Jul-Sep 2013

Field Notes From The Underground: Recruitment Into The Naxalites

The challenges faced by the Naxalites in inducting new entrants help shed light on a key social science puzzle: How do people build relationships and organisations in environments in which there are no laws to protect contracts, and where trust is otherwise in short supply? Dr Pavan Mamidi explains the findings of a pioneering ethnographic study of Naxal recruitment strategies in south-central India and argues that underground organisations such as the Naxalites offer a fascinating laboratory for organisational scholars.

Mainstream discussions about the Naxalites often give in to the temptation  to categorise them either as heroes fighting  in the jungles for a higher  social cause, or as terrorists destabilising the country and taking it down the path of communism. Very little  empirical work about the Naxalites actually exists, and it is not uncommon for policy  makers in India to let their subjective  biases prevail.  Based on ethnographic work spanning four years between 2007 and 2011, involving more  than a hundred semi-structured inter views with various players who  occupy the  “Naxal  landscape” in Telangana region  in Andhra  Pradesh, and south Bastar  in Chattisgarh,  I characterise the  Naxalites essentially as political   entrepreneurs  who  seek to provide governance services to civilians in exchange for “rents/taxes” from them.

The Naxalites typically operate in geographic enclaves that  have limited  formal legal institutions. In these institutional   vacuums, there are no formal ways of enforcing agreements of compliance and non- defection  that  new entrants  make with the group. Enforcement is also constrained by the fact that members can defect and vanish into  the anonymity of the  large  Indian   population.   Sanctions  backed by norms cannot reach defectors either.  Defectors can be dangerous. It is a high-  stakes game (see for example, Gambetta 1993  for similar  work  on the Sicilian Mafiosi).

Building legitimacy

The Naxalites also operate in areas that have inequitable feudal and hierarchical governance structures that dominate over formal institutions.  Although there is some evidence to show that the beneficiaries of their governance services do not always exactly match the “tax”-payers, the Naxals generate legitimacy and some measure of social acceptance of their tax collection activities by the public good that they create.

The basic conflict  with  the Naxalites arises not so much  because the government sincerely competes with  the Naxalites in providing  these public  goods, but because  several  of these tax-payers are private businesses and corporations that are in the extractive sector (especially mining),  and are resentful of these taxes. The Naxalites, and the tribal  people who have improperly  defined property rights on the resources underlying these extractive industries, in turn, resent the expropriation and privatisation of these resources without sufficient transparency.

But the legitimacy of the Naxalites is not my main interest here. They are incidental to the exploration  of a larger puzzle in the social sciences. How do people build relationships and organisations in environments in which there are no laws to protect contracts, where trust is otherwise in short supply, and people do not have the patience to spend time with  each other and get to know  each other? My research investigates this question by exploring  trust  problems between the Naxalites and prospective entrants who  are upper caste.


By necessity the Naxalites have to depend on ex ante, ie prior to induction, means of screening capable and non- defecting types from the types who are incapable and/ or the types who can defect and pose a danger to the organisation. In a scenario that relies heavily on ex ante methods, there are bound to be informational problems.

Screening entrants

By necessity, the Naxalites have to depend on ex ante, ie  prior to induction,   means of screening  capable and  non-defecting   types  from the  types  who  are incapable and/or  the types who can defect and pose a danger  to the organisation. In a scenario that relies heavily on ex ante methods,  there  are bound  to be informational  problems. The recruiters are likely to run into “bad apples” [or “lemons” in the economics literature  (Akerlof1970)],   and there is no easy way of distinguishing   these candidates  from sustainably trustworthy ones among the sympathisers.

I discover  that  the  parties  solve  a major  part of this informational  problem by depending on demonstrations of self-abnegation by prospective candidates that either serve as costly to mimic signals, or that reduce their  outside options  of survival (a behaviour labelled  “bridge  burning”).   Both these ex ante techniques (which may be jointly  labelled “demonstrative   self-abnegation”   behaviours)  help the Naxalites identify  promising candidates who are predisposed  to remaining committed  to the group without  having to rely  on ex post methods  (see Gambetta 1993).

According  to the  biologist  Amotz  Zahavi, costly to mimic  signals indicate  an abundance of an unobservable trait  in the signaller: the signaller is able to bear the cost, but the signals are costly for others to produce. A signaller with  a smaller endowment of that unobservable trait will not be able to bear the cost of producing that signal. Therefore, such signals help in reliably  sorting  between signallers that have an abundance  of the trait  from  signallers that have less of that trait (Zahavi 1975).

