Meeting the Naxal challenge

30 06 2008

Praful Bidwai

Has the Indian government established at least a degree of control over Naxalite activity? And has it got any wiser about how to contain Naxal-related violence after almost four decades of trying?

Going by the first meeting of the Standing Committee of chief ministers of Naxalite-affected states on September 19, and the October 5 conference of directors general of police, the answer isn’t clear. The CMs’ meeting happened barely a month after Andhra Pradesh reimposed a ban on a range of Naxalite groups followed by Chhattisgarh.

In both cases, the proscription followed violent incidents. In Chhattisgarh, the Naxals demonstrated their military prowess by blowing up a mine-proof vehicle carrying 24 Central Reserve Police Force personnel with a mine. This sent the vehicle flying 35 feet up in the air till it landed 90 feet away. In Andhra, they killed a Congress MLA on Independence Day.

PM assures help in tackling Naxalites

This deplorable violence formed the backdrop to the tough talk heard at the Standing Committee, itself encouraged by Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil’s recent statements advocating the use of violence against Naxals.

Not many recalled the background to the violence, which was preceded by police brutality not just against Naxals, but ordinary villagers merely suspected to be their informers.

Even so, a consensus was reached on a ‘two-pronged’ approach: of ‘firmly tackling the security threat, and simultaneously implementing programmes for socio-economic development of vulnerable areas.’ Patil urged the CMs to ‘act compassionately but in a determined manner; use force but properly and discreetly.’

The states agreed to appoint ‘nodal officers’ for coordination. A handsome Rs 2,000 crores (Rs 20 billion) was allocated annually to anti-Naxal ‘police modernisation.’ The Centre gave the go-ahead to the use of sophisticated weaponry like helicopters and armoured vehicles in anti-Naxal operations. In addition, Rs 2 crores per Naxal-affected district was granted to “accelerate socio-economic development.”

This works out to a much smaller Rs 280 crores. The two “prongs,” then, are unequal in length. Indeed, the conclusion that many CMs and policemen have drawn from the Delhi deliberations is that they must step up the use of force. Thus, Andhra Director-General of police Swaranjit Sen, known for his machismo, hubris and trigger-happiness, and for his threats to sue journalists who interview the CPI-Maoist says he’ll use helicopters to “bring Naxalites out of forests,” and transport men and material for anti-extremist operations.

Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are considering the “Afghanistan Solution” — building a network of highways through forests to connect remote villages and create a “security corridor.” (It’s another matter that this hasn’t worked in Afghanistan. Besides, destroying forests and disrupting village life would aggravate the Naxal problem.) Even more dramatically, Bihar is planning to use satellite imagery to track Naxal activities.

Who are the Naxalites?

Such fancy high-tech schemes are fundamentally misconceived. They miss the point about the Naxalites’ strengths and weaknesses. Satellite pictures might have helped if the Naxals had permanent camps or held large-scale gatherings. But they don’t operate that way. Typically, they mix with villagers following Mao’s dictum about guerrillas and people being like fish and water. Helicopter gunships would be effective in mowing down whole hamlets — as the US, for instance, did in Vietnam, or is doing in Colombia.

But that involves indiscriminate violence, which in turn can only foment Naxal counter-violence.

The key to the problem lies in breaking this cycle of violence-and-counter-violence, not in raising it on to a higher military-technological plane. This happens when the state tries to tilt the power balance decisively in its favour through tough measures, starting with a ban and using increasingly lethal force to “instil the fear of God in the enemy”, as some policemen put it. But force can rarely deter counter-force. If states gain access to high-tech weapons, so can non-state actors, although they are much less dependent on arms than governments.

Past experience suggests that bans usually don’t achieve their purpose. They cannot significantly expand the government’s powers to deal with violence. Plenty of powers are available under existing laws, which cover a wide range of violent acts, and abetting, assisting or promoting them. Laws like the Public Security Act, used in many states, are draconian. They criminalise even acts of sympathy for Naxals, including giving them medical care. They punish people who might take Naxalites’ help in settling land or monetary disputes, which the law courts take years to resolve. This Naxal role has been praised even by police officers.

