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Choosing Offline: Why India’s ‘Other’ Insurgencies Have not Gone Digital

Choosing Offline: Why India’s ‘Other’ Insurgencies Have not Gone Digital
1st June 2021 Kabir Taneja
In Insights

While majority of the debates in and around online extremism and radicalisation in India over the recent past have revolved around two major conflict theatres, i.e., Kashmir and the effects of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and its vast digital ecosystems, there are other insurgencies in the Indian subcontinent that have in fact chosen not to go online. Why these insurgencies thrive using simple and old school methods against the state offers an interesting glimpse into the role that technology plays for different extremist views, ideologies, and perhaps more importantly, geographies.

In 2009, the then Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, highlighted the far-Left Naxalism (Maoism) insurgencies in India as the greatest national security threat the country faces. As per research, Naxalism in India at its peak in mid-2000s had a dominating presence in over 200 districts of the country. Today, this influence is known to be shrinking.  According to scholar Dr Niranjan Sahoo, Naxalism saw its roots in 1967 in the town of Naxalbari in the state of West Bengal, largely led by peasants, landless labourers, and adivasis (tribals), more than often led by far-Left ideologues taking inspiration from Chinese leader Mao Zedong, the lead up to him capturing political power and the general ideas of Marxist-Leninist ideologies. It is estimated that some wings of these insurgencies have over 20,000 cadres trained for guerrilla warfare against the state and have created full-fledged administrative infrastructure (parallel power) in parts of more than six Indian states (known as the Red Corridor).

54 years since its inception, the Indian far-Left insurgency has kept itself in an underground design, using a cocktail of geography, societal, economic, and political issues to rally cadres around their ideology. The Indian state’s response over the years has been traditional as far as counterinsurgency operations go. New Delhi has maintained that it will not use its armed forces against the Naxals, highlighting that it cannot go to war against its own people, and much of the armed pushback has come from the affected state’s policy and paramilitarily forces.

Despite its longevity and ideologically centred violence against the state, the insurgency has largely stayed away from modern communication technology and social media for its propaganda and narrative building efforts. Other than some anecdotal evidence and a few media reports on the insurgency attempting to use the online world to expand its narrative, there has been little to no research to go on. A media report from 2013 highlighted that certain parts of the Maoist insurgency in India was attempting to use social media and the Internet to expand its base, specifically highlighting new Facebook groups being set up following some of the more violent attacks against the state orchestrated by the insurgency. For example, in 2013, Naxal insurgents of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) attacked a convoy of Indian National Congress (INC) party leaders in the district of Sukma, in the state of Chhattisgarh, one of the most active insurgency regions in the country. 25 INC members were killed. After the attack, Facebook groups sympathetic to the Maoists cropped up on the social media site with a few hundred people ‘liking’ groups that seemed to have been specifically setup to maximise the effects on the attack online. This small yet documented online trail in 2013 can also be traced to the CPI (Maoist) strategy to try and get its message across to youth in the urban centres and cities of the country as well. However, all available evidence points to no official online presence being formulated by the Naxals, which in all likeliness is due to its leadership being wary of being more visible and easily traceable in a very compact geography of operation. Moreover, its concentration around tribal and rural belts for support leaves digital outreach as a largely unfavourable method for both propaganda and recruitment. While we have seen comparatives to these metrics of geography and localised challenges in places such as northern Iraq during the rise of IS, the drastically different ideological on-ground situation and a very strong state security apparatus surrounding the Naxal belts makes for unique circumstances of operations for the insurgency compared to others around the world.

However, the interesting part to note here is that while the Naxals may not have taken to the online space in a big way, they are not averse to the use of technology as far as tactical operations go. Here, perhaps it is good for academia to start dividing the umbrella of technology and extremism as metrics of research into two major fronts; one being strategic, and the other tactical. To illustrate this, as we have seen many times, groups such as IS and others have used online technologies well to disseminate their propaganda to immense effect. This strategic view of tech as a narrative multiplayer in a hyper-connected world is now well documented by researchers conducted world over, however, the tactical use of tech, with regard to unconventional weapons, militarisation of daily physical technologies, and so on, requires further efforts beyond just the few conflict theatres.

To put this in perspective, the Naxal insurgency did not metamorphise into the digital sphere but has not shied away from co-opting tech into its guerrilla operations. In November 2019, reports highlighted that for the first time, Naxals used a drone to fly over a paramilitary base of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), which is specifically tasked for counterinsurgency operations. In April 2021, Naxals claimed to have shot down two “attack drones” operated by security forces that were sent to “bomb” them. They chose to share photographs as evidence via local journalists, and did not post any evidence directly online. The security forces denied the accusations. Interesting to note here is that unlike other places such as Syria where insurgents use drones with cameras and document attacks, the Naxals and the state security forces both have not released digital footprints of using tech such as drones in what could be seen as a mutual attempt to not escalate the situation by making videos public, which could hamper dialogue and on-going negotiation efforts, while also damage the little trust that may have developed politically between the two sides.

The example of India’s far-Left extremism choosing not to have a large digital footprint is worthy of further discussion to understand and develop mechanism on current tech platforms on how to disengage extremist groups in the future, both strategically and tactically. And there are other examples, within the geography of India, specifically in the Northeast where other local insurgencies have thrived, and have had (as per anecdotal evidence) some digital footprint with pro-insurgency messaging by youth members on platforms such as TikTok (TikTok has been banned in India since June 2020).

Deeper understanding of such extremist groups and, more importantly, their unwillingness to have an active online presence, unlike many of their peers across the world, is a research pool that could significantly aid future counterextremist, counter-radicalisation and counter-narrative strategies for tech companies, security agencies, and states alike.