Defining Urban Naxal: A Tribute to Prof. Romila Thapar

Defining Urban Naxal: A Tribute to Prof. Romila Thapar

The current debate revolving around “urban naxals” received a heightened attention owing to the following statement by Prof. Romila Thapar, an eminent historian.

“We were all born Indians, lived as Indians all our lives. These activists are fighting for good causes and terming them urban naxal is a political move,” she said.

“Do they even know what urban naxal means, first ask the government to define the term urban naxal and then tell us how we fall into this category. It is very easy to call us urban naxal. And also tell us how we have become urban naxal, either the government does not understand the meaning of urban naxal or we don’t understand the meaning of the term,” Ms. Thapar told PTI. (Source)

It causes the zone of neuronal activity of every thinking mind to tinkle with the effect that it can hardly hold itself back from making an attempt at defining the term, purportedly on behalf of the government. Interestingly, the statement comes at a point when one can barely afford to neglect the security threats that India faces due to Left-wing extremism, also called Naxalism. The recent Country Report on Terrorism, 2018 published by the US State Department has clubbed Pakistan-sponsored terrorism on Indian soil and Maoist insurgency together. This is what it says:

“The parts of India most seriously impacted by terrorism in 2017 included the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the northeast Indian states, and parts of central India in which Maoist terrorists remain active.”

It must also not be overlooked that a previous report last year highlighted the high degree of vulnerability our country experienced on this front. Apart from labelling “Naxals” as the third most dreaded terror group worldwide following IS and Taliban, the report also raised concern regarding the diversity of perpetrator groups in India, the number of such active terror groups being fifty-two. (Source)

Thus, with 52 active terror groups in India, anything that carries the slightest of impacts on the security concerns of the country can hardly be taken lightly. One of the bizarre things in the above statement is the use of the term, “good causes” that should seriously send alarming signs into the minds of each one of us who still think we live in a free and peaceful country, that is India. What shall follow hereafter is an analysis of how good or bad those causes and ideas are for a democracy like India. Herein shall be an attempt to define the term, “Urban Naxal” as demanded by Prof. Thapar.

How to arrive at the definition?

How do neologisms emerge? It could either be the outcome of a philosophical deliberation upon a burning issue of the day or a historical interpretation of a process that leads to the coining of a new term (the use of the term “historical” here is in the sense of Herodotus that differs from the popular meaning that the term conveys these days). Very acceptably, it could be a combination of both as well. The current search for a definition of “Urban Naxal” shall also be a combination of the two approaches.

Before proceeding further in order to dig the roots of the term, it’s my duty to present some clarity over the philosophical stance I propose to take. A simple definition of anything in the universe could be based on either “nominalism” or “essentialism”. The former provides uniqueness to the term, and of course, to the phenomenon it defines while the latter leaves open ground for identifying features of comparison with other similar phenomena residing elsewhere in the same universe.

There are singular terms such as religion, politics, family, marriage etc. Each of these concepts when used as a single word is nominalistic in nature that represents a unique reality. But these can be preceded by an adjective such as monothesitic religion, polytheistic religion, semitic religion, civil religion, etc. A similar scheme could be drawn for other terms that seek to explain a concept for the want of a single comprehensive word in the English Language. The term under consideration in the current context, “Urban Naxal” is again a compound phrase composed of two terms, both of which need to be understood, both separately as well as together, in order to assign it the final meaning. But, here comes to the fore the short stint played by the intellectual approach called essentialism. A comparative approach enables one to focus one’s attention on the already famous concept called “urban guerrilla”. An analysis of this term lies at the core of the problem at hand.

Who is an “urban guerrilla”?

The doctrine to be followed by an urban guerrilla could be found in their arguably biblical text written by Carlos Marighella. In his Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, (all references to the text are from Jay Mallin’s book, Terror and Urban Guerrillas first published in 1971) an attempt at defining the term was made by him in the following manner:

“The urban guerrilla is a man who fights the military dictatorship with arms, using unconventional methods.” (p. 71).