Bans can be counter-productive too. Take the People’s War Group, which merged a year ago with the Maoist Communist Centre to form the CPI-Maoist. It was proscribed in Andhra way back in 1992. Barring a short interval in 1996, it remained banned until July 2004. Through these 12 years, the group’s activities and influence grew not just in Andhra, but in adjacent states like Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Orissa, and most recently, even Karnataka, which now has some 600 Naxal activists.

The government’s knee-jerk response to Naxalism is always to treat it as a law-and-order or “security” problem. Yet, Naxalism — the movement named after an armed uprising of 1967 in Naxalbari village in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district — is different from other militant movements which typically remain confined to single states and to single issues.

Indeed, over 38 years, Naxalism has grown steadily, spawning 30-odd groups. Its core-areas first spread from the forests of West Bengal, Andhra and Bihar to their plains, as well as to Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh — and to contiguous states.

According to the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, Naxalite presence expanded from 55 districts in nine states in 2003 to 156 districts in 13 states in 2004, and to 170 districts in 15 states this past February. In their strongholds — about 55 districts in 12 states — the Naxalites run a parallel government. The Centre’s own figures are similar.

Karl and the Kalashnikov

The reasons for the Naxals’ success are fairly straightforward. Naxals flourish where there are huge disparities in assets and incomes, and where injustice and violence by the privileged are rampant. Prakash Singh, former Border Security Force chief, and author of a book on Naxalism, holds: ‘The Naxal movement is irrepressible because it draws sustenance from the grievances of the people which have not be addressed by the government� Regarding land reforms, even the Tenth Plan document admits, “the record of most states in implementing the existing laws is dismal”.’

Mr Singh is no ‘softie.’ In India, only 1.3 per cent of agricultural land has been redistributed through tenancy reform and land ceilings — compared to 43 per cent in China, 37 in Taiwan, 33 in Japan [Images], and 32 per cent in South Korea.

Former Bihar chief secretary Kamala Prasad has a more comprehensive explanation for Naxalism’s success. He attributes it to numerous failures of the state. It began as a revolt of the landless poor who were defrauded of their rights and could find no justice. “There was gathering disillusionment among the youth about the quality of our democracy. Inherent also was a forewarning on the core issues of securing responsive, accountable and genuinely representative government. The adherents were still carried by the belief that the government would respect the force of their commitment,” says Prasad.

He describes Naxalism through metaphors: the failure of law and order, ambiguity of social policy, failings of democratic processes, failure of the party system, and deficits of governance.

The Naxalite problem recently got aggravated because of the Indian state’s withdrawal from public services, leading to their near-collapse, and the growing illegitimacy of governance in many regions, coupled with massive corruption. This has led to failing states in many parts of India. Agrarian distress, growing unemployment, and depredations of the forester-contractor mafia, have intensified popular discontent. As has unequal globalisation.

The United Progressive Alliance showed some comprehension of this. Its Common Minimum Programme said that Naxalism isn’t a mere law-and-order problem; the social and economic grievances underlying it must be addressed. To do so, the government must redefine the balance between the two “prongs” of its dual-tract approach by emphasising redressal of peoples’ grievances against inequalities and deprivation over law-and-order.

More, it must add a strategic third prong: giving the Naxals a democratic space for self-expression and encouraging them to come overground.

This approach worked in Andhra in the late 1980s. Chief Minister Y S Rajasekhar Reddy raised hopes of its revival when he lifted the ban on the PWG-CPI-Maoist last year and held talks with them. The party got a roaring public reception on its way from the forests to Hyderabad. But the government didn’t act honestly. It cheated the Naxals by tracking their forest hideouts in their absence and obtaining intelligence through coercion. And it refused to negotiate their reasonable demands about recovering public lands illegally grabbed by powerful interests. The talks failed. The government accused the Naxals of ‘regrouping’ and launched a major offensive. This brought on counter-attacks.

There’s a lesson here. If the government is serious about controlling Naxal violence, it must address its structural causes and not resort to gimmicks like Salwa Judum (peace campaign) in Chhattisgarh. It must of course protect citizens’ lives, but in lawful, Constitutional, humane ways. It must promote justice and equality. Or Naxalism will continue to spread.

Praful Bidwai



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