Our 1,623-page Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Edition) does not include the word Naxalite.
A rather strange, and most definitely, a major omission.
Origins of the Term
The word Naxalite has its roots in the Naxalbari village in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal in the eastern part of India.
It was in the Naxalbari region that a violent anti-landlord movement started in 1967 among the Communist elements and sympathisers (and later spread to other pockets of India like Warangal and Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, Chikmagalur Hills of Karnataka and Jharkand). The adherents of this movement were referred to as Naxalites.
Like a lot of English words, the meaning of Naxalite has evolved over the years and means different things to different people.
As Ramachandra Guha writes:
“Naxalite” became shorthand for “revolutionary,” a term evoking romance and enchantment at one end of the political spectrum, and distaste and derision at the other.
(Source: India After Gandhi P.424)
These days, the word Naxalite usually has a pejorative connotation thanks mostly to the Indian police who use the word to describe those elements holed up in the forest or mountainous areas of India and frequently resort to violent actions like beheadings, attacking police stations, killing policemen and kidnappings.
To the Indian police, Naxalite expressions like ‘class struggle’ and ‘social justice’ are merely a camouflage for terrorism and destabilization actions by foreign countries like Pakistan and China.
Open an Indian newspaper and these are the Naxalite headlines you’ll find:
* Village head killed by Naxalites in Malkangiri of Orissa (Orissa Diary, April 24, 2009)
* Choppers for vigil in naxalite-hit areas (Hindu, April 22, 2009)
* Naxals release passengers on train (Times of India, April 22)
* Naxals threaten to derail poor’s power to vote (Economic Times, April 23, 2009)
But there’s another group of Indians (those on the left including Communists, sections of the intelligentsia and the poor) who view the word Naxalite in a more positive light.
To these people, Naxalites are saviors of the rural poor and are among the few who dare to take on the oppressive elements that makes the lives of the poor in India’s villages a hellish nightmare. In their view, the Naxalites are brave souls, the vanguard of the revolution if you will, taking on the dangerous task of organizing the rural masses against the oppressive actions of village landlords, moneylenders, corrupt bureaucrats and police and other powerful elements of rural India.
In India, the word Naxalite is often used synonymously with Maoist.