Although written in the context of Brazilian military dictatorship, Marighella intended his text to serve as guideline for revolutionaries (of course, leftist revolutionaries as he was a part of the Brazilian Communist Party) anywhere in the world. Also a historical survey of the text reveals that as a repository of revolutionary ideas it travelled far and wide and having been written in Brazil, its first English edition was published by the New Left periodical in the USA known as Berkeley Tribe in 1970. Marighella’s idea of urban guerrilla finds a clearer expression in the following sentence:

“The urban guerrilla is an implacable enemy of the government and systematically inflicts damage on the authorities and on the men who dominate the country and exercise power.” (p. 71).

Marighella does advise the urban guerrilla to camouflage himself in normal times. He wrote:

“The urban guerrilla must live by his work or professional activity. If he is known and sought by the police, if he is convicted or is on parole, he must go underground and sometimes must live hidden. Under such circumstances, the urban guerrilla cannot reveal his activity to anyone, since that is always and only the responsibility of the revolutionary organization in which he is participating.” (p. 74).

Having established the manner in which the urban guerrilla is supposed to exist under disguise, Marighella laid down a list of “Action Models”, precisely fourteen in number. Of these, the last of the action models, “War of Nerves” seems to be of prime importance, more so owing to the fact that in the present Indian debate on the subject, the argument of defence most people cite is that the activists who are labelled as “urban naxals” have not committed an actual act of violence, how can they then be called naxals? Let us take a look at Marighella’s explanation of the War of Nerves:

“The war of nerves or psychological war is an aggressive technique, based on the direct or indirect use of mass means of communication and news transmitted orally in order to demoralize the government.” (p. 104).

What is more appalling is that Marighella openly supports “spreading of lies” as part of the psychological warfare. He wrote:

“The object of the war of nerves is to misinform, spreading lies among the authorities, in which everyone can participate, thus creating an air of nervousness, discredit, insecurity, uncertainty, and concern on the part of the government.” (p. 105).

Besides, the urban guerrilla should never find himself flummoxed over questions requiring sound political understanding and must not waver in working out the way forward. Thus, as a self-help list of recommended readings, Marighella suggested the following:

  • Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara
  • Memories of a Terrorist
  • Some Questions about the Brazilian Guerrilla Operations and Tactics
  • On Strategic Problems and Principles
  • Certain Tactical Principles for Comrades Undertaking Guerrilla Operations
  • Organizational Questions
  • O Guerrilheiro, newspaper of the Brazilian revolutionary groups. (p. 72).

Terrorism as a weapon of the Urban Guerrilla

Before one goes deep into other dimensions of the challenge posed by urban guerrilla warfare, one can ill afford to bypass the philosophical affinity for terrorism in Carlos Marighella’s work:

He defines terrorism as:

“Terrorism is an action, usually involving the placement of a bomb or fire explosion of great destructive power, which is capable of effecting irreparable loss against the enemy.” (p. 103).

The usefulness of terrorism as a method of the urban guerrilla is succinctly described in the following sentences:

“The terroristic act, apart from the apparent facility with which it can be carried out, is no different from other urban guerrilla acts and actions whose success depends on the planning and determination of the revolutionary organization. It is an action the urban guerrilla must execute with the greatest cold bloodedness, calmness, and decision.” (p. 103).

In order to equip oneself with the capability of carrying out terroristic acts, one must pay heed to another crisp piece of advice by Marighella:

“Terrorism requires that the urban guerrilla should have an adequate theoretical and practical knowledge of how to make explosives.” (p. 103).

He was quite categorically in favour of terrorism when he said, “Terrorism is an arm the revolutionary can never relinquish.” (p. 103).

Does it seem astonishing to find that Carlos Marighella, a member of the Brazilian Communist Party did not dissuade urban guerrillas from using methods such as terrorism? If yes, it should probably fade away with the discovery of the fact that few decades before Marighella’s work was published, it was Leon Trotsky, a champion of the Bolshevik revolution who admitted “terrorism” as one of the methods of Communist Revolution. His famous book, Terrorism and Communism was first published in the United States in 1920 by the Communist Party of the United States which was then known as Workers Party of America, though under a different title, Dictatorship vs Democracy.

