Friday, October 08, 2004

India: Maoist Insurgency - Bad Medicine for a Red Epidemic

[While the Governments of other Naxalite affected States are now working to 'establish conditions conducive to talks', Naxalite groups in these States, including PWG State units, have escalated violence in many of these areas, and have rejected offers of talks as 'deceptive and meaningless'. Security and Intelligence organizations - as well as observers who have long watched the trajectory of the Naxalite movement - believe that the 'peace process' in Andhra Pradesh - and in any other State where it may be initiated in the proximate future - would inevitably collapse within six-odd months, after which a reinvigorated PWG can be expected to resume violent activities.]

Bad Medicine for a Red Epidemic

Ajai Sahni
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Coflict Management

"They are our children. They are angry and we have to show them the right path with affection. We have the forces to deal with violence but that is not the only approach."
Shivraj Patil, Minister of Home Affairs, Government of India, September 17, 2004

"…any thinking that relaxes the will to fight and belittles the enemy is wrong."
Mao Tse Tung, "Report to the Second Plenary Session of the Seventh
Central Committee of the Communist Party of China", March 5, 1949

Force, India's Minister for Home Affairs assures us, 'can be used at any time', but other alternatives - "sympathy and understanding" - need to be tried with the Left Wing Extremists (Naxalites) first. As a result, the present regime is advising all other States afflicted by Naxalite violence to emulate the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister's initiative, and to invite the extremists to join a process aimed at finding a 'negotiated solution' to the protracted violence that has spread persistently, like a cancer, to ever-widening areas of the country.

This is, currently, the politically correct and widely held 'formula' for the resolution of all conflicts in India, and is faithfully parroted across the ideological spectrum, with few, if any, dissenting voices.

It is useful, in the meanwhile, to see what 'our children' have been doing.

At the meeting of the Central Coordination Committee of Naxalite-affected States at Bhubaneshwar on November 21, 2003, the Union Home Secretary had disclosed that a total of 55 districts in nine States were affected by varying degrees of Naxalite violence. Just ten months later, on September 21, 2004, an official note circulated at the meeting of Chief Ministers of Naxalite-affected States indicated that this number had gone up to 125 districts in 12 States, with another 24 districts being targeted by the Left Wing Extremists under their current agenda of expansion. Official sources indicate, moreover, that, till August this year, Naxalite violence had claimed 405 lives in 1,140 incidents, as against 348 deaths in 1,138 incidents over the corresponding period last year. A total of 1,946 lives have been lost to Left Wing extremism over the period January 2001 - August 2004.

The dramatic expansion of Naxalite activities is more spectacular when seen against the slow, painstaking and uncertain struggle that went into the seizure of the 55 districts that had fallen under their shadow by the end of 2003. The current movement traces its genealogy back to the insurrection of 1967 in the Naxalbari area of North Bengal, but that insurgency - after a wildfire spread in its early years - had been comprehensively defeated by 1973, with the entire top leadership of the Communist Party of India - Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) either jailed or dead. What little remained of its splintered survivor organizations was destroyed during Indira Gandhi's Emergency of 1975.

It was in 1980, with the formation of the People's War Group (PWG) under the leadership of Kondapalli Seetharamaiah (an erstwhile Central Organising Committee Member of the CPI-ML) in the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh, and the reorganization of the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in Bihar in the mid-1980s, that the movement resurfaced in some strength. Initial successes were, again, rapid, and by the mid-1980s, 31 districts in seven States were afflicted by Naxalite violence. By the early 1990s, however, the problem had been eliminated from at least 16 of these districts, bringing the total number of affected districts to just 15 in four States.

The reconstruction, thereafter, has been more continuous and systematic, with wider areas being gradually targeted and consolidated, building up slowly to the 55 districts that had been brought into the ambit of the movement by late 2003.

Throughout this period, the 'force' that Patil appears to be so confident of as a final resort, has been used repeatedly, and it is evident that the state's capacities are not as overwhelming as the Home Minister believes them to be. The character and scale of force that lies within the capacities of the Indian state have clearly remained inadequate to permanently recover the areas that have been lost to disorder as a result of Left Wing extremist activities.