The logic of costly to mimic  signalling was first extended  into the world  of economics  by  Spence (1973) in his famous paper on job market signalling to show how  education  can signal a relatively more productive type of individual to a prospective employer, even if the education  is not directly  relevant to the productivity of the job. This is because education  can be acquired  by a more  productive  person at a lower psychic  cost than  by a less productive   person.  Two important points of this theory need special mention – first, that  it is  less costly  for someone  with an abundance of a certain trait to bear cost of producing the signal; and second, that in the  case of Spence’s education model, the education of a job seeker itself need not be directly relevant to productivity  when a job seeker joins a job.

Signalling commitment

In the case of the Naxalite  aspirants,  costly to mimic signalling behaviour includes caste abnegation, killing victims  of their own  family  members,  courting extreme  hardship  in nature,  severe physical self-harm, renunciation of family, crime with high expected costs of punishment, etc.

Demonstrative self-abnegation by bridge burning allows   candidates   to demonstrate  their privately known,  trust-warranting  traits  to others   because bridge burning reduces the candidates’ outside options (see Gambetta 2006).  In contrast to these methods of demonstrative  self-abnegation,  compliance  with norms by candidates who wish to join the Naxalites attempts  to avoid the costs of punishment imposed on them by someone else Norm compliance under threat of punishment in itself does not signal or demonstrate trust-warranting traits. In contrast, the latter can be relied on even when no one is watching.

An  interesting  fact allows me to explore  these solutions in the case of the Naxalites. It is well known that  the Naxalites  started as an organisation  to fight for the  empowerment  of the  lower  castes (LCs) against the domination  of upper  castes (UCs).  Yet, UCs do successfully make their way into the Naxalites. Membership  into the  Naxalites means an official membership in the party, involving a highly demanding, but informal  social process of interaction, and if the candidate   is  successful,   a  method  of induction formally stipulated (by their constitution).  The former is considered to be  a  very  difficult process during which both UC and LC candidates have to demonstrate  their trustworthiness. My research empirically  investigates how promising  UC candidates  are  able  to engage in signalling during this process, which   is  too costly  for unpromising UC candidates, and in burning bridges. This enables the Naxalites to distinguish promising    from  unpromising    UC candidates. I find that  although promising  LCs are able to bear slightly costlier  signals than unpromising LCs, and burn more bridges than unpromising  LCs, the difference  is not  as much  as between promising and unpromising UCs.

 In order to be considered trustworthy, candidates must have both the intention as well as the capacity to comply with the recruiters’ expectations.

Intentions and Capacities

 I  also  discover   that   in order to be  considered trustworthy, candidates must have both the intention as well as the capacity to comply  with  the recruiters’ expectations. Often, this distinction  between the two ingredients of trust is blurred in the literature, although Gambetta (2006)  and Biggs (2003)  are exceptions. This research finds that there can be differences in the ways that the intentions  and capacities for compliance with  promises are established in agency relationships. Costly to mimic  signalling can be used to establish an aspiring candidate’s intentions  to comply,   as well  as his capacities for compliance; bridge burning may be used to establish his intentions  for compliance alone.

I also find  that having high capacities is a double- edged  sword  when  it  comes  to producing  trust. High  capacities may mean the agent is able to fulfill  a promise, increasing trust in some contexts, but also that  he has better  outside  options,  decreasing trust in a other context.  A highly skilled candidate may be trustworthy because the rebel group  can rely on his skills, but depending on the circumstances, he may also be seen as having enough  outside  options  to become a defector.  High  capacity candidates may thus burn bridges to mitigate this ambivalence and build trust.

The challenges faced by the Naxalites in inducting  new entrants are many times more complex (and life-threatening)  than those faced by business organisations  that operate above ground  and have the advantage of laws and courts  that punish  defectors.  Yet the Naxalites have succeeded at putting together one of the largest underground  organisations in the world in extremely difficult  conditions. This in itself merits attention from people who study organisations.

For further reading

Akerlof,  George A (1970). “The Market  for  ‘Lemons’:  Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism”, Quarterly Journal of Economics (The MIT Press)

Biggs, M (2003). “When Costs Are Beneficial:  Protest  As Communicative Suffering”, Working Paper 2003-04, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford.

Gambetta, D (1993). The  Sicilian  Mafia:  The  Business  of  Private

Protection (Harvard: Harvard University Press).

Gambetta, D (2006). “Trust’s Odd Ways.” in Jon Elster, Olav Gjelsvik, Aanund Hylland and Karl Moene (ed): Understanding Choice, Explaining Behaviour. Essays in Honour of Ole-Jørgen Skog (Oslo: Oslo Academic Press).

Spence, M (1973). “Job market signalling”,  The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 87(3): 355-374.

Zahavi, A (1975). “Mate  selection  - a selection  for  a handicap”, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 53(1): 205-214.

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