Achilles Heel: Insurgency in India

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By Amit Pandya and Stephanie Carnes – The threat of rural insurgency is rising in India, prompting new policy responses. In October 2009, the Indian Air Force requested changes in the rules of engagement for its operations in Naxalite areas, and senior politicians are addressing this threat, and  heightening  the rhetoric.  There is an emerging consensus that a new strategy of significant political and economic measures could help win back the loyalties of the populations of Naxalite-controlled areas. Finally, there was a string of arrests in urban locations of civilian political leaders, financiers and facilitators of the Naxalites.

Conventional Western understanding about modern India has always acknowledged a high degree of political instability, and the persistence of armed insurgencies in the country’s Northeast and Northwest extremities. Nonetheless, there has only ever been a slight awareness of the rural insurgencies and challenges to the state’s writ in the interior of the country. These have rarely been seen by outsiders as a systemic challenge to the dominant narrative of a democratic society engaged in economic and social development. The recent trajectory of India’s economic development has created an optimistic narrative that rarely includes discussion of internal instability.  

The Naxalite movement began, with a crude neo-Marxist or “Maoist” ideological framework, in West Bengal in the 1960s as a rural armed rebellion against high degrees of local economic and social inequality. Rather than spreading as a single phenomenon, it was adopted as a model by similar movements elsewhere in India. After the sectarian splitting characteristic of fringe ideologies, the Naxalite movement appeared to have declined and to be nearly defunct by the 1990s.

It has experienced a revival in recent years in part as a result of the rapid economic changes wrought by economic liberalization, and the extent to which these have failed to improve the condition of the rural poor. The proportion of India’s administrative districts with some Naxalite presence, where administrative officials and police enjoyed no access or authority, was estimated at one-quarter a mere two years ago. It is now estimated at one-third, and growing. They are now found in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttaranchal and Kerala.

For a long time, the methods of both insurgents and the government have been crude and low-tech, but still bloody. Naxalites have relied on crude weapons, intimidation of local police, officials, and populations, and on extortion of “people’s taxes”. (To be fair we should also note that “people’s governments” have provided what the Indian state has often been unwilling or unable to provide. They have run village affairs, redistributed land to the disenfranchised, established “people’s courts,” and provided social services. The movement has articulated grievances such as the reallocation of tribally-owned agricultural land for large-scale corporate farming, and government policies which contribute to the marginalization of tribal groups and the erosion of rural ways of life.)

The Indian state for its part has maintained a policing and armed policing/paramilitary approach to this rural threat to its authority. In some cases, there has been an attempt to recruit and arm civilian militia, but this has proved difficult and politically controversial. The traditional reliance on police has proved unavailing. The highly Naxalite-affected states of Jharkhand and Bihar respectively have 100 and 58 police officers per 100,000 citizens respectively, as compared to the UN-recommended figure of 222 officers per 100,000 citizens. Police deployed in anti-Naxalite operations are frequently ill-armed and ill-trained, and enjoy poor morale.

Recent years have seen a modest change in the desultoriness of the Indian state’s attention to this threat. In 2007 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described it as the single greatest threat to India’s security. Nonetheless, until the most recent developments, that heightened attention has appeared more rhetorical than practical.

So what accounts for the more recent heightening of the Indian state’s seriousness about the Naxalites?
Naxalites have long taken advantage where tribal and rural communities have sat athwart the activities of a few extractive industries such as forestry, and given shape to the conflicts between these unequal parties. In recent years, as the pace of economic change has picked up, the corporate economy has needed wider access and intensified exploitation of resources such as land for industrial development, and reserves of coal and other minerals.

Naxalites traditionally attacked government officials and buildings, particularly police and army compounds; in recent years, they have begun targeting economic facilities and supporting infrastructure being developed by the Indian government and foreign investors. The greatest concentration of Naxalite-sponsored violence has been in the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar, in the eastern part of the country. An emerging locale for it is in Orissa. These regions are all key sources of mineral and energy resources. A substantial part of India’s coal, considered vital to both energy and steel production, is located in the five states with the greatest Naxalite presence.

With the growing proximity and encounter of India’s modern economic development and its traditional ways of life, the core of India’s economic development strategy depends upon resolution of the Naxalite problem. How successful the Indian state will be in its new strategy remains doubtful. More resolve and better battlefield tactics can only accomplish so much The new approach acknowledges the need for improvement in public administration and public services, the need to address deep local social and economic inequality, and the need for economic investments for the improvement of local welfare. The record of the Indian state to date has not provided cause for optimism in this regard, even in areas unaffected by the Naxalite threat where the underlying dynamics are less challenging.

Amit Pandya is a Senior Associate at the Stimson Center and Director of the project Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges. Stephanie Carnes is a Research Associate with the project. 


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