The term comes from Naxalbari, a small village in West Bengal, where a section of Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) led by Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal led a violent uprising in 1967, trying to develop a "revolutionary opposition" in opposition to the CPI(M) leadership. The insurrection started on May 25, 1967 in Naxalbari village when a peasant was attacked by hired hands over a land dispute. Local peasants retaliated by attacking the local landlords and the violence escalated. Majumdar greatly admired Mao Zedong of China and advocated that Indian peasants and lower classes must follow in his footsteps and overthrow the government and upper classes whom he held responsible for their plight. He engendered the Naxalite movement through his writings, the most famous being the 'Historic Eight Documents' which formed the basis of Naxalite ideology . In 1967 'Naxalites' organized the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR), and later broke away from CPI(M). Uprisings were organized in several parts of the country. In 1969 AICCCR gave birth to Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).
Practically all Naxalite groups trace their origin to the CPI(ML). A separate tendency from the beginning was the Maoist Communist Centre, which evolved out of the Dakshin Desh-group. MCC later fused with People's War Group to form Communist Party of India (Maoist). A third tendency is that of the Andhra revolutionary communists, which was mainly presented by UCCRI(ML), following the mass line legacy of T. Nagi Reddy. That tendency broke with AICCCR at an early stage.
During the 1970s the movement was fragmented into several disputing factions. By 1980 it was estimated that around 30 Naxalite groups were active, with a combined membership of 30 000. A 2004 home ministry estimate puts numbers at that time as "9,300 hardcore underground cadre… [holding] around 6,500 regular weapons beside a large number of unlicensed country-made arms". According to Judith Vidal-Hall (2006), "More recent figures put the strength of the movement at 15,000, and claim the guerrillas control an estimated one fifth of India's forests, as well as being active in 160 of the country's 604 administrative districts.
Today some groups have become legal organisations participating in parliamentary elections, such as Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. Others, such as Communist Party of India (Maoist) and Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Janashakti, are engaged in armed guerrilla struggles
The Naxalites gained a strong presence amongst the radical sections of the students movement in Calcutta. Large number of students left their education to join revolutionary activities. Majumdar adjusted the tactics of CPI(ML), and claimed that the revolutionary warfare was to take place not only in the rural areas but everywhere and spontaneously. Thus Majumdar's 'annihilation line', a dictum that Naxalites should assassinate individual "class enemies" as a part of the insurrection was put into practice not only against landlords, but also against university teachers, police officers, politicians and others.
Throughout Calcutta, schools were shut down. Naxalite students took over Jadavpur University and used the machine shop facilities to make pipe guns to fight the police. Their headquarters became Presidency College, Kolkata. They are also presumed to have assassinated the vice chancellor of Jadavpur University, Dr. Gopal Sen.
The strategy of individual terrorism soon proved counterproductive. Eventually, the Chief Minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, began to institute draconian counter-measures against the Naxalites. The police committed several civil and human rights violations on the Naxalites, up to and including detention without counsel, torture, staged shootouts and others.
In a matter of months, the Naxal uprising was quelled. The view of the police and the state was that the only language the Naxals understood was that of deadly force. They also argued that effectively the state was fighting a civil war with these communists and democratic pleasantries had no place in a war, especially when the opponent did not fight within the norms of democracy and civility. This insurrection tarnished the image of the radical Maoists and their support dwindled.
Moreover, the movement was torn about by internal disputes. Large sections began to question Majumdar's line of struggle. In 1971 CPI(ML) was split in two, as Satyanarayan Singh revolted against Majumdar's leadership. In 1972 Majumdar was captured and died in police custody in Alipore Jail. After his death the fragmentation of the movement accelerated.
There is a reference to a character, in the novel, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, joining with the Naxalites.
The 1998 film Haazar chaurasi ki Maa (Mother of 1084) staring Jaya Bachchan gives a very sympathetic portrayal of a Naxalbari militant killed by the state.
The Kannada movie Veerappa Nayaka directed by S.Narayan portrays Vishnuvardhan - a Gandhian with his son becoming a naxalite. The 2007 Kannada movie Maathaad Maathaadu Mallige directed by Nagathihalli Chandrashekhar again portrays Vishnuvardhan as a Gandhian, confronting a naxalite Sudeep showing that although the ways adopted are different both convince to achieve common goal.