On a starry, clear night in Mumbai, one can venture out to Marine Drive, known as the Queen’s Necklace, and stand by the ocean. The laughter of carefree, night-time strollers intermingles with the hum of motorcycles, as the lights from extravagant hotels, built on some of the most valuable real estate in the world, illuminate the scene. The air is latent with easy, self-sure ambition—a sense of becoming.

It is fashionable to be bullish on India. After all, India’s per capita GDP has nearly tripled in the last 10 years, and is nearly 6 times as large today as it was in 1991, when the country underwent major pro-market reforms. In 2001, Goldman Sachs lent India its endorsement, including it as the ‘I’ in its BRICS group of emerging economic titans. To this day, political leaders in the United States and elsewhere frequently speak of India as a looming competitor—even a rising superpower. India’s recent bid for permanent membership in the UN Security Council has drawn official endorsements from France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia, among many others. During his high-profile 2010 visit to the country, US President Barack Obama stood in the in front of the Indian Parliament and declared “For Asia and the world, India is not simply emerging; India has emerged.” Perched on the Queen’s Necklace, looking across the water at the financial district twinkling like Manhattan, it is easy to believe.

However, the view looks different from Jeerum Nullah, a poor, rural town in the state of Chhattisgarh. On March 11, 2014, the village was raided by a convoy of 200 Naxalite insurgents, mostly tribal militants subscribing to Maoist political philosophy, who, after claiming the lives of 16, retreated back to the forest with replenished stocks of arms and ammunition. Such attacks are becoming more common in recent years in the eastern part of the country—the so-called “red corridor”—of which the Naxals control a significant portion. Their beliefs, which condemn the political and corporate leadership of India for the displacement of indigenous peoples and the destruction of ancient agrarian social systems, as well as their relative success in exerting influence over the country’s eastern region, shake the pillars of the rising India narrative.

Indeed, the Naxalite insurgency amounts to an existential crisis for the nation.

Tribal elements have been in conflict with the regional powers that be since the time of the British, but today’s Naxalite movement truly began in 1967, when offshoots of the Communist Party of India (CPI) staged an uprising at Naxalbari, a small hamlet in West Bengal from which the movement gets its name.

The Naxals hoped to forcibly confiscate land from wealthy landowners and sharecroppers and return it to dispossessed farmers in the region. They were inspired by Mao Zedong, then the leader of China, who advocated for the armed resistance of the agrarian underclass against social elites. At first, there was no centralized Naxalite authority, and the term was a kind of catch-all for the various militant leftist groups in the region. However, the Naxalbari uprising gave the groups a common set of symbolic heroes, laying the groundwork for the more formalized, unified Naxalism we see today.

In 2004, the CPI absorbed the Maoist Communist Center (MCC), and formed the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-M). Local bands of Naxalites still possess a great deal of autonomy, but now, united under a common organizational and communicative body, the movement has a greater capacity to threaten the status quo. United and cohesive, the group has made war on the government of India. By 2006, the group was estimated to control 1/5 of India’s total forest area and had an active presence in over one-fourth of India’s administrative regions. Manhoman Singh, then Prime Minister of the country, was concerned enough to dub the Naxalite insurgency the “single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country.” In recent years, the attacks have been fiercer and more frequent, culminating in the Jeeram Nullah raid this March.

Those who are ready to anoint India an ascending superpower would do well to pay attention to the Naxalite movement. The relative success of the Naxals speaks volumes about India’s internal capacity to maintain law and order. Though, admittedly, policing a country of 1.2 billion is no easy task, the fact that a group of tribesmen with no formal military training is able to wreck such havoc over such a wide swath of the country certainly does not reflect well on the strength and stability of the Indian state. It is difficult for a nation so weak and ineffectual internally to be influential in international affairs.  Other nations, observing the difficulty India has had containing a group of untrained, undersupplied guerrilla fighters, will be less likely to trust it to execute vital functions in the modern global system. For example, India’s dreams of permanent membership of the Security Council, which works to maintain peace and stability in the world, might appear bitterly ironic.

What’s more, the solution to this security deficit is not as simple as taking the threat more seriously. In fact, full-throated, offensive police and paramilitary forays into the “red corridor” are just as likely to be harmful as beneficial. In mid-2009, the Indian government effectuated an initiative—dubbed Operation Green Hunt by the media—to crack down on the Naxalites. The specific parameters of the operation are somewhat hazy (the government denies its existence, calling it a “media invention,” and therefore little data is available), but it appears relatively clear that police and paramilitary presence increased measurably.

More significantly, operations took on a more purposeful nature, with police no longer occupying a solely peace-keeping role, but with orders to, according to one high-ranking police man, “actively enter villages and nab naxal elements.” Though this push has been met with some success—the proportion of land controlled by Naxals has gone down significantly, and the military leader of the CPI-M was killed in 2011—the increased frequency of attacks like Jeerum Nullah show the resilience of the movement. The low-hanging fruit is gone, and the Indian Government cannot win a guerrilla war with muscle. It must find a more tactical, efficient strategy to reassert control in the red corridor.