Locating the concept of urban guerrilla in the Indian context

Having gone through Marighella’s work, an analysis of the current situation must be carried out. A survey of the profiles of those arrested sounds quite innocuous in nature owing to the fact that they are activists, authors, poets, etc. But, can we discern some points of similarity in the manner of their working and living as suggested by Carlos Marighella? The answer could be had if one pays attention at the evidence produced during police investigation so far. Some content of the letters exchanged by the five arrested activists is as given below:

“Letter, dated 23rd March 2018, written by Milind Teltumbade, CPI (Maoist) central committee member stated, “Things were better before this government came in to existence”

Another letter by one central committee member:

“As per our conversation we have been in touch with our suppliers from Nepal…Varvara Rao has authority for purpose of purchasing weapons and ammunition from Nepal and Manipur. We are losing thousand of cadres in Gadchiroli, Gadling and VV feel that we should do something what we haven’t been able to do since 2013( Sukma killing ), Catalogue of needed arms and ammunitions also has been sent.”” (Source)

Is the letter not in agreement with what has been discussed in regard to Marighella’s work on urban guerrilla? Thus, if this set of attitudes and actions is not about being an urban guerrilla, then what on earth is?

From “Urban Guerrilla” to “Urban Naxal”

The only question that now remains to be answered is how is the word, “naxal” justified as a replacement for “guerrilla”. In another letter written by Milind Teltumbde produced as evidence by Pune police, the use of the word “naxal” eases out the problem of definition to a large extent. This is how the lines read:

“Send students to naxal area and give training and use that training against government. Run propaganda amongst students and young generation.”

Although the focus on students and drawing those young minds into the conspiracy of running the naxal propaganda sounds worrisome, at this point one must notice the use of the word, “naxal” in the sentence that provides one with enough justification to transform the term, “urban guerrilla” into its Indian adaptation as “Urban Naxal” without losing its conceptual essence.

But replacing the word, “guerrilla” with “naxal” might cause a few eyebrows to be raised, especially by those who search for accuracy and proper usage in academic terms. Hence, a link needs to be established between the Naxalite movement and guerrilla warfare as its method. The following quote seems quite handy in this regard:

“How to start guerrilla warfare? To this question the revolutionary peasants in India have given the answer that guerrilla warfare can be started only by liquidating the feudal classes in the countryside … the annihilation of the class enemies is the primary stage of the guerrilla struggle. The annihilation of the class enemy does not only mean liquidating individuals, but also means liquidating the political, economic and social authority of the class enemy.”

These words were spoken by none other than Charu Mazumdar, the man who started it all as the Naxalbari Movement. Although it must also be said that the original Naxalbari movement does not exist anymore, the leftist revolutionary movements have worn the badge, “Naxals” and have not in the least desisted from applying violent means such as guerrilla warfare and terror. Hence, what was urban guerrilla in other regions of the planet could veritably be called “Urban Naxal” in the Indian context.

Not just defining but trying to fathom

Having arrived at a definition of “urban naxal” one needs to look at its two major sources of influence, namely the political stratagem called “Mass Line” and the political doctrine of the New Left. The implications of not recognizing the ramifications of the entire matrix that is revolutionary leftist politics could cost a democracy quite dearly, more so in the case of the Indian state owing to its peculiar position in terms of its cultural past, religious fabric and geopolitics. Thus, below is a short presentation of the philosophical underpinnings of the tactics employed by naxals, especially urban naxals.

“Communism and fascism have most powerfully emerged in national environments hostile, or unhospitable, to democracy and constitutional government and therefore susceptible to authoritarian or totalitarian systems.” [from Today’s Isms by William Ebenstein, 1973 (p. Xii)].

The above statement should work as an eye-opener for anyone. It is because we have quite often received an overdose of the word, “fascism” that is always presented as an antonym of “communism”. Surprisingly, it has been clubbed together with Communism by Ebenstein for being similarly hostile to democracy and constitutional government. That is probably the crux of the popular misunderstanding about left politics. Almost always, the Left disguises itself as liberal and progressive when behind the veil it is no different from fascism and totalitarianism. How does it manage to mislead people’s opinions? The answer lies in the use of the strategy called Mass Line.

What is Mass Line?