There is a pattern here. Each new incumbent in the North Block - from where India's internal security is 'managed' by the Ministry of Home Affairs - sets about reinventing the wheel, with little apparent concern for history. The cycle is almost invariable - with 'peaceful' and 'political' resolution passionately advocated in the early days of incumbency, yielding gradually to an eventual return to the use of force, as Naxalite depredations mount. The same pattern is replicated at the level of State Governments with successive Chief Ministers advocating 'sympathy and understanding' for varying periods, and then lapsing once again, to a reliance on the police and paramilitary forces, rushing constantly to the Centre for more funds and more men to strengthen their armed capacities of response.

The interregnums of 'sympathy and understanding' have, however, been the periods of the most rapid consolidation for the Naxalites, who exploit ceasefires and 'peace processes' to their potential limits for the propagation of their cause, and for recruitment, training and expansion. Each period of political conciliation has, consequently, seen a widening of the geographical reach of the movement.

Patil is, consequently, located squarely within a long tradition of political silliness, and is far from the first to invent this 'sympathetic' approach to 'children' who need to be weaned away from the 'wrong path' with 'affection', a tradition most vividly illustrated in Andhra Pradesh.

In 1982, the then leader of the Telugu Desam Party of Andhra Pradesh, N.T. Rama Rao had described the Naxalites as "true patriots, who have been misunderstood by ruling classes", and had sought and secured their support in the Assembly Elections the following year, in which he then replaced the Congress-I Government in the State. He gave free rein to the Naxalites over the succeeding years, and by 1985, the movement had consumed eight of the ten Districts of the volatile Telengana region, and had spread beyond the State's boundaries as well. By 1985, a series of ambushes on police parties exhausted Rao's gratitude for his electoral victory, and a 'hardline' - increasing reliance on the police and paramilitary forces to re-establish law and order - was restored. In 1987, the PWG was banned, and by mid-1989 the Naxalites were, once again, in flight in Andhra Pradesh - until electoral considerations intervened, again.

This time around, it was the Congress-I, under the leadership of Marri Chenna Reddy, that sought Naxalite support in the elections. And for the first two years of Chenna Reddy's Chief Ministership, the Naxalites went on a rampage. The ban on the PWG was lifted in 1989, and 190 'hardcore' Naxalites were released from jail. Chenna Reddy's policy of indulgence was only reversed by his successor, N. Janardhan Reddy, towards the latter half of 1991, after the murder of a former Minister and a rising flood of murders, large scale extortion and destruction. In May 1992, the ban on the PWG and its front organizations was re-imposed, with palpable impact, as the killings and other offences declined immediately and continuously, till 1994, when another election returned N.T. Rama Rao to power.

Rama Rao lifted the ban, and the old policies of conciliation and complicity gave the Naxalites another opportunity to revive, strengthen and extend the scale and geographical scope of their activities. Rama Rao's successor, Chandrababu Naidu, restored the ban on July 23, 1996, and reverted to the policy of confronting extremist violence with the force of arms. Nevertheless, Naidu also succumbed to the seduction of the 'political solution' in 2002, declared a 'ceasefire' and invited the Naxalite leadership for 'talks' to settle the 'issue'. The talks collapsed after seven months, and it was more than apparent that the interlude was fully exploited by the Naxalites for vigorous consolidation, even as the state's Forces remained paralysed by the political executive's command not to act against PWG cadres. Naidu continues to maintain that he was 'betrayed' by the Naxalite leaders. Among the first actions of his successor, the Congress-I's Dr. Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, was a suspension of security force operations against the Naxalites, and an invitation for 'direct talks', scheduled for October 15, 2004, to their leadership.

This, then, has been the pendulum of the state's policy on Naxalite violence, and it is now abundantly clear where maximal gains have accrued, as district after district lapses into disorder, as the institutions and mechanisms of civil governance withdraw, abandoning vast areas to the extremists and to the security forces that, alone, contest their dominance. Force has, thus, been applied again and again, erratically and haphazardly, interrupted regularly by periods of 'conciliation' during which successive regimes sought to seduce the extremists with promises and inducements. Each period of political indulgence has invariably seen a further consolidation and expansion of Naxalite activities.

