Communist rebels taking over huge swaths of land in India may sound like a forgotten chapter of the Cold War, but it’s not. Communist militias are now active in 20 of India’s 28 states, control hundreds of small villages and the government describes the Maoist/Naxalite insurgency as the biggest internal security threat the nation has ever faced.
The term naxal derives from the name of the village Naxalbari in West Bengal, where the movement started in 1967. Locals began assassinating landowners and demanded a re-distribution of wealth. In the 1970s, the movement expanded into urban universities and students took over machine shops to make simple guns to fight against the police.
Though it never went away, the movement slowed until the modern phase began around 2005. There is now a “red corridor” where the predominantly peasant army is most active. Local media usually brings up the movement only to chastise it and predict its fall. Entire Naxalite villages in the red corridor don’t seem to be reading the same newspapers, though Indian media is also quick to point out that most Naxilites are illiterate. Somehow, even with dramatic security measures and a press that constantly predicts the death of the movement, the Naxalites were able to stage one of their most dramatic attacks this May. Nearly 250 armed cadres captured an entire government convoy of vehicles carrying the senior political leaders of Chhattisgarh state. The rebels killed 24 of them before melting back into the forest. Among the dead was a senior party leader of the Indian National Congress, who also founded a now defunct right-wing militia to combat the Naxalites.