Naxalites. Maoism. These words have been splashed around too often in the media in recent times, and for all the wrong reasons. In the past 6 months Naxal attacks have claimed over 200 lives in 2 states, their targets increasingly bearing little distinction between civilians and security forces. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called this the biggest internal security challenge that the country has faced in the last 3 years. A strong action by the state against this challenge has however been elusive, with divided political will on the course of action. Home Minister P. Chidambram has on more than one occasions expressed his frustration in being given a “limited mandate” to deal with the situation. The Naxal attacks, on the other hand, continue to turn more violent at an increased frequency.
To understand the roots of Naxalism, one needs to go back to the socio-economic canvass immediately after the creation of an independent India. An independent nation promises political freedom, which in turn manifests itself through economic and social justice. Economic and social justice form the cornerstones of equality, thereby imparting meaning to the word “nation” for its citizens.
However, in the post British and newly created democratic India, these cornerstones remained only selectively accessible. In rural and tribal parts of the country, little had changed post independence. Rich farmers and landlords, often in connivance with political and law enactments forces, continued to have a free hand while certain sections of peasants and adivasis bore the brunt of unequal distribution of justice. These landlords had long exploited the cultivators by taking a lion’s share of the crop, forcing land evictions and making illegal land acquisitions. With an armed force of “goondas” to enforce their will, resistance, if any, was crushed ruthlessly. It would take almost 20 years after independence that the effects of this imbalance would properly manifest themselves.
In 1967, in the small town of Naxalbari in West Bengal, a group of peasants revolted against the “jotedars” (landlords). 150 men carrying CPI (M) flags attacked the landlord, claimed all paddy crop and captured all land – to redistribute amongst the peasants. Subsequently the landlord was killed and security forces ambushed. This gave birth to the “Naxal” movement – with the intent to restore economic and social justice amongst the peasant “class” by creating a new political order and meting out “justice” against “class enemies” such as landlords, “sahukars” (money lenders), security personnel and civilian informants. The Naxal movement drew upon the Maoism school of thought from China, which advocated “class struggle” through guerrilla warfare. What started as an uprising with bows and arrows more than 40 years ago has now turned into a struggle with guns and explosives – most of which have been sourced by raiding the country’s weapon depots or dead bodies of victim soldiers.
With almost one third of the nation’s territory today being affected by Naxalites, the Home Minister has reasons to be concerned. West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Bihar are the worst affected states. Almost 40 districts are directly under Naxal control, to the extent that there is complete breakdown of the state system. A parallel Naxal system exists in these areas where taxes are collected by the rebels and justice is administered by the self-stylized “kangaroo” courts. Government machinery is non-existent, most police posts remaining vacant for the fear of reprisals.
While Naxal movement has gained strength in the past two decades, the cause against Naxals has had little support from local governments. Urbanization and industrialization (like mining etc.) has dwindled available land resources, putting further pressure on these tribals and peasants to continue their livelihood. But state apathy towards them has continued, most government interventions having failed to reach the grassroots. Although there have been some weak attempts, the state has by and large failed to rehabilitate these tribals and provide them alternate means of sustained livelihood. With little hope of development and justice from the state machinery, these people have taken recourse to the Naxal movement.
The success of Naxal movement is in fact not conceivable without support of the masses. Naxalites move through difficult terrains of jungles and mountains, and have strong local support in these areas with their local Robin Hood image. They are not averse to using fear either; it is common knowledge that civilian informants are subject to swift and decisive wrath. Naxal sympathizers exist outside as well: NGOs, activists & students all drawn to the romanticism of the fight against injustice. This local support has diluted the political will to fight Naxalites head on, local politicians fearing further alienation of the grassroots votebanks. The risk of civilian casualty in direct confrontation has further constrained the options which can be pursued by our security forces.
But a democratic state like India cannot afford to let any particular section challenge the state’s law & order. Even if the ideology behind the Naxal movement is justice, the execution of the ideology through armed struggle against the state is not tolerable. Appeasement of violence by such factions can carry immense risks of escalation – due to differences across the country in terms of economic, social, religious, political and cultural existence. A land made up of such diversity will always carry the risk of discontent amongst different factions – but appeasement of violence by any such faction can quickly cause the state to disintegrate. Even if the government is to be partly blamed for pushing these tribals to the verge of desperation through unbalanced distribution of justice, it is still important to disable the armed nature of this movement by any means necessary.
Action however is not simple. Strong local support for Naxalites means that it is that much harder to segregate a Naxalite from a civilian, making it almost impossible to conduct surgical strikes that take out Naxal establishments without civilian casualty. Security forces have in the past like in Andhra Pradesh, used the strategy of “sanitizing” an area. In this strategy, security personnel swoop into an affected area, setup base there and “clean it up”. Once sanitized, they move out to other areas. The problem with this strategy is that information of such raids is easily passed to Naxal informants. With local support, Naxals then seamlessly transfer their base (often across states through the jungles) and return once the sanitization is over. The problem, therefore, remains unsolved.
The solution to this problem has to be two-folds. One set of action needs to be taken to counter the immediate threat of Naxal violence through sterilization of the movement. This will require rapid, large scale security action. Army action is avoidable, because we are fighting our own countrymen and not outsiders. The use of army forces may inflict such moral wounds and destruction in these areas, that the damage on fellow countrymen maybe irreversible. But CRPF movement needs to be decisive, even at the cost of civilian casualty. States across the world have made calls where terror was dealt with firmly, in spite of civilian casualties. During the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in 2002, Russian forces refused to negotiate with the terrorists, and stormed in after pumping a deadly gas in the theatre, at the cost of 150 civilian lives. It is time for us to make calls of similar weight. Some sections do not agree to label Naxals as terrorists; nor approve actions in fighting these terrorists. But there is no other logical definition to a man wielding a gun and blowing up trains and buses within the political borders of our country. Naxals today have resorted to terrorism to further their cause. And incidents like the Gyaneshwari Express derailment where 100 innocent lives were lost proves that any delay in action will also cost us more innocent civilian lives. The government should be willing to take decisive and wide spread action; even if it means spilling civilian blood of local sympathizers; to crush the armed nature of the Naxal movement.
The second set of actions needed is towards medium and long term inclusion of these tribals and peasants into our society. To eliminate this problem from the roots, development needs to reach these areas. The affected “classes” need to reaffirm their faith in the state; and this will only happen when social and economic justice is delivered. Government should make proper schemes of livelihood to these people, and setup machinery which ensures execution and on-ground delivery of these plans. The security forces should also setup permanent bases in these areas, and aid development of infrastructure and services. This will also help the security forces to rebuild trust with the locals. Further, true representatives of these locals should be included in the administrative setup and become part of the decision making process. Once the locals re-establish their trust in the state, the need for Naxals will wane by itself.
But before the second set of actions can take place, the first set is imperative. The question right now is not how, the question is when.
The author, Varun Mathur, is an alumnus of IIT Madras and IIM Lucknow and enjoys analyzing the socio-political fabric of our nation.