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India’s Maoist threat: ‘state power’ versus state malaise June 8, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Gordon, Sandy, India , trackback

Sandy Gordon

In 2005, PM Manmohan Singh claimed that the Maoist challenge was India’s “most serious security problem”.  That surprised many commentators at the time, who were fixated on violent jihadi terrorism.

Singh is an economist and would have been keenly aware that the 200-odd Maoist affected districts (out of over 600 – see map) are spread over India’s minerals and energy (coal) provinces and its timber-bearing, broadleaf forests.  In other words, they constitute a ‘dagger at the heart’ of India’s vital extractive industries.

This general co-location of Maoists (also known as ‘Naxalites’) and extractive industries is no surprise.  India’s tribal population (Adiwasis) inhabit the less urbanised and more forested regions where the minerals, coal and timber happen to be.  They have a deep, spiritual relationship with the land somewhat similar to the Australian Aboriginals.  Corruption and incompetence mean that they are often dispossessed by extractive industries with little or no compensation.  This has forced many into the arms of the Maoists.

India’s so-called ‘Red Corridor’.  Source: Wikimedia

The Maoists are competently led by dedicated and often highly educated cadres, some from the higher castes, especially Brahmins.  They are highly skilled in use of IEDs and have excellent intelligence, which often involves infiltration of the police and security forces.

Given the wide geographic spread of the problem, the difficult terrain and deep-seated social and economic grievances involved, the Maoists have been increasingly considered by the Government of India to constitute an intractable problem.

Local police, who have primary responsibility for the Maoists in India’s federal system, are poorly led, trained and equipped and are no match for the Maoists.  Local authorities are often corrupt or incompetent (even up to the alleged ‘grand larceny’ of former Jharkhand Chief Minister Koda, who allegedly siphoned off US$1 billion in his short tenure).  Governments have been slow to provide services on the ground such as welfare, health and education, and the Maoists have stepped in to fill the vacuum.  Now the Maoists are a major presence it is difficult to provide such services because the representatives of the government are threatened and attacked.  The concerned governments are consequently caught in a vicious circle.

Given the escalating violence, the Government of India decided to up the ante last year under the new Home Minister, P. Chidambaram.  But before it did so, there were two questions it had to answer.  Firstly, should the issue be dealt with as a military one, including by use of the Army and Air Force, or should it be considered as a policing problem?  And secondly, should the government initially crack down and establish security and only then follow up by providing better services, or should it try to do both simultaneously?

The Government of India, reluctant to be seen to be ‘waging war’ on its own people, initially opted not to involve the military.  But at the same time, Chidambaram also chose to impose security first and only then follow up with social and economic services, on the basis that it is impossible to achieve better social outcomes without first establishing security.

For this, and for the escalating violence against the Maoists and Adiwasis, he has suffered some criticism, most notably – but by no means solely – from Arundhati Roy. In turn, the Government of India has offered veiled hints that Roy and other social activists allegedly involved in supporting the Maoist cause could face prosecution and jail of up to 10 years for assisting terrorists under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – the Maoists having been brought under the auspices of the Act last year.

Consequent to its decision to intervene in force, the Government of India raised, trained and quipped new paramilitary forces and inserted them into the Maoist-infested regions in support of the state police.  Not surprisingly, they have failed to deal with the problem so far.  In a number of humiliating and costly attacks, significant numbers of police and paramilitary have been killed in recent weeks and months, especially in Dantewada district, a forested area in the south of the state of Chhattisgarh.  In the worst of these attacks, an ill-led team of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was ambushed, resulting in the deaths of 75 CRPF personnel and one local policeman.

