a peasant-led revolution and have called for a boycott of the ongoing Indian elections.
The latest attack came just days after security forces killed four rebels in volatile Bastar, a mineral-rich region in Chhattisgarh.
Successive governments have struggled to deal with the insurgency that started in 1967 as an uprising of poor sharecroppers against local landlords in a small village called Naxalbari.
Old grievances, new reality
The Naxalites draw support from 104 million members of India’s scheduled tribes, which are spread across the forested and hilly regions.
The tribes, which account for around nine percent of country’s population, have suffered under India’s rigid caste-based system.
“These are the communities which were previously known as untouchables. They lack basic necessities like education and health, were even barred from owning land at one time,” says Dr Krishna Vadlamannati, an international relations expert at University College Dublin.
The absence of government institutions in the worst-affected districts, such as Bastar and Gadchiroli in Maharashtra state, has allowed rebels to step in and fill the vacuum, he told TRT World.
“In some of these places it takes years to have a court verdict. The Naxals have introduced a rough and tough judiciary system of their own that delivers quick justice,” he explained.
Despite impressive economic growth, New Delhi has long ignored the basic needs of the tribes so much so that even essential data on child mortality among them is unavailable, a panel of experts found in a 2013 report.
Much of India’s minerals, including coal and iron ore, are located in the areas inhabited by the tribes, which often suffer disproportionately when the government gives mining leases to private companies.
For instance, most of country’s coal reserves are found in Chhattisgarh and neighbouring Jharkhand and Odisha states — all of which continue to see a Naxalite insurgency.
Between 1951-1990, almost 40 percent of the 21 million people displaced for the construction of dams, mines and industries belonged to the scheduled tribes.
Recurring uprisings have seen brutal repression from security forces, which have been accused of indiscriminate killings and rape.
Hit and run
The Naxals have carried out their own share of atrocities. They have murdered dissenters, blown up schools, railway tracks and power lines and opposed infrastructure projects that could have benefited the tribes.
“Their movement actually began with genuine cause and grievances of the marginalised tribes. But they gradually lost their way,” says Vadlamannati.
Over the years, Indian governments have used legislations to bring tribes into the mainstream by offering them jobs on a preferrable basis and encouraging them to join politics.
The Bahujan Samaj Party, one of the largest in the country, represents the interest of the scheduled tribes and is expected to do well in the ongoing elections.
In last two decades young people have moved out of villages to cities for better jobs, making it difficult for the rebels to find recruits.
India’s far-left political parties, which once had a large following, have also lost ground in recent years, indicating a shift of voters towards other political ideologies.
“The area under their control has shrunk over the years. Between 2006 and 2008, they had one-third of country's geographical territory. That translated into 200 districts. Now they have maybe 30,” says Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray, a Goa-based security analyst.
“Basically they have been restricted to core areas such as Chhattisgarh’s forested Abujhmad forest where security forces haven't been able to go,” he tells TRT World.
Using the cover of dense forests and difficult terrains, the insurgents use guerrilla warfare to hit the security forces.
India’s regular military has so far not participated in any direct confrontation with Naxal rebels, preferring to stay away from what is seen as a domestic insurgency not influenced by foreign powers.
State police and paramilitary forces have struggled to coordinate in any effective way to weed out the rebels from interstate border regions, says Routray.
A coordinated multi-state operation launched in 2010 ended badly when Naxalites killed 76 troops, wiping out an entire paramilitary company.
Naxalite attacks have dropped in recent years since hitting a peak in 2010 when more than 1,100 people, many of them civilians, were killed.
But Routray says the Naxalites will remain entrenched in their stronghold until the state gives more rights and fair compensation to tribes whose land is being leased out to mining companies.
“The new government must take steps to convince a tribal that it’s there to care for him, to give him job and justice,” he says.