Maoist insurgent or Naxalite activity has expanded markedly in India over the past three decades, especially in the central tribal belt. This paper first uses a unique, district-level dataset to demonstrate that insurgency does not, as is widely argued, occur where tribals or Adivasis have been dispossessed of their land and forced to work as landless labourers. Rather, insurgent activity is most likely to take place in areas where Adivasis retain control of their land. The second part is an in-depth analysis of the Dantewara district. It shows that the Adivasis’ grievances are intimately related to the colonial encounter and neo-colonial state’s desire to control forests and forest resources. While the insurgent leaders are non-Adivasis, they strive to frame the insurgency in terms that are meaningful to Adivasis, and to provide a combination of collective and selective incentives. Nevertheless, some Adivasis oppose the insurgency because it undermines their status, while others do so because of short-term processes operating during the course of the insurgency. A syncretic theoretical approach, which concentrates on the complex and dynamic relationship between insurgents and their support base, and includes insights from Marxian, Weberian and Durkheimian theory, is best suited to explaining Adivasis’ involvement in the insurgency.