There are a number of reasons for the failure of the government initiative so far.  The use of external forces has only made the already poor intelligence on the Maoists more so.  The paramilitary forces, mostly raised from other, more settled, parts of India, have no knowledge or understanding of the environment into which they have been thrust. The Maoists are able to move around at will when their specific locations are attacked, as occurred when the government sought to re-occupy Lalgarh district in West Bengal, which simply caused the Maoists to de-camp to neighbouring Jharkhand.  The Maoists have excellent support and derive intelligence from the Adiwasi villages of the region – thus swimming like Mao’s “fish” in the “water” of the people.  And government forces have at times been heavy-handed in combing through the villages, thus further alienating the populous.  In Chhattisgarh, a local militia called the Salwa Judum has been particularly vicious and is now widely disliked.

Initially, the Maoists were forced to rely heavily on ‘country made’ weapons.  But the more successful they became, the more police posts they overran and the more sophisticated weapons they seized.  When needed, they are able to raise and arm a force of up to 1000 for a single attack, as occurred when they attacked a prison in Bihar, freeing their cadres.  The attackers who killed the 76 government personnel at Dantewada were said to number 400 in the well-planned attack.

All this raises the broader strategic question: just what does the Maoist insurgency mean for India’s democracy, its economic future (given the location of the Maoists in the minerals provinces), its long-term stability and its rise as an Asian power?

There is no question that Indian ‘state power’ (as the Maoists themselves would refer to it) can contain the Maoist threat over the longer-term.  But so far, it has been ‘fighting with one hand tied behind its back’, given that it is reluctance to unleash the military.

There are signs that this may be changing.  In a considerable miscalculation, what was apparently a group of Maoist associates in West Bengal derailed an express train, resulting in 145 deaths. Maoists in Dantewada also mined a bus containing both civilians and members of the Salwa Judum, resulting in up to 44 deaths, most of them civilians.  Added to this, the slaughter of 76 government jawans (literally ‘young ones’) from village India has caused sympathy for the jawans amongst the wider populace.

The Maoists have both denied that they derailed the train, but also promised to punish any Maoist-associated group found to have done so.  But it may be too late: the government is sensing that the time may be opportune in terms of public opinion to insert the military.

But would it work?   In looking for answers, the model here is probably the situation in India’s North East rather than Kashmir.  Kashmir’s main Muslim population is highly physically contained in the Vale of Kashmir, which has been literally flooded with troops and paramilitary forces at various times.  The North East is much more spread out and less developed agriculturally, many parts consisting of mountains and jungles.

In some places in the North East, insurgency has been spluttering on for a generation, despite the involvement of the Army, which has considerably honed its counter-insurgency capacity.  True, insurgents in this part of India have the luxury of being able to cross borders; but the Maoists also have vast areas of India in which to roam.

Thus, while the government may be able to reduce the level of the the Maoist threat, they are unlikely to eliminate it for many years.  Meanwhile, the problem is likely to suck in resources and limit the pace of development in the important extractive regions.

But the Maoists also have a problem, and it is a strategic one.  Basically, they have no deep level of support (at least to date) in the wider, rapidly developing parts of India outside their current areas of influence.  And if the Government has been clumsy in alienating the Adiwasi villagers in the Maoist areas, so too have the Maoists lost some of the support they enjoyed amongst the wider Indian community through their attacks involving civilians.

This means they may well have to negotiate with the government sooner or later.  Both sides want to negotiate from a position of strength and time is on the government’s side.  So the Maoists would be advised not to delay too long in seeking negotiations.  However, they are by no means a unified movement and this will greatly complicate any path to negotiations.

Any ingestion of the Maoists into the Indian state as a result of a negotiated settlement would look somewhat different from the situation in Nepal.  Relatively speaking, the Maoists in India are less powerful than they are in Nepal, and the Indian state, for all its problems, is considerably more cohesive than the dysfunctional Nepali state.  So a settlement could be contained within the Maoist-affected districts and states rather than having wider significance.  It could involve a better deal in general for the Adiwasis, with, perhaps, a role for some of the Maoist cadres in providing the security and services that the state requires.  But any such deal is still probably some way off and would be very difficult to achieve.

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