Far more than exposing India’s security deficit, however, the Naxalite movement evinces a moral one. Indian tribal populations have been marginalized for centuries, but the rapid industrial development of recent decades has exacerbated the problem greatly. Under the provision of the 1894 Land Acquisition Act, a legacy of the British colonial regime, the government is allowed to seize land to fulfill a “public purpose.” Though the law requires that appropriate monetary compensation be given in exchange, this is hardly appropriate for a tribal population that has long existed self-sufficiently in the forests, and who don’t “own” their land in a formal sense. Consequently, tens of millions of people have been displaced since Independence, their very worlds uprooted, with little recourse. Aside from the immense human toll this has taken, it threatens the integrity of India’s system of government. Democracy requires that all citizens regard it as the legitimate executor of the people’s will.

No one could blame a tribesperson, his or her ancestral home replaced by a steel plant, for feeling as if Parliament does not represent him. Indeed, even those who are not raiding villages and killing police officers show little affinity for India’s government. In the 2009 general election, voter turnout across Bihar, Chhatissgarh, and Jharkhand, three of the states in which CPI-M activity is heaviest, averaged 50.7 percent, compared to 59.7 percent across the country. India prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy, and this epithet has been used to justify India’s status as an arriving superpower. However, as the Naxalite movement has shown, it rests on a brittle foundation.

All of this points to a deeper failure. The Naxalite movement is the unfortunate precipitate of a nation beginning to come apart at the seams. In some ways, India seems to be abandoning its roots. Mahatma Ghandi, the iconic Indian nationalist and moral father of the nation, was an outspoken advocate for the destitute and marginalized. Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, said in his famous “Tryst With Destiny” speech on the eve of independence that “the service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.”

Ask any tribesman and they will tell you that reality falls pathetically short of these noble ideals. Inequality is by no means a new problem, nor one unique to India, but the turmoil it has brought in the form of Naxalism justifies special concern. The violence of the Naxalites is inexcusable, but that does not mean it is not understandable. The insurgency is born out of a sense of dispossession and exploitation, even betrayal. India’s rise, so long awaited, becomes painfully hollow and dehumanizing through the eyes of those it has passed by. Growth nearly always brings winners and losers, but it falls to responsible governments to mitigate the costs of development on those that it marginalizes—a task at which India is failing miserably.

Though the Naxalites are made up mostly of members of indigenous forest tribes, they are rising up against conditions that affect all of rural India, in which incomes are only half of what they are in cities, and in which one quarter of all the world’s extreme poor reside. India, despite struggles with caste and communalism, has long drawn strength and identity from its diverse multitude of humanity – its vast tapestry of faith, language, and culture. If trends continue, city or village, rich or poor, will dominate all other categories, and India will lose a piece of its soul. Perhaps, unconsciously, this is what the Naxalites are fighting against.

This past May, India held general elections and after the largest democratic exercise in human history, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was elected prime minister. One would hope that the injection of new leadership might be what it takes to bring some resolution to the Naxalite conflict, however, the prospects do not seem bright. Mr. Modi’s much-debated stint as Chief Minister of Gujarat, during which brutal violence occurred between Hindus and Muslims, does not augur well for his ability to unite a divided populace. Indeed, on the campaign trail he vowed “zero-tolerance” for Naxalite violence, suggesting, perhaps, a continuation of narrowly-conceived attempts to simply beat back the resistance. This will come at the expense of honest, good-faith dialogue between the tribes and the government, vital to reaching a long-term solution. In addition, Modi’s political calling card, his promise to spark India’s sluggish economy through business-friendly policies that emphasize efficiency and growth, may strengthen the perception that the Indian Government is the agent of its corporations and its wealthy, inflaming Naxalite anger to even greater degrees in the short run.

The future, however, is not hopeless. If Mr. Modi’s economic reforms are able to return the country to the high growth rates of the mid-2000s, as many hoped when they voted for him, the Indian Government will have the resources necessary to solve the Naxalite problem at the root: by increasing and improving peace-keeping forces, foregoing development projects that might disrupt native populations, and investing in the well-being of the country’s rural east. Mr. Modi is hardly the ideal Prime Minister to solve the Naxalite conflict, but it is incumbent on him to do so.

The new government has many challenges to confront, but dealing with the Naxals will be among the most important, both materially and for the psyche of the nation. Mr. Modi’s government must do what it takes to reestablish control of the Eastern part of the country, protect innocent civilians, and neutralize the Naxalite threat to security, but it must also institute the reforms necessary to bring the new prosperity of the last decades into these regions, and ensure that those who live there feel represented and valued.

Until it can rise to the challenges—both practical and moral—presented by the Naxalite movement, India cannot claim superpower status. The view out from Queen’s Necklace may be entrancing, but now is the time to turn around and look back east.

Editors' Note: Following a comment from a reader, a factual error was corrected on December 13, 2014 in this article. It had originally stated that Mr. Modi was the Governor, rather than the Chief Minister, of Gujurat.