Naxalite disorder, moreover, need to be located within the larger context of the loss of control in wider areas within India. In addition to the 125 districts currently under the influence of the Naxalites, and the additional 24 districts that are being targeted by them, there are at least another 63 districts in the country variously afflicted by different patterns of ethnic or communal terrorism and insurgency (Jammu & Kashmir: 12; Assam: 22; Tripura: 4; Meghalaya: 6; Manipur: 9; Arunachal Pradesh: 3; and Nagaland: 7). This takes the number of districts afflicted by terrorism and insurgency to 212, out a total of 602 districts in the country. More than a third of the country is, consequently, suffering from high degrees of present or potential disorder. This, moreover, is not the sum of the threat, as abysmal governance, divisive politics, continuous external and internal subversion, opportunistic terrorist attacks, increasing criminalization and other patterns of mass violence sporadically disrupt the rule of law in widely dispersed locations across the length and breadth of the country. It is useful to note, moreover, that India's record of recovering areas from persistent disorders is, at best, equivocal. These rising disorders, further, will not be lost on India's enemies in the neighbourhood, and an intensification of their efforts to disruption are a matter, essentially, of time.

As the Maoist insurgency in Nepal appears to approach its end state, moreover, it is significant that the districts that are falling to the Naxalite influence lie along a near-continuous expanse of the projected Compact Revolutionary Zone (CRZ) along India's eastern board, that would eventually link up 'liberated areas' from Nepal in the North (and possibly, Ladakh and Uttaranchal, other areas that are currently being targeted), to Tamil Nadu in the South. This is a coherent strategy articulated and adopted by the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organizations of South Asia (CCOMPOSA) in 2001, and that has been dramatically crystallized on the ground in just three years. Once the present 'gaps' in the CRZ have been filled - as it appears that they inevitably will be, given current trends - the strategic consequences for India would be devastating, as the CRZ would not only result in an area of uninterrupted disorder from Nepal in the North to Tamil Nadu in the South, but would also obstruct vital linkages with India's troubled Northeast, profoundly deepening the dangers in that vulnerable region. Since early 2002, moreover, the two most powerful Naxalite groups in India, the PWG and the MCC, have been discussing the modalities of a merger which would act as a force multiplier, substantially increasing their capacities to dominate the regions currently under their influence. The state's strategy of response, on the other hand, has been far from coherent or effective.

To return to the present, as the ban on the PWG lapses in Andhra Pradesh, dalam (armed group) members have become hyperactive, concentrating on recruitment and training of cadres, and extension and intensification of activities in neighbouring States. They have begun to openly conduct gram sabhas (village courts), 'settling' issues relating to land disputes, caste discrimination or the sale of arrack (home brewed alcohol). The PWG has also successfully organized mass meetings at several locations, including a huge congregation in the capital city, Hyderabad. In the meanwhile, other Naxalite factions, including the CPI-ML Praja Prathighatana Group, have rejected the negotiations, and are taking advantage of the truce to lure cadres to their fold as well.

While the Governments of other Naxalite affected States are now working to 'establish conditions conducive to talks', Naxalite groups in these States, including PWG State units, have escalated violence in many of these areas, and have rejected offers of talks as 'deceptive and meaningless'. Security and Intelligence organizations - as well as observers who have long watched the trajectory of the Naxalite movement - believe that the 'peace process' in Andhra Pradesh - and in any other State where it may be initiated in the proximate future - would inevitably collapse within six-odd months, after which a reinvigorated PWG can be expected to resume violent activities.

Advocates of the 'sympathy and affection' approach to the resolution of the 'Naxalite problem' underestimate and misunderstand the dynamic, the ideological motivation and the commitment of the Maoist movement in South Asia, even as they belittle its enormous and cumulative successes. They undervalue, moreover, the extraordinary mobilization capacity of this subversive creed, particularly among the marginalized millions in this region, and within the expanding and neglected detritus of humanity generated by the processes of globalization and technological transformation. Mao offers not only an ideology but also the strategy and tactics that could wreck the uncertain peace of vast areas in the developing world - as well as regions beyond its confines - with a scale of violence and destruction that is yet to be imagined by those who are framing national and counter-terrorism policies across the contemporary and volatile world. The present obsession with a single ideological source of terrorism - Islamist extremism - is contributing directly to a dangerous disregard of other and rising dangers.

Email to Dak Bangla from SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW Volume 3, No. 12, October 4, 2004