Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Naxalites know the stakes but does India?

Gethin Chamberlain

Last Updated: July 14. 2009 9:12PM UAE / July 14. 2009 5:12PM GMT

The massacre of dozens of policemen by Maoist Naxal guerrillas in India’s Chhattisgarh state this week marked a new low in what was already turning into a depressing year for the country’s internal security forces. The undeclared war between the state and the Naxalites has claimed the lives of 455 civilians and members of the security forces since the start of the year, with 1,128 incidents of violence as of June 30. For their part, the forces of law and order have managed to kill just 107 Naxalites.

For the Indian authorities it is not just that the poor are always with them; the gunmen who claim to be fighting for the poor also seem to be omnipresent. Knowing that, however, doesn’t make it any easier to defeat an enemy that now claims almost a quarter of India’s territory as “liberated zones”. In the “red corridor” running through from West Bengal to Maharashtra, the Indian state has lost control.

The Mumbai terrorist attacks last November may have grabbed international headlines, but the Naxalite insurgency remains the most coherent threat to Indian democracy. Born out of a 1967 uprising in Naxalbari, in West Bengal, the Maoists – who split from the Indian communist party three years earlier – have gained strength by playing on the shoddy treatment of the tens of millions of rural poor who make up India’s vast underclass. While a small elite has grown rich by exploiting the country’s natural resources and cheap labour, the majority of the population struggles by on a few rupees a day. It is in the tribal areas, where the dirt-poor subsistence farmers eke out a living in the forests, that the Naxalites have had the most success.

Companies have also brought outside workers to fill jobs in these regions. The tribals have been shoved out of the way. Forestry officials exploit them, demanding payments that they can ill afford just to continue their traditional way of life. The tribals have a saying: “What is heaven? Miles and miles of forest. What is hell? Miles and miles and of forest and one forest guard.” Little wonder, then, that many of the tribals refer to the Naxalites as the dadas – Hindi for elder brothers – since they offer them shelter from pursuit by the state.

Not that they need much help. After a rocky patch in the early 1970s when they were nearly wiped out, the Naxalites have been going from strength to strength. Sunday’s attacks were typical of their tactics: first kill a couple of policemen, then wait for reinforcements to arrive, hit them with landmines and mop up the survivors. As is often the case in such asymmetric warfare, the security forces failed to see the danger until too late.

The Naxalites have honed their tactics over the long years of war. When the more experienced police learned to quickly take cover behind trees or in ditches after a blast, the Naxalites started to ensure that all the hiding places were suitably mined before launching their ambushes. Another favourite trick is to fire just enough bullets to convince inexperienced police officers to blaze away until they are out of ammunition. Then the Naxalites finish them off, often with knives to save their own ammunition.

The result is that the Maoists now have a strong presence in at least 170 out of India’s 602 districts. In Chhattisgarh, the scene of Sunday’s attacks, the Naxalites hold 12 out of the 20 districts and the police describe more than half the state – 30,000 sq kms – as “extremely Maoist affected”. The previous BJP government’s solution was to turn to the disgruntled tribal ruling classes, whose influence had been reduced by the Naxalites, and form them into a militia, known as the Salwa Judum. The idea was to “drain the swamp”, bringing villagers out of the jungle and cutting the Naxalite supply lines. It brought more bloodshed.

The current Congress government appears to have no better idea about how to tackle the roots of the problem. Last month the health minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, accused individual states of not doing enough, then this month he blamed the Naxalite problem on a population explosion. “The fight in the future and at present is between the haves and have-nots. The Naxalite movement is a result of this,” he said, before controversially claiming that supplying electricity to villages would mean people spent more time watching television and less time making babies.

He did not explain how the government planned to get electricity to the villages in the face of determined opposition from the Naxalites, who routinely sabotage development of any kind. They claim that bringing services to the villages will open them up to further exploitation, though critics suggest they are more concerned about losing their grip on their supporters.

Mr Azad took a lot of flak for his “more television” suggestion but he may, inadvertently, have stumbled on the best chance the government has. Instead of ostracising the tribals, it might do better to start pampering them a bit. After all, the tribal and Naxalite lifestyles are not an easy fit. The Naxalites disapprove of drinking, smoking and premarital sex – activities that consume much of the leisure-time for the tribals. All the tribals really want is to be allowed to get on with their lives, with a few home comforts thrown in. If the government paid a little more attention to the needs of its poorest citizens, it might drain the swamp far more effectively than the BJP’s catastrophic approach.

The alternative is to start taking the threat seriously, perhaps by suggesting to the army that it might be better employed dealing with danger in its own backyard than facing off against a diminishing threat from Pakistan. Speaking privately a few months ago, a senior police officer confided that the military was not interested. “Their attitude is that this is internal security, it is your job,” he said, shaking his head. “What if they succeed? What if the Maoist revolution wins? Is the army going to sit and watch from the balcony seats to see the nation burning?”

Gethin Chamberlain is a foreign correspondent for the Observer

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