Saturday, April 17, 2010

India’s leaders to blame for Maoist crisis

By John Elliott
Published: April 16 2010 14:03 |

A controversy currently raging in India over whether the growing problem of Naxalite (Maoist) rebels should be tackled with force or through development of the tribal areas involved is unnecessary. The answer is clearly both – at the same time, and with equal energy and commitment, by both state governments which have constitutional responsibility for security and by the central government.

The fact that this dual approach is not happening, and that there are splits within the governing Congress Party, is an indictment of the government’s weak leadership, notably by Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, and Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the ruling coalition, plus at a different level her son and heir Rahul Gandhi.

Riding the elephant

For more comment by John Elliott go to his blog

The situation is now dire. The Naxalites recently killed 76 paramilitary troops in an ambush, and their activities now cover over a third of India’s administrative districts. They control large swathes of remote and often densely forested areas – especially where tribal people risk losing land to development projects – that stretch from the Nepal border down through West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. They are also now moving into urban areas of some states, notably West Bengal and their aim eventually is to encircle strategic districts and urban centres.

Because of the lack of government leadership, Palaniappan Chidambaram, the home minister who has brought focus and order to the ministry since he took over at the end of 2008, has been publicly attacked from many quarters. The most recent – and serious – attack came two days ago in a newspaper article written by Digvijay Singh, a senior politician and a general secretary of the Congress Party who is close to the Gandhis and has a political base in Chattisgarh, one of the Naxalite-ridden states.

Digvijay Singh wrote in the Economic Times that “we should be paying more attention to their (tribal peoples’) livelihood and governance rather than converting the serene and calm environment of Bastar (one of the Naxalite areas) into a battleground”. He criticised Chidambaram for his “intellectual arrogance” and for being “extremely rigid” though admitting he is also an “extremely intelligent, articulate, committed and sincere politician”.

The key words in the quote above are “more attention” because they amount to a criticism of Chidambaram’s security-oriented paramilitary approach. They are especially significant because Digvijay Singh works closely with the Gandhi’s. An article about him in the India Today weekly news magazine recently said that he is “sharp enough to gauge the mood of the leadership and he would never speak without first clearing his lines with the famed high command” – which means the Gandhi’s.

He is therefore presumably reflecting Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s unease about Chidambaram’s hard line. I heard on Thursday they were anxious to stop the article triggering a pubic row, but Rahul did make similar remarks about the need for development some weeks ago.

They and Digvijay Singh are of course right because Chidambaram is being unbendingly single minded in his approach – and his arrogance is widely recognised and tolerated.

But, as home minister, he is only doing his job to try to mobilise the states’ security operations and support them with the central paramilitary, while trying to turn the ramshackle ill-trained, ill-equipped and often undisciplined troops into fighting forces.

He is criticised by Singh and others for not - at the same time - focussing on development and, as a result, alienating tribals and others who get caught up and killed in the fighting. He says that development is the job of the states, not his.

Up to a point he is right. But it is the job of the government as a whole to mobilise development through various ministries such as human development (education, rural development, environment and others).

That this is not happening is the responsibility of Singh as prime minister and Sonia as party leader. Months ago they should have set up a group of ministers, led by the home ministry, to galvanise the central government, and the states into parallel security and developmental operations.

That has not been done, so it is grossly unfair to blame Chidambaram for the current security focus and to allowing him to become the scapegoat for attacks by soft liberals such as Arundhati Roy, the novelist and campaigner who has ludicrously accused the government of fighting the Naxalites in order to protect mining companies’ leases.

India’s tribals, who are largely the innocent victims in the middle of this verbal and military war, have of course been abominably treated – or ignored – for decades by central and state governments that have done virtually nothing to protect their remote habitats and encourage sympathetic economic and social development.

This has opened the way for the Maoist-inspired Naxalites to move in as the tribals’ saviours. However, the Naxalites are not primarily interested in helping the tribals: their primary aim is to overthrow India’s established parliamentary democracy.

Chidambaram has unrealistically said that security operations can clear out Naxalites within two or three years, with development taking place one they are defeated. As has been seen in places as far afield as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, defeated rebels and terrorists re-occupy areas once troops move on, thus preventing follow-on development.

Indeed, it looks more like a battle that will last decades rather than two or three years, and the only way to tackle that it surely for the government to adopt a three-pronged approach – tough security operations, widespread developmental work, and continual attempts to open behind-the-scenes talks with Naxalite leaders at all levels.

That is the job of the government as a whole, led by Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, working with Chidambaram instead of letting their colleagues snipe at him from the columns of a daily newspaper.

The writer is a former FT south Asia Correspondent (1983-88) and now writes from New Delhi.

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