India on The Brink of a Major Showdown

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The apparition of 1967 is haunting India yet again, and this time on a far more serious scale. The then ‘Naxals’ are now being termed as ‘Maoists’. Only the nomenclature has changed, but the essence of the problem remains. The genesis of the armed resistance in 1967 was in the ‘Naxalbari’ village of the eastern province of West Bengal. At that juncture, the movement was temporarily curbed by the ‘state apparatus’. What the Indian authorities and policy-makers failed to address, was not the ‘law and order’ problem but the development and empowerment issues (or the lack of those) at the grass-root level which helped form the backbone of the movement.

Any insurgency sustains itself by feeding on the population. In this case too, the Maoists are doing it no differently. The ‘protracted people’s war’ which was thought to have fizzled out in the early 1970s with the mass arrests of the top brass and the consequent demoralization and innumerable schisms within the party structure of the Naxals, raised its serpentine head in 2004 with the unification of the erstwhile Peoples War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC). Since then, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) has ‘upped the ante’ and extended their dominions to penetrate large swathes of the Indian landmass. Presently, about 200 of the total 600 districts in India are under the ‘Maoist Influence’. The area basically stretches from the Indo-Nepal border in the north to the southern part of the subcontinent; cutting across several provinces in its trajectory.

The headquarters of the guerrillas is in the dense forests of Central India, named Dandakaranya; which has historical connotations pertaining to the ‘Ramayana era'(One of the Indian epics). Interestingly, the present United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government under Dr. Manmohan Singh came to the helm at New Delhi in 2004 itself but did not follow any well-coordinated policy of combating the ‘Red Menace’. It was largely left to the individual provinces as ‘Public Order’ and ‘Police’ are exclusively under the jurisdiction of the provinces (‘states’) as per the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution. And this has been a major reason for the escalation of Maoist-related casualties in the country.

Furthermore, ‘alienation’ of the tribal population from the mainstream, failure of the government to address the basic livelihood issues of the forest-dwellers and treating the Maoist insurgency as merely a ‘law and order’ problem has taken the situation to more precarious levels.

Data from the Ministry of Home Affairs of India clearly show a gradual rise of the number of casualties due to Maoist insurgency since 2004. In fact in 2009, the ultras started venturing into territorial domains where previously they did not have a considerable mass-base. The June 2009 offensive by the insurgents at ‘Lalgarh’ in West Bengal was alarming as the said province had almost totally got rid of Maoism since the early 1970s due to the equitable land distribution schemes launched by the Marxist party which came to power through proper democratic elections.

Actually, indiscriminate bartering away of agrarian lands to corporate houses in the name of industrialization without creating an atmosphere of consensus amongst the peasants was the chief cause behind the ‘recent resentment’ of the rural populace. Moreover, lack of a proper credit and banking system in the Indian interiors leave the peasantry at the mercy of the moneylenders; which in turn aggravate their distress and lead to ‘suicides’. And this disgruntlement engenders the Maoist doctrine.

Returning back to power in May 2009 for the second consecutive term, the UPA coalition had a formidable task to deal with; and that was to tackle the Left Wing Extremism which had emerged as the ‘biggest internal security threat’, even larger than the Kashmir imbroglio or the North-Eastern terrorism.

Hence, the much hyped “Operation Green Hunt” was launched in the Dantewada district of the Central Indian state of Chattisgarh in September 2009. The Union government was able to launch such a military offensive based on the premise that Entry 2A of List I in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution permits the Centre ‘to deploy armed forces in the provinces’. In this venture, the Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMF) and the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) which is specially trained in jungle warfare are also likely to move into the later stages of the operation. The deployment of helicopters of the Indian Air Force (IAF) for transportation and rescue operations of troops is also being considered. The Gadchiroli district in the Western state of Maharashtra was the second place where the said operation was likely to have been unleashed in the first week of November.

In the face of vehement criticism by large sections of civil society and human rights groups against this military offensive, the Home Ministry has probably put a halt on the operation. Nevertheless, the tactical pressure seems to have worked as the Maoists have in a formal statement offered a ceasefire, but only if the government dropped its pre-condition that the ultras abjure violence.

And very recently, the Home Ministry has also proposed for dialogue with the ultras, dropping the pre-condition of laying down their arms.

On the other hand, there are reports of a covert alliance of the ‘almost decimated’ Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Maoists of India. If this fructifies, then the scenario would be more menacing for the Indian authorities. Actually the sagging LTTE may want to bolster their structure through a fresh base in South India, close to the Lankan landmass whereas the Maoists would seek to cash in on the ‘land warfare expertise’ of the LTTE. Also, the worldwide arms racket that the LTTE is very much aware of can be an option for the Maoists.

Recently, the Home Secretary of India, G K Pillai has suggested that ‘small arms and ammunitions’ from China are being smuggled into India to feed the Maoist rebels. This opens up a completely new dimension of the quandary. Not to forget, the ideological support that the Naxal movement enjoyed in its early days from Peking (Beijing). The disturbed ‘political climate’ between India and China might suffer another blow from this angle with Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh already generating controversy.

The solutions to this imbroglio are non-linear. Analysts and experts have opined that the Indian government needs to have ‘unconditional’ talk with the Maoists. Honest efforts have to be made on the part of the mainstream to bring the tribals within the ‘social pale’. The huge tracts of land housing mineral resources need to be holistically dealt with. The government can broker a viable deal between the tribals and the corporate sector, with a ‘win-win’ situation for both. Basic facilities like job opportunities, education, health care and sanitation needs to be pumped into the tribal areas. But whatever be the policies and whether or not the government embarks on a military offensive, the wisdom has to prevail regarding minimizing the collateral damage because that is the basic tenet of ‘counter-insurgency’. A ‘cul-de-sac’ has to be avoided at any logical cost.

Dr Uddipan Mukherjee is an author and a researcher on International Relations and security issues. He was educated at Presidency College, IIT Kharagpur, and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (Dept. of Atomic Energy, India).Contact him by writing to NewsBlaze or go to his blog at diplostratics