Saturday, February 27, 2010

India's Naxalite insurgency: Not a dinner party

India's Naxalite insurgency

Not a dinner party

India’s Maoist guerrillas carry out two slaughters, then offer a truce

Feb 25th 2010 | PHULWARI | From The Economist print edition

SHORTLY before midnight on February 17th residents of Phulwari, a village in India’s northern state of Bihar, were roused by gunfire, explosions and a shrieking mob. It was led by a few of the Maoist guerrillas encamped on a wooded ridge outside the village. Wearing camouflage-green uniforms, they carried assault rifles and explosives. Around 100 rival villagers, of the locals’ own Kora tribe, came with them, with bows and arrows and a few small children.

Peeping from his mud hut, Kashi, a middle-aged tribal, considered loosing off a few retaliatory arrows, dipped in poison. “But there were too many,” he recalled this week, standing beside the heap of fine, grey ashes that was his home. His aunt and nephew were incinerated inside it. Kashi’s brother—their husband and father—was shot dead while trying to flee with him. In all, 12 villagers were killed that night and around 30 houses destroyed.

The destruction was selective. Most of Phulwari’s mud-and-thatch dwellings are untouched. Scattered patches of ash show where some families were singled out. Why is unclear. The villagers, most of whom have now left Phulwari, say they had angered the Maoists by refusing to donate a man or woman per household to them. But there is a rumour that, maybe after the guerrillas raped a woman, some villagers killed eight Maoists with their arrows. Kashi says he was among them; then retracts. “We are very scared,” he says.

That is understandable. The guerrillas are believed to have moved into Jharkhand state, across the wooded ridge, but may return. The state police, 30 of whom have been deployed to Phulwari, are little deterrent. A nervous-looking lot, they are no match for Maoist marauders toting weapons stolen from (or sold by) their peers. Constable Arvind Kumar, pot-bellied and with an inveterate slouch to show for his 18 years in uniform, says he has practised firing his rifle on only three occasions.

Nor is this force likely to remain in Phulwari long. With 50,000 policemen for a population of around 100m—or 50 per 100,000—Bihar has one of the most overstretched forces in India. It is also, despite great recent improvements in its policing, one of the most criminal states: plagued by kidnappers, as well as an insurgency that to some degree affects 23 of its 38 districts.

Yet the Maoists are much stronger elsewhere. Boasting an estimated 14,000 full-time guerrillas, and many more semi-trained sympathisers, they loosely control tracts of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. They have also overrun a smaller, but spreading, area of West Bengal, where the Maoist struggle began in 1967—in the village of Naxalbari, from which the guerrillas, or Naxalites, take their name. On February 15th the Maoists stormed a camp, killing 24 Bengali police. The government estimates that they have influence in over a third of India’s 626 districts, with 90 seeing “consistent violence”. According to the Institute for Conflict Management, in Delhi, the insurgency cost 998 lives in eight states last year—compared with 377 lost in the better-known conflict in Kashmir.

 What power grows out of

The government in Delhi is alarmed. Its home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, has promised to deploy an additional 15,000 centrally trained police to the six most affected states by April—taking their number to around 75,000 in all. He has also badgered the state governments to make more aggressive use of them. They have done so, but splutteringly. Operations in the southern part of West Bengal have mainly underlined that the insurgency is more entrenched there than was previously thought. The state’s main opposition Trinamul Congress party, a member of the coalition government in Delhi, has meanwhile criticised the anti-Naxalite operations. A state election is due next year and it may be looking for electoral support from the Maoists, of a kind that helped bring Jharkhand’s ruling party to power last year. On February 21st Jharkhand’s chief minister, Shibu Soren, promised to end operations against the insurgents and “accept their justified demands”.

This adds up to rather less than the sweeping offensive reported by India’s press. But it seems to have put the wind up the Naxalites. Responding to an invitation from Mr Chidambaram for talks, their military chief, Koteswara Rao, known as Kishenji, was reported this week to have offered the government a 72-day truce, from February 25th. Mr Chidambaram appeared underwhelmed. He issued a fax number for the Maoists to send him their promise to abjure violence and enter talks, with “no ifs, no buts and no conditions.” But if the Maoists show willing, the government will find it hard to refuse them.