Mass Line that was formulated and advocated as a strategy for revolution by Mao Zedong is actually a three-step process:

1) gathering the diverse ideas of the masses;

2) processing or concentrating these ideas from the perspective of revolutionary Marxism, in light of the long-term, ultimate interests of the masses (which the masses themselves may sometimes only dimly perceive), and in light of a scientific analysis of the objective situation; and

3) returning these concentrated ideas to the masses in the form of a political line which will actually advance the mass struggle toward revolution.

Although it is associated with Mao, its philosophical roots lie in Marx’s own ideas. Let’s take a look at the following sentence to make a fuller sense of it:

“Though implicit in Marxism from the beginning, the mass line was raised to the level of conscious theory primarily by Mao Zedong.”


The three steps seem simple but it is actually not so. There are innumerable sub-steps that run into hundreds of directions in order to fulfil the final goal of revolution. The psychological war waged by the urban naxals is one of those intermediate tactics.

The New Left turn

Furthermore, a shift of focus from the “working class” to the “intellectuals” and “young intelligentsia” as the vanguards of revolution, could be clearly marked in an article entitled, “Letter to the New Left” written by C. Wright Mills and published in 1960 by the New Left Review. Although the official policy of India against left-wing extremism concentrates entirely on CPI (Maoist) as the prime source of the menace, it could barely be neglected that since the “New Left turn”, things have turned more subtle and the core arena of activity has shifted from workers and factory sites to students and university campuses. The ever-increased focus on students and campuses is a rather bothersome sign that has the potential to breed a young population of “rebels” who are never made aware of the real intentions of the political ideologies discussed above. The idea that acts as the fuel behind such move is contained in the following portion of the Letter to the New Left:

“I cannot resist copying out for you, with a few changes, some materials I’ve just prepared for a 1960 paperback edition of a book of mine on war”

“In the spring and early summer of 1960 — more of the returns from the American decision and default are coming in. In Turkey, after student riots, a military junta takes over the state of late run by Communist Container Menderes. In South Korea too, students and others knock over the corrupt American-puppet regime of Syngman Rhee. In Cuba, a genuinely left-wing revolution begins full-scale economic reorganisation- without the domination of US corporations. Average age of its leaders: about 30 — and certainly a revolution without any Labour As Agency. On Taiwan, the eight million Taiwanese under the American-imposed dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, with his two million Chinese, grow increasingly restive. On Okinawa — a US military base — the people get their first chance since World War II ended to demonstrate against US seizure of their island and some students take that chance, snake-dancing and chanting angrily to the visiting President: “Go home, go home — take away your missiles” (Don’t worry, 12,000 US troops easily handled the generally grateful crowds; also the President was “spirited out the rear end of the United States compound” -and so by helicopter to the airport). In Great Britain, from Aldermaston to London, young — but you were there. In Japan, weeks of student rioting succeeded in rejecting the President’s visit, jeopardise a new treaty with the U.S.A., displace the big-business, pro-American Prime Minister, Kishi. And even in our own pleasant Southland, Negro and white students are — but let us keep that quiet: it really is disgraceful.

The current Indian situation where student politics has acquired a major chunk of mainstream politics is a result of this political line that carries the potential to produce more urban naxals from the academic domain. A comparative study of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in USA and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in West Germany needs to be made in order to fully grasp the present situation.


To conclude, it must be said that one must pay attention to the fact that the global challenge against India on various fronts needs to be understood from a wider perspective, one of which is to unearth the perilous design of the left-sponsored movement in India. While Communism as a political doctrine is no better than Fascism, it’s an appalling fact that there are dozens of political parties in India using “Communist” in their names with stunning apathy from us as a people. It’s all because historians such as Prof. Thapar would never let the younger generations appraise the terrifying consequences that the left-revolutionary ideology is capable of causing.

It should also be remembered that there are hundreds of other organizations in India that have nothing to do with any of the brands of leftist ideology, working for the betterment of the working classes, farmers and tribals, a fact that largely remains unnoticed.

Thus, with a view to explaining the ideological package of the Indian Left, one can only draw an allegory where the ideological stuffing appears as an oral pill that often tastes sweeter when swallowed but carries a deep-seated bitterness. The only difference obviously lies in the fact that this pill doesn’t have the capacity to cure anything.

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Akhilesh Pathak

The author is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.