Yet the prospects for a negotiated end to the conflict look poor. The Naxalites claim to be fighting for better treatment of marginalised tribals; but deny the government access to areas they control. Nor do their leaders appear to harbour democratic ambitions. They are scathing of their Maoist cousins in Nepal—to whom they have no close link—for having quit the jungle and contested elections in 2008.

For the moment, moreover, despite reports of factionalism, the Maoists’ influence is growing. By “taxing” companies drawn to east India’s rich coal and metal deposits, they are also getting rich. “You will not find any businessman who has been attacked,’ says Ajit Doval, a former head of India’s Intelligence Bureau, “only poor tribals and policemen.”

Ending the red terror

It is time India got serious about the Maoist insurgency in its eastern states

Feb 25th 2010 | From The Economist print edition

SINCE 2006, when Manmohan Singh described the Maoist insurgency as the “single biggest internal-security challenge” India had ever faced, it has spread rapidly. Maoist guerrillas are now active in over a third of India’s 626 districts, with 90 seeing “consistent violence”. Last year the conflict claimed 998 lives. This month alone the Maoists—or Naxalites, as they are known—slaughtered 24 policemen in West Bengal and 12 villagers in Bihar (see article). Yet neither official concern at the highest level nor continuing horrific violence have prompted a concerted and coherent strategy for dealing with the insurgency. It is time for the government to devise one.

Mr Singh may have overstated the security threat to the Indian state; but not the damage to Indian society. The government has faced bloodier threats, on its borders: from separatists in Punjab in the 1980s and in Kashmir and the north-east still. But the Kashmir valley has only 5m people, Manipur, most troubled of the north-eastern states, only 2.5m; Naxalites are scattered among 450m of India’s poorest people, feeding on the grievances of tribal inhabitants of eastern and central India against what is all too often a cruel, neglectful and corrupt administration. This makes the Naxalites hard to treat in the way that India has treated its other insurrections: as military threats to be dealt with by force—often brutally so.

Even recognising that, the official response to Mr Singh’s wake-up call from the governments of the affected Indian states has been dismal. None has much improved its overstretched, ineffectual police force. Besides bureaucratic incompetence and inertia, there are three main reasons for this inaction. First, state-level politics can play a pernicious role. The government in Jharkhand, for example, owed its election last year partly to Maoist support, and has been loth to fight them.

Second, the central government, a coalition run by the Congress party, must share the blame. It is not enough for Mr Singh, guru-like, to point the way. The strong leadership required to mobilise resources, public opinion and state governments for a long and difficult campaign has been lacking. Little has been done to bolster the central government’s own paramilitary force, an important back-up to the state police. Nor has the government done much to badger the states into adopting whole-heartedly a scheme to devolve power to local councils. Yet where this has been tried it has weakened the Maoists’ grip.

Encouragingly, Palaniappan Chidambaram, India’s home minister, does seem ready to get to grip with the issue, giving it a new priority in the central government’s policies. But he has not enunciated a clear strategy either—perhaps for good reason. The third big obstacle to dealing with the Naxalites is that no one is really sure how to. A minority, citing the success of strong-arm tactics in, for example, Punjab, wants a massive counter-Naxalite onslaught. This would be politically unimaginable and probably futile. A bigger group argues that development, to salve tribal hurts, is the only solution. Yet that, in the most undeveloped parts of India, will take years.

Wars without end

The right approach is to focus on improving both policing and general administration. Better policing would protect poor people from Naxalite bandits and extortionists. Better local administration, providing roads, water, schools and health care, would give a stake in the Indian state to people who at present have none. It would be a huge task anywhere in India, and especially in areas plagued by Naxalites. Yet the alternative is a potentially endless conflict that causes untold human suffering, further marginalises millions of India’s poorest citizens and deters investment in some of its most mineral-rich areas.

India has a remarkable ability to wage long-running low-intensity wars without their causing a sense of national outrage or panic. Outrage and action—if not panic—are now overdue. Naxalism is already more than four decades old, and India’s recent rapid economic growth, concentrated in urban, western and southern areas, is spawning new grievances to sustain it. If not tackled urgently, the insurgency could stunt the prospects for millions of people for a